Saturday, December 26, 2009

Avatar - an Example for Songwriters

I've always said that songs, in addition to being entertaining, can be enhanced when they have something meaningful to say, and they convey it with clear communication, as opposed to abstract expression using references known only to the artist. The same is true of most art forms - dance, TV/Movies, Graphic Novels, theater, etc.

I had the opportunity to see James Cameron's "Avatar", and as a visual movie experience, it went right to the top of my "wow" list. I remember how I felt first seeing "Star Wars" so many years ago, and this made "Star Wars" look completely primitive and unexciting. But beyond the visual artistry, and the straight-out good guy vs. bad guy action that most movies have, there was a major bonus -- this movie actually had a meaningful social commentary. It was a nicely presented statement about greed and entitlement, balanced between oblique and direct references -- but never becoming so loud as to distract from the movie and its own story. This level of pith added so much to the overall experience, that it will be hard for a movie to displace this from the top of my list for quite some time.

And it has not escaped notice that by comparison (think Harry Potter, Start Trek, Twilight, Star Wars, Disney movies, etc) the level of commercial merchandising for this movie, released just before Christmas, has been extremely minimal. This is totally in keeping with the message of the movie and further enhances its impact (how seriously could you take a message about greed if everywhere you turn there is another action figure, mug, T-shirt, etc. ? ). Sure, there will be Na'vi action figures, but the overall level of "buy this!!" is pretty tame, considering what it could be at this time of year, and all the buzz the movie has gotten.

What Avatar is to movies, I hope songwriters will aspire to with their music and songs. Having such an amazing platform from which to speak should give us pause to ask ourselves if we have something meaningful to say. My hat is off to James Cameron for providing such a magnificent example.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Let's Ban the Dictionary!

Songwriting is the art of blending the sounds, meaning, and rhythm of words to touch the hidden places within people. I've often said that a great lyricist is perhaps the most valuable commodity in the music business.

Even without music, words are powerful packets of potential which can shape cultures and nations. Those who artfully wield words are natural leaders. One's fluency with language is a great determiner of how far he or she goes along the chosen path to success. One of the best books I've ever read is called "The Professor and the Madman". It's the amazing and riveting story of how the Oxford English Dictionary was created.

The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow, and they will have many challenges to face in a complex world where more than 3,000 languages are spoken. Below is an actual exchange that occurred among high school students on Facebook. It is unfortunately representative of a growing epidemic of linguistic lassitude and lethargy that I see among the hundreds of young people I work with every year. These are by no means kids from underperforming schools or distressed neighborhoods. They take honors classes, and have every opportunity to give themselves the great advantage of excellence of elocution. Fortunately not all of our future leaders are afflicted with logophobia, but is it far more prevalent than it was even ten years ago. Here is the verbatim Facebook conversation:


Person 1: The history of the dictionary is seriously in my history book. WHY?!??

Person 2: I should probably get on that

Person 1: omg its sooooo boringggggggg and uselessssssssssss

Person 2: Aww dont tell me that. tell me it is the most exciting stuff ever so I actually have a reason to do it besides the urge to not fail

Person 1: i'm not gonna lie. its terrible. apparently the dictionary was the best-selling book. how pathetic is that?!?

Person 2: I must say that that isn pretty sad. And that whole thing about the dictionary being the best selling book is ridiculose

Person 3: HAHAHAHHA. i just read that and was like, dude, eff you! you suck! haha. i hate the dictionary!


So there you have it. This clearly shows the influence and power of words. It has changed my entire outlook. I've been spending far too much time always trying to find the right words, to use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation, and to be clear. I sprain my back lifting my heavy dictionary off the shelf. What a waist of time! I been such a moran! Like they said above, its ridiculose! Well, aftur reeding this, I hafta legree. Iz bettur to like not reed dum stuff like a dicktionery. I want spend my time get a big cushy job that pays lotta bucks, so I jus goona be a docta or criminal layer and rite a good rezumee so someone will higher me. HaHaHa HA HAHA omg this is soooooo cooool! Yep, I feel much bedder now. No wait -- a few more HaHAA ha HHA -- there. Now done.

...Bill Pere

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Other Woodstock

The new movie "Taking Woodstock" opened today, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the historic music event of 1969. Estimates put the crowd there in upstate NY at about 500,000. I was too young to go, so I was in Rockland County NY that weekend with my girlfriend, whose older sister (unbeknown to her parents) was at the festival. Upon her return, I got a firsthand account of what it was like. For the next four years, I performed in bands and covered most of the songs and artists from the festival.

