One on One with Nicholas Dobson: Author of The Frustrated Songwriter's Handbook. Interviewed by Steven Beck
A couple of months ago I was browsing through Amazon.com and stumbled on a book called The Frustrated Songwriter's Handbook by Karl Coryat and Nicholas Dobson. It had some good reviews so I ordered it. When it arrived, I read it that day. Just reading it gave me a lot of ideas.
The basic premise is to go for speed and quantity and strip away all of those blocks that keep you from writing songs. It encourages you to play the “20 Song Game” in which you try to write 20 songs in one day. I tried it and got to nine.
I’m not usually prolific and probably haven’t written nine songs this whole year. Granted I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to music, however I’m pretty happy with what I accomplished with this excersise. The songs definitely need to be flushed out but it’s a good start.
I decided to talk to musician and author Nicholas Dobson and ask him a few questions about the book and this process.
Can you give us a little background about you and your music?
I think it started with discovering the rumbling sounds that a piano makes when you push down the damper pedal and wiggle your fingers around. I would rumble for hours (days!) staring off into the middle distance. I wouldn’t stop until some one actually made me. Then I discovered octaves. I was going on eleven.
Soon after that, I started hearing music in my head when I was walking around on the playground. To my ten-year-old sensibilities, this music sounded like extremely deep, important orchestral music. Perhaps the finest music yet written on the earth! So I got this idea into my head that I was a deep and important composer – one who didn’t know how to play yet (???). Then, I started playing piano every second of the day that I was allowed;
A bit after that, I wrote my first song. I was definitely eleven at that point. My first song was a sensitive masterpiece about nightingales. It had lyrics. The moon was involved. I tried to play this song at a school talent show, accompanied by a girl doing interpretive gymnastics. I got stuck in the middle of the song and kept looping around. I think my mom has a picture of this somewhere.
I wrote a lot more songs.
In my twenties, I formed a rock band. I was the singer and guitarist, and wrote all the music. I was acutely nervous on stage, and it made me sing in a silly voice, but the musical ideas were pretty good. I had a lot of conflicted ideas about what this music was trying to accomplish. I think I was toning my vision down so that I could get on the radio. This was back in the nineties, when lots of semi-edgy bands had that idea. Another idea people had was that you were supposed to play in clubs, and someone important was supposed to happen to be in the audience, and they’d discover you. Then you’d be on a major label.
I recorded some E.Ps, and decided I didn’t like them. I used them for demos for a while and then threw them away. I played some shows. I moved to Oakland and made a bunch of wonderful new musical friends. I went through a lot of drummers. I started questioning the validity of this approach to musical success (for me). I also started to notice that my mind was full of complicated, horrible rules and insidious social phobias that were holding me back from making the kind of music I really would like to make.
Then the Society thing happened.
Then I had another drummer problem.
Then I quit my band and started doing the Society thing all the time.
After not too long, my ICS session music led me to the realization that I enjoy making all kinds of music, and that it can be fun to do impressions of different pop music genres. This led to me starting to make music for money. Mostly cell phone stuff. People often walk by me on the street, and their phone rings, and it’s something I wrote. This is cosmically hilarious. It also pays the bills sometimes.
As far as my ‘serious’ music, I also wrote hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of songs in the Society. I made a lot of songs that I’m very proud of. These last few years I’ve been working on polishing my favorites into an album of some kind. This is a completely new set of logistical convolutions! It seems to require time and money, and not stopping. I’m sure it’ll make a nice chapter in the second addition.
How did you come up with the 20 Song Game?
Well, I could tell that story a couple different ways, but I think this version is the truest: the 20-Song Game, and the Society itself, arose from an attempt on my part to get Michael Mellender (the ICS co-founder) to form a band with me.
I met him at a show where my band was playing, and we hit it off. He slipped me a tape of his music, which was amazing – so I wanted to start a project with him. The original idea was that it was going to be a math-metal band. I have this tendency to turn everything into some ambitious system or organization, so before you know it, I was saying, “Hey, how about a federation of math-metal bands?
Michael had some interesting home recording tricks that influenced the proceedings. The biggest one was that he would record things on a microcassette recorder walking around, and then take it home and use it at the basis for a piece of music. This had an effect on the direction things took.
Then, I remember getting this vision while I was standing in my bedroom in front of my computer. This was in Santa Rosa. I had a mental picture of a new kind of music community that came together frequently for events that were a bit like parties – except something productive was happening. Music was being churned out somehow, some sort of assembly line approach. It wasn’t a coherent thought yet, but I remember thinking it would be fun to constantly have an excuse to have social contact with other musicians, to be less isolated, and yet this social contact would also have something focused and proactive about it.
