“I wouldn’t want to create something [in the studio] that I can’t recreate in front of a live audience. […] the song is the boss.” — John Prine.
“Songwriting… there’s no wrong way to do it.” –Sturgill Simpson.
If you enjoy music and you live in Maine, you know Eric Bettencourt. Either as a solo artist, or with his bands – Giraffe Attack, Velourosaurus, etc… – Eric is a mainstay of the Maine music scene. Heck, I once saw him 4 times in the same week without planning it, at four different venues! Even joked with him that if I saw him one more time that week he could start being concerned about being stalked.
Anyway, while Eric’s cover bands are what every cover bands should sound like, his songwriting is no less impressive. After short conversations with him before or after sets, it became evident that Eric has a true passion for music in general and song writing in particular, so I had to ask him if he would do an interview. He very graciously accepted, and the information below is what he shared with me.
But first, a video of one of Eric’s latest songs, “Making Your Bed”:
1. Please share whatever biographic details you feel comfortable sharing:
Grew up in Sherman Mills Maine, started playing guitar and jotting down song ideas around the age of 13. Graduated from the University of Maine at Orono in 2000. For the most part I was a frustrated musician trying to get some type of foot in any musical project I could, but nothing really worked out until 2006 or so when I started Giraffe Attack with a couple of close friends. We basically played pubs around town, mostly covers with some originals mixed in. It was around this time I acquired a small recording setup and began fleshing out song ideas with both Giraffe Attack and by myself.
I released my first album, Fine Old World, in January of 2009. The Giraffe Attack Collection (GAC) came out six months later. GAC was originally supposed to be a “Giraffe Attack” record that would have been split evenly between my and Ryan Cyr’s songs, the drummer and lead vocalist. His songs took too long to finish so I said “to hell with it” and finished a few more of my own and popped it out there.
That year I also released two EPs, one of which, This Big House, is still available. All the while my small home recording studio grew into a larger operation, now called Shadow Shine Productions (note from the editor: www.shadowshine.com), and I began recording and producing other artists. Over the last couple years I have had a hand in records by Pete Morse, Amanda Gervasi, Elijah Ocean, Jesse Pilgrim and the Bonfire, and The Grant Street Orchestra just to name a few.
I have since pulled way back on the studio work to better concentrate on my own music and promotion. My latest record, Secret Songs For Secret People, came out this month.
2. When it comes to songwriting, is this something you always did even before you were involved in gigging?
Yes, but I didn’t consider myself a “songwriter”, it was just something I would find myself doing. Stringing bits of chords and riffs together with some monotone melody and too many lyrics. Early on I would write these horrid little pieces that seemed amazing to me at the time. That’s all part of the creating and learning process though; you have to cut your teeth on the crap. That sounds gross, but you know what I mean.
3. Do you write the lyrics first, then the music, the other way around, or is there no set formula?
There is no set way of writing for me. Only a few times in my life have I found myself able to apply music to some lyrics I scratched down at an earlier time. The song Mast, which will be on the new record, was one of those. I was in a laundromat and wrote what seemed like a complete set of lyrics. It was really nothing more than a mysterious little poem that I actually didn’t really understand. But it felt like it came from somewhere else and I guess I had a respect for that type of stuff. I didn’t try with that one – it just fell out. That set of lyrics has always stuck with me so eventually I married it to a set of chords and some sort of a melody.
For the most part I just start strumming and humming and it’s like my mood, or whatever is on my mind, takes over and begins articulating itself into music and words. If I hear something catchy or different I’ll do what I can to record it for later.
Writing for me is not a cerebral process; it’s something that kind of happens. And when it does you just have to step out of the way and let it happen. I try not to judge what I’m doing as I’m doing it, it tends to kill the flow. With that said, I’ve never been able to say, “I’m going to write a song today!” and then do it. I always fail miserably. It’s really a waiting game. I might write one new tune every two years or 20 in a year, the trick is being open to it when it comes. What I have found is that the best songs usually come from some type of strife or desperation – it’s a great outlet for dealing with inner turmoil.
4. On “Two Wine Glasses” from the Giraffe Attack Collection, did the song come from the opening riff, or did the riff come after the core of the song was already in place?
Listen to Two Wine Glasses HERE
It all came from the opening riff. I wrote that whole tune after learning the Band’s version of Don’t Do It with my band at the time (Giraffe Attack). We made our own arrangement for the live shows, which I was really digging. I couldn’t get that tune out of my head and I think I just naturally ended up writing Two Wine Glasses based on that vibe, not on purpose, that’s just where my heart and head were at the time. I wanted something catchy that would be great for Ryan Cyr’s (the vocalist and drummer) amazing harmony singing.