Then on July 28 1973, came the Watkins Glen Summer Jam, featuring the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, and The Band. More than 600,000 people descended upon the small, picturesque town in upstate New York, the largest audience ever at a pop festival. I was one of them. Several estimates suggest that one out of every three people between the ages of 17-24 from New York to Boston was at that event.

I was with four friends, in two cars, leaving from Bergen County NJ the afternoon before the concert. It would be about a five hour drive along rural Route 17 – assuming normal traffic. The traffic was far from normal. There was a steady stream of cars filled with young people for most of the length of Route 17. The Roscoe Diner, in Roscoe NY, was a favorite stopping place, and we stopped there to regroup, refuel, and decide what we'd do as we got closer to Watkins Glen.

At about 1 a.m., the morning before the event was to start, we were 11 miles outside of Watkins Glen. The traffic was at a standstill, and that looked to be as close as we could get by car. So, we parked at the side of the road, along a long line of cars doing the same thing, gathered up our 'stuff', and started to walk. We didn’t know how far away we were.

It seemed endless – walking in the dim night, amidst a sea of young music fans seeming heading for some kind of Close Encounter. Sometime between 4-5 a.m., I started to see signs of civilization – there was a brown-roofed restaurant called "Mr. Chicken", which was to be a significant landmark in the next days, months, and decades. We finally got to the concert grounds – a sea of bodies, lying on blankets, colorfully dressed (or undressed).

There was little available real estate to be had. We found a small spot of bare ground, spread our blankets, and tried to get some sleep, after an 11-mile walk through the night. I closed my eyes at about 5:30am – At about 6am, I felt my head being jostled and I opened my eyes to see the posterior underside of a dog dangling over me. That, plus the wooden tent stake poking my side, was enough to get me up.

All we could see was people – everywhere. And a tiny stage off in the distance. However, there were large towers of speakers everywhere. I scoped out food and porta-potty locations. And then the sun came up. Hot – extremely hot. I had brought water. My friends, in their infinite wisdom brought wine, and not a drop of water. Water was being sold at a heavy premium – far more than the other mind-altering substances which were being freely hawked everywhere (which I did not find particularly appealing).

Eventually the music got going – the stories of the Grateful Dead's legendary sound-check which turned into an impromtu 2-set concert, are quite accurate. Following the Dead's opening performance, the Band went on and then, shades of Woodstock, along came the rain. Now there were 600,000 hot, wet, muddy, people – but still peaceful and happy.

One of my friends, who drove the car I rode in, started to get heat stroke and dehydration, so we brought him to the medical tent. He was quite out of it, but when he saw that all the nurses there had shed their tops, he quickly became alert. I'm not sure if this has become an approved treatment for heat stroke or not, but it worked.

My supply of water was gone, most of our money was gone, and we still had an 11 mile walk back to the cars ahead. There was still more festival to come, but I thought it best to get my dehydrated driver back to the car while there was still some cool in the air, so we said goodbye to our colleagues, and began the trek back.

Along the way we saw all the colorful things we could not see in the dark as we were coming in the night before – vendors, hawkers, pushers, and the now-famous Hartford CT radio station camper, which was doing a pirate broadcast from the concert site.

Eventually, I saw it – the comforting brown roof, and the words "Mr. Chicken". We got some water and food, and finished the trek to the car. The entire experience – being a part of the largest music gathering ever, is clearly engrained in my memory, but sadly, I never thought to bring a camera with me. I do however have the local newspaper from that weekend with photos.

Yes, Woodstock was first, but Watkins Glen was bigger. Having been there, I understand the primary lesson of Woodstock and that whole time we call "the sixties". The music was a great bonus, but the real treasure was seeing how immense groups of diverse people of all backgrounds and walks of life could come together and peacefully enjoy the simple pleasures of being on this earth. And I have always seen music as a means of bringing people together across any type of boundary or divide.

I have since been back to Watkins Glen many times. It is one of my favorite places, due mostly to the unique scenic beauty of the gorges and Finger Lakes. And nearly 40 years after that historic music pilgrimage, there, steadfastly on the main street, is Mr. Chicken.


©2009 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. Content may not be re-posted without permission. Quotes from this content with attribution are permitted. Use of this content in for educational purposes is permitted with proper attribution. Links to this content are encouraged.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Power of 'Why'

The Power of WHY

Music legend Les Paul passed away this week. Aside from transforming music through his inventions like the electric guitar, reverb, and multi-track recording, perhaps his most important contribution is a life that is a testament to the power of asking "why".

