“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. In fact, some artists create songs with very little “writing,” literally speaking. For proof, read on to learn about the surprising methods that Andrew Marlin employs when creating fresh material for Mandolin Orange. Then, catch their afternoon set at Rooster Walk 9 over Memorial Day weekend.
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, Marcus King, and Anders Osborne.
Perhaps no artist on the Rooster Walk 9 lineup is more celebrated as a gifted lyricist and songwriter than Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin.
The Chapel Hill, N.C.-based band has steadily built a loyal following over the past six years with a simple, relaxed style of music that mixes the meaningful prose, beautiful harmonies and impressive musicianship of Marlin and bandmate Emily Frantz.
And while he’s quickly gained the reputation of one of the country’s most promising young songwriters, he’s also the only artist interviewed for this story who prefers to write his songs without ever actually writing them down.
“A lot of times I don’t even write them out. I kind of just sit down and work on them and kind of keep them up in the old noggin‘,” Marlin said. “Sometimes if I’m having trouble completing it, actually typing it out will help jumpstart and kind of help the editing process a little more. But yeah, I don’t know, for some reason some songs just come together really easily in my mind, and I don’t ever really have to write ’em down.
“I’ve got stuff I’m working on, for whatever ends up being our next album, that I’ve never written down; that I’ve been holding on to for a few months,” he said.
Many of Marlin’s songs begin with the music, not the words.
“Most of the time I try to get the melody first, because that’s gonna dictate how many syllables are in each line and what the actual meter is gonna end up being,” he said.
From there, he’ll begin applying lyrics. Often, this starts with a phrase or verse that has stuck with him.
“The first line sometimes will pop into my head, or a good line will pop into my head, and I’ll stew on it for a little bit. And then one day I’ll just sit down – usually it’s between the hours of 11 at night and 5 in the morning when I decide to sit down and actually try to work it. … It’s more just like a phrase that catches my fancy, you know? And then after that it becomes kind of like a stream of consciousness,” he explained. “And sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I usually end up obviously having to go back and edit and make stuff make a little bit more sense.
“It’s kind of like the first line of ‘Wildfire.’ It says, ‘Brave men fall with a battle cry.’ I had no idea what I was gonna write about when I started writing that song,” he continued. “I had wanted to write that song kind of based on what ‘Wildfire’ ended up being about, but I had never intended to start it off with that line. It was just one of those things that seemed to make sense. It kind of just happened.”
Marlin uses the voice recording app on his smartphone to capture melodic ideas for potential songs, especially when he’s touring, because he’s “never been a hotel writer.” Instead, he typically writes at his home near Chapel Hill, at his childhood home or his father’s house.
Regardless of where the songs are penned, Marlin doesn’t typically share them with Frantz until he feels like the song is nearly – or fully – complete.
“For the most part, they’re all finished tunes,” he said. “Emily, obviously, has really great musical ideas, and we seem to work really well together. I’m usually open to her suggestions, but it just depends on how fresh the tune is and what the ideas actually are. It varies on each song, but usually it’s a complete song that we either keep the structure as is, or just try to figure out who’s gonna play what, who’s gonna sing it, where the solo sections are gonna be.”
Though the next album will be their fifth, the mystery and magic of creating new music has yet to lose its luster for Marlin.
“Every time I finish a song, I’m, I’m baffled,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Sweet. Alright. I wrote another one. That’s great.”
Songwriters who influence Andrew: Townes Van Zandt. Caleb Klauder and Carter Stanley (“I’ve been really, really diving back into the Stanley Brothers and just realizing how simple and just amazing his tunes were.”)
Next Week on the Road to Rooster Walk: Mipso