“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 Colorado-based band The Motet uses to create the songs you know and love. You can also catch Lyle with the Motet when they hit Fool’s Paradise this weekend!
Editor’s Note: This is the first story in a six-part “Road to Rooster Walk” series about the craft and process of songwriting.
When lead vocalist and hype-man-extraordinaire Lyle Divinsky got approached about joining The Motet a year and a half ago, his audition had little to do with stage presence or singing ability. Those were skills the band had already verified. Instead, Divinky’s tryout was largely about putting lyrics to a pair of instrumental songs the band had already demoed . . . before he’d met a single member of the group.
“It was kind of a fun challenge to know that this was my audition for the band, to write for them, and to know that and to just get excited about how much fun their music was,” Divinsky said. “The Truth’ was the first song that I wrote and that one, I wrote most of it in three hours of sitting down. And then took, I think, a day or two to just kind of sit with it, make sure it was exactly what I wanted and just kind of fine tune a couple things. And then, ‘Fool No More’ was the second song that I wrote, and that one was pretty quick, as well. That one might have even been just a day.”
When possible, Divinsky prefers to write from his in-home studio, where he’ll set up shop at his computer (which features basic recording software), a notepad, pen, and his phone. He’ll set the phone’s timer for three hours and then toss it across the room, “because I feel like three hours is about the amount of time that I can work productively without needing a full-on break.”
When things are flowing freely, it can be a speedy process.
“My favorite times are the ones where I sit down with a song, and like an hour-and-a-half later, the whole song’s written down, and I’m already recording the background harmonies to it,” he said.
Like Anders Osborne, Divinsky is adamant in his goal to write something every day, even if that something isn’t a fully realized song or concept. He uses the voice recording app on his smartphone, or a small notepad that he carries in his pocket, to capture lyrical snippets or potential song ideas. These get transferred into a larger notebook or computer file, though when he heads into the studio with instrumental tracks waiting, he tries his best not to fall back on the lyrics he’s already started.
“I like to go into it with a completely blank slate, because I think that gives me the chance to really interact with the song and see what can come of it,” Divinsky said. “But then if I’m having a hard time catching something, I’ll start going through hook lines, start going through lyrics that I’ve written, little poems and whatnot. You can get turned on by even just a word from one of those, and then that can send you off in the right direction.”
Before joining The Motet, he wrote both lyrics and the music to go with them. But now, with a longstanding band of amazing musicians by his side, the job description has changed. And he loves it.
“The melodies aren’t necessarily complete (when the song arrives to me). They’ll give me instrumentals and whatnot – drum, guitar, keys – the skeleton demo version of what they’re coming up with. And then I’ll put the song over it,” he said. “They give the foundation, and I kind of paint in the branches and the leaves and everything like that.”
Divinksy is equally comfortable writing on the computer or with pen and paper. When he gets stuck on a song, he’s found that switching from computer to paper, or vice versa, can get him back on track. Thanks to his in-home studio, when he sends a potential song back to the band, it’s far more than an email with typed out verses and choruses.
“Whenever I send my ideas back to the guys, it’s usually a fully realized (audio track), just so they can kind of hear it in the context that I intend it to be,” he said. “You know, sometimes it works super well, super quick.”
Songwriters who influence Lyle: Bill Withers (“I think that he’s able to capture grandiose emotions in very simple words. So he’s a hero of mine for that.”) Lowell George, John Prine, Stevie Wonder.
Song: “The Truth”
Next Week on the Road to Rooster Walk: Greensky Bluegrass