"I think you have to write like you are speaking to your audience. Knowing them is not enough. It is tough to do that when you are sitting by yourself in front of a computer or with pen and paper."
Harry Chapin was a fantastic storyteller. The two songs he is remembered for, Taxi and Cats In The Cradle are basically two long stories weaved through a song.
I am just going to say it right off the top. I love a good storyteller. All of my relatives were that way, and I am the same. The best part of the large family gatherings I go to every now and then are the stories we all tell. Some hate the family gatherings because they don't like their relatives and they are bored with them. I am not one of those. I could sit all day and trade stories with them.
Songwriters are basically storytellers with a specialized talent. Some however, in between songs, tell a better story than others. I gravitate towards those types.
Storytelling. What makes a great storyteller?
I think you bring a big piece of yourself to any story if you are a great storyteller. At the same time, you aren't overtly trying to do that. It is just who you are and how you tell it. You don't prep stories in advance, they just flow out of you. And you speak to the audience not at them. You don't have to even know them and many times you don't. You just speak to them and they hear you. Recognize you. Know you.
When you are done doing that, the songs sound better when the singers are storytellers. There is a story in every song, and the listeners will be looking for that if you make them aware that you have one to tell.
That is of course, unless they just came to dance. Then they don't give a crap. They just want to dance and move. You could be singing God Save The Queen, and if it had a dancy, funky beat, they are pleased as punch. Some people are happy to spend a night out listening to Lady Gaga and hip hop songs about nothing. I am okay with that, as long as they don't bring me along.
But I'm not talking about those types. I am speaking of the coffeehouse types who sit around drinking their coffee or wine or sipping their beer slowly, taking in what it is you have to offer. They came looking for that, and you have delivered it.
They also make more interesting friends and people to converse with. Last month I went to see my friend Kim Doolittle. I first met Kim 20 years ago at a songwriters showcase and have been friends with her ever since. I attended her weekly jam for a couple of years and just about every song she sang that was her own, and even many of the ones that weren't, came with a story. She is a great storyteller and you recognize that, as just a friend or in appreciation of her music.
I hadn't seen Kim perform any newer songs in years until this night. I knew she was very tired of singing other peoples songs so she could just survive and make a living. That is something she had done for the last 10 years or so, many of that on cruise ships where the pay is very good but the long sets and drain puts a strain on your creativity and resolve. She had mentioned to me several times in the last couple of years that she was done with that. I agreed. I love "Crazy" by Patsy Cline as much as the next guy, but I don't want to hear it 5 times a night. And she didn't want to sing it. When you do the performance gigs, you are expected to deliver that.
On this night, Kim mentioned while she was on stage how she came to write one of her new songs, a song about not wanting, NO, refusing to sing Me And My Bobby Magee anymore. She was on a cruise ship, and one of the patrons insisted she had to sing that song. She has mentioned that she simply refuses to sing that song anymore. I get that. It was her signature song for many years, and for good reason. She does a fantastic version of it. I am sure she derived great pleasure out of doing that--the first 10,000 times. But, enough was enough. The guy kept insisting she sing it. All night. She said politely that she doesn't sing that song anymore. So, after he wouldn't let up, she went to the bathroom, gathered her resolve and wrote a new song about how and why she won't sing that Bobby Magee song anymore, came right out and sang that. It is a great song, with her unique delivery and flavor, and she recounted how that guy immediately shut up after that.
After Kim's set was done, the next act, the feature guy who Kim opened for was a guy named Tim Williams. I really came all the way to just see Kim sing, but I knew he would be great as well. Anyone that Kim hangs around is going to be a fantastic musician and usually a great storyteller. Tim Williams was the top of the heap in both respects. He sang all sorts of songs, mostly original ones and some older songs I had never heard before. When his first set was over, I went outside to get some air and also gather my thoughts, as I had a new song brewing in my head. I find that happens a lot when I go to see Kim sing. She sparks something in me creatively that others don't.
Anyway, as I was outside, minding my own business, Tim Williams came out for a smoke. Now, I don't smoke and I usually don't like to be near anyone who does. But I made an exception this time. Tim struck up a conversation with me, and we began to trade stories on various subjects. It was a fun 20 minutes or so.
After the break was over, Kim noticed me sitting in the back by myself and we sat together, chatted and watched Tim's second set, which was every bit as good as the first one. I wish I had it taped and could relate all the great stories and songs he played. It was a very intimate setting and the venue had a very old feel to it.
But mostly, what I will take from that night is the stories, and storytellers. That is always what makes the night..and life memorable.