More Songwriters on Songwriting

  • By Paul Zollo
  • Da Capo Press
  • 672 pp.
  • Reviewed by Garinè Isassi
  • February 1, 2017

Masters of music offer insight into their craft.

Like many music journalists, Paul Zollo is himself a musician and songwriter. For decades, he has been interviewing songwriters for magazines such as Rolling Stone, Musician, Billboard, Variety, and Song Talk (the journal of the National Academy of Songwriters). He's currently the senior editor for American Songwriter, where he writes a column called “Icons” for every issue.

His More Songwriters on Songwriting is an amazing collection of unabridged interviews with a variety of career songwriters. It spans discussions from 1981 to 2015 with legends of the industry across all genres — from household names like Loretta Lynn, to the behind-the-scenes songwriters like Richard Sherman (who wrote songs for Disney, including all the songs in the movies “Mary Poppins” and “The Jungle Book”), to current pop stars like Sia. Other notable interviews include Alice Cooper, Herbie Hancock, Bob Dylan, Bryan Ferry, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, and Daryl Hall.

Clocking in at nearly 700 pages, this is not the type of book that you sit down with and read straight through. It’s more like a tourist map into the minds of songwriters and is best tackled one trip at a time.

Zollo introduces each interview with a backstory of the subject’s work with only a little bit about their personal life. He approaches each interviewee with awe and respect, and then delves into probing questions about their processes and attitudes. He tends to ask similar questions of each songwriter. The most consistent query is what music each person listened to as a child. The variety of answers is fascinating.

The conversations combine anecdotes about working in the music industry with the nitty-gritty musicality of the songwriting craft. Zollo goes so far as to ask many songwriters about the mood of key signatures (Ricki lee Jones thinks G major is very “expansive”) or what colors they associate with them (Brian Wilson views F sharp major as “green”).

Zollo draws out the subtle qualities of songwriting as an art form from his subjects, which may add a whole new dimension to the songs the next time you hear them. And he often asks how each person would advise aspiring songwriters.

Even with advice from this remarkably broad range of talent, the mysterious nature of songwriting, as with any art, remains elusive. Each subject has a unique entrance into the art, and many give answers as distinctive as their personalities. Some go with their gut. Some don’t even know how to read music. Some were classically trained and switched to pop.

Zollo’s long career on its own is envy-worthy. The book’s introduction is a short autobiography about his love of music, his childhood influences (Paul Simon and his grade-school music teacher), and how he became and remains one of the most prolific music journalists around.

In the introductions of each interview, he tells the circumstance of the meeting as well as his own history with that particular artist. He has interviewed several of them many times over the decades. He conducts some of his interviews as part of conferences or performances, such as his conversation with Aimee Mann at the Aspen Writers Foundation’s Lyrically Speaking program. Or they are arranged by publicists at coffee shops or over the phone. He tells stories of bygone Hollywood parties and New York nights filled with meaning.

This book is for music lovers as well as people interested in the craft of songwriting. It also provides insight into what it’s like to work in this creative industry. Musicians and songwriters will likely get the most out of it. There is no gossip or intrigue here, just the purest love of song.

Garinè Isassi, a singer/songwriter, is author of Start with the Backbeat: A Musical Novel.

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