Noted Artist Shares Songwriting Tips

By Carol (Badrick) Seymour

This article was published in early 1997 in the Portland [Oregon] Songwriters Association's newsletter.

There ain't much to ice fishing
Till you miss a day or more
And the hole you cut freezes over
And it's like you have never been there before.
          --"Ice Fishing" by Bill Morrissey
I never caught a steelhead
Just a sucker in Scappoose;
Chicago's where you'll find me
Carp fisher on the loose.
          --"Four Tangled Lines" by Carol (Badrick) Seymour
              (our special "Great Songwriter" correspondent in Chicago)

First, if you don't know Bill Morrissey's music, you're missing something special. Since 1984, he has released four highly original albums. According to the All Music Guide, singer/songwriter Bill Morrissey's songs are "full of humor and pathos, expressed in keenly observed details, ...sometimes desperate, sometimes hopeful, but always presented in new, unexpected ways."

I first became a fan of Bill's after I heard him and Greg Brown -- another great singer/songwriter -- perform together in Portland during their 1993 "fishing tour." They performed Greg's song "Fishin' with Bill," and afterward Greg signed my cassette "From one carp fisher to another," referring to our common roots as Iowa natives. (I've since been working on my own version, "Sandbaggin' with Bill," about the '93 Iowa floods.) During his recent and very informative songwriting workshop at the Old Town School of Folk Music here in Chicago, Bill offered many insightful tips for songwriters.

He told songwriters who attended the workshop that his "day job" is performing. He said he writes his songs using a microcassette recorder while traveling to gigs. According to Bill, if you manage only "four lines a day and twelve keepers a year, you're doing really well" as a songwriter.

Among his many suggestions, Bill said it's often useful to employ an image for the foundation of a song. Like an archeologist finding a dinosaur bone, use the "gift" you have discovered and try to imagine the whole from the part.

Use lyrics economically, he suggested, and make the melody a frame for the lyrics. Think rhythmically. If saying more would be overstating, you've said enough and your song is finished. Get distance from your work, and then come back to it. Bill said he spends much more time editing than writing.

Bill writes at home on his computer. He says, "I type some words, play the guitar, get a cup of coffee...change the screen saver. He recently published a novel, Edson, about an ex-musician, using ideas he thought would develop into songs, but they became prose instead.

Bill encourages borrowing from others in order to develop your skills; he says it's good practice to write your own version of someone else's song. He thought maybe he should write his own version of "Fishin' with Bill." (After the workshop, Bill encouraged me to send my version to him when it's complete.)

He ended the workshop by suggesting that we listen to the work of several writers whom he admires, among them Randy Newman, Tom Waits, the Gershwins, Merle Haggard, the McGarrigle Sisters, Greg Brown, the Beatles, Brecht and Weill.

Between the afternoon workshop and Bill's evening concert, I went out to eat with a group from the workshop, and they expressed interest in Portland Songwriters Association and the Great Songwriter. (P.S.A. members Gregg Weed and Carol (now Seymour) Badrick's "Coffee People -- No Backtalk" had already achieved Old Town School notoriety at last fall's Steve Gillette workshop.)

It occurred to me that there could be some collaboration between these two songwriters' groups in the future, and we could explore ways to learn from each other.