Hope you’re having great holidays and if not, hope you’re at least getting good songs out of it! Here’s part three of the Steve Seskin insterview. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
HitSongTips.com: At one of your seminars you said, ‘Do it for love and the money MIGHT come. Let’s not let commerce dictate what our art is.”
Seskin: I still abide by that. I have always felt true to what I feel about writing about and doing it the way I want to do it. And have been lucky enough to have the commerce line up quite a few times. So, I stick to that approach. Whereas, some people who are trying to make a living as songwriters, look at it much more premeditated. Where they’re actually thinking, ‘What do I have to do to write a hit?’ I have never had any luck doing that. I don’t sit in judgment of people who want to do it that way, but it doesn’t really work for me. Be true to the song…
HitSongTips.com: I agree. I’d rather try to write and see where you end up when you’re done.
Seskin: And good things may happen. When I said, ‘the money MIGHT come’, that doesn’t guarantee anything. You know what it guarantees? It guarantees that you have the song when you’re done. You’re proud of it. And, you’re proud to put your name on it. That, in and of itself, is a victory. Whereas, if you are only looking towards commercial success as your justification for doing it, it’s kind of sad to me.
HitSongTips.com: You’ve also talked about making lyrics evocative. You said, ‘Show me the movie.’ A writer should try to get three to five of the Who, What, Where, When, How, and Whys in the first two lines.
Seskin: To me, it’s like back to elementary school. Who are your characters? What are they doing? Where is it taking place? And, the more that you can get of that up front, the more you can then go wherever you want with it. But, it establishes a character or two and what they are doing. I call it ‘Show me, don’t tell me’. When I say in ‘Grown Men Don’t Cry’, ‘I pulled into a shopping center’, you’re pulling into the shopping center with me. ‘I saw a little boy wrapped around the legs of his mother’. You can see that. So, anytime you can use a visual, I think you’re stronger than just telling.
HitSongTips.com: You’ve also said, “Try not to sound ‘writer-ish’ ”. How do you know when you’re being ‘writer-ish’ and how do you go about preventing that?
Seskin: Part of it comes down to, would anybody say that to anybody else? Or is it just like a writer walking into the room and saying, ‘Oh, this sounds clever’. Letting the rhyme drive the bus. ‘I’m saying it this way because it rhymes with such and such’. Well, who cares? It may sound right from a writer’s point of view, but is it going to move anybody? Is it conversational enough where anyone is going to actually say that to somebody? I try to keep that in mind. When something smells writer-ish to me, I try to catch myself pretty quickly. I’m saying, ‘Oh, aren’t you clever!’ I don’t think the public is impressed by that.
HitSongTips.com: On a similar note, I know you prefer meaning over rhyme. You use near rhyme or even no rhyme.
Seskin: Content over rhyme. In other words, what you’re saying is the important thing. That doesn’t mean that rhyme is not important and I utilize rhyme quite a bit. But I don’t want it to sound like, oh, you said that because you needed it to rhyme with such and such. Rhyme calls attention to itself that way. Usually it’s not the best writing you can do.
HitSongTips.com: That’s in contrast to musical theater where everything often has perfect rhyme.
Seskin: That’s another story. There are different rules for rhyming. I tend to be a vowel sound rhymer. But there are people, especially theater people, where it is important for them to adhere to exact sounding rhymes- both consonant and vowel. I find that very restrictive. I admire them on some level, but I’m not going to start doing it.
HitSongTips.com: You’ve also said, ‘Don’t get married to anything too early’.
Seskin: Having an open mind and giving yourself choices is really one of the best things a songwriter can do for themselves. Sooner or later, you have to make a decision. What to leave in and what to leave out. What is your line? I think if you do that early, you tend to miss the opportunity to do something different. I just like to keep it open so that maybe the forth thing I’ll think of might just be the best thing. Whereas, if I say ‘This is great’- the first thing- then all of a sudden, I’m not thinking about it anymore, And if I’m not thinking about it, there’s no way I’m going to beat it with a better line. So, I try not to get attached too early.
HitSongTips.com: I’ve heard some beginning songwriters say, ‘I wrote it that way. I’m not going to change a thing.’
Seskin: That’s baloney to me. That’s like making the assumption that the muse gives you perfect gifts. I think the muse is laughing at those people. That doesn’t mean that you can’t ever come up with a lyric or one line where you say, ‘Oh my God, that’s great!’ I don’t mean to say you have to question every last thing that you do. I just mean that if there’s any inkling of- maybe I can beat that- then I’m going to try.
HitSongTips.com: And you have nothing to lose. You don’t have to show it to anybody until you’re happy with it.
Seskin: Just because I try to beat something, it doesn’t mean that the line that I already had is going to mysteriously evaporate from the page. It’s still going to be there when I’m done. The way I look at it is, if I have a line I’m not sure about, I might think of four or five other lines to replace it. At the end of the process, I may decide that the original line I had was the best thing. But then I will feel that much better about having made the decision to keep that line. I will have found several other things and they didn’t, in fact, beat it. Then of course, there’s the scenario where the third, or forth, or fifth thing is much better than the first thing. I think you owe it to yourself to at least explore it. In the end, you’re the captain of the ship and you get to decide what’s staying in the song and what’s going out of the song. But do that from several choices, rather than just whatever is the first thing you think of.
HitSongTips.com: You’ve suggested doing a ‘person check’, where you switch out the first, second, and third person pronouns throughout the song. Then deciding which one is best. How can that make a song better?
Seskin: I think there’s a most powerful way to tell each story and it’s not always easy to decipher between the choices of first person, second person, third person. Pat Pattison puts it this way, ‘Who are you? And who are you talking to?’ Those are two important things to establish in a song. Whatever person you wrote it in, four out of five times that’s going to be most powerful way to tell that story. But for the one out of five times that you switch it and it turns out to be better, it’s worth it. I just do it as a regular matter of course. I just sub out all the pronouns. So, if it’s ‘I’ this, and ‘I’ that, then it becomes ‘he’. If it’s ‘me’ and ‘you’, maybe it becomes ‘me’ and ‘her’. Then all of a sudden, I’m not talking to her, I’m talking to the audience about her. There are so many ways to explore them and usually it takes five minutes. It’s not that hard and sometimes it makes a huge difference.
© Ron Shaffer 2014