Words, Music & Screen
Discussions and Reviews by Thomas Itty
DECEMBER 30, 2020
THOUGHTS ON SONGWRITING
THE GIFT OF SONG
I've been writing songs for over 40 years and have written over 100 songs... but where do these songs come from? The answer may surprise you!
My life hasn’t been the same since I discovered that I could write songs. I was about 17 years old. A few months earlier, I had picked up my brother’s beat-up old guitar and decided that I wanted to learn how to play it. My brother, Ben, and I shared a room in my parent’s house in Bangalore, India. I would borrow Ben's guitar when he was away and try my best at playing the tune of a popular song on one string — or just try getting some pleasing sounds from the guitar. But I realized that it was very hard! First of all, the guitar was usually not in tune so it would sound discordant if you hit all the strings together. Second, the fret-board was so high that it was very hard to play a clean note on it — especially if you were a beginner. We didn’t have electronic tuners then, only a tuning pipe – so I don’t think my guitar was ever in tune for most of that time. And thirdly, I didn’t know how to play the guitar at all. My brother had a notebook with diagrams of all the basic open chords that he had made himself. So, after just banging on the strings for a few weeks, I started my guitar instruction by trying to make sense of the chord diagrams...
A remarkable thing happened when I could finally play a few chords… every time I started strumming and changing chords I could hear a song forming in my head. Not just a melody — but the lyrics as well. I think the first song I wrote was in the progression of G/C/D – which were the only chords I knew at that point. I think I wrote several songs using just those chords before I finally learned the A and E chords. I found I was more excited about grabbing these songs from wherever they were coming to me and putting them down in some tangible form than I was in mastering the guitar. To me the guitar was just a vehicle for me to translate the melodies and lyrics that were revealing themselves to me from somewhere. As I learned more chords… minors… barred… suspended… the songs seemed to use them as well.
It was around this time that I met Krishna. We were the same age — although he went to another high school. We had some common friends and we soon started hanging out with each other because we both shared the same interests in music, books and movies. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but one day we just started writing songs together. One of us would initially come up with an idea and an opening line or two and together we would finish the song quickly. We decided that we would follow the Lennon/McCartney model and attribute any songs we wrote during that period as an equal co-write no matter how much of it we contributed. In the span of about 2 years we wrote at least a couple of dozen songs together. We used to meet every evening to write and practice our songs — first with me on my brother’s guitar and Krishna banging on an old suitcase and later on with me on an electric guitar and Krishna playing on a real drum kit. We called ourselves THIKK (formed from a combination of letters in our names). Unfortunately, our songwriting collaboration as well as any aspirations of playing as a band ended when I started working as a copywriter in advertising, found a girlfriend and didn’t have as much time to spend with Krishna anymore. His parents also moved from Bangalore to Madras (Chennai) around that time so we stopped meeting even occasionally. Those songs we wrote together in the late-1970s never saw the light of day… until the latter part of 2020 when we decided to record some of them at least. Please visit thikkband.com for our project titled “Back In Time.”
TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT
Since those teenage years, I have come up with ideas for over 200 songs and recorded over 100 of them on my own with full production — most of them in my home studio. If I had tried, I would probably have twice as many songs in my catalog now. But there have been periods in my life when I have just been too lazy to grab on the songs that were given to me… I’m not sure about other songwriters but for me once those songs go away, they never return. I have to either write or do a rough recording. Try as I might, I can never remember them again if I don’t.
