Craig Cummings Music


Joni Mitchell – Why She Matters To Songwriters, Part IV
April 9, 2015, 9:36 am
Filed under: Musical Notes | Tags: , , ,

Craig at El Nopalito_rev

Everything comes and goes
Marked by lovers and styles of clothes
Things that you held high
And told yourself were true
Lost or changing as the days come down to you
Down to you
Constant stranger
You’re a kind person
You’re a cold person too
It’s down to you
It all comes down to you

Joni Mitchell – from Down To You

Age brings perspective, and this with this lyric, Joni brings a dose of reality and a message of encouragement. Keep in mind that this record (Court And Spark) was a huge departure from her previous 2 albums (Blue and For The Roses). While those 2 recordings were “confessional” albums that revealed Joni as a highly sensitive writer exploring the darker sides of relationships, Court and Spark was one of the first records to merge folk, jazz, and rock music while more often looking at the lighter side of life and love.

“Everything comes and goes, marked by lovers and styles of clothes. Things that you held high and told yourself were true, lost or changing as the days come down to you.” In this song, it seems that she is letting us into an internal conversation with her ego. Joni hints that she may be moving on from a more melancholy place, and trying on a more upbeat, positive approach. She admits to being a stranger…to others, to herself, or maybe both? Perhaps this stranger is her newer persona – a singer in a band, where she is just part of the show.

Great songs speak to universal truths. Listeners recognize these truths when they hear them, and they matter. They provide legitimacy to the song and help listeners relate to the message. In this song, Joni provides that universal truth – “It’s down to you,” – (i.e., it’s all up to you), that songwriters want to tell in the context of writing a memorable song. She tells listeners, its up to us – we can make the best of what life brings or we can wallow in the misery of what we lack, what we’ve lost, or what we’ve never had.

Most great songs address some universal truth…

  • ”I can’t make you love me, if you don’t.”
  • “I get by with a little help from my friends”
  • “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
  • “God bless the child that’s got his own…”

Songwriters are always trying to find new and interesting ways to share these universal truths with listeners. Joni shows us how to do it and make listeners want to sing along. Try listening to the choruses of Both Sides Now or The Circle Game and not singing along:

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

Joni Mitchell – from Both Sides Now

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

Joni Mitchell — from The Circle Game


 

This is the last part of the series of posts discussing why Joni matters to songwriters. As I said at the outset, I could write a book. All one really has to do to know why Joni matters to songwriters is listen.

Peace And A Cold Beer,

Craig



Joni Mitchell – Why She Matters To Songwriters, Part III
April 8, 2015, 10:45 am
Filed under: Musical Notes | Tags: , , ,

Craig at El Nopalito_rev

In prior installments of this series I explored how Joni shows songwriters the way in providing the proper amount of details in songs so that they are authentic and resonate with the listener (Part I), and how her words have inspired artists to continue to create even when they feel no one is listening, or watching, or reading (Part II). Today, in Part III, the focus is on the importance of being economical with words – and how Joni could be a master at showing songwriters the way.

I went to see a friend tonight
Was very late when I walked in
My talking as it rambled
Revealed suspicious reasoning
The visit seemed to darken him
I came in as bright
As a neon light
And I burned out
Right there before him
I told him these things
I’m telling you now
Watched them buckle up
In his brow
When you dig down deep
You lose good sleep
And it makes you
Heavy company
I will always love you
Hands alike
Magnet and iron
The souls

Joni Mitchell – from Lesson In Survival

Although this lyric is coming from a particularly feminine point of view, as a man I’ve always loved how it portrays a scene in which one approaches a lover intending to bring a positive light, only to fall flat on one’s face during the attempt. That one act play is gender neutral – we’ve all done it. But what is most memorable about this verse is how the last 8 lines ring so true to anyone who has been in love, gone through a trying time, and come out on the other side…”When you dig down deep, you lose good sleep, and it makes you heavy company. I will always love you. Hands alike, magnet and iron the souls.” If there is a better way of telling that story, I’ve not heard it.

Songwriters are storytellers. But unlike griots and other raconteurs, who often use a rambling style of discourse to tell the tale, songwriters are always striving for economy, because most often, we have to tell the story within the confines of a 3-4 minute pop song. Joni told this last part of the story in 8 short lines – about 15 seconds. She shows us that as songwriters, we can tell our stories with an economy of words and the truth will not be diminished.


In Part IV of the series, I’ll discuss how well-written songs are built around some universal truth and how Joni shows songwriters how to do this while making everyone want to sing along.

 



Joni Mitchell – Why She Matters To Songwriters, Part II
April 7, 2015, 9:59 am
Filed under: Musical Notes | Tags: , , ,

Craig at El Nopalito_rev

 

Yesterday, in Part I of this series, I talked about how songwriters need to include just the right amount of “furniture” in the lyrics of a song to tell the story and make it real…furniture meaning details that allow the song to come alive for the listener. Today in Part II, I’m discussing how Joni speaks to songwriters through her lyrics about commitment and courage.

