On Songwriting | Musings On How To Write a Song

Bill Amatneek On Songwriting

Bill Amatneek On Songwriting

Bill Amatneek is a string bassist, storyteller, and book author. His latest book, Acoustic Stories: Pickin’ for the Prez and Other Unamplified Tales, was just published by Vineyards Press. In the interest of full disclosure, I was Bill’s editor on that project, a book of 33 stories from his life in acoustic music. My good friend and Bluegrass Breakdown contributor, Chuck Poling, wrote a great review of Bill’s new book here: Bluegrass Confidential By Chuck Poling, September 2013

Bill has co-written with singer/songwriters Kate Wolf and Mimi Farina and played in bluegrass groups with Peter Rowan, Roland White, and Frank Wakefield. He was the bassist on the first The David Grisman Quintet album, one that spawned the genre, “new acoustic music.” And he has played in big bands and Broadway musicals.


You studied writing musicals and show tunes with Lehman Engel in Los Angeles. Who was he?


Lehman was a legendary Broadway show conductor, and directed Cole Porter’s comeback hit musical, Kiss Me Kate. Incredibly, he also conducted the original production of The Cradle Will Rock, a historical show that had a legendary opening night. In all, Lehman won four Tony Awards for “Best Conductor and Musical Director.” Then they discontinued the award.

Photo by Jon Sievert

Bill Amatneek (left) backing Peter, Paul & Mary at the Greek Theatre, 1979

During those years that Lehman waved a baton at the pit orchestras he led, he was watching the show in all its dimensions: book, lyrics, acting, dancing, and music. He watched what made one musical a hit and another a flop. Lehman recorded what he learned in the books he authored, notably in Words with Music, and taught it at his workshops in L.A., which is where I caught up with him.


What did you learn from Lehman about songwriting?


One of Lehman’s lessons was that the lyrics, melody and chords of a song had to be tightly coiled. If the lyric sings of happiness or sadness, triumph or defeat, the melody and chords must support those emotions, phrase for phrase.

My favorite contemporary composer, and a master of wedding lyrics and music, is Stephen Sondheim. He wrote a song, “Losing My Mind,” for his show, Follies, which is about obsessive love. It’s a masterful example of tightly coiled lyrics and music. Bernadette Peters delivers an obsessed rendition of this song at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_T2APyZuYQI.  While you’re there, you might check out her renditions of other Broadway songs.

Lehman taught us this pivotal truth about why we sing, something we could ponder when we sit down to pen a tune. We break into song when spoken words cannot express the emotions we are feeling. Sinatra, some said, could have sung down the phone book and made you cry. But Sinatra would have known better: a list of names, void of emotional content, is just not worth singing.

So our songs, Lehman taught, should be about big emotions, feelings we could not possibly speak about, but only sing about. Dylan seems to know this instinctually. He shouts at us, harangues us with his song and with the emotions of his singing.

Bill Amatneek (left) with the subject of his book title ("Pickin' for the Prez), Doug Adamz, and Russ Gautier. (2006)

Bill Amatneek (left) with the subject of his book title (“Pickin’ for the Prez”), Doug Adamz, and Russ Gautier. (2006)


Some people dismiss musicals; they think it’s unreal that actors in a play would suddenly burst into song.


All performances involve the audience’s suspension of reality. It is why a staged performance is called a “show.” When someone sings “Long Black Vail,” a song written by a dead man, we suspend reality. When Johnny Cash sang, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” we suspend reality because we know Johnny never shot no one, no how.

I love playing in and watching musicals and operas because they involve all the performance arts: acting, singing, dancing, sets, props, costumes, and stagecraft. A musical is live performance at its most ferocious.

Rogers & Hammerstein’s shows — South Pacific, Carousel, Oklahoma! — were always on the box at home when I was a kid. Oscar Hammerstein was Sondheim’s musical mentor. He taught him, among other lessons, that a song must tell a story. But many singer/songwriter songs these days do not tell a story. They stand still in time. It is story that moves a song forward and rivets the listener’s attention.

It could be that some contemporary songs are static because many songs these days are love songs. But it is possible to write a love song that moves forward in time, that tells a story.