I recall an NPR interview with Les Paul when he was in his seventies. He said that his success at innovation and his triumphs over the medical adversity in his life came largely from an inner drive to always ask 'why'. As a young child he pondered why it was that a piano-roll could be sped up or slowed down and not change pitch, while a record on a turntable did change pitch when the speed varied.

I identify strongly with this, as I have always made every effort to understand why a particular song has the effect that it does on the people that it touches, positively or negatively. I was never satisfied with a simple "I like it/I don't like it". People 'like' or 'don't like' things for reasons. I studied psychology and got a degree in Molecular Biology, and that scientific background has been invaluable in deconstructing and understanding the complex process of songwriting.

If there is one big change I see in the mindset of the many young artists I work with today, as opposed to 20-30 years ago, it is the lack of that spark of curiosity to dig into the "why" of things. Kids and young adults are as bright and intelligent as ever, but not necessarily as curious about the world around them (due in part to changes in emphasis in school curricula, coupled with an instant-gratification digital/virtual world). The emphasis has made a shift from 'why' to 'how'. Of course there are always exceptions, but I see it as a clear trend, across thousands of folks that I have worked with.

This has significant impact on the craft of songwriting, and on the quality of the songs that are created. I am constantly asked 'how' to market a song, 'how' to record a song, 'how' to structure a song, 'how' to make a lyric better – but rarely 'why' does a specific aspect of a song or an arrangement have a specific effect on a specific type of listener. And, ultimately, this is really what we as songwriters want to be able to consciously shape and mold into our creations. To know the ideal blend of melody, harmony, rhythm, words, meanings, and phonics that will affect our target audience in the way we intend.

It's simply easier to say "you can’t know that" or "I just go with my gut instinct" or "however it comes out of me is 'true' so I'll stick with it". All of that just avoids the extra time, effort, and skill it takes to take the initial output and work it into something even better.

This is the crafting process – distinctly different from the song generation/creation process. Creation is unconscious, spiritual, emotional, and very individual. The biggest trap that aspiring songwriters fall into is believing that when that burst of inspiration is spent, the song is "done". The successful, seasoned songwriter knows that the end of that wonderful, indescribable time of inspiration marks the beginning of the next phase in the life of a song, which is the crafting phase. This is the rational, analytical process where specific tools and techniques are applied to the raw output of the creative flow, to cut and polish the raw gem into a final product that touches people in a desired way.

Understanding the difference between creation and craft is a key to better songwriting. And in this digital age where you are competing fiercely for the awareness and attention of an audience, it is ultimately the quality of the songs that is going to lift you above the baseline of uncrafted clutter.

When I wrote "Songcrafters' Coloring Book", I devoted the entire first half to "Why" it's important to learn and apply all the techniques presented in the "How" part of the book. That's a discussion which had never been presented before in any depth in other books.

You may know that saying "a guy", "the guy" and "this/that guy" create three separate effects. But when you know why, you become the master of every instance of this in all your songs. You may know that "she KISSED me" means something totally different than "she kissed ME". But when you know why, you become the master of every instance of this in all your songs. You may know that "she's just one of a kind" and "he is even kinder" both have six syllables, but cannot possibly be put to the same melody with good effect. But when you know why, you become the master of every instance of this in all your songs. You may know that the line "His innocence, in essence, was an evanescent dream" causes some kind of brain-tingle, while "His lack of experience eventually just faded away" is flat and forgettable. But when you know why, you become the master of every instance of this in all your songs.

If you are a songwriter or musician or singer, don’t shortchange yourself by overlooking the benefits of asking why things work or don’t work, and find yourself a good mentor or coach who can explain it to you and make it relevant to your world and your goals.


©2009 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. Content may not be re-posted without permission. Quotes from this content with attribution are permitted. Use of this content in for educational purposes is permitted with proper attribution. Links to this content are encouraged.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Oak Planks and Songs

I'm grateful for having lived in New York City as a child. I got to see and experience many of the things that helped shape my appreciation of the diverse world we live in and my desire to improve life for those who are less fortunate.

I now live in a beautiful New England town where every day, I can walk down the block and see a sight that folks come from all over the world to see – the Charles W. Morgan, which is the last wooden whaling ship in the world (technically it's called barque). It is part of the Mystic Seaport Museum, a recreation of a 19th century maritime town, which has been the inspiration for so many of my best story-songs, like "The Promise", "Six Candles in the Chandlery", "Wrought Iron Ring", "Crest of a Wave", and many more.

