“Songwriters write songs, but they really belong to the listener.”
“Revenge is a really good songwriting weapon.” — John Prine
Gunther Brown, an Americana band from Portland, Maine, came into my life via meeting their bass player when I was selling a guitar neck online. Some things you just can’t make up. Fast forward a bunch of years, and said bass player is still a good buddy of mine, and for what lasted maybe a minute, I was a member of this band. I loved every minute of it, not only because of the other band members, but also because of the quality of the tunes we played.
Pete Dubuc is the frontman and songwriter for the band, and I am fortunate to call him a friend. Pete and I regularly get together and talk about music, songwriting and many other topics, so it is no surprise that when the idea for this site came to me, he was one of the first people I talked to about it. Coming to think of it, I’m pretty sure Pete was the first person I approached about this idea.
As can be read on the band’s website, “The Portland Press Herald listed Gunther Brown as one of its ‘ten bands to watch’. In doing so, Bob Keyes says “Gunther Brown’s music is earthy, eloquent and entirely honest. The band from Portland reminds one of early Jayhawks, with maybe a touch of Wilco. It’s Americana music, with roots that spread to folk, rock and old-time country.””
Before we move on to the interview with Pete, here’s one of my favorite Gunther Brown songs, titled “Maryanne”
1. Please share whatever biographic details you feel comfortable sharing:
Born and raised Mainer. My life growing up was very rural. I am the ‘son of a preacher man’ as my father pastors a church in New Vineyard, Maine.
I am married to a lovely lady, Sarah. We take turns yelling at our two dogs.
2. When it comes to songwriting, is this something you always did even before you were involved in gigging?
I suppose, to the extent that from the first time I grabbed a guitar I was far more interested in creating my own melodies than playing songs I knew.
I now think that had more to do with attention span than any real burning creative desire. But whatever the reason, I think that set the stage for what I try to do now.
3. Do you write the lyrics first, then the music, the other way around, or is there no set formula?
Melody is always first. I’ve yet to write lyrics first and then fit music around them. That feels very unnatural to me. I hope it happens for me at some point though .. I would like to experience that and to be able to write in different ways, but for now, it’s all about the melody.
4. I remember, guitars in hand, sitting in my family room on a sunny Maine summer day talking songwriting with you. One of the things you said was that you usually write the chorus of a song first. Could you expand on that?
Yeah, I like hooks. I’ve always loved simple, catchy songs that stick with you. That feels like what a song should be .. at least to me. So, the chorus is the first thing I find, pretty much all the time. If I make it through that and it still has my interest, it makes me want to hear the rest of the song and there’s work to do.
If I can’t make a chorus compelling to myself, it has little chance with the unsuspecting public! I guess it’s not even a chorus per se, but it starts with the hook.
5. I believe that it was during the same sunny Maine summer day that we talked about song bridges. You mentioned that to you it didn’t have to be a new chord progression. Could you comment further?
I don’t write in a verse/chorus/bridge kind of way all the time. I write plenty of songs that I don’t even think of as having a chorus, let alone a bridge.
I suppose that’s a result of not having any training, or really knowledge, of (capital S) Songwriting. I think if your song needs that bridge section though, it can be accomplished in different ways. I think that’s one of the areas where musicians tend to over think.A normal music listener isn’t going to say, “boy, I liked that song but really felt it needed a bridge.’ Maybe the song needs a lift or a shift .. do it however you wish. This pop-rock American Idol stuff you know when the bridge happens, you know what it’s going to sound like .. all it does for me is tell me I’ve made it 2/3 of the way through a dreadful song.
6. When you opened as a three-piece for Joe Pug recently, you and I talked after Joe’s set. We were both impressed by the quality of the songs and of the performance. One thing you also noted was the quality of the lines played by the lead guitar player. Please talk about that dynamic between the song and the accompanying musicians.
Playing songs is like anything else you see done at a high level. Take Olympic athletes, for example. The best ones .. are the disciplined ones. The runners, they don’t move a single thing on their body unless it benefits the result of the race. A great quarterback doesn’t always throw the ball a million miles an hour. He CAN, but he also understands that often, that’s not what the moment calls for. Musicians should be the same way. I guess the best ones are really aware of what a song needs at a given time. You are presenting the SONG. I have a real admiration for a musician who COULD shred .. but knows that the 3 notes (s)he plays in that one spot are what actually connect with people.
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?
I don’t really do anything in a scheduled way. That’s one of my many weaknesses. I’m not very structured. The idea of having a set time when I require myself to be creative kind of makes me want to run away crying and screaming. I know it works for some people, but for me it happens when it happens. I’m not out to write 600 songs this year, so what am I gonna force it for? I’d rather write 10 and believe in every single one of them than write hundreds and leave ’em on the scrap heap.