Lehman gave us many songwriting exercises, but his most instructive was to write a love song that does not use the word “love.” Undertaking this challenge will make you write a different kind of love song, and may teach you something about the meaning of love.

There are so many things going on these days that we could write songs and ballads about, epic ballads. For subject matter there is: the Newtown, Connecticut massacre (or any murder or mass murder, for that matter); America’s obsession with war, with guns, with the internet, intelligent phones, and with pornography; hate crimes; climate change; climate change deniers; our political polarization; etc. These subjects can escape the pens of many contemporary singer/songwriters. I believe Neil Young has made similar comments. Sometimes current events, the ones that are right in front of us, are the most difficult to see; picking up a newspaper will bring those topics into focus.

Hammerstein wrote a gem of a book about writing lyrics, appropriately called, Lyrics. On the Internet, you can still find the original hardback volume, published in 1949, for less than 10 bucks. Sondheim has written two books about songwriting, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. They are both insightful expositions on songwriting. Ira Gershwin – he was called “the tailor” for his ability to sew a lyric to his brother, George’s music – wrote Lyrics on Several Occasions.

I mention these songwriters because they contributed to an oeuvre called “The Great American Songbook,” generally defined as songs from Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals from the ’30s through the ‘50s. Many people feel the GAS is unsurpassed. Even if you don’t like musicals, or think you don’t, you should give these composers a listen: the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Frank Loesser, and the dean of American composers, Irving Berlin. Many of their compositions, even when listened to as standalone songs, outside the musicals they were written for, are stunning. And maybe this as well: singer/songwriting has become somewhat self-referential, ingrown. We listen to each other too much, maybe. It might help us to stretch if we were to listen to and study the songs of the Great American Songbook.



You studied voice with the legendary voice coach Judy Davis. What did you learn from her?


Judy was more about performance than about writing, but from her I learned that we sing the vowels, not the consonants. So in songwriting, try and stay with the open vowel sounds, the a’s, e’s and i’s, especially when the singer is asked to hold a long note. The o’s and u’s are more closed, and don’t sing as well. Singing consonants, where the mouth is more or less closed and the sound comes out the nose, doesn’t sound so terrific.


You co-wrote songs with Kate Wolf and Mimi Farina. What was that like?


I enjoy co-writing songs because it’s less of a lonely gig than writing alone. Mimi had a melody and lyric that needed chords, a song she called “Feeling Left Behind.” I came up with a set of changes that I think she liked: “The new jazz direction for the new Mimi,” she said. Kate had a lyric that needed music, both melody and chords; she was looking for a country sound. I tried to create that for her, but in the end she rejected it because of a half-diminished 7th chord that her ex, about whose grandfather the song was written, could not play on the guitar.


Wow, it’s truly amazing how some things come to be, or never get that chance. So, Bill, who are your favorite songwriters, and why?


Well, I’ve already mentioned Stephen Sondheim. His music re-wrote the way a Broadway show sounded. He was a composition student of Milton Babbitt, so his approach to writing is intelligent, informed. He’s a unique melodist and a deeply skilled composer who weds his lyrics and music. He’s a firm believer in exact rhyme, not slant rhyme, rich rhyme, or eye rhyme. And when he doesn’t rhyme he takes musical steps to soften the blow. He’s been called “possibly the greatest lyricist ever.”

For singer/songwriters, one of my favorites is Jimmy Webb. His song, “Wichita Lineman,” knocks me out. The chord changes in particular are impressive. The song sounds fresh as when Glen Campbell first recorded it in 1968. He introduces new material for the coda, new material that succeeds wildly.

And of course, Bob Dylan is an astounding songwriter, and singer/songwriter. It would be hard to name just one favorite, but for song plus delivery of song, certainly “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is topnotch.


Why do you like Dylan?


Like Sondheim, he re-thought songwriting, as well as song singing, song presentation, and ensemble. With his singing, guitar strumming and harping, he is a one-band band. Like Sondheim, Dylan created new music, and new is good.


Be sure to check out Bill’s blog at www.vineyardspress.com

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