The basics of that song came really quick, the riff was first but I wanted it to be set apart from just some generic blues tune so I worked on a lot of the subtleties in the harmonies and different parts. I also threw the outro on to really bring it into a different place.
5. On the Giraffe Attack Collection CD, there are two tracks – Outdo your God & Gone So Long – that are sub-1 minute. Outdo your God obviously shows up again as part of What Works. It’s pretty neat how taking just that snippet of the song and giving it a different sonic treatment made it a different piece. What was the concept behind the decision of doing that?
I guess I was really into making the record sound like a concept album; I wanted to throw some extra sonic textures in there. Really, it’s just a way of not letting the listener feel like they are in the same place all the time.
I get bored really quickly with music that sounds the same and doesn’t change direction in some way. So many records have one vibe and it never changes. I’ve always been in love with albums like the Beatles’ White Album and Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, which are all over the map with their musical landscapes.
6. The banjo picking on “This big house” from the This Big House EP in many ways makes the song, the way it contrasts with both your vocals & the heavier feel of the lyrics. Did you plan on adding it from the start, or was it something that happened in the studio?
It wasn’t planned, it just seemed to fit once I heard everything else in its place. It was kind of a no-brainer once the idea came, actually. This is just the way I work in the studio, it can be a very slow and frustrating process but it can also yield some pretty cool results. I hardly ever have the whole idea in my head once I sit down to record. I’ll record the basic parts and then the ideas start rolling.
The tough part is that as soon as I get it all down to where I want it I hear all kinds of other things that could work and then I end up starting over again. For instance This Big House was completely done and a friend said, “I think it’s a bit slow.” So that comment started to eat at me and I realized she was right. Within a week’s time I rerecorded a whole new version pretty much the same as the first just 12 beats per minute faster. It made all the difference in my opinion.
I actually put the slower version on the physical CD (This Big House EP) so you can hear for yourself.
7. Do you believe in scheduled writing efforts – like every morning from 1000 to 1200hrs without fault – or do you
prefer a more organic solution where you write whenever the fancy/inspiration strikes you?
No, I can’t write on command. I do try to allow myself time to simply play for fun and that’s where most of my ideas and song bits come from. I’ll just strum and sing with no point or real focus and if it grows into something more, fine; but I’ve learned not to force writing. Sometimes I might find myself simply strumming a cover of a song I really like, other times I’ll stumble onto a cool idea for a tune or a melody and some lyrics that might or might not grow into a complete song. The hard part has been allowing myself the time – I’ve been keeping myself way too busy. This is something I’m really working to change. I’m learning the importance of relaxation time and all the different benefits you can get from “senseless leisure”.
8. The song “Liza Jane” from the This Big House EP is very much riff-driven with parts/layers coming on and disappearing – from the banjo to the hand clapping. Could you talk about how you build these layers when you create a song?
Listen to Liza Jane HERE
That song is a good example of how I tend to work when recording alone. I had the main riff and had been looking to place it in something or hoping a song would form around it, it really started as just one of the many bits of songs and riffs I have kicking around. At the time I was really digging on the Wood Brothers version of that song and for whatever reason ended up applying that riff to it and making my own version.
I recorded the basic parts in Pro Tools and experimented with layers and different instruments in it. I think at one point I even had a piano part in it, but in the end it wasn’t right for the song. The more I recorded ideas, the more the parts solidified and the more new ideas and direction came.
That little banjo breakdown at the end was totally unplanned. To double the guitar part with the banjo I had to mess with the banjos string tuning (I have no idea what it is now) and found myself kind of unearthing this cool little part in an alternate tuning. I eventually refined it and probably did a copy, paste, cut job to make a spot for it.
That’s really how most of those layers happened. I’d just mess with different ideas by working some out, recording, listening back, refining things and then trying again. Very often I’ll come up with a part and have to go back and change the original parts to something cooler and more fitting.
The same thing has happened with many of my tunes. For example, Two Wine Glasses originally had the main riff under the verses but when I came up with that Clapton-esque riff that’s there now, I had to go back and change the bass to fit that. Once that was done, I realized the drums needed to be changed a bit so I had to drag my poor drummer back into the studio to rerecord all the drums. Like I said, it can get very tedious but good things do come out of it. The trick is being aware of not beating the life out of the tune in the end. You always have to be aware of the spark that makes it a song worth working on. You have to be mindful to not to erase that part.
