Thursday, November 9, 2017

My Review of My Favorite Songwriting Podcasts

I love podcasts. I listen to several on a regular basis. There are podcasts seemingly on every possible subject, something for everyone no matter what the interest. My interests, of course, are music related, whether it's about the business of music, the art of recording, or songwriting. Happily there seems to have been an explosion of songwriting podcasts, and I never tire of listening to them. Three of my favorites are Sodajerker on Songwriting, And The Writer Is..., and The Working Songwriter. These are in no order of preference, but in the order that I discovered them.

Sodajerker On Songwriting is hosted by two Liverpudlian songwriters (not the two you are thinking of), Simon Barber and Brian O'Connor. The first thing to know about these guys is that they are themselves songwriters. Therefore they ask better questions than your average journalist would ask. You can hear the effect this has on the subjects of their interviews, finally hearing intelligent questions that could only come from a fellow songwriter.

I discovered this podcast Googling one of my favorite songwriters, Andy Partridge of XTC. Lo and behold, the Sodajerker fellas had had already interviewed Andy! And what a great interview it was. Real insights into Andy's methods and inspiration; real nuts and bolts stuff. I was intrigued. I went back to the beginning with an interview with Billy Stienberg, followed by Todd Rundgren. I was hooked and the binge listening began. The list of songwriters these guys have interviewed is impressive. Legends like Jimmy Webb, Mike Stoller, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Neil Sedaka, Carole Bayer Sager, Paul Simon and more. Billy Bragg, Glenn Tilbrook, Chris Difford, Neil Finn, the list goes on and on. Simon and Brian have just released their 106th episode, Yusef Cat Stevens. There were 90 episodes or so when I discovered the podcast, so it was a summer of binge listening for me.

Besides the aforementioned good questions from Simon and Brian, two other factors make this podcast enjoyable to listen to as well as informative. First, they have that dry Liverpudlian humor and wit. It's almost like listening to the Fab Four quipping away in "Hard Day's Night". And second, they have a genuine reverence and respect for their subjects, which I'm sure plays no small role in their gaining access to so many big names. They are true fans of songwriting and songwriters. I hope very much that they land an interview with that other Liverpudlian songwriter, Paul McCartney. Sir Paul, if you're reading this, you should talk to these guys.

And The Writer Is... is hosted by hit songwriter Ross Golan, and is a look into the world of today's hit pop and country songwriters. We're talking big sales/airplay and Grammy nominations here.

Ross' interview style is like eavesdropping on a couple of old friends as they talk about the songwriting biz. Most of his subjects are people he has known and worked with, and Ross asks them about their start in the business and general career path. As they are contemporaries they know all the same people and swap stories, like a couple of friends out having a beer.

This podcast is fascinating to me because, even though I consider myself a songwriter, they talk about things I know nothing about. I had no idea what a topliner is. Golan talks about "song math" without explaining what it is. (I suspect it's related to song structure, verse-chorus-bridge stuff.) I had never heard of Max Martin, or how influential Swedes are in popular music. They talk about songs seemingly created by a committee, with one person creating the beats, another person creating the verses, yet another creating the choruses, and the topliner writing the song over all that. Songwriting to me has always been sitting in a room with a guitar on your lap and an empty notebook in front of you. But here was another way!

Ross Golan sounds like a great guy, and I too would like to have a beer with him and shoot the shit about songwriting. I'm sure I would learn a lot, as I'm sure there's lots to learn. And I would remind him that in season one, Desmond Childs tells him he should never call himself a topliner.

I still haven't listened to all the episodes, and he's cranking out season two at a one per week rate. So I've got a lot of listening to do.

Last, but in no way least, is The Working Songwriter, hosted by singer-songwriter Joe Pug. This is songwriting that I'm familiar with, complete with the guitar and the long-stared-at blank notebook page.

The Working Songwriter is aptly named, as it focuses on the day-to-day of the working performing songwriter. Joe himself is a touring songwriter, and he talks to his subjects at length about the highs and lows of being out on the road, playing to full (or empty) houses. In episode one, Joe talks to Joe Ely about being on David Letterman one night, and sleeping out in a corn field the next. And Joe Pug goes deep with his subjects, asking interesting questions that only someone with similar life experiences would know to ask. Of the three podcasts reviewed here, this might be the one that hits closest to home for me.

Joe starts his podcast with an intro that states the show is "an iron clad excuse to put off actually writing" and finishes with the reminder that "reverb is not a song". Words to live by. He also starts off each episode listing his upcoming tour dates, so go see him. I will be doing just that when he hits St. Paul in December.

Each of these podcasts features a Spotify playlist of songs written by that episode's guest. So even when podcast is over, it's not over. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some podcasts to listen to...