I was a good Catholic—now I am a recovering Catholic—and believe I learned how to interpret songs by doing penance. There was something about doing a good job on those four "Our Father's" and three "Hail Mary's"—going back to the beginning when I broke my concentration—conjuring up sorrow for all the little boy sins ("How may times, my son?"), that gave me access to my feelings. I had to make every one of those words my own—for me it was the birth of interpretation.
On the performance side, singers, actors, dancers often assume that the process of creation is something divinely inspired and therefore beyond them. As a performer of other writers' songs as well as my own, I know that it's much easier to be objective about "outside material." Even so, I still have to listen to a song many, many times before I get the calling to do it. I don't consciously listen in different ways for anything in particular. Nothing that scientific. I just have to see how it hits me when I'm in different moods. Many great writers, famous ones, have voices of limited appeal. Luck of the draw. A kind way to describe Leonard Cohen's musicality, for example, would be to say that he is an "acquired taste." In some regard their obvious vocal/instrumental limitations become what we come to consider as their "style." Randy Newman, Bob Dylan and Suzanne Vega have (only) one thing in common—they aren't singers at all, really. They are more like orators of their own writing. Theirs is still often the definitive version though, because they can put such a strong stamp on it that no one can hear it differently. I cannot imagine anyone else's version of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," for example, and it took Joe Cocker to cover "With A Little Help From My Friends." In other words, if you can't beat it, don't cover it.
I didn't write "Bluer Than Blue" either. I'm just the guy who sang it. People assume that the writer's version is automatically the "real" one, the definitive version. But consider the careers of Emmylou Harris or Maura O'Connell, just to pick two, or other non-writing interpreters. They would never record or perform a song unless they truly believed that theirs would be the landmark version or, failing that, at least that they'd bring a fresh insight to it, or a radical departure.
The songs I have written for myself, however, are another problem altogether. It takes me longer still to hear the song for what it is because I'm also hearing all the ideas I didn't use. And there is that one dimensional aspect to a self-penned and also self-performed song, which is both blessing and curse. The song is you, that's true. It's exactly what you wanted to say, or at least as close as you were able to come. In fact it's possibly so much you that you can't see the forest, you know. Generally, I'd say that if you're madly in love with it or are terribly bored with it, you are probably wrong about it. Maybe your musical listening habits are such that you missed the internal voicing possibilities on the guitar, harmonizing the melody, etc. Or maybe you haven't considered the double meaning possibility of one of your lyric lines, which another singer might find useful.
Writing and performing are obviously different, unrelated art forms, and to be gifted in both is truly rare. Nonetheless, songwriters are expected to be able to perform, especially their own material, very well. And here we are, still trying to remember the words to our songs!
Occasionally, I find myself looking at a song as a vehicle for my singing. Big Mistake. Jive lurks there. Try to avoid that. Try to monitor your instrumental and vocal gymnastics. (A little known fact: the unit of measure of the departure from the original melody, using mordents, trills, bluesy licks and everything you can otherwise muster to thrill us with, is called a "Reba.") I do get frustrated with those singers who must show you everything they can do in each and every song they record. The song then becomes the vehicle for a dog and pony show instead of the message itself. They often do great big battle ship ballads. (Michael Bolton probably does not have a collection of Hai Ku at home.) In all, I think that approach to interpretation is the waste of a gift, and of my time.
It is humiliating, not to mention unprofessional, to be involved in those aspects of performance in which you are not skilled. In the 70s I acted in an Off Broadway play called "Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris." It's a musical, but a very serious one, calling for real actors who are also real singers. In my case, they got neither. As a soft-voiced balladeer, I found the oratorio style singing and occasionally operatic style of acting both beyond my reach. Ah, well. Live and learn. (Looks good in the bio, though.) Entertainment these days, to my jaded soul, is watching singers, who have never acted, try to—especially in their own videos. ("Gee—I guess maybe I should just play the part of the 'singer.'" Have you seen the movie "Maverick"? Have you seen it twice? Me neither. Entertainment to me now is when Pat Boone's toupee accidentally flies off his head while he's doing rope tricks on a TNN Country variety show, and the stuff that's supposed to be impressing me is really just a waste of rhinestones. Do I sound sick? Well I am sick. Where were we?
Oh yes. Performing, of course, involves practice, rehearsal, understanding, patience and many other aspects also common to acting. And just because the material is your own does not mean you instinctively know how to convey it. It doesn't happen automatically. You need to follow through on all your leads with regard to arranging and performing just as you did when you wrote the thing. Chase the ideas down until they either dead end at the edges of your ability or when you discover that you do or don't like the idea. Work on tempo, dynamics, key, feel, harmonies, voicings, vocal emphasis, finger patterns, chord substitutions, etc., until you have it the way you want it, or again, until you come as close as you are able. I try to learn something new on my guitar every time I do an arrangement. Then, once I know what it is I want to play and sing, I practice it until I can actually do what I envisioned. No amount of preparation—short of burning out on the song—is too much. Especially when you remember that in a real performance you have maybe two thirds of your gifts at your disposal, if you're lucky.
Without getting too cerebral about this, there is a difference between an arrangement and an interpretation. Arrangement, of course, is just that—the pieces created and all in order, the organization or intelligence of it. Interpretation is your version of the arrangement. It's the performance, the breathing of life into the work—it is your translation. There have been many famous arguments about how to interpret some of the classics, due in great part to limited knowledge of the manner in which they were performed originally. A favorite of mine is a conversation between Glen Gould, the famous pianist and interpreter of Bach's keyboard pieces, and another concert pianist. In the midst of disagreement Gould said, "Okay, you play it your way, and I'll play it his way." (Incidentally, if you don't rent a video called "32 Short Films About Glen Gould" then you are a wimp and a lightweight.)
With regards to the nuts and bolts of acquiring needed skills, I still say that only you know what it is you need to learn in order to grow as a interpreter. If you have any chops at all, then you have already learned to hide some of your inadequacies, right? This means you know what they are. So, get good. If you can hide them you can also focus on them. What about those who don't play an instrument, or don't play at all well. It's very tempting just to say "learn." After all, you want to represent your babies to your satisfaction, with the proper emphasis and meaning, don't you? If you don't have sensitive and receptive players/singers handy, then go ahead, bite the bullet and learn an instrument. It will improve your writing. Don't cut too may corners, especially if you believe that the performance aspect is not your forté. You don't have to do it perfectly, but you are duty bound to be able to do it "your way." Break a leg.
Performing Songwriter - Volume 3, Issue 16 - January/February 1996
Photo: ©C. McArthur
More of Michael Johnson's Solo Performer columns