I have to admit that it was a conscious decision to make the final session that I attended at the recent Auckland Writers and Readers Festival what I hoped would be light relief. After the density of discussion in other parts of the programme I did hope that I might be able to turn my tired brain off for a bit in Songwriting with Don McGlashan and Jason Kerrison but that just didn’t turn out to be the case.
Maybe I thought rock stars would be a little less articulate, intelligent or engaging than other speakers had been. What a stupid thing to think that was. Don McGlashan is no dummy. He’s one of the sharpest songwriters that this country has produced and though Kerrison’s back-catalogue isn’t as extensive it turned out he is a pretty sharp tack too.
My colleague Robyn also attended this session but was so overwhelmed by the proximity of the legendary Mr McGlashan that she claims not be able to say anything intelligent about it (to hear what she did think you could listen to our final festival wrap-up).
The chair for the session was another legend of Kiwi music Mike Chunn who, I was informed, chaired the same session at 2008’s festival. Obligatory introductions were made which McGlashan didn’t really need, pretty much everyone being familiar with his Blam, Blam, Blam/The Front Lawn/Muttonbirds whakapapa. Although I knew that Opshop frontman Kerrison was from Christchurch it was news to me that he was formerly a “Bede-ian” and that he was in Christchurch bands GST (Goldfish Supermarket Trolley) and Gorilla Biscuit.
Quite a lot was discussed over the course of the next hour with each songwriter describing the different processes involved in getting these songs, this “cerebral vomit from the self-conscious” out into the world. Both musicians sang one song using a guitar Don purchased in a Christchurch music shop which had originally come from a 1930s Montgomery Ward catalogue. This spare, minimal accompaniment really showcased their great voices and strong songwriting ability. I for one was rapt, leaning forward with chin on hands during both performances.
McGlashan’s choice of song was “While you sleep” and explained that when he wrote it he had been listening to the song “Maggie May” a lot and liked the idea of someone looking back on a wonderful time in their lives, of “shining a light on a part of your life to understand it better” and that he wanted to write a song that had the word “flat” in it.
Kerrison discussed the genesis of his song “One day” which has featured in NZ Post ads, explaining that he wrote it immediately after having a fight with his wife and that writing the song was a way of “getting over myself”. He also said that sometimes performing personal songs “takes you back into that room” making you relive that moment which is something that you don’t always want to do.
Kerrison also repeated an idea that had come up amongst the authors at the opening night talk, that of the tyranny of a blank page. It reminded me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comment from opening night that all the prizes in the world don’t make a bit of different when you’re sitting there at a keyboard trying to write (or words to that effect). It doesn’t matter what kind of writer or creator you are, it seems that that blank slate, page, or computer screen is a thing universally feared.
Of course even if you manage to write a song, not every one is a success. Kerrison admitted that he had “boxes and boxes of duds”, McGlashan reflected that rather than hoarding his dud songs that he “foists them on the paying public” which is rather more self-deprecating than was strictly necessary. The guy’s a genius songwriter, after all.
And to sum up I think I will leave you with an interesting quote from the very talented Mr McGlashan on the role of songwriters. Take it away, Don…
Your job is to be a witness to the world. We are among the people who will stand up and say “this is what the world looks like from where I am”, and that is a good enough reason to do it.