Author: Reams, James

I Write the Songs that Barry Manilow Doesnít Sing

Like most kids, I made up my own songs when I was little. My mom and dad would stand me up on the kitchen table and I would belt out my current masterpiece for anyone who would listen. I was probably about 5 when I wrote ďButter Boy,Ē basically because I loved butter on everything (hey, who doesnít!). The lyrics went something like ďButter Boy! Butter Boy! Gotta have butter for the Butter Boy!Ē Not sure why that one wasnít picked up by Barry Manilow!

My early success with Butter Boy pretty much melted away when I grew out of my cute phase. I guess I was in my 30s before I began to really believe in my songwriting abilities. I admire the works of Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs (heck, I used to wear a string tie just to look like them), but musical genres can become inbred and weak unless new blood is injected. You canít clone the past, you have to create music that lives and breathes in the present. We have to change, adapt, but most of all, we have to be ourselves. My partner, Tina, understood that. She was a huge encouragement and with her collaboration, I wrote several songs that were later included on albums.

Iíve heard that some people get the whole song at once, as if in a dream. Thatís a rare talent and I am in awe of that effortless quality in others. For me, writing songs is probably the closest Iíll ever come to childbirth! Itís a struggle to raise a song up through the editing process without a partner but it can be done.

Once I have the lyrics, I take out the guitar, pick a key and start experimenting. It may take months to come up with a melody that fits the emotion of the song. The words are the skeleton. The melody is the flesh and sinew. I just start singing and playing until something develops.

It helps me to record all of my attempts and then go back and listen over a period of several days. Sometimes a ghost of a melody comes through and I can expand on that. Itís important to me that the melody embodies the sounds/feeling of the words. Like in River Rising, I created a melody that flows with the river and breaks when the levee broke. Speaking of water breaking, I know itís time to head to the hospital (aka the recording studio) when the 3rd stanza can hold up to the power of the 1st stanza.

When you live with a song for many months, you watch it grow and mature until you know itís ready. Then comes the time when itís ready to share with others and get their feedback. The day when I ďdeliverĒ a new song up to the rest of the band is a scary moment and can be pretty painful. Youíre exposing something that is a part of you to possible ridicule. Quite honestly, thatís been the most difficult thing for me to do. As a songwriter, youíve got to accept that youíre investing your time and talent in something that wonít please all the folks. The most beautiful thing about music is that even when itís intensely personal it still reaches out and strikes a chord in somebody, somewhere. I truly believe that. And Iíve learned that itís okay to be unsureÖI just donít let those fears stop the creative process any more.

But itís a relief to get it out of you, you know? The songís first step is taken when the band gets to play it through. It may crawl at first, but soon weíre walking steady. Itís ready to go when we look at each other and say ďWow!Ē A proud papa moment for me is when the song is released on an album and I overhear someone else singing ďmyĒ song at a jamming session or another band asks permission to perform it. The song has grown up and has a life of itsí own.

Like most artists, I go through dry spells. Then I start feeling antsy and know itís time to start working on some new material. After Tinaís death, I went through the Sahara Desert of dry spells. It was frightening to consider writing songs without my number one supporter to bounce ideas off of and to offer constructive criticisms as well as encouragement. But this year, I finally felt ready to start working on a new album and hope to have it finished by year end.

As a musician, I have the opportunity to give back, to make a difference. And thatís what I hope this next album will do. I feel so blessed that I not only get to write music, but I also get to sing it. When I perform one of my original songs, I know it, inside and out. I know all the nuances, the deeper meanings, the reason why the melody goes up here and down there. Thereís a difference when a songwriter performs their own music and it comes through loud and clear.

But not everyone gets to experience both sides of making music. The best thing about songwriting is that it offers an outlet for someone thatís drawn to music but canít carry a tune in a bucket or play an instrument more complicated than a kazoo. Songwriting can keep someone company for the rest of their life. Most parents donít know a thing about raising kids until they have one. By the third kid, theyíre old pros at it. Writing music isnít nearly as overwhelming as childrearing. but itís still a bonding experience and itís definitely worth the effort. All it takes a willingness to try. Who cares if Barry Manilow doesnít sing it!!

Posted:  5/15/2014

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