The Art Of Songwriting

A new book by Head of Postgraduate Study, Andy West.

Andy West, our Head of Postgraduate Study, has had a fairly prolific and wide-ranging career to date. Having been a professional musician since 1990, he joined Hugh Cornwell (The Stranglers) and Roger Cook (Blue Mink) to form the eclectic trio Cornwell, Cook and West, touring iconic venues across Europe.
Over 300 of Andy’s songs have been published, with some featuring in Grammy award winning shows such as ‘Heroes’, ‘Lost’ and ‘True Blood’, and others recorded by artists as diverse as Joe Brown and Stackridge. Whilst resident in Nashville between 1997 and 2003, Andy performed and recorded his songs with some of the world’s finest musicians including Ian Wallace (Bob Dylan), Garry Tallent (Bruce Springsteen), Kenny Vaughan (Lucinda Williams), Willie Weeks (David Bowie) and Chad Cromwell (Neil Young). 
His expertise in education came to the fore when he designed and course-directed the world’s first Master’s degree in Songwriting. Andy joined LCoM in 2011, and became Head of Postgraduate Studies for the conservatoire in 2013. Recently releasing his book ‘The Art of Songwriting’, he gave us some pointers on the finesse of the craft.
What was your earliest musical experience?
My earliest musical experience as a listener was hearing the Four Tops ‘Reach Out (I'll be there)’ playing from a radio on a beach in Cornwall. I would have been three or four. That was a pretty good start. My first experience as a musician was forming a band on Wednesday to play a gig the following Saturday night! Myself and couple of friends who played bass and drums rehearsed about 30 minutes of material drawn from the catalogues of Echo & the Bunnymen, The Cure and other bands we were fond of and surprisingly (to us) it didn't sound too bad.
What motivated you to have a career in music?
I was motivated to have a career in music when Hugh Cornwell, who used to be in a band called The Stranglers, invited me to join a band with him. It was just after The Stranglers had broken up, and as a kid they had always been one of my favourite bands so it was like being asked to join a group by one of your heroes! I was also working in a very dull job for the government and needed no persuading whatsoever to become a professional musician.
How did your career develop?
My career developed most rapidly when I moved to Nashville to become a staff songwriter for Warner Chappell Music. They published over 100 of my songs and I got to work with musicians who usually played with David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan; for about six years I was like a kid in a sweet shop. As a producer, I also got to work with Alison Krauss and Vince Gill, and that helped to put me on the map.
How did the book about songwriting come about?
The book about songwriting came about when Anna Brewer at Bloomsbury, who famously published the Harry Potter series, approached me to write a book that could potentially appeal to songwriters and non-songwriters alike. I thought this would be a good challenge, particularly since most listeners have a sophisticated critical understanding of, but don’t actually write songs. I had spent a long time thinking about songs from the perspective of the songwriter, and this was a good opportunity to think about them from the perspective of the listener.
The Art of Songwriting, like The Art of War – is being a musician a battle at times?
Being a musician shouldn't be a battle; although quite a few of the musicians I know battle with the non-creative aspects of being a professional. Essentially, writing and playing music needs to be enjoyable in some way. It shouldn't be like root canal. As a rule of thumb, if you are honest about who you are and make music that represents who you are and where you come from, sooner or later it’s going to be worth something to someone other than you.
Who is this book aimed at?
The book is aimed at readers who are interested to know how to write communicative songs that express meaning and convey individuality; how to develop songs into records; how the writer can function as a marketer of original work; how domestic and international markets operate; and how to act and interact meaningfully within the culture of those markets.
Explain the differences between songwriting and film score writing?
Songwriting is different from film score writing in the sense that the songwriter typically has no visual cue to work from. Instead, the songwriter works with verbal meaning in the form of words and metaphor in the form of music to create listening experiences that have an inherent duality; the words and music might seem to infer very different things. That is part of what makes songwriting so unique.
Tell us 3 important things about songwriting…?
Three important things about songwriting are: it involves more than words and music, it also encompasses performance, arrangement and production. Secondly, good songwriting needs to evidence creativity, either in the form of originality (which is rare) or by using existing cultural elements to frame a unique idiolect. Finally, songwriting is essentially problem solving; the songwriter seeks to convey a personal expression in a way that will potentially allow as many listeners as possible interpretive access to the expression.
Who is your favourite songwriter and why?
My favourite songwriter is John Prine, who has been writing songs for almost 50 years now. His songs use common everyday language in a uniquely poetic way; they are often funny and occasionally profound. While I lived in the States I got to know John quite well; on Sunday nights a group of us would meet up to play snooker. That's when I found out that there is no difference at all between John and his songs; a conversation with him is a lot like listening to him sing. I always thought that was great.
What has been your greatest achievement as a songwriter?
On a personal level, my greatest achievement as a songwriter is to know what my music sounds like and be able to write songs that say what I want them to say; that can get across what I feel. On a broader scale, my experiences as a songwriter were key to helping me develop the  first Master’s Degree in Songwriting, and I guess the legacy of that would have to be my greatest achievement within songwriting.
If you're interested in songwriting, take a look at Andy’s book, and read more about our songwriting degree.

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