On Songwriting | Musings On How To Write a Song

Adam Traum On Songwriting

Adam Traum On Songwriting

Adam Traum grew up in a musical family, which shaped his musical world view. His father Happy Traum, a mainstay of the Greenwich Village folk scene, turned Adam on to blues, bluegrass and folk styles while his irreverent teenaged spirit reveled in blues-driven rock. In his early twenties Adam got bit by the Americana bug and there was no turning back. A few of his influences include Steve Earle, Ry Cooder, Johnny Cash, John Hiatt, Mississippi John Hurt and Rev. Gary Davis. While Adam primarily plays acoustic music of late, there is still an underlying groove to his songs that have an outlaw country attitude.

Adam gigs and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. He has two instructional DVD guitar lessons on [easyazon-link asin=”B00281TGJA” locale=”us”]Homespun Tapes[/easyazon-link]. His CD [easyazon-link asin=”B001GYX5BK” locale=”us”]Meant to Be[/easyazon-link] (2006) celebrates his diversity highlighting his songwriting, which incorporates story-driven songs, humor and catchy guitar riffs. His newest release [easyazon-link asin=”B009JI48YS” locale=”us”]Just Like Home[/easyazon-link] (2012) is an all acoustic collection of songs that  has an intimate feel and pays tribute to his musical heritage.


What is your process for writing an original song?


Songs are funny things. You never know where they’ll hit you from. Since I’m a guitar player I tend to write around the guitar, but sometimes a lyric will pop into my head and I’ll write to that hook or idea. Usually I’ll noodle around on an instrument and a melody or chord progression will grab my attention and it builds from there. I have a lot of unfinished songs in my head as well as recorded in various places, which usually make an appearance when I’m organizing my computer files.

A few songs on my CD [easyazon-link asin=”B009JI48YS” locale=”us”]Just Like Home[/easyazon-link] were in a pile of unfinished songs and taking a fresh look at them allowed me to finish them, namely “Dog House,” “1960 Caddy” and “Merry Go Round.” I just finished writing a song that felt like a gift from the universe where I sat down for a few hours and it was 80 percent done. I had to spend some time nipping and tucking parts in with one of my songwriting partners, but that was it. Other songs take years to germinate. I’m proficient at the mandolin, ukulele, and lap steel and have written on those instruments occasionally but usually it’s the guitar.


How has growing up in Woodstock, receiving your first guitar from The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, jamming with Bob Dylan as a teenager, and having Happy Traum as your dad influenced how you think about songwriting?


As a kid I knew on some level that the community in Woodstock was a special place and I was around some wonderful people, but that was the only life I knew so I didn’t think too much about it.
Adam Traum On SongwritingWhen I started writing songs family friends were always encouraging. My uncle Artie was always very supportive of my songwriting and gave me great feedback. Sadly, he passed away before he could hear my new CD “Just Like Home,” which I dedicated to both him and my wife.

Learning to write is a lot of trial and error and my parents always had constructive things to say which improved my writing. When I brought a song to them, or any creative project for that matter, they never held back when something didn’t work. They also encouraged me and gave me credit when a song was good.

John Sebastian has been a close family friend for a long time and was nice enough to loan me my first electric guitars to try out before I ended up with a ’69 Gibson SG Standard. We’ve done a lot of informal picking over the years and he’s like an uncle to me, albeit a very talented uncle!

I always loved Bob Dylan’s music but I didn’t know him well since he moved away when I was fairly young. When I was in high school Dylan made an impromptu visit to my parents house and knocked on my bedroom door when I had a buddy from school jamming with me. We actually had the nerve to play a song we were working on and Dylan insisted on playing the bass for us after I offered him the guitar I was playing. After we got done jamming he said “you guys are pretty good,” and walked out the door. It was a really great memory and I wish we had the kind of technology we do today to have gotten a photo or made a recording.

There was a lot of picking around our house and it was inspiring to be around such great music. I feel lucky to have had the chance to jam with a lot of great players who are family friends. I always wanted to be in the mix from a young age and I was always welcome to play along. I also got a chance to lead some songs which gave me a lot of confidence in my playing too.


Your musical background includes jazz, Piedmont and Delta blues, bluegrass, rock, rockabilly, country and Americana — how does all that come together and get reflected in the original songs you’re writing?


I naturally blend genres without much thought. If I add a Piedmont blues lick to a bluegrass song and throw in a jazz tone it makes a unique sound and brings in the element of surprise to the listener. Making it fit is the challenge. I do sometimes surprise myself sometimes and say “where did that come from?”

I’m a huge music fan in general and I have a wide variety of music in my iTunes play list ranging from AC/DC to Miles Davis to Bach to Doc Watson and everything in between. The only exception to that is death metal-it’s just not my thing. To me, music is about the emotional connection to a song, whether it’s instrumental or has lyrics. I think that enthusiasm spills over into the songs I write.