A RIVER OF SONGS
I sometimes think of where songs come from as a river of songs gently flowing by. Only some people can see this river and pull out songs from it. And just like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “one can’t step into the same river twice,” here also one can’t see the same song going past twice. I find I can tune into this place when I am fiddling around on my guitar. I've known about this place since I was 17 years old and I have been able to go there almost any time I pick up my guitar. I don't think about it or question it — like the farmer whose hen laid a golden egg everyday but he cut it up to find out why. I don't... I accept this gift with humility. When it goes away I'll accept that as well. I've heard other prolific songwriters talk about where their songs come from in a similar way. It is also the reason I’ve never been able to master an instrument. Each time I pick up the guitar with the intention of improving my playing, I find myself pulled into songwriting. I can either choose to grab a song and complete it or to just let it go. I usually always choose to follow the song. I figure that when I lose this gift of being able to write songs I will concentrate on improving my playing.
TWO KINDS OF SONGWRITERS
So, is this an explanation for where all songs come from for all songwriters? No... this is just one path to new songs. I think there are two types of songwriters — there are craftsmen (or craftswomen) songwriters who consciously put together songs slowly and methodically based on music progressions, current trends, collaborations, structured lyrics, and technical capabilities. The second kind of songwriters are like me — people who have no idea when the songs come from but they know how to tap into a special place where they can find them. I think most songwriters who have written both the melody and lyrics of over fifty songs probably fall into this category. Can these people also collaborate and craft a song as well — either on their own or together with someone else? Sure, I have written songs and commercial jingles with others or for a specific purpose. But to me, they are harder to write and I usually slave over them trying to get the melody or lyrics right. The songs I pick up from the river of songs, on the other hand, just sort of write themselves.
WHY DO I CONTINUE?
I often wonder why I write, record and put out these songs that come to me. I’m certainly not getting rich from doing it... and it’s not a hobby (I resent it when people ask me that). I sincerely believe that writing songs was what I was put on earth to do — even though I have never been able to make that my career. I am also good at a lot of other things so it was easy to just do something else to have a comfortable life rather than be a starving singer/songwriter. However, nothing else comes close to the satisfaction I feel when I complete a song. I have been around enough singers, musicians and songwriters to know that the gift I have — of being a very prolific songwriter — is very rare. Does this gift ever go away? I think it does — just look at Billy Joel, Cat Stevens, David Gates, John Fogerty, and Neil Diamond — but, fortunately, it hasn’t happened for me yet. For some songwriters, this gift never goes away — Bob Dylan, John Prine, Neil Young, Tom Petty, and Paul McCartney come to mind (though I'm not sure about McCartney -- I think he has become the craftsman type songwriter since the 70s and hasn't been able to access the river of songs since writing "Maybe I'm Amazed"). Call me crazy, but this is what I sincerely believe…
A QUIET SATISFACTION
I never had a master plan when it came to writing songs — but now looking at my song catalog... with over 5 hours of original music that anyone on earth can access from anywhere... it gives me a quiet satisfaction that I did not foresee. I realize I am quite proud of what I have been able to accomplish in a little over 40 years. These 100+ songs would not have existed today without me. Will anyone listen to my songs 100 years from now? Who knows? Do enough people listen to them now? I don't know... and that’s not important to me. What matters is that I did not waste a unique gift I was given... but have instead taken these songs from the abstract world of the river of songs in my mind into the real world where everyone can hear them... and in doing so I have also added a part of me to them... Maybe my children, their descendants or someone yet unborn will someday listen to my songs and glean a little knowledge of me... Thomas Itty... poet... singer... lover... husband... father... friend... philosopher... a life's story in songs!
Am I dreaming
Or is this reality
Am I flesh and blood
Is this really me
Look into the mirror
What do I see
Just another stranger
But do I see the butterfly
Or am I just
A butterfly's dream
(Butterfly's Dream, Words & Music by Thomas Itty 2000)
Note: This essay is NOT meant to be anything more than an explanation of how my songs come to me and my opinion about songwriting in general. I know nothing about the art of songwriting. I don't have any method other than picking up my guitar and noodling until a song comes along. I know that some of the greatest songs have been written by craftsmen or craftswomen songwriters who follow a more systematic method of writing songs. I am not saying one method is better than the other. This is just about how I write my songs. Thanks for reading until the end!