MAKE THEM A CIRCLE THEY CAN’T REFUSE
MONTHLY SINGER-SONGWRITER CIRCLE HELPS LOCAL MUSICIANS LEARN THE ART OF THE REWRITE
Bryan Saunders /
Songwriting, Rob Heath explains, is a craft. And, he adds, one that’s alive and well in this fair city.
Rob Heath's Songwriter CircleHeath would never admit it himself—he’s much too humble of a man—but his fellow musicians will be quick to tell you that Edmonton’s songwriting scene owes much of its vibrancy to Heath’s generosity of spirit. Once a month, Heath opens up the doors of his downtown apartment and gives the city’s singer-songwriters a venue where they can connect, workshop and teach each other the tricks of the trade.
“I’m a little bit afraid of what’s going to happen tonight,” Heath laughs, explaining that, lately, attendance at his singer-songwriter circle has been at an all-time high.
“Last time around we had 21 people, and that was just way too many because it starts around 7:30 and it went until 11:30. So, I dunno ... if we get more than 21, I can see ourselves trying to prop our eyes open at four o’clock in the morning.”
He pauses for a moment, and then shrugs. If more than 21 songwriters show up, he pronounces, the circle will just keep on going until everyone is finished. Or, he chuckles, until people don’t want to do it anymore.
“We want to give everybody an equal chance,” he emphasizes. “Everybody has an equal voice here: there’s no moderator. I mean, I have the egg timer that says your 10 minutes is up, but, really, everybody has an equal voice, and my voice probably isn’t even the most knowledgeable voice in that crowd.”
That’s a pretty strong declaration, considering the decades of songwriting experience Heath has tucked under his belt. Of course, that doesn’t even take into account the mantle of awards that he’s won over the years. Putting him in the company of such legends as Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams, Heath won the prestigious Kerrville New Folk Award in 2003 for two of his songs, one entitled “When Big Boys Cry” and another one called “What Jenny Draws.” As always, though, Heath is quick to shine the limelight on others, and notes that he couldn’t have won that award without all the feedback and support that he’s received from other singer-songwriters.
“I wrote ‘When Big Boys Cry’ with Nicki Berns in 1994. And the song ‘What Jenny Draws,’ I wrote by myself, but I probably have at least 30 complete rewrites of that song. And a lot of those rewrites were the result of input I got from my—from our—songwriter’s circle.”
It seems that Heath can’t say enough about the importance of rewriting. He brings the subject up again and again, and, at one point, mentions a quote by Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather, that has always stuck with him:
“They asked him in an interview what he thought the secret to his success was, and he said, ‘Rewriting.’ He said he took the first version of The Godfather, threw it in the garbage, and rewrote the whole thing!”
This holds true for songwriting as well, Heath points out. When you’ve only got 150 words with which to tell a story, he wonders, why would you want to waste one on something that’s not going to help the storyline or help advance your ideas?
“So rewriting is really important,” he says, “And this songwriter’s circle is really good for that. If there’s a really major flaw in your song, usually they’ll pick it up quite quickly, and there will be more than one person who agrees [with the criticism.] That’s when you know that ‘OK, this isn’t working.’”
At this, someone rings the buzzer to Heath’s apartment. Seconds later, the buzzer rings again. And again. Soon, Heath’s living room is filled with musicians; instruments of all shapes and sizes cover the floor. As the night goes on, songs will be played on piano, guitar, ukulele and ... is that a ... zither?
It is. And just as there is no end to the diversity of instruments, it seems that there is no limit to the genres of music played at the singer-songwriter circle: folk, blues, indie, country, Celtic, African ...
“I call it Latin jazz,” a man named Jay Willis tells me, when asked to describe his music. The 54-year-old has been coming to the singer-songwriter circle for three years now, and reckons he’s workshopped at least 20 songs in that time. Willis laughingly confesses that he’s probably as close as the group has to a Simon Cowell, though he’s not nearly as mean. Nobody here is, he notes.
“I’ve been to a few songwriting circles where it’s critical and judgmental and nasty, but that’s not here,” he smiles, “You won’t find that here at all.
“Generally speaking, the attitude is one of ‘How can we help this person achieve what they want to achieve with this song?’ You want to help them get to where they want to go.”
The singer-songwriter circle, Willis continues, is great, because it’s a way of getting feedback that one wouldn’t necessarily be able to get anywhere else.
“There’s a really interesting thing that happens, and that is that every time in this process that I’ve had somebody here saying something about a particular word or phrase that I laboured over and I’m like, ‘Oh no! Not that one! Don’t go after that one!’ ... every time, there’s something wrong with it.”
Willis adds that, surprisingly, he often ends up learning something from a musician much younger than himself.
“I really have the sense that people now in their 20s ... they really draw from a much more deeper pool of songs than I ever did. So, you will get people coming in here who are just turning 20 who have studied show tunes, who have studied musical theatre, who have come from Grant MacEwan, have done a jazz program, and who have studied all the popular music since World War II, and I have to be really careful because every once in a while a young person will come in who will just blow your doors off.”
Funnily enough, the admiration of 18-year-old Patrick Dunn flows in the opposite direction:
“This is perfect because all these people are trained musicians who know what they’re talking about, who’ve been doing it for years. Compared to somebody like me, who’s been playing guitar for a year and three months, it’s pretty handy—and these are some pretty big names here too,” Dunn beams.
The University of Alberta art student has only just recently started coming to the songwriter’s circle, but already he loves it.
“It’s like a fix for the writer’s block,” Dunn explains. “When you just have no more perspective and you’re killing yourself for ideas, you have this wealth of all these other people who are full of different ideas that—of course, having different experience—you would never think of.
“Like, at a certain point in my song,” Dunn continues, “There was a part where I just sort of let it ring for a bit and then I just jumped right back in, and they sort of mentioned ‘Hey, what would happen if you let that stay longer?’ And I tried it, and it was perfect. It just fit better.”
Dunn’s advice to other musicians thinking about coming to the singer-songwriter circle is perhaps unsurprising then:
“Do it.” he proclaims. “Don’t hesitate; just go. ‘Cause it’s definitely worth it and it’s a gooooood experience!” V
Rob Heath’s singer-songwriter circle meets the first Monday of every month. For more information, contact Rob
Published: Week of January 1, 2009, Issue #689, Vue Weekly.