Lately, as I walk past the Seaport, I have been seeing something which will probably only happen once in a lifetime – the Charles W. Morgan up on drydock, being carefully repaired and refurbished. Oak planks used in repairing old ships often come from trees downed by major hurricanes. The Seaport has a large collection of trees felled in New Orleans by Katrina, and some from storms in Florida.

Seeing the inspiration for many of my songs getting a much deserved facelift, I realized it has been almost 30 years since I first wrote and recorded all the songs from my "Crest of a Wave" album in 1981. Ten years later, in 1991, I re-recorded all the songs in a different style. Now approaching a 20 year anniversary, it may be time for another facelift.

The songs still work as audience favorites when I perform, so it seems worthwhile to give them one more time up on drydock to give the 19th century tales a 21st century treatment, with new arrangements.

Two of the songs, "Six Candles in the Chandlery" and "Wrought Iron Ring" have recently been re-done, and have been posted to my Facebook fan page. If you visit to check out the tracks, take a moment to click the "become a fan" button, and you'll get the updates about new music, performances and concert photos.

We so often write songs based on what's current either as a style or as a newsworthy topic, but when you have songs that continue to work as styles and topics change, keep them fresh and current, and they'll continue to blossom anew for you. That, after all, is the definition of a 'standard' – a song that retains its appeal across decades, through different styles and different artists.

For more on writing songs that last across time, see my book "Songcrafters' Coloring Book: The Essential Guide to Effective and Successful Songwriting".


©2009 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. Content may not be re-posted without permission. Quotes from this content with attribution are permitted. Use of this content in for educational purposes is permitted with proper attribution. Links to this content are encouraged.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Weddings, Graduations, and Songs

June is the month of weddings and graduations. These mileposts in life's journey often cause the songwriters' antennae to tingle with inspiration.

Many of the students I've taught over the years are graduating this week. Since 2002, when I released the "High School My School" CD, I've noticed an increase in the number of plays and downloads of my graduation song, "Shine On". It has found its way onto several playlists. This song is unusual in that it has a mixed meter chorus, alternating 4/4 and 6/4 measures. In addition, the verses are antiphonal, with different sets of voices singing overlapping independent lines on the left and right sides of the stereo space.

In always trying to use perfect rhyme while avoiding the trite and overused pairs, the bridge of "Shine On" has a rhyme that folks have noted as one of the most memorable:

"The light of one light it seems never shall exceed

The light of one sun,

But each star joins hands with a neighbor to make a galaxy"

Amidst all the graduations, today is also the 13th anniversary of my first date with my wife Kay. Appropriately, that date revolved around an appearance I was making as a Connecticut State Troubadour, singing a song I was commissioned to write for a historical dedication. An Italian dinner followed, and a wedding three years later.

Over the last decade, I have written a large collection of songs inspired by love, which is perhaps the most powerful of all songwriting inspirations. The universality of love as a source of inspiration makes it extremely difficult to write a love song that isn't the same as the million others springing from the similar feelings and experiences of a million other people. There are more songs about love than about anything else, all sincere, but not always particularly memorable.

The song I wrote for Kay on our wedding day was based on a metaphor and semantic field of life being a meal served in a restaurant, where one sits at a table for two, with one chair empty, until the right person comes to join you.

Called "Life's Café (Table for Two)" it is one of my more complex melodic/harmonic songs, though rendered simply with just voice/guitar. It will appear on the CD "Let Me Count the Ways", which is currently being recorded.


©2009 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fathers' Day and Songwriting

Father's Day 2009.

Looking over my catalog of 423 songs it jumps out that a significant number of them are about Father-child relationships. People have often commented on this over the years in performances.

When I first became a father in 1984, I wrote "The Singer and His Son". Two years later, my daughter arrived, and as my children grew and taught me new things every day, I wrote "What Our Children Teach". As my kids went through high school, and during my years of volunteering at a Group Home for girls, I heard many stories from teens about parenting gone bad. These stories of kids seeking love and acceptance from their fathers which never came, became some of the most intense and poignant songs I've written: "Teach Me How to Fly", "Most Likely to Succeed", "Another Touch of Gray", "My Name is Mary".

The process of a father letting his grown-up child go off into the world to become the adult that he/she will be is captured in "Six Candles in the Chandlery" and "The Dream".

I lost my father to Alzheimer's when I was just 16, and it took several decades to finally write the tribute to his lost creativity in "Alizarin Crimson", and to try to capture what it must have been like in his failing mind, in "Flickers".

I've have always tried to be the best songwriter I could possibly be, but more so, I've always tried to be the best father I can possibly be.


©2009 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved.