“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 learn about the unique process that Greensky Bluegrass uses to create the songs you know and love.
Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a six-part “Road to Rooster Walk” series about the craft and process of songwriting.
The mandolin player and primary songwriter for Greensky Bluegrass, Paul Hoffman is an unabashed proponent of the smartphone as a songwriting tool.
“I love my iPhone. I’m sorry. … (I use it) all the time, it’s very, very, very, very important to me, because I’m writing stream of consciousness, just singing stuff. I’m not even sure what I’m writing about,” he said. “Just words that appeal to me, I’m connecting in a way. Then I have to go back later and figure out what I actually said.”
Hoffman keeps a running log of song lyrics, ideas, hooks and phrases in his phone, but prefers to do most of his writing with a guitar in hand, spouting lyrics off the top of his head until he hits on something that holds his attention.
“If I stop and try to write it down, I often will forget what the song was doing. So I will just keep singing the same verse over and over again until I think I’ve got most of the words the way I want them, and then record it,” he explained it. “And then you start working on another verse. And then add that verse, record that verse sometimes, then go back later and write it out, see what the words look like. Or try to listen to it and do it all at once. But I’ll forget stuff real fast that I’m (creating) stream-of-conscious way.”
He doesn’t concern himself with the chord progression of a song-in-progress. In fact, at times he intentionally uses the same simple chord progressions for multiple songs, because that helps him find the meter and hear how the words fit.
Hoffman also makes it a point to avoid writing literally. Instead, he prefers to connect visual images and descriptive phrases that can paint a picture, or conjure an emotion, for the listener.
“I’ll apply similar ideas emotionally, but not necessarily a linear story, so maybe they don’t tell a story or make sense together, but I like the way they convey an emotion together,” he said. “So when I’m halfway (done), I kind of have to look it and be like, ‘What’s missing to this point, here? This line’s cool; this line’s cool. I like how they conjure this feeling that works together, but, like, what do they mean? And what’s not there?’ And that’s how I kind of analyze them or edit them and then finish them.”
Another trait that makes Hoffman’s writing style unique is his preferred pace of songwriting: He doesn’t typically write every single day, and what’s more, he doesn’t like to write songs in one sitting.
He prefers to start a song, and then let it sit.
“I kind of like a song to be unfinished until it needs to be finished, whether that be just a couple finishing touches or a couple more verses. If I’m not playing it (in public), I’m sort of open to changing it and rewriting it over and over again,” he said. “But sometimes, if I’m feeling the idea, if I like it or whatever, and it’s in my head, I’ll finish it in a week or two, maybe. Maybe that week. Maybe a couple days. It all depends.”
Many times, the looming deadline of a new album leads to finished songs.
“I get stuck on stuff,” he explained. “The tune that’s the title track of the record, ‘Hold On,’ it’s got the ‘shouted, written down and quoted’ line in it. I wrote the first verse of that song and then didn’t write the rest of the song for almost two years. I was stuck on it. I liked the verse so much that I couldn’t figure out where to go from there. And then in the process of preparing to record the record, I sat down with a lot of my half-finished stuff and just tried to figure it out.”
Songwriters who influence Paul: Josh Davis (“Probably the biggest influence on me of all. When he started writing the way he was writing, I kind of heard my voice in his songs. And it taught me a lot, and he’s a good friend of mine.” Ryan Adams, Jason Isbell. Phish (“Melodically, the things they do. Not always lyrically.”)
Song: “Hold On”
Next Week on the Road to Rooster Walk: Marcus King