Songwriting Expert Gary Ewer Interview
If you have not checked out Gary Ewer’s songwriting blog, you NEED to. Seriously, this blog will change your songwriting life. Are you struggling with writers block? Need some inspiration? Have songs that are lacking something? Gary is a songwriter and educator and writes very useful and inspiring blog posts. I have been inspired and impressed on a daily basis. I subscribed, so his posts get emailed to me. Since I am such a fan, I wanted to interview Gary and share some of his insights on my blog. Gary really is the MAN when it comes to songwriting. Please check out his blog here and read the interview below….
Gary Ewer Interview:
1. How did you get involved in songwriting?
I became interested in songwriting as a young teenager, back in the mid-70s. In those days, I played a bit of guitar, piano, and was playing trumpet in my school band. Any writing I was doing was mainly at the piano, but I don’t particularly remember strong influences at the time. But certainly progressive rock was an inspiration, so Genesis, Yes, and other prog rock groups were important. For me, songwriting was very much a solitary activity, and I didn’t play in a band until my high school years.
2. Who were some songwriters that inspired or currently inspire you?
Currently, I am very much into the music of Imogen Heap, and also love Adele, Sia, and am warming to the music of Sufyen Stephens. As a young musician, my favourite pop writers and groups were Robert Lamm (Chicago), Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, Genesis and Yes.
3. How old were you when you wrote your first song?
I started writing songs (quite bad, they were!) around the age of 15. I remember entering a song contest with a song I had written, called “Back Again to Yesterday”. In those days, I did a lot of instrumental writing, as I was getting more and more into my trumpet.
4. Did you write songs before you had an official education?
Yes, but as I say, I don’t think they were very good. But I think it’s important for songwriters to stick with it, because bad songs are part of the process of cleaning up your technique and becoming better.
5. You are a busy writer and educator. How do you find time to work on your own songs?
(Sorry for this lengthy and round-about answer): I went to university in 1978, with a plan to take whatever I could learn and become a better songwriter. But as soon as I started my studies, I became fascinated with Classical music. In particular, I was amazed by how similar songwriting was to composing Classical music. That in a way, what Beethoven was trying to do is the exact same thing that Dylan, Springsteen, Cohen, and all great songwriters. I found that my “songwriting” modified considerably, and started to write lengthier, more classically-based music. So even though what I was writing strayed considerably away from mainstream pop-based music, I found myself studying all the ways that the two genres were actually very similar, with similar chord progressions, melodic construction, form, and so on.
So the problem became that writing longer instrumental works makes it rather tricky to keep writing, especially with my full-time job as a university instructor. For much of my career, writing takes place in the evenings, and on weekends. I have to keep reminding myself that I don’t need to complete an entire piece in one sitting. Sometimes the music I write will take months to complete, and that’s OK. I get a fair number of commissions to write choral music, and those are often arrangements of existing folk songs in the public domain. Those don’t take very long, and are often more in the folk-classical-pop genre (if that exists!)
So it’s hard to fit it all into my schedule, but as I say, that’s OK.
6. What are 3 things most songwriters could do today to improve their writing?
For sure, the first thing is to set a regular writing schedule. Even if you don’t write a complete song, or even if the writing is just working out a small bit of melody, regular writing leads to discipline, which leads to success.
The second thing would be to listen to as many diverse styles and genres of music as possible. You’ll amaze yourself by how much those other styles will positively influence your own music, and make your music all the more unique.
And probably the third thing to ensure that you improve is to get your music out there, and perform it for others. And get opinions and thoughts from people you trust. Those opinions need to be true, not sugar-coated to make you feel good. You absolutely need to know what others are getting from your music.
7. On your blog you talk alot about how songwriting hasn’t really changed for many years. What would be 1 similarity and 1 difference between pop songs now and in the 80’s?
The main similarity between now and the 80s is the overall form of music. When all is said and done, we still see a mainly verse-chorus-bridge design to most hit songs. That design is actually centuries-old. In a way, when Classical composers wrote symphonies back in the 1700s, they did the same thing. They wrote a first theme, a second theme, and then a development section, which in many ways equates to the verse-chorus-bridge format, but on a much larger scale.
The main difference that most listeners would notice is the instrumental sound and production. Synthesized sounds in the 80s have a distinctive sound that would (badly!) date a song. Every era has its particular sound. I suspect that in another 20 years, we’ll listen to autotuned voices and wonder how we ever tolerated it. Let’s hope so, anyway.
8. Why do you write songs?
Sometimes the music I write is for another group of performers, so the easy answer to the question is, I write because I’m hired to write. But when I write for myself, I find myself thinking of a message that I want to send. Songs are comprised of lyrics, melodies, chords, and other elements. For me, I want all those elements to come together with the lyric on top – with people thinking about the text. I’m not a poet, so any time I write lyrics, I’m not trying to be profound. I just want people to think long after the song is done.