Meanwhile, Michael and I were emailing about this metal band federation. We were shooting funny acronyms back and forth. I think one of them was N.T.F.A.B.T (Nerd Thrash for a Better Tomorrow). I mentioned my assembly line songwriting idea to him, and we got talking about ways that a person can get a lot of songs out of their head really fast. Michael suggested something involving improvisation – not in the sense of jamming, but more like instant writing. I think the 20-Song Game idea occurred to me because I don’t like improvising in any way. I sent him an email suggesting that our songwriting federation could practice “hurried songwriting”.
Michael just reminded me of this (I had forgotten) but when I first proposed the game, it was ONE HUNDRED SONGS. Ha ha. I guess one of us decided that one hundred was too much. But hey, twenty songs in one day is super reasonable, right?
You encourage people to join or create “Lodges” where, after they play the 20 Song Game, they play their music for others. Why is this community aspect important to the exercise?
One: To combat isolation. Enough said!
Two: Humans are social animals, you know? We are capable of doing a lot of stuff on our own, and songwriters often do their songwriting alone. But if you are plugged into a songwriter community, and you are of a social disposition, your community can provide a lot of motivation and shared enthusiasm that helps drive your songwriting. It makes songwriting twice as fun, and twice as easy.
That is what the Society is all about. Harnessing that sense of group momentum that sweeps everyone along. A songwriter lodge is similar to a music scene in many ways. They support you, they keep you company, they lend their enthusiasm to what you do. There is one difference: a music scene can (sometimes) be a bit like a big band, and everyone in that band is pushing each other to write this one kind of music that they are all excited about. There’s nothing sinister about it. Solidarity is all about a shared vision, right? Well, a songwriter lodge is funny that way. There is no shared vision. Your lodge members don’t care what kind of music you write. They only care about YOU. They want you to be prolific. They want you to be reckless. And that sense of group momentum I was speaking of early, it’s there to do anything you want with. ANYTHING! AIIIEEEEEEE!!!!
Do you think this process can work for bands in a group setting or do you think it’s more of an individual process?
The methodology of the Society is completely programmable. That’s the point. Not only is the 20-Song Game very flexible, but it’s also not the only game. And if you can’t find a game that helps with you goal, you can always write a new one. So if you want to use it in a band situation, you can! Most people in the Society do their songwriting alone, but I’ve seen people session in band situations, and that has worked out really well. In fact, some of my favorite music from the Society is from bands. It often helps to set some rules as to how the session will work, who is in charge at what time. Some bands work very smoothly together and don’t need the rules. It depends.
I thought after doing a song or two, I would run out of ideas but I feel that I actually had more ideas and came up with better music as the day moved forward. I’ve read that others have felt the same way. Why do you think that is?
I don’t think songwriting is a thing you have to be in a special mood to do, but I’m not going to entirely bag on inspiration. I think inspiration is a real thing. I just think it’s more complicated that people think. For I instance, you can feel inspired and then write music that also sounds inspired. You can also feel inspired and then make music that doesn’t sound inspired. But one of the most interesting thing that happens in the Society is what I would have to call “retroactive inspiration”. You are sessioning. You feel like crap. You don’t feel inspired. And then, at the end of the day, you listen back to what you did with your lodge, and realize: you were inspired! This is inspired material. You just didn’t realize it at the time. Ha ha.
But what you are talking about there, that’s a flavor of inspiration that I hear about a lot in the Society. I’ve heard it referred to as the “second wind”, and it’s a pattern that a lot of day-sessions follow. The person wakes up and writes their “I Need Coffee” song. Then they write their “What I Ate For Breakfast” song. A little later they write their “I Don’t Have Any Ideas” song. Then, the next song picks things up a little. Then, all of a sudden, the session hits it’s stride, and the person fires off a set of songs that sound “inspired”.
So what’s next for you? a new book? 20 more songs?
A documentary is happening. A filmmaker friend approached us. In August, we’re flying to Europe with a film crew to document the Society over there. There are a few lodges in England, a couple in France, one in Finland, and one in Holland. The Dutch lodge (Clutter Lodge) is going to be traveling to have a meeting with a lodge is Paris (Loge Cromorne 13). Can’t wait to meet all of them all in person. There will also be an English leg of the trip. We just bought tickets. It’s all rather exciting.
So that’s the plan.
Thanks for your time.
But of course! And thank you for not killing me for taking so long on these questions.
To get your own copy of The Frustrated Songwriter's Handbook, please visit www.amazon.com