On Songwriting | Musings On How To Write a Song

Richard Brandenburg On Songwriting

Richard Brandenburg On Songwriting

Richard Brandenburg is a San Francisco Bay Area singer and songwriter. I first met Richard in one of the many Sonoma County jams we each joined at various intervals. We got to know each other better as songwriters when Kathy Kallick invited Richard, me, and several other songwriters to a weekend in 2010 full of sharing ideas, presenting new songs, and filling ourselves to the brim with collective songwriting inspiration.

Richard writes songs in a traditional Country style a la Carter Stanley/Hank Williams, and he delivers them in the same manner. Simple, honest, and straightforward, his music has a timeless quality that’s a joy to listen to.


When you write an original song, which tends to come first: the lyrics or the music?


Well, they arrive at around the same time, though the words are usually first through the door.

Some evocative combination of words will resonate in my thoughts or feelings, and the potential song will have presented itself. I acknowledge it, I write something down, and from that point on it will clamor for my attention, waking or sleeping.

I have a couple of notebooks books full of such clamoring, unfinished songs with a few lines, or verses, or a chorus. And all with melodies; I can hardly write down words without hearing some sort of tune. I have no pages of lyrics waiting for a melody. It’s not mysterious at all. A melody will just emerge from how a spoken phrase sounds. It will change as the words do, and evolve through repetition, as the song develops.

The gradual development of the melody is in some ways the most fun part of the process, as it doesn’t have to mean anything. It just has to feel right. And it can change each time; it doesn’t have the same sort of structure as the lyrics, and can work both with and against them. And it continues to change each time it gets sung, after the song is finished.

I’m a little suspicious of song forms that rely on a band, or a riff, or an arrangement, to get over. I’m not sure why. There’s nothing inherently wrong with bands, riffs, or arrangements. Shoot, some of my best friends are in them, or use them regularly and with great success. I just prefer at the writing stage to make songs that sing well with minimal accompaniment.

Richard Brandenburg On Songwriting


So when I perform I play guitar, but the real development of the song takes place without the instrument.

And there’s very little of leaning on the table and hovering over the page with a pencil. Most of the writing happens when I’m ostensibly doing other things. As a kid, I used to take long walks, singing, figuring out how to explore a melody and words as I went along. My songwriting process is an outgrowth of that, generating words and melodies that I find pleasure in repeating.

A kind of split attention has me navigating through a melody even when I have to say words to other people about things that aren’t the song. (Commonly called “conversations with others”.) And when I wake up at night from sleep, the melody I’ve been working with is usually in my head. To go back to sleep, I remind myself of the lines I’ve been working on, and think about the problems they present. I do think a lot about what I’m trying to say, and what I discover as I go. Simple songs are the best, but nothing says they can’t also be thoughtful and smart.

When it’s well underway, I’ll pick up the guitar to figure out how I’ll play it. Frankly, there aren’t many options there. Once or twice I’ve even had to learn a new chord. Mostly though, the technical challenges I invent revolve around where to position the capo.


Sample Richard’s Music:

Flickering Dreams

Loving the Train

Ashes And Dust (feat. Kathy Kallick)

This Letter I Write (feat. Kathy Kallick & John Reischman)

I Was Wrong (feat. Kathy Kallick)

The Fool You Left Behind You (feat. Kathy Kallick)

Valley of the Shadow of Life (feat. John Reischman)

Did You Know and Not Tell Me (feat. Kathy Kallick)

That Ain’t Gonna Happen Anymore (feat. John Reischman)


Flickering Dreams, the CD you released in 2010, features 15 of your original songs. What was your process for writing the songs for this project?


The oldest songs on the album date back to about ten years before it was recorded. I had a burst of creative activity in my 40s, and what came out seemed like a kind of distillation; my singing voice and my writing voice had begun to feel like the same one, and I felt as though I actually had things to say. The themes of love, loss and mortality had become a good deal less abstract, and started replacing the posturing, fiction and wordplay that characterized some of the earlier songs I had written.