You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now
You’ve got to roar like forest fire
You’ve got to spread your light like blazes
All across the sky
They’re going to aim the hoses on you
Show ’em you won’t expire
Not till you burn up every passion
Not even when you die
Come on now
You’ve got to try
If you’re feeling contempt
Well then you tell it
If you’re tired of the silent night
Jesus well then you yell it
Condemned to wires and hammers
Strike every chord that you feel
That broken trees
And elephant ivories conceal

Joni Mitchell – from Judgment Of The Moon And Stars

Another of my favorite Joni lyrics, from one of my favorite Joni albums (For The Roses), this particular lyric speaks to the part of us that needs to show the world that we won’t quit – that despite the odds being against us, we can persevere. “They’re going to aim the hoses on you, show ‘em you won’t expire. Not till you burn up every passion, not even when you die.” This line is a mantra for songwriters, who often toil for years, honing their craft, and never knowing if anyone outside of their closest circle of friends and fellow songwriters will ever hear the words and melodies they’ve written. And, the feeling of not backing down, of not giving up, is amplified by the associated imagery of the hoses that were aimed at civil rights protestors in the 1960s (this is not to say the challenges of the civil rights protestors and the challenges faced by songwriters are even remotely equal – they are not). For those looking for inspiration and the courage to carry on with their life’s work despite the odds, there is plenty of inspiration within the words of this song.

“Condemned to wires and hammers.” We songwriters, we’re condemned to our instruments – to our words, but in a good way. We’ll never escape them or give them up…but we’re OK with that, because we wouldn’t have it any other way. Joni matters to songwriters because she reminds us that challenging the odds and being committed to our craft are worthy endeavors. When we’re “feeling contempt” we can tell it. No need to feel guilty for committing to this life…for striking “every chord that [we] feel.”


Part III of this series will discuss how songwriters strive for economy with words and how Joni shows they way in some of her work.

 



Joni Mitchell – Why She Matters To Songwriters, Part I
April 6, 2015, 1:47 pm
Filed under: Musical Notes | Tags: , , ,

Joni Mitchell was recently admitted to a hospital in California after being found unconscious in her home. News of this unfortunate incident spread like wildfire across the internet and beyond, and there have been numerous articles posted, new and old, on internet sites, in newspapers, magazines, and anywhere music and culture are discussed and debated. Most of the writing focuses on her influences on popular music, her relationships with other famous musicians, and her refusal to march to the beat of any drummer but her own.

I am a member of a songwriters’ group whose members discuss all things related to songwriting. Recently, someone asked for opinions about the best female singer-songwriter alive. While there was great debate about this, I was pleased to see so many of our group mention Joni as the best. Our group is large and we represent many generations of writers. It wasn’t just those of us over the age of 50 that were typing in her name. So this got me to thinking about why (and how) Joni matters to songwriters.

I decided to write a series of posts that look at Joni’s importance to popular music through a songwriters’ lens. What are the things that we try to do as successful songwriters, and how has Joni shown us the way. I’ll be using snippets of her lyrics to help me illustrate my points. There is so much to choose from, that I could write a book…but I’ll settle for a series of shorter blog posts. I’d love to read your thoughts on my thoughts – especially if you are a songwriter. But even if you aren’t, I’m betting you know a lot about Joni’s music and have a well-informed opinion. So, here is Part I. Let me know what you think.

Just before our love got lost you said
“I am as constant as a northern star”
And I said, “Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar”

On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
With your face sketched on it twice
Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet

Oh I could drink a case of you darling
Still I’d be on my feet
oh I would still be on my feet

Joni Mitchell – from A Case Of You

Have you ever tried to decide which Joni Mitchell lyric is your favorite? Me too, except the more you try to narrow it down, the more options you consider. If you asked a random group of people familiar with Joni’s work to select their favorite song, I’m guessing a sizable number would pick A Case Of You, and I would be among that group. Much of the reason for this choice lies in the lyric, part of which is shared above. “…you’re in my blood like holy wine, you taste so bitter and so sweet.” Fourteen words that reveal how love can be equally wonderful and maddening. That one in love can feel, all at once, so ecstatic and so… conflicted.

Songwriters talk about needing just the right amount of “furniture” in the lyrics of a song to tell the story and make it real. “On the back of a cartoon coaster, in the blue TV screen light, I drew a map of Canada. Oh, Canada. With your face sketched on it twice.” I don’t even need to close my eyes to envision that scene. I’m sitting there with my lover in a bar, it’s dark, the TV lights the room. There is no conversation. I’m staring into the darkness of my glass, and she is drawing. I look over, see an outline drawing of my face. She loves me. I am smitten. It’s all there – every time I hear the song, the movie plays to my mind’s eye. This is what Joni can do. This is why she matters. She shows us how to put the furniture in the room.


 

Come back for Part II. I’ll be discussing how Joni reminds songwriters to be cool with facing long odds and committing to our craft.