9. Have you ever said or heard someone say something and thought to yourself “There’s a song in that”, and then wrote the song? If yes, which song is that?
Big Nope. Choosing the content of my songs is not really a voluntary decision. External events and situations have inspired many of my songs, but I’m not always aware of what that inspiration might be.
10. How, if at all, does being a multi-instrumentalist impact your songwriting?
I hesitate to call myself a multi-instrumentalist. I can figure out parts I’m hearing in my head on most instruments and practice until I get it down but that’s not really knowing and “owning” an instrument in my opinion. Tyler Quist and Spencer Albee are prime examples of amazing multi-instrumentalists on the local music scene – I’m not close to that caliber. Like most everyone in a band, I have dabbled with most stringed instruments and drums and piano but I could never sit in with a band on anything but guitar and bass. I don’t know the first thing about wind instruments, either. I tried playing an accordion once and would rather run one over with a car than attempt that again.
Either way I wouldn’t say it affects my songwriting at all. It definitely affects my song arrangements and production. Just having the options of so many different sounds certainly widens what I can consider for any given recording.
11. Is there a song that came together in less than 30 minutes from original idea to finished product?
The Fear, This Big House, Just Walk Away, Delaney, What Works, and Fell into Place were basically 95% done in a very short time. That’s just to name a few. There is always a refinement process where I tweak lyrics and melody and add different instrumental things, but as far as the main song parts go, that has happened quite a lot.
12. When you write a song, what makes you think “Yup, that one will be on the CD” as opposed to “I like you, I’m happy I wrote you, but you won’t end up on the CD”?
I usually know when everything is done. I try my best to bring the song to life while writing and then recording – but sometimes it just doesn’t happen. I could release another full-length record of tunes that were pretty much finished but for whatever reason didn’t have the spark.
13. Many of your songs feature changes in the rhythm signatures & styles. A song like Stonewalled from the Giraffe Attack Collection is a perfect example of that. What is it about those changes that attract you, and are you using them as a way to reinforce the lyrics beyond the meaning of the words themselves?
Stonewalled is a unique example because it’s one of the first songs I actually started recording once I had myself set up with a way to record. I wasn’t really writing much (I mean, the song is about writer’s block) so I was spending my time on the technical aspect of things and having fun with the layers and arrangements and stuff. It was all new to me and I had the time at that point to mess around for as long as I wanted on small parts.
That tune, needless to say, was very indulgent in parts and layers because I was into that at the time. I wasn’t really thinking about getting to the point of the song in a neat and pretty way. I was just having a great time messing with song structure, adding twists and turns, adding instrumental parts, harmonies you name it. So I wouldn’t say that I worked on that with the message in mind. It was more an exercise in song production and learning how to use my recording software.
14. Your songs are beautifully crafted, but also expertly recorded and mixed, introducing new dynamics to the existing core songs.
Ha, well thanks, I think of myself as a studio hack. I really don’t technically know much about it all. I just push buttons till I get the sound I want. I do know the basics and I’m fine with that, I try to keep the songs at the forefront. Also, I do feel fortunate to have a very clear idea of what I want a song to sound like in the end. It’s easy to get lost in the digital wizardry of it all. That side has never interested me all too much– I just want to get a good sound down and capture a performance with a good vibe.
15. Do you ever use tricks to “prime the pump” when the inspiration well has run dry? If so, what are they?
No, I used to get a little stressed during dry spells. I think I went a few years once without really doing anything. It gets nerve racking to think that song ideas will never come back.
I have recently tried to look at the process of writing as just a part of something bigger. When I don’t have the ideas flowing it’s always a good time to work on other songs that aren’t quite done, or even learn cover tunes that might be difficult whether vocally or on the guitar. It’s a good time to widen the musical vocabulary and get your chops up. Pretty soon you find yourself with new ideas and eventually, there you are shaping songs from nothing again.
16. Do you have any advice for beginner songwriters?
Just try to write what you feel. Try to make your songs meaningful, not just in lyrics but in the overall sound. I think people are getting sick of the same old recycled shit, change up your sound, experiment – have fun with it.
Always keep in mind that the message of the song is completely dependent on the delivery. The message will go unheard if people can’t listen to it. Also the lyrics don’t mean jack if the listener can’t enjoy the actual SOUND of the song. The message won’t be conveyed if it becomes white noise or boring background static; a true music-listening audience will tune it out pretty quickly.
