“All of a sudden there’s a song – there in your hotel room playing your guitar – and you write it, and two or three years later it will come true. It keeps you on your toes.”
These words, spoken by Townes Van Zandt, support a popular notion of the songwriter in American popular culture: A rambling man, on the road with a band, playing venues both squalid and splendid, creating songs from thin air with little more than a beat up guitar, bottle of booze and hotel notepad.
And there’s no doubt that countless great tunes have been written in such a manner. But there’s another question worth asking: In 2017, are most songs written that way?
To find out, we spoke with six songwriters who will be at the ninth annual Rooster Walk Music & Arts Festival over Memorial Day weekend (May 25-28) in Martinsville, Va. These six artists: Paul Hoffman (Greensky Bluegrass), Anders Osborne, Andrew Marlin (Mandolin Orange), Lyle Divinksy (The Motet), Marcus King, and Wood Robinson (Mipso) bring different backgrounds, hometowns, experience levels and genres to the craft of songwriting.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they write songs in different manners.
Read on to catch a glimpse into the daily songwriting process of Anders Osborne. Then, catch his nighttime set at Rooster Walk 9 in Martinsville, VA.
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth story in a six-part “Road to Rooster Walk” series about the craft and process of songwriting. Previous installments featured The Motet, Greensky Bluegrass, and Marcus King.
Called “the poet laureate of Louisiana’s fertile roots music scene” by Guitar Player magazine, Anders Osborne has released 15 albums since arriving in New Orleans in the mid-80s. His songs have been recorded by artists ranging from Keb’ Mo to Tim McGraw.
Despite touring roughly nine months a year, Osborne is an ardent proponent of daily writing as habit.
“You’ve got to be grabbing at the stuff every single day, or I do. I have to grab at it every day, because I think the way I look at it is that inspiration and the muse is always dancing. And ideas are always out there. And if you miss it on a Thursday in February, I don’t think it shows up again, you know, in August. I think you missed the opportunity to write that song,” he said.
Due to his heavy tour schedule, Osborne often writes from the back lounge of his tour bus, and he typically begins with a guitar in hand – rather than a pen or keyboard.
“I try to find something (on the guitar) that gets me inspired or that emphasizes the mood I’m in emotionally. And then if I find something that works – maybe a couple lines come out, or an idea of the lyrics – usually I work off that. And then another thing I do is I try to have several songs going at the same time, so I keep ‘em fresh. Sometimes I’ll have different sheets of paper in a circle around the room where I usually write. And then I kind of rotate, going from one to the other, keeping it fresh, and that way I don’t get stuck too much.”
Though he knows what it’s like to catch lightning in a bottle and write fully-realized songs in one sitting – he wrote hit song, “Marmalade,” from the 2013 album “Three Free Amigos,” in roughly 2 minutes’ time – the songwriting process often takes several days or weeks. He likes to use the voice recording app on his smartphone to record a song idea when it hits him. Then, he develops, tweaks and refines it over the coming hours or days until it’s nearly finished. Only then will he record it a second time.
“About 4 or 5 years ago I started to put down the initial musical idea. So let’s say there’s a progression or a melody that comes out, I put that on the phone, like on the little demo voice recorder, and what I try to do is to not keep recording it as I write it,” he explained. “That way I can always go back to what it was I liked the very, very first time I had the idea. And what that helps me with, and this is something I’ve been doing pretty consistently, it helps me not forget or change the original inspiration, if that makes any sense.”
Osborne tries to complete at least one new song per week. And while “Marmalade” may be the quickest one he’s written, “Can You Still Hear Me?” from the 2016 album “Space Dust and Ocean Views,” might be the longest.
“That (song) started probably a few months after my mother died. I started to write some stuff and then I couldn’t finish that. And that was 2001, and then I finished it in 2015, so that took 14 years,” he said. “… I forgot about it, and then my old saxophone player (Tim Green) died, and then it all sort of made sense and it came back.”
Songwriters who influence Anders: Townes Van Zandt. Stephen Stills, Neal Young, Cat Stevens, Black Sabbath (“I don’t know who wrote those but there’s a lot of sort of riffy, rock stuff that I get from that.”). The melodic compositions of Cannonball Adderley, John Coletrane and Miles Davis.
Next Week on the Road to Rooster Walk: Mandolin Orange
[Photo by J. Mimna Photography]