8. I like to joke that I have played “in the spring” more times live than you have. Silliness aside, how did this song – one of my favorite of yours – come to you?
Ha ha .. It’s real life seasonal affective disorder or whatever they call it. I’m far more capable of being a pleasant person in moderate weather conditions.
The song is me, making that excuse. I also hope the less literal part comes out as well. It’s as much about slugging it out through the tough times as it is about meteorology.
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?
Not really. I’ve tried to jot something down or make a mental note but it all goes back to starting with a melody. I don’t like forcing an old idea into a melody just because there was a moment where that line sounded cool to me.
10. Sometimes you play a solo acoustic set, sometimes you play as a duo with a mandolin player, sometimes you play as a 5-piece band. Does that have an impact on the tunes you write and how you write them?
It does. Lately, playing with fewer members, the new songs I write have less ‘space’ in them. I don’t hear a space for a solo, for instance. They are more direct. It’s subtle but I notice it for sure. You’re more aware of what you can pull off by yourself rather than relying on your buddy the guitar player to make it a beaut!
11. Is there a song that came together in less than 30 minutes from original idea to finished product?
I’m not sure quite that fast … but there have been some that came pretty quick. In The Spring strikes me as one that happened fast. Two of the songs we’ve recorded – Say Goodbye and The Reason – both came out of the same afternoon. Complete, finished songs in maybe a few hours. Sometimes it just happens.
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 guess I look at them all the same. If there’s a song that I feel I wouldn’t want to record, I don’t think I’d even finish it. The finished songs are all worthy in my book. The band may beg to differ so stuff will get bumped down the list but I’d find it hard to not believe in something that I felt compelled to finish.
13. Same place, Same time is a slower-paced song. You recently talked to me about the importance of selecting the right venue for your tunes and the thrill that comes from the right audience listening to your songs when you play them live. Please comment further.
I don’t write songs that I hope will get the dance floor hoppin’. So it’s important to play them in places where people are kind of interested in listening to music.
A song like that, especially, isn’t going to be heard in some venues. I’m far more interested in playing places where I can play any of my songs than I am in playing places where I feel the need to scratch slow songs off the list. It really is a compromise for the audience and for me so really it’s a no win.
14. Some of your songs have links to Maine (Great Eustis Jailbreak), while others have links to other parts of the country, such as Minnesota. Do you write those songs from personal history, or just because the imagery or the phonetics involved please you?
Something like Great Eustis Jailbreak links to my childhood. Eustis is an area where I have fond memories so that was sort of a natural thing. I also like the way it sounds.
Even if you don’t know Eustis, I think you get the feel of it. Minnesota, on the other hand, is a very specific subject. It is, till proven otherwise I suppose, based on actual events and the treatment of Native Americans in that area. I honestly don’t know what led me to that topic but I kind of got in a zone, wrote, researched and that’s what came out. I love that song for that reason. I almost don’t recognize it as something I wrote. I mean, how did I get there? Cool feeling.
15. Do you ever use tricks to “prime the pump” when the inspiration well has run dry? If so, what are they?
No tricks. If I’m not feeling it, it’s not meant to be felt.
16. Do you have any advice for beginner songwriters?
Just do it. Don’t try to do it like someone else does it. You’ll figure out your own voice and you should follow that. Whatever works for you is what you should be doing. Unless you have a label to answer to, there are NO RULES. Create.
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?
Guitar, Solitude, Coffee
18. When do you know that the time to stop tinkering with a song has come?
I’m good with stuff evolving as you play with other people … dynamics change. But for me there’s an obvious time when you’ve completed the song. I’m not sure I can pinpoint that time but for me it’s pretty obvious in that moment.
19. Please finish the sentence: Songwriting is…
20. Do you believe in the “black book full of tune bits, lines and other assorted yet unfinished gems”?
I guess I believe in it .. but I don’t use it. That’s another idea that freaks me out. I think creativity should be a little more free than that. If I have a little hook running around in my head and I don’t have the time to explore it fully, I’ll record it on my phone and go back when I have time and see if there’s anything there.
That’s about it for fragment storage for me.
My thanks to Pete Dubuc for participating in this endeavor. I find talking about songwriting fascinating, so to get this “inside look” into the mind of a songwriter is a treat.
As of the writing of this interview, on 11/18/2011, Gunther Brown is sending free copies of their CD to those who ask for it. You can find more information about this generous offer here. Please donate if you want to support the band.
I’d like to leave you with another song written and performed by Pete Dubuc of Gunther Brown:
You can follow Gunther Brown on Twitter: @GuntherBrown
You can also “like” the band on Facebook here.
“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.”