Independent Music Reflections: The Elements
An Interview with Gar Ragland
By Steven Digman, MusicDish.com
Director of The Mountain Stage New Song Festival, Gar Ragland
kindly offers his insightful thoughts for both new and old songwriters
alike, about the musical opportunities that exist for writers, and
the applied playing physics ... on writing a song.
An active musician, singer/songwriter, and the founder
of Riparius Records, Ragland brings to this interview a career that
has studied musical composition and improvisation with Macarthur
Genius Award winning pianist and educator, Ran Blake. His performances
have included appearances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.,
New York's Knitting Factory and New England Conservatory's legendary
Jordan Hall. He released his first solo CD, Untethered, in
[Steven Digman] Could you define the basic
elements (the ingredients) you consider necessary for writing a
[Gar Ragland] What separates a song from other
forms of music is the lyric, and the relationship between the music
and the lyric. So to start, the theme presented by the lyric needs
to be strong, and the angle of delivery needs to be clever. There
is a finite number of themes available to the songwriter, most of
which have been addressed many times over by a number of very talented
songwriters. However, there's real room for innovation in how that
theme is delivered. What's the context? [Who's] doing the delivery?
Is the songwriter observing, experiencing firsthand, or both? This
is the territory in a song to really be clever, and unique.
Next, the relationship between the lyric and the music
has to be solid. Does the feel of the music- both the melody and
the harmony (i.e., chords and chord progressions) reinforce the
theme of the lyric? If so, then chances are the song is on its way
to being solid.
[Steven Digman] When writing songs what resources do you use
MusicDish Network Advertisement
[Gar Ragland] Wow - anything and everything.
Basically, all resources can be divided into two camps: external
As for external resources, what's so enjoyable to
me about songwriting is the way it encourages, perhaps even necessitates,
living one's life in an observant, adventurous way. To try to stay
attuned to subtleties that, if you weren't mining for ideas, would
otherwise be missed. External resources for me include people watching,
museums, historical figures and historical events.
As for internal resources, I find my songwriting to
be an extremely effective vehicle for sorting through my own emotions,
feelings and issues. Daniel Lanois, one of my musical heroes, calls
it 'soul mining.' Songwriting is an amazing tool for developing
greater self-awareness, and it's an amazing form of self-administered
psychotherapy. As humans, we're emotionally complex by design, and
our modern, complex lives further creates an endless sea of internal
[Steven Digman] Are there any non-musical influences
that have influenced your writing?
[Gar Ragland] ... Most of my songwriting resources
are non-musical. The sources of inspiration are almost always non-musical,
yet it is through a lifetime of listening to and playing music that
I as a songwriter use a musical medium to capture, develop and articulate
the ideas that are sparked by those sources.
[Steven Digman] Who are your Favorite songwriters
[Gar Ragland] ... I have so many favorite songwriters,
but I'd have to say my top five are Joni Mitchell, David Byrne,
Hank Williams, Cole Porter and Stevie Wonder.
[Steven Digman] What are some of the common
mistakes that you believe new songwriters often make?
[Gar Ragland] Trying too hard to sound like
someone else, and trying too hard not to. This sounds contradictory,
but I'll try to explain myself. Clark Terry, the great trumpet player
and educator, once said this when asked what steps one should take
to achieve musical greatness: "Emulate, Imitate, Innovate." When
done sequentially, I think he's right on the mark. As artists, we
all need musical mentors and role models. The composite of these
alone goes a long way toward making someone's style unique. For
example, how many songwriters can cite the five artists I mention
above as being their favorite songwriters? How many can site yours?
As a fan of all of these artists, the next step for
me as an artist in developing my own style is to absorb the elements
of their music that I'm so drawn to in the first place. That begins
first by lots of listening, and then by imitating the music, first
by learning to play and sing their music, then to write in a similar
way. Songwriters often make the mistake of not doing this in an
attempt to be unique before their own style has actually developed,
and that does not happen overnight. It's a lifelong process!
Second, I think of number of songwriters stop at the
point when they're writing just like they're songwriting heroes,
resulting in a 'heard before' style and spending too much time reinventing
the wheel. While I believe that emulation is a fundamentally important
step, the process needs to continue to move forward. This is accomplished
by emulating a number of different types of songwriters, and in
time, one's own songwriting style develops through the subconscious
hybridization of the styles of a number of different songwriters.
Songwriters can begin this process, and reap its benefits, from
a very early stage, and they should have the confidence in their
own skills and creative abilities to it.
[Steven Digman] What one rule (or rules) should
a songwriter always follow?
[Gar Ragland] This may sound cliché,
and it is, but for good reason: Follow your own voice. In this world
of uniformity and homogeneity, the arts desperately need to remind
society of the beauty and empowerment of self-expression, of transcending
cookie-cutter influences in our lives. Songs are a wonderful vehicle
for being reminded of this, especially if the artist/songwriter
has led by example in the creation of the music. Hallelujah! Songwriters
should always be mining for material, and never discount the value
of their ideas and source materials for songs.
[Steven Digman] Always break?
[Gar Ragland] Any rules they've ever been taught
about songwriting! There are so many ways to 'skin the cat' as a
songwriter, that every songwriter should be open to any and all
vehicles for writing songs. Most songwriters, myself included, develop
their own set of rules, which often work well but can at the same
time prove limiting. We should all be open to trying new approaches
to songwriting, however unorthodox they may be."
[Steven Digman] The business side of songwriting:
how difficult is it?
[Gar Ragland] There is a lot of uncertainty
in the music world, and the music industry is traditionally a tough
industry in which to work. First, do it because you love it. Don't
be primarily motivated to 'make lots of money' - chances are you'll
find yourself disappointed.
That being said, there is no better time than the
present for the independent songwriter/musician to be in the industry.
Advancements in technology (recording equipment and the Internet)
have served as empowering tools to the independent artist by effectively
weakening the stranglehold that record companies once had on determining
whose music was heard. It is a difficult business to break, but
one that currently has a considerably large number of opportunities
[Steven Digman] And finally Gar, do you have
any advice to offer for new or unpublished songwriters?
[Gar Ragland] Capitalize on the current tumultuous
state of the music industry. Find a niche and develop it. Capitalize
on the relatively inexpensive price of great sounding home recording
equipment and the cost-effective marketing power of the Internet.
Make a great recording of your own, build a website that showcases
your talent, and sell CDs from your website. If you're a performer,
sell them at shows as well.
If you're a songwriter who doesn't perform, find local
talent whose performance style matches your writing style and have
them perform your material.
Work with a producer who has experience in getting
the job done from start to finish, who has both a creative and business
vision for your music. This is a particularly wise investment if
you've never gone through the experience of putting together a recording
project and/or business plan for your music. It's like having a
personal tutor to walk you through each step of the way. If you
choose this path, work on a project fee basis, and work the producer
for all that he/she is worth! Chances are you'll learn the ropes
well enough to do it on your own for subsequent projects.
Last, search for sources of revenue other than selling
CDs. Work to license your music for film, television shows, commercials,
etc. The Internet is an excellent resource to learn about non-traditional
sources of revenue for your creative work.
For Information about the Mountain Stage New Song
Festival, go to www.newsongfestival.com
by the MusicDish
Network. Copyright © Tag
It 2003 - Republished with Permission