The melody of the song is so important and is often overlooked and underdeveloped with many artists I see that are trying to make a name for themselves. It’s the singing melody that the listener hears and that’s what sticks, it’s what they walk away humming. Lyrics are just part of it, they tell a story. The rhythm and chords and melody bring that feeling and paint a picture that is supposed to be interesting. These points align in the greatest of songs.
Always stay critical of yourself on a healthy level. There is nothing wrong with being proud of something you’ve written and executed well but keep a check on the ego, too much ego can kill an act, for me anyways. I’m personally attracted to genuine artists who write soulful, heartfelt material without trying to make it sound so; realness is something that is very hard to fake, so to say. Turn on top 40 country music for an example of songwriting that is completely contrived and easy to see through. There’s enough forgettable fly-by-night music out there, try not to contribute to it. Do something real!
Be open to learning the songs you love. If you can’t sing it, then figure it out and practice till you get it. Improve your chops by working out things you can’t do. Same with guitar or whatever instrument you play, push yourself to get better; it lends itself to better ideas and more interesting writing. This doesn’t mean be a copycat, do your own thing with it once you’ve learned a new technique. Learn lots of different styles from different artists. If you play only one person’s music, you will begin to sound like them.
Try to reach your audience on a deeper level. As I said, I feel music listeners are tired of typical one-dimensional music and there is a good market for thoughtful material that can touch someone on a deeper level. This is the difference between music that people remember and music they will be drawn to over and over again for years. The flash-in-the-pan, hot-today-gone-tomorrow junk is clogging the airwaves of what is left of the FM. Make a difference. Write from your voice; no one else can write from your unique perspective and chances are that if you have a good feeling about something you write others will too.
I’m no Bob Dylan (but who is?) but these are the kinds of things that are in the back of my mind. I’ve been told I’m too tough on myself by many friends, and maybe I am, but I also feel good about my judgment when it comes time to release a song. That’s the important thing, knowing when it’s done.
17. If I told you that you can have three things of your choice to go write a song… what would those three things be?
1.) A chunk of time to myself
2.) A relaxing place with no one around.
3.) Gear (guitar, pen, notebook, something to record with.)
18. When do you know that the time to stop tinkering with a song has come?
I just know when it’s right. I feel like most of the music I have put out I’ve gotten to that point with. Not all, but most.
There are a bunch of unfinished tunes basically sitting on a hard drive right now that I haven’t been able to get to that point. It’s a bummer when it happens, but the other side of knowing when a song is done is knowing when to move on and let it go. The hope is to revisit them sometime in the future and see it all in a different light, maybe find a new inspiration in the song. On this new record Mast and Secret Songs were really old songs that I reworked and got to the point of feeling good. You never know.
19. Please finish the sentence: Songwriting is…
…a creative outlet and a way to tell a story all at once.
Always keep the songwriting about the SONG – a good record can’t exist without good songs, end of story. Put the time and energy into making the song better, taking the time to make the content work – don’t use the song as a vehicle to get some cool studio sounds or gimmicky idea out there. That stuff fades away. Gimmickry is an everyday part of life and it gets boring. A song needs to stand on its own; it should work in its stripped down form (vocals and guitar/piano or whatever). If you can connect with an audience through a song that doesn’t rely on gimmicks and huge sounds or whatever, then it will work. I think a lot of people don’t realize the impact a well-written song can have. It’s not about what you do to it in the studio (obviously cool stuff can happen at that point) – it’s what comes before. Anything after is only window dressing.
20. What should we know about your latest CD?
Secret Songs For Secret People is a very acoustic and vocals-based record.
It’s more stripped down than the last ones. It’s also the direction I see myself going with my music in the future.
Over the last year I haven’t been as interested in layering and thick production as I was before. I guess I got that stuff out of my system for the most part. For this one, I really wanted the songs to stand on their own. It’s quick, 10 songs and only 28 minutes long. I wanted the songs to get to the point and that’s what I did. I’m sure the people who are expecting ripping guitar solos will be a bit disappointed; there is really none of the loud stuff. But the people who are into the driving, fingerpicking stuff might really dig it.
I hope so, anyways.
My thanks to Eric Bettencourt for kindly accepting to share this insight with us.
You can find Eric on Facebook here.
You can visit his website at http://www.eric-bettencourt.com/
Please buy his records and enjoy the wonderful tunes! (click on the album covers for details…)
“I guess I always loved to write, but I never had anything to really encourage it. I never thought I could be a journalist or novelist or anything, I just had a wild imagination and songwriting gave me enough rope to run with it.”