While I’m off on a holiday, I get by with a little help from my friends. One is Mike Diehm, a songwriter and poet who accomplishes what I can only dream of—he writes music. As someone who has no musical talent, I stand amazed by anyone who can pull a few chords together, let alone write a six-minute ballad that lingers in my mind for days. So I asked Mike how he does that, and this is his answer. Be sure to click on the links below for clips from two of the songs he discusses. D.W.G.
The following is from my favorite poet, H.W. Longfellow:
Before a blazing fire of wood
Erect a rapt musician stood;
And ever and anon he bent
His head upon his instrument,
And seemed to listen till he caught
Confessions of its secret thought
From “The Musicians Tale; Prelude; The Wayside Inn”
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The songwriting process for me is very cathartic. I know I’m not the only songwriter to say that I write songs because there is some inner turmoil going on. I guess that’s why I’ve written so MANY songs, lyrics and poems. I am currently compiling a complete collection of my poetry, short prose and lyric poems. This process has been very therapeutic, something that I need right now. As I go through and do some edits I am realizing that I have been searching for a long, long time for a certain something. That certain something, I now believe, after almost 35 years of writing, has been a search for my SELF. I know myself much better these days, and I like it.
For me (as I’m sure a lot of songwriters will tell you) a song does not always begin in the same way. Sometimes I first come up with lyrics, sometimes a particular chord progression or even just one chord or, in some cases, just one NOTE. Other times a song will start with a melody stuck in my head. But no matter how a song comes to me if it feels “labored,” if I have to think too much about it, it will invariably be tossed, ripped up or otherwise discarded. The sixty or seventy songs that remain to this day are all songs that came quite naturally.
A lot of my songs and poetry do not even tell a “story,” instead there are more like moments in time, sometimes down to feelings that come and go in seconds or minutes. As a music lover and intense “listener,” I know I’m not alone in this. It’s like a piece of visual art. Everyone who views (or listens to) a piece of art will get a different feeling. That’s because the song CAME FROM a feeling that might have been very fleeting.
My best songs and poetry just “happen.” My best lyrics usually come out, literally, in minutes. The musical part of it can come quickly too, but in a song some arranging is necessary. It’s sort of a mathematical process. Finding a progression that is pleasing to the ear or at least makes sense mathematically.
Here are some examples. I’ll start with collaborations:
Two of my best friends, Walt Saunders and Tom Leavitt, have written some incredible songs. I met Tom Leavitt in 1975. We had a common interest in music of all genres. I taught him how to play guitar and he has become a great musician. Tom and I have spent time together for the sole purpose of collaborating in the songwriting process. We had a very inspiring and informative few years in the early eighties before he married a Canadian woman and moved to Hamilton Ontario.
In my house in East Petersburg we explored improvisation together. One of us would start playing anything that came off the top of our heads and the other would then join in. We became as one during these sessions and luckily, recorded ourselves making this music. I have traveled to Ontario twice and to his parent’s house on a beach in Maine to write and record music. These recordings are dear to me.
I met Walt Saunders in the early 80s. Walt is a great lyricist and songwriter. Over one long weekend I had the pleasure of writing and recording with both Tom and Walt in my family’s cabin in Northern Pennsylvania.
My favorite story about collaboration concerns a song Walt and I wrote. I had an entire song worked out on the guitar, verse, chorus and bridge. I even had a melody. One day Walt called me and said he had written some lyrics that he thought were really good. (They are). I asked him to put them between the front doors of his house so I could pick them up the next morning. I stopped and got the lyrics and began to drive away while glancing down at the piece of paper beside me on the seat. I was totally amazed! I had to pull over. I read through the entire song and got chills in my spine. The lyrics fit perfectly with the music and melody I’d written! When I got home I sang it from start to finish without a single change of the words. And that was the birth of “It’s In The Cards.”
Now I will write of my personal songwriting. I’m going to attempt to explain the process that became two songs. First, “I Saw You”, and second, “Cold Rain Recall.” I pick these two because they came about in two completely different ways.
I Saw You
“I Saw You” came from a dream. I used to keep a journal of my dreams. I wanted to get to the point of being able to see my hands in dreams. I had heard that if you can accomplish this you can better interpret, and even to some extent, control your dreams.
My first experience with real love for another came in my senior year in high school. The girl I loved became my fiancée. Things didn’t work out simply because we were too young to understand what a true loving relationship should be. Still, I was heart-broken over our breakup. And I never forgot her. I don’t think anyone ever forgets their first real experience with love. (I’ll leave the definition of love to the individual). I recently had a conversation with her and finally, after so many years, I was able to get some closure.
(Click on the link to hear an excerpt from I Saw You)
It was quite a few years after we broke up that I had a dream about her. It was very vivid and very complete, like a story. In this case the lyrics came from an interpretation of this dream. The melody came to me as I was writing the lyrics. The music followed quickly. The feeling I wanted to get across in this song was that dream-like quality that touches on reality. Therefore the music I wrote for it is, for lack of a better term, spacey. That is why there are lots of open chords and a fairly strange way the music progresses. And I end the song with exactly what happened after the dream. Very simply put… “I woke in bed at five this morning and the sunrise brought another day.”
Cold Rain Recall
“Cold Rain Recall” came from a letter I received from Tom Leavitt at the end of April in 1982. Or rather, it came from reading between the lines of the letter. As with all of my songs I can remember exactly where I was and what was going on around me when I wrote them. In this case Tom was hitchhiking across the country just because he wanted to experience meeting other people and see the country in a unique way. The letter he wrote to me, of which there were many, was depressing because he was experiencing a few days of confusion concerning all of the lives that had touched him. Trying to find his place in this world I guess.
I was standing in the kitchen of our first house and the back door was open. It was raining outside. A dreary day that fit with the tone of his letter. The letter was lying on the kitchen counter as I read it.
(Click on the link to hear an excerpt from Cold Rain Recall by Mike Diehm)
I became filled with a deep feeling of depression as I read through the letter two or three times. Immediately I turned the last page over and wrote “Cold Rain Recall” at the top of the page. Then I wrote the rest of the song in the time it took to write it down as I was still standing at the counter. The lyrics, and the feeling they stirred in me brought the melody and music to my ear. The music came right after I wrote down the words.
This is how every song begins: Something will trigger my brain and then I have a real need to express whatever I’m feeling—just to get it out of my head. I have found that if I sit down with the sole purpose of wanting to write a song it never comes out right. It seems I have to wait for the triggers.
As far as the interpretation of my songs (and poetry) I believe that is up to the listener. Even I don’t know what most of my songs are about! They are fleeting moments in time. To paraphrase my hero, Bob Dylan, when asked to explain the meaning of his songs he said, “I don’t know, what do YOU think it means?”
No matter what triggers a particular song, be it a feeling or external stimuli, the need to release it forms the basis of my songwriting process.
The song captures a moment and somewhere, whoever is listening feels something stirring inside—and they share that moment. And that is part of what forever amazes me about song.
By Mike Diehm