Between clever & stupid

If common perception is to be believed, Nashville and Austin are the only places left in the United States where the craft of songwriting is truly respected. Those cities are known for communities of songwriters who work together, know each other, talk of and are passionate about songwriting together. But the Detroit area has extraordinary musical alchemists who can hold their own with their peers from Tennessee and Texas.

Metro Times invited merely the tip of the local songwriter iceberg to discuss craft, city, community and chords. Here’s how it went.

Metro Times: The audience has a perception of songwriting as a solitary craft, whether or not a songwriter is involved in a band.

Dion Roddy (formerly the primary writer for the band Missionary Stew, shared songwriting chores in Spank, and now with Sun 209): It’s just very lonely. Seriously, it’s a lonely profession in the sense that it’s so personal. I always wanted to be a musician in order to express myself. And while I’ve tried to be a collaborator, I really have to be alone, with my guitar, in order to write.

Jan Krist (whose music has received national recognition; she is also a working mom who has other constraints on her time): You have to leave yourself open for when the inspiration comes, and grab whatever’s handy to get it down.

Danny Cox (a session musician whose debut album, Daniel’s Crossing, was nominated for a Detroit Music Award last year): See, I look at it in the same way that my dad gets up and goes to General Motors every day — you get up, make yourself some coffee, sit down and go to work, and start writing songs.

Michael King (who has worked as a producer, session musician and solo artist, and has lived through a national label deal): I used to sit around in this romantic fog, waiting for the muse. Now I have to sit down and say to myself, I’ve got to write some songs. And it’s an excruciating process.

Roddy (speaking to Krist): There are a lot of bands with male songwriters who write together, but I don’t see it happening with women songwriters. Do women collaborate on songs, or am I totally off?

Krist: Well, obviously, I’m in the minority here — just look around the table. Three men and one woman.

Roddy: But there are so many good women songwriters around here. You and Jill Jack, for example.

Krist: Well, in our cases, as working moms, the only time Jill and I have to write and really work on songs is in snatches or late at night, and where are we at those hours? You know what other writers have that we (songwriters) don’t have? We don’t get together and work on songs and show what we’re working on and get criticism from other songwriters. When you collaborate, and look at your writing in that fashion, you become a better writer. And we have no place where we can do that here. Even in New York, songwriters would get together after playing at the Bottom Line and have spaghetti dinners to foster that kind of atmosphere.

(It should be noted that Krist has hosted a number of songwriting circles at various area venues over the years.)

When you’re a developing writer, you need to have that constructive feedback, and it would be so helpful to have people you could bring your songs to.

King: One of the challenges is learning how to filter things. As your writing gets better and you learn about music, you filter more intensely. You spot clichés. You’re drawing on different sources for inspiration. When you have more reference points, it makes the music more interesting.

Krist: A good pop song is really simple, though.

Roddy: "It’s a fine line between clever and stupid, isn’t it?" to quote Nigel Tufnel (of Spinal Tap).

MT: So, are there rules that you have to learn before you can go ahead and break them?

Krist: Well, a verse and a chorus and a bridge and a verse and a chorus! And if you haven’t hit gold in three minutes, stop boring!

Cox: I’ve always wondered why Tracy Chapman’s "Fast Car" was ever a hit? She doesn’t get to the chorus until two and a half minutes into the song!

Krist: Because it’s a great story! When you hear that song, you empathize so intensely with that woman.

King: You’ve got to cultivate your instincts. If your instincts tell you something, don’t deny them. I heard that Don Was, as a producer, said that when he heard a great song his body reacted. I love that.

Krist: And when you hear someone doing something right, it’s such a spiritual thing. And you think, this is what they were put on this planet to do. They are here to write and sing that song, and are fulfilling their purpose.

MT: What songwriters in Detroit do you think are filling their purpose?

The group enthusiastically rattles off a list that includes Tim Diaz, Jason Magee, Jim Bizer, Stewart Francke, Jo Serrapere, Susan Calloway, Thomas Trimble (of the group American Mars).

Krist: If you go to other towns, you realize that the Detroit community of songwriters really is a strong one. Most songwriter communities, like in Austin or Chicago, people go to those towns. We have a real homegrown scene here — everybody we know was born here, and I would put them up nationally talent-wise.

The talent’s here, no question. The will to write songs and survive here and build on roots. It’s a life for those who follow it, even if the community at large doesn’t yet get it. Songwriter Matt Smith (Volebeats, Outrageous Cherry), who wasn’t able to make the roundtable, sums up the lure of the craft in a subsequent interview.

"It’s an honorable profession," he says wryly. "Even if most Midwesterners place it somewhere between drug dealers and carnies. Karen Koski is a Detroit-area freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]

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