Along the line, I got tired of losing scraps of paper and started keeping notebooks. I kept an old cassette recorder beside my bed, because ideas would happen in my sleep. It’s pretty funny to play back some of those tapes. One night I was certain that I had turned over and sung the most beautiful, timeless melody into the mic, a slow, descending sweep that moved me tremendously in my dreams. The next morning it took me a little while to recognize a slow, mumbled rendition of “Sunshine Of Your Love”.

I bump the most promising ideas forward into a new notebook, when the current one gets filled. What gets called “writing” is really rumination, with the melody and words running in the background of other activities. I’ll circle all day around a line that feels unfinished, and options eventually emerge. Some songs, of course, arrive more or less intact, but most are the result of a diligent habit of attention, and a dedication to reflection and editing.

I have a kind of congenital aversion to received phrases or cliches. Harlan Howard said something to the effect that, if you can hear a rhyme coming, don’t use it. I think that should be taught in the grade schools, along with punctuation, spelling, drawing, hygiene and fair play. Math should be totally optional.

Of course, this is just how I do it. Others have ways that work better for them, and some have become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.



In addition to your guitar and vocals, Flickering Dreams also features fine performances by Kathy Kallick (harmony vocals and guitar), John Reischman (mandolin), Tony Marcus (fiddle), and Matt Dudman (bass). Tell me about the process of arranging your original material for the CD and selecting this group of musicians to perform the songs alongside you.


Various friends had begun to suggest that I put something together, and I was thinking about it, too. I had plenty of material, I wasn’t getting younger, and felt motivated to get these recorded. I knew I wanted to present the songs as directly as possible, and I got some sage advice to keep the recording process simple. I didn’t have a rehearsed band to go into the studio with; I was a solitary performer who occasionally assembled groups to back me up for gigs where I sing old country songs with a few of mine folded in. I had been doing some local gigs with Matt on bass, and he was well familiar with my songs. At Tony’s studio at The Vicarage we made a live recording of my vocals and guitar with Matt’s bass and Kathy’s second guitar. We laid down the 15 basic tracks over the course of one day, most recorded in a couple of takes. I slept really well that night.

I’m not a fan of overproduction. So I had the concept of snapshots in mind; not fine-grained studio portraits, but recordings where I just sit down and sing the songs. Many of the songs were written as duets, and I was thrilled with Kathy’s interest in them. I’ve loved her singing and vocal blending for years.

On the second day of recording, she overdubbed her harmony parts. Tony added fiddle tracks, and then the third day of recording was for John to add his mandolin parts at Derrick Bianchi’s Muscle Tone Studios, where the mastering was also done. Those smart, intuitive musicians that convened for a few hours to back up the songs became the band for the album, and they were all wonderful to work with in that way. What they all added was a tremendous complement to the songs.

Richard Brandenburg On Songwriting


Your songwriting is evocative of an earlier, simpler time rooted in early country, folk and honky-tonk styles. Tell me more about that.


What I write evokes earlier styles because it’s not fundamentally different from them. I do listen primarily to “traditional” stuff, and respond in pretty much the same language, which has gone in and out of style commercially, but apart from a few idioms, not really changed. I don’t have any fantasy that I’m innovating, I’m simply absorbing a familiar language and working with it to say what I need to say. My work is not so much about retrogression; I just use perfectly serviceable musical structures, and apply thought and feelings that refresh the form into the present. At least that’s what I tell myself I’m doing when people ask me, which almost never happens.

I also make up what I do because I’m a simple guitarist, and have to be able to play what I write. As Johnny Cash said, “style is more a function of your limitations than a function of your skills.” I strive to be a solid player and to have good tone. But I know a slew of great players who can pick circles around me while I sing. So I try to give myself a good job at the vocal end; something complete and satisfying to sing and to hear.

Richard Brandenburg On Songwriting


Humor and wit intertwine with some pretty sad topics (Did You Know and Not Tell Me, That Ain’t Gonna Happen Anymore, If I Should Die Before I Wake, etc.). What songwriting philosophy is at work under the hood?


One way or another, I like to be moved when I listen to a song. If nothing in a song moves me, I don’t have much attention for it. If a line I write makes me choke up or laugh, I know I’m on the right track. Without some believable emotional core, there’s a tendency for songs to become what I call “song-shaped contrivances.”