9. When you write, what instrument do you use the most?
The piano winds up being the instrument that shows up most often, but of course it depends on the people or group I’m writing for, since I don’t tend to perform my own music.
10. How do you keep track of all of your song ideas?
I work mainly on computer. The notation software “Finale” is my app of choice. So my computer has tons of partly-written bits of music that are either in various stages of creation, or are just little bits that I’ve written down because they sound neat.
11. For a new songwriter, maybe just starting out, do you have any words of wisdom?
The best advice I can give is to listen to lots and lots of music. Don’t limit yourself to the same old tunes that you like to listen to. Speak to other musicians about what they like, and do whatever you can to increase your musical experience. The more music you listen to, the more your own musical style develops in a unique way.
12. You have a lot of music theory knowledge. Do you feel songwriters need to learn music theory?
If for no other reason, music theory will allow you to put labels on all the neat musical effects you hear in other songwriters’ music. Music theory allows you to be, quite simply, literate. But more than that, a knowledge of the rudiments of music expands your musical mind. Some think that music theory will stunt your creativity, but in fact, the opposite happens. Your mind opens, and you’ll find that what you write will be more innovative and more cutting-edge. I can’t say enough about the power of music theory for developing a songwriter’s mind.
13. Are you a rewriter?
Any composer worth their salt is a rewriter. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll get it right the first time. My general way of writing is to work ahead, then look back and rewrite what I’ve done even as I work on the next few bars of music. So anything I write is in a constant state of rewriting, even as I am working ahead.
14. Do you like to cowrite?
In my genre of writing, co-writing is not usually done. That’s only because I tend to focus on music that’s highly personal, and probably more complex than typical popular songs. For the popular songs I’ve written in the past, they were always individual efforts. But I really believe that if pop song writing is someone’s gig, you can’t beat a collaboration with a good songwriter.
15. What song recently had you really saying, “Wow!?”
That’s a great question, because some songs lately have me listening over and over again, and I find it hard to know why. For example, Kascade’s “Dynasty” (sung by Haley Gibby) is a fairly basic song that I find myself listening to over and over again. I love it. Sia Furler’s “Soon We’ll Be Found” is a really great tune that’s really stuck with me. And definitely almost anything off of Imogen Heap’s “Ellipse” album, particularly “Tidal”, has me saying “Wow!”
16. What do you do when you feel stuck on a song?
My solution to a simple case of writer’s block is to leave the song for a few hours, and then return to it. Almost right away any blocks I have seem to go away. For more serious cases of writer’s block, I temporarily leave the piece, and give myself little writing tasks, such as seeing how many short melodies I can compose over a chord progression. I also do things like playing a melody “upside-down”: from the starting note, I play the opposite direction of the melody I’ve created. So instead of, say, playing a melody that actually moves up by step, I see what it sounds like moving down by step. I find that those kinds of little “games” open my mind and get me unstuck quicker than anything.
17. What do you write about the most?
Most of my writing these days is for choirs, and I’m usually either given a topic, or I am asked to do a choral arrangement of a folk song. But for my own compositions recently, the topics I’ve been asked to write about the most center on “peace” and “community.” I get a fair number of requests to write music for large choirs doing community events, and those kinds of topics are naturals.
18. Musical styles and trends seem to go in cycles. Right now we are in a kind of electro-pop phase. Where do you see pop music going next?
Wow, that’s really hard to say. I had a friend once who said that if we knew where we were headed, we’d probably be trying to do it now. I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think the only things we can be sure of is: 1) computers will remain a crucial part of music production (sound, recording, effects, and general precision of final production); and 2) we’re going to find that musicians are going to work even harder to marry computer technique with acoustic instruments. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.
19. Do you ever write a song and not like it?
I remember as a student of music composition years ago that I wrote an elaborate piece for two singers, a percussion ensemble, piano, and small string ensemblee, called “Sun and Moon”. I hated it! By the time I finished it, I so despised it that I wouldn’t agree to have it performed. I got a mark for it as part of my composition course, but I don’t remember what the prof gave me! I’ve written other things that I didn’t like, but usually I just try to fix them.
20. What happens to those songs?
Music that I’ve written that just doesn’t work is usually music that I try to fix somehow. But I don’t spend a lot of time rewriting. If I can’t figure out how to solve the problem fairly quickly, the piece get’s “put in a box” (i.e., sits in a folder on my computer), and I have to confess that I don’t do much with them.
21. How has your writing changed over the years?
As I mentioned, when I first got into writing in my teenage years, I was trying to write music in the style of Genesis and other prog rock bands that influenced me. By the time I was studying music composition at university, I found myself influenced by contemporary “avant garde” composers such as John Cage, Steve Reich, Luciano Berio, and others. It probably wound up being an interesting mix! So I kind of went through a rather complex atonal style of writing before reverting back to a simpler harmonic language more easily singable by choral groups.
Awesome insights!! Thanks so much to Gary Ewer for doing this interview! Check out his blog for oodles more songwriting wisdom!
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