The Pursuit of Great Songs

By Christopher Palmer

The Pursuit of Great Songs

By Christopher Palmer
The music career of singer and songwriter Livingston Taylor spans more than 30 years.
The music career of singer and songwriter Livingston Taylor spans more than 30 years. His 16-album discography began in 1978 with Three-Way Mirror. His newest recording, Last Alaska Moon, was released last year. In a recent interview, Taylor shared his thoughts on songs and the craft of songwriting.

Interviewing Taylor is like attending a performance. As he spoke he would also sing, play the piano and recite lyrics with ease. His passion for songwriting and performing is evident in his work as well as his conversation.

How do you start the creative process? Do the moments of inspiration just “appear,” or do you set aside hours of each day to sit at the piano and write?

Taylor: No, I don’t tend to do it that way. I do it that way if I have an assignment, but I don’t often get those types of assignments. What I find myself doing is practicing my Bach and Gershwin and those sorts of exercises; reading and putting my fingers where Gershwin and Bach put theirs so I can try and understand what they were doing.

Periodically, I spend time just playing free. I just want to hear what’s coming out of my fingers and that’s a wonderful time for me. That’s where songs start.

I’m just not interested in [writing] vast quantities [of songs]. It sometimes takes me months, indeed years, to write a song and to have all the pieces come together properly.

Do you encourage songwriters to study other writers’ work?

Taylor: I encourage people to look at other great writers a great deal. Also, don’t study your hero. Study who your hero studied. Take it back one or two generations. What I’m saying essentially is: know the foundation. And make no mistake, the great songwriters know that foundation.  Billy Joel really understands other songwriters’ music.

George and Ira Gershwin have five songs that are unbelievable. [Study] Rodgers and Hammerstein, they have eight or ten songs that are unbelievable. Study Bach, Beethoven, Copland, Debussy.

I like to say to my students: Don’t compete with your peers. Statistically they’re not going anywhere, and if you’re a little better than they are you’re not going anywhere either.

What is the difference between a good and a great song?

Taylor:  A great song is identified by the combination of quality lyrics or story, interesting melody, and repetition in public places. Repetition in public forums—radio, television, recordings—allows the song to then be identified with a broad variety of human events. Can you have a great song that those things haven’t happened to? Perhaps so. But a great song requires skill plus good fortune. It’s a great help to have Ella Fitzgerald sing “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

I’ll stay away from contemporaries, let me go to George Gershwin. I’m looking over a list of his songs. You’ve got a song like “ ’S Wonderful,” (he sings over the phone: “’s wonderful, ’s marvelous, that you should care for me”.) That’s a good song. (He then sings “Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you”) That’s also very good. But, it ain’t (sings) “There’s a somebody I’m longing to see, I hope that he turns out to be, someone to watch over me”.

“Someone to Watch Over Me” is just a better song than “Nice Work if You Can Get It.”  That’s good, it’s really good, and I love hearing Ella Fitzgerald sing it. But when you hear Ella Fitzgerald sing “There’s a somebody I’m longin’ to see, I hope that he…”  it’s mournful, it’s beautiful, it flows, it tumbles, it’s a great song; arguably one of the greatest pop songs ever written. His other stuff is good, it’s very good, it’s not to say don’t study it, but if you’ve got a limited amount of time, go to the very best.

You have written many songs, what are the ones that you consider great?

Taylor: I’m a good writer. I have written many good songs. In terms of really terrific songs, for me, it’s five [or] seven songs that I consider to be really wonderful pieces of writing: “There You Are Again ”(the title track from his 2006 release); it’s a very strong piece of writing.  “Wish I Were a Cowboy,” off of that same album. “Answer My Prayer,” a song that I wrote with Carol Bayer Sager, is just a well-assembled piece of music. I just got through writing a song called “I Shouldn’t Have Fallen For You,” which is a song I sing with Shelly Berg.

As a songwriter, do you have to go through a lot of bad ideas to get the real jewels?

Taylor: Sure. All writers create bad songs, I certainly am no exception. Sometimes a song becomes good by a circuitous route … [by] finding itself in the right place at the right time. I’m fond of saying to my students when they ask me “Should I get a writing partner?,” I’m fond of saying to them: ‘Please be advised, two blind people still can’t see.’ You have a writing partner. His name is George Gershwin. When you are sick of your chords, please study George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern. Study the great musicians who are out there and learn what they did and use what they did as a template for your own writing.

Any other advice for students that would like to follow in your musical footsteps?

Taylor:  The best idea always is to watch your music land. As you are playing it, watch what effect you are having on people as you are doing it. And when you play things that they like, play those again. When you play things they don’t like, don’t play those anymore.