I recently saw the movie "It All Begins with a Song" at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)* It investigates the experience of being a professional songwriter in Nashville. As a songwriter myself I was naturally very interested. I found the film to be thought-provoking and inspirational--I've even started working on a song as a result. I thought I might share some impressions and ruminations below.
The film stars off with a paean to the magic and special vibe of Nashville. This section struck me as self-congratulatory and meant to promote the Nashville mystique. I don't know who financed the film, but the fact that it is promoted by the Nashville tourism board makes me wonder**. (To be fair I've heard several times that Nashville is an uncommonly friendly place despite the intense competition.)
I'm not really into the artistic mystic. I understand why it developed. People want to explain their success or failure by believing in a talented elect or untalented damned.
But I really don't think an outstanding artist or musician is that much different from an outstanding accountant. It all comes down to hard work. When someone has worked nonstop for years and years in a certain field they reach a level of understanding and expertise that makes their achievements seem mystifying and magical to others.
This is the biggest message I got from the film: NASHVILLE SONGWRITERS WORK VERY HARD. They work odd jobs, max out credit cards, and put off having families for years in the hope of being discovered. They go to every musical event trying to meet everyone in the business that they can. They try out for open mics where 30 of 90 aspirants (I think 90 was the number) will be chosen to perform (I've never heard of audition for an open mic!!!). They keep years worth of notebooks of ideas and possible song titles. They endure constant rejection. If they're lucky, they'll finally land a songwriting contract for $20,000 a year with a publishing house. (If you have three people in your household, that sum is below the official U.S. government poverty line.)*** A very, very, very select few will "hit" the jackpot.
And those that are finally "in the system" continue to stay up till all hours of the morning. They might drink copious amounts of whiskey and beer or they spend long office hours searching for inspiration. And then they have to make something out of it once they find it. They grind away. It was fun to see songwriters Bob Dipiero and Caitlyn Smith bat around ideas, hit on one and try to hammer it into something listenable. A lot of the process didn't sound very inspired. Something good was starting to happen, but it wasn't coming easily. (We don't get to hear the final product.) Brad Paisley talked about how he wrote a whole passel of songs by staring at a picture of his old girlfriend. Jon Randall related how he found inspiration late at night in the same week that he lost his wife, songwriting contract, and record deal. The result was the hit "Whiskey Lullaby."
Sometimes the process goes more easily. Busbee apparently recorded video of the writing sessions which led to a big hit. In it he's jiving, in the groove, high on creativity. Several of the songwriters in the film compared songwriting to doing drugs. I'm no fan of drugs, but I will say that it's a great feeling when I have the beginnings of a song on my mind--even if the song turns out in the end to be crap--there's something about the process of trying to solve the puzzle of a song that's very compelling for me.
Harlan Howard said that "Country music isn't nothing but three chords and the truth." The songwriters get a little self-important when pondering this quote, and most conceded that for them it was more like four or five chords. I especially liked Ben Folds' admission that for him it was more like seven chords and the perceived truth.
As one who is "Permanently Far From the Charts,"**** I forgive the relatively small amounts of self-aggrandizement expressed in the film (and admittedly I may be overly sensitive) These songwriters have developed amazing skills. They play better with one hand than I can with two. They sing better with socks in their mouths than I do with the reverb, auto tune, and compression all set to 10.
Incidentally I've never been to Nashville.
That might seem strange for one who writes country songs and loves Johnny Cash.
That doesn't mean I've never thought about Nashville. But I've concluded that it's just not the place for me to become the best version of my musical self.
That said, this film helped me in my pursuit of that lofty goal. It inspired me to think deeply once again about the my lifelong obsession. I recommend it to songwriters and music fans alike.