When I studied jazz guitar I never leapt in with both feet ,which is required to succeed in that genre, but It was still a valuable pursuit. I learned a lot about how music works which has helped my writing immensely.


Besides your imagination, what equipment do you typically use when writing a song?


I’m pretty old-school when it comes to writing. I have journals around which I write ideas in. Sometimes if I get an idea at a gig I will just grab a napkin and write an idea down and hope I don’t forget it’s in my pocket and wash it. I tend write lyrics on the computer after I’ve gotten my rough ideas down in a with pen and paper. There’s something about the process of physically writing that feels very organic with all the scratched out lines and notes in the margins.

It seems like every instrument has its own song to sing and story to tell and sometimes playing a different instrument will bring about a new song which is always exciting.

I recently broke down and got an iPhone and there is a voice memo tool on it which I use to sing melodic ideas or play a guitar groove into it and that helps me retain some the ideas I come up with. I would say that is probably the most revolutionary change in my writing process and has led to more songs recently.


What are your thoughts on performing original music?


To me a song takes on a life of its own as it’s played live. It evolves as different versions come out. It’s a pretty magical process to me and I feel honored to be a part of a song when it comes off well. Music is ultimately an oral tradition that tells a story which is what draws me into songs with a good story line.

I think people respond to my original music because its honest and I believe in it. It took me a while to learn that the most successful songs are the ones that have conviction behind them. It doesn’t matter if it’s a protest song, a love song or a quirky and fun tune. As long as I believe in the song and present with feeling it seems to go over well.


What have you learned so far about the process of marketing original music?


Marketing is tough. The Internet is a big help for independent artists to be heard and it has created more opportunities to market music. But there are also many more songs out there to contend with. It can be confusing too with services claiming they can get your songs placed. As an independent artist I keep my eyes open for good opportunities and do the best I can to navigate muddy waters.


Who are some other songwriters you particularly enjoy listening to?


There are so many great songwriters out there, some who are better known than others, but here are a handful of my favorites.

Adam Traum On SongwritingIt goes without saying that Bob Dylan has been a huge influence on me and so many other people. He is the foremost singer/songwriter of our time.

Steve Earle is a favorite of mine on a lot of levels. He’s a great songwriter who isn’t constrained by genre. He’ll make an acoustic album and then do something rocking with a full band, always staying true to himself. He’s also an activist who deftly walks a line without becoming preachy or overbearing; not an easy thing to do.

I recently caught a John Prine show and he and his band were phenomenal. His music is just so lyrical and pure and it was such a treat to hear classic songs straight from the person who wrote them.

John Hiatt turns a phrase like no one’s business and he nails his performances. Lyle Lovett is another favorite of mine who I got to briefly meet a few years ago and he was so cool to me. I love the dance he does balancing humor and heartache.

Over the past few years I’ve gotten to be a big fan of Darrell Scott who I first got turned onto when he was playing with Robert Plant’s Band of Joy. Anyone who can write a song like “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” is worthy of every songwriter’s respect. He’s also been working with Tim O’Brien who is a masterful musician and songwriter.

In the blues world I love Willie Dixon’s humor and phrasing and Rev. Gary Davis’ songs for their soulfulness. Robert Johnson wasn’t just a blues player. He was a composer. At a young age he managed to master not only his instrument but songwriting. His line “She’s got lien on my body and a mortgage on my soul” still gives me chills every time I hear it.

In general, artists who have become institutions in the songwriting world have a burnished quality to their music that I just love. A good song feels old and new at the same time and is timeless, which is what I strive for in my own songs.


What are the top tips you would have for aspiring songwriters?


Write regularly and approach a song from 360 degrees, playing with the groove, moving verses around, play with your melody. Getting a songwriting partner is also a rewarding way to write for some people as well. I just try and have fun with it and enjoy the journey.


CDs and DVDs by Adam Traum


[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B009JI48YS” locale=”us” height=”500″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51w5pvP3LML.jpg” width=”500″]
[easyazon-link asin=”B009JI48YS” locale=”us”]Just Like Home[/easyazon-link]


[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B001GYX5BK” locale=”us” height=”500″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51siuJ1uEXL.jpg” width=”500″]
[easyazon-link asin=”B001GYX5BK” locale=”us”]Meant to Be[/easyazon-link]


[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B00281TGJA” locale=”us” height=”500″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51s9-CnrGKL.jpg” width=”355″]
[easyazon-link asin=”B00281TGJA” locale=”us”]Learn To Play Blues Guitar with a Flatpick[/easyazon-link]


[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B0043CT8SQ” locale=”us” height=”500″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51d4uxaLUrL.jpg” width=”353″]
[easyazon-link asin=”B0043CT8SQ” locale=”us”]Learn to Play Blues Guitar With a Flatpick DVD 2[/easyazon-link]

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