“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 for an “intimate” glimpse of the quick-writing style and unique acoustic location that Marcus King utilizes when writing new songs.
Perhaps no Rooster Walk artist has seen his popularity rise quicker in the past 12 months than 20-year-old Marcus King, and certainly no artist interviewed for this story likes to write on a quicker timeline.
“I’m pretty hard-headed when it comes to that. As far as the bare bones of the song, I want to finish it within the first day that I come up with the idea. That’s the goal,” he said. “A long one for me would be a week-long process. That would be a crazy amount of time.”
King makes use of an old-fashioned notepad and pen when sitting down to write; when he’s on the go, he captures song ideas or lyrical snippets with the voice recording app on his smartphone.
“I’ve always been a notepad kind of guy, and I think I will be for a long time,” he said. “There’s something about it that’s just so final, because there’s a lot of times where you’ll write something and second guess yourself a lot. I don’t use a pencil for the same reason that I don’t use a laptop: Because you can always backspace or erase it. Sometimes those funny mistakes we make can turn out cooler than what you intended. But then sometimes they’re total shit, and I have to scribble it out (laughs).”
One example of a quick notepad song is “Rita is Gone,” off King’s full-length debut album, “The Marcus King Band.”
While in the recording studio working on the album, he was challenged by friend and record label rep Joe McEwen to come up with two more songs. King had been bouncing ideas around that would take shape in “Rita is Gone,” but at the time, the ideas weren’t fully formed or connected.
That night, while watching the TV show “Dexter,” it all came together in a hurry.
“I went home, and I kind of had that fire lit under my ass, ‘Joe asked me to go home and write two songs.’ So after that I’d been hanging at the house watching “Dexter,” and when that character (named Rita) died, I was like, ‘Oh shit, I gotta write.’”
The next day, “Rita is Gone” was recorded.
The band has been touring on a nearly constant basis over the last two years. The lack of privacy that comes with living on the road has also led to a new writing destination for King.
“I honestly find a lot of time to meditate and ponder on ideas on the throne. I call it ‘Porcelain Serenity,’” he explained. “When you’re constantly surrounded by 7 other people on the road, you don’t find a lot of time to really clear your head space. So that’s an important one.”
In fact, King has become so comfortable with the routine that virtually every original song on his latest album was shaped, at some point, by ‘Porcelain Serenity.’
“There’s porcelain throne time to every tune, really,” he admitted. “It’s definitely taken time in the lavatory in my house, because the acoustics are just better. And late at night, in the hotel, that’s the only place to escape other than the hallway. You don’t wanna wake anyone up, so the bathroom’s a good spot.”
Songwriters who influence Marcus: Sam Cooke, Eric Krasno (“I just love the way he writes.”) and Billie Holliday.
Next Week on the Road to Rooster Walk: Anders Osborne. Stay tuned!
[Photo by Emily Butler]