And my tastes are skewed toward believable songs that deal in some way with the irreducible existential difficulties of desire and suffering. For me, that’s the real territory of country music. Townes Van Zandt voiced the Noble Truth that “There’s only two kinds of music, the Blues and Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.”

While I’m all for any attainment of fleeting happiness in this difficult life, I’m of the opinion that in song, the celebration of gratified desires is usually pretty vapid. So, there’s that.

I’m also a big fan of Samuel Beckett’s writing, and greatly admire Leonard Cohen and that Dylan fellow, who tend to take on everything at once.

Richard Brandenburg On Songwriting


Your songwriting style has been compared to the likes of Carter Stanley and Hank Williams. How have these musical legends (and perhaps others?) influenced your own work?


Comparisons probably have to do with a sort of simplicity of form, in some songs, and a kind of delivery. What I admire in the writing of Carter, Hank, Merle Haggard, Mickey Newbury – and others I’d like to emulate – is an emotional directness. Hank, Carter, Merle, Maria Muldaur, Jimmy Scott, Mickey Newbury, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis… they’re all singers who deliver a song from the inside out. When they sing a song, whether they wrote it or not, you feel like they did. And I want to write stuff that makes me sing like that.

More locally, and more directly, I have the pleasure and great luxury of discussing songs in process with The Secret Songwriting Society, who may or may not be Patrice Haan, Cyd Smith, and Kathy Kallick. Very different writers, but excellent, honest listeners and editors, are a great influence.


What are the top three songwriting tips you would offer to aspiring songwriters?


1. Don’t pay too much attention to tips offered by people who write songs.
2. No, you won’t remember it: write it down.
3. Harlan Howard already wrote it.

“I recently purchased the CD, Richard Brandenburg — Flickering Dreams, after working on the faculty at California Coast Music Camp with Richard this summer. I wanted to let you all know what an exceptionally strong piece of work this CD is.Richard writes original songs in a traditional Country style, the sort of sound you might associate with Hank Williams or early Merle Haggard.

His body of work, as represented in the CD’s generous 15-song program is impressive in so many ways. The songs are of love or past times lost, for the most part; songs of regret, certainly, but not of reproach, except for occasional self-reproach. The narrative voice is consistent and rings true, and Richard has a gift for penning memorable melodies.The CD’s production, managed by Richard and Kathy Kallick, is at the service of the songs, with telling instrumental touches added by mandolinist John Reischman and Tony Marcus on fiddle. It must be said, too, that Kathy’s vocals, on the songs that she joins Richard for, are sung to his singing in a way that is wonderful to hear.

If you’re accustomed to thinking, as I sometimes am, that nothing new can ever stand up to the best things that were done in the past, it is exhilarating to encounter present-day work that is comfortably on a par with the classics we love.Richard Brandenburg’s work is that good and I hope you’ll seek out his CD and his live performances. Richard Brandenburg – Flickering Dreams can be purchased at CDbaby. I hope you’ll give it a listen.”

– John Miller


Music by Richard Brandenburg:

Flickering Dreams

One Comment

  1. Richard, I enjoyed playing with you at Sunshine and Lou’s house, on Friday night. I have since played the CD of your songs, that you gave me. Those songs are real country, in my opinion. I’m sorry none of them have made you rich, but you know that’s mostly luck. I’m also sorry you never heard me play and sing, 20 or 30 years ago, when I was on top of my game. I was actually purty good. I have never written a song. I have always been a singer and a sideman, and a very successful electrical engineer. I have known dozens of song writers, some of them very successful. I figured they should do what they’re good at and I should do what I’m good at. This has worked out OK. I believe you too can recognize a good song when you hear it, as proven by hearing you doing Ted Daffan’s “Born To Lose”. I haven’t heard anybody (besides me) do that song in 40 years.
    I would like to have you do some of Floyd Tillman’s song. He wrote lots of good ones in his day, and they made pretty good money for Floyd. The earliest song of his that I remember is “It mAKES nO dIFFERENCE nOW”. i STILL SING IT. sOMETHING HAS GONE WRONG WITH MY CAPITAL LETTERS, AND i DON’T KNOW HOW TO FIX IT. mY SON WILL BE HERE TOMORROW. HE WILL FIX IT. DEW