 



My Favorite Songs Of 2014
January 5, 2015, 1:24 pm
Filed under: Musical Notes | Tags: , ,

Senator_AC_Shadow#2

I’m really not in favor of posting any sort of “best of” lists…invariably someone will point out why I’m wrong about a certain song, or offer other choices that think are more deserving. Plus, I think artists and songwriters should avoid competing with one another. It seems healthier to be competing with yourself – trying to be better writer or a better performer than you were this time last year. The notion that I’m better than you, or he’s better than her…it just doesn’t sit right with me, and I think there are enough challenges in the music business without us constantly comparing ourselves to one another. So with that thought in mind, I share with you my favorite songs of 2014. I’m not arguing there were the “best.” I just loved them because they made me sing along, because the poetry in the lyrics moved me, or because they had that certain something that made me want to hit the replay button. Please note – they are in random order. This is not a ranking of my favorites, just a compilation.

  1. Etta’s Tune (Rosanne Cash and John Levanthal) – This songs starts with the lines, “What’s the temperature, darlin’?” “A hundred and one.” It reflects a daily conversation that occurred between the main characters of the song. The way Rosanne sings it just draws you in, and the song gets better from there.
  2. Fault Lines (Tom Petty and Mike Campbell) – This song reminds me of why I fell in love with rock n’ roll music. From Mike Campbell’s opening guitar riff to Tom’s expressive, reedy vocals, this song just kicks. “I’ve got a few of my own fault lines…running under my life.” Well, don’t we all. Turn up the volume on this one!
  3. Protection (Lucinda Williams) – Alright, a confession. I love Lucinda Williams. On her 2014 release, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, this song especially grabs me, but I could have also listed East Side Of Town, Burning Bridges, West Memphis, or almost any other song on this 2-disc set. Protection has a swampy-sounding guitar (courtesy of Stuart Mathis), a kick-ass rhythm track (thank you Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher), and those classic Lucinda vocals to go along with her always finely written lyrics. She needs protection from, “the enemies of love,” from “the enemies of kindness,” from “the enemies of soul.” I need protection from playing this song one too many times.
  4. American Kids (Shane McAnally, Rodney Clawson & Luke Laird) – This fantastic song, recorded by Kenny Chesney, is impossible to get out of your head. I mean, you just want to sing the chorus over and over again at the top of your lungs. This was the most unforgettable top 40 country tune of the year. “Growin’ up in little pink houses, makin’ out on living room couches, blowin’ that smoke on Saturday night, a little messed up, but we’re all alright.” Hey!
  5. Homegrown Honey (Darius Rucker, Nathan Chapman & Charles Kelley) – This is another country top 40 hit that is hard to get out of your head. Darius Rucker is masterful at knowing how to pick songs that take best advantage of his vocal style and his ability to bridge more traditional country sounds with evolving trends in newer country music. This one has a killer instrumental track and is rhythmically arresting. “Honey, honey, honey, you’re so money, money, money, you got a country road Carolina soul…”
  6. Talk Myself Out Of Falling In Love With You (Foster/Sampson/McCormick) – It may not be one of the the more heralded releases of 2014, but Radney’s newest effort, Everything I Should Have Said, reminds us that sometimes even the best artists/songwriters struggle to get the recognition they deserve. Radney’s been doing it for a long time. He didn’t pen this one, but many of the songs on this album are his. This cut is a beautiful tale of a man scared of commitment and of falling in love.
  7. Automatic (Miranda Lambert, Nicolle Galyon & Natalie Hemby) – This song won all of those awards for a reason… it’s damn good. My favorite part of this song is when she says, “Yeah!” right after she sings, “Automaaaatic.” As a singer I doubt that she’s faking that…she’s feeling it, and that is what really sells the song – it feels honest.
  8. King Of Broken Hearts (Jim Lauderdale) – This song has been released before by Jim and by George Strait, but Jim included it on his newest release, I’m A Song. The melody line in the verse just knocks me out every time. I’m gonna learn how to play this song just so I can sing it. It’s tricky, but so beautiful…
  9. When A Woman Goes Cold (Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters) – I love New Orleans, and the studio version of this song just reminds me of that swampy, spooky, down home feeling you get walking down Royal Street in the rain at night. Few writers today have the lyrical skills that Mary possesses. This is a tale of losing a lover…it hurts to listen, but it’s so good. The live versions you can find on YouTube make you want to find her next show and buy a ticket.
  10. Stripes (Brandy Clark) – Ok, I’m cheating on this a bit, because Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories album was technically released in 2013. But, 2014 was really the year that people finally realized how incredibly talented she is. Every song on 12 Stories is great but Stripes takes the prize. As a fan of the Netflix show Orange Is The New Black, I insist that they get rid of the current soundtrack song and replace it with Stripes. “‘Cause no crime of passion’s worth a crime of fashion, the only thing saving your life, is I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes.” I wish I wrote that.

Take some time to listen to these if you haven’t already. There are some talented writers and performers out there.

Peace And A Cold Beer,

Craig



New Year’s Thoughts From A Songwriter
January 2, 2015, 10:09 am
Filed under: Musical Notes | Tags: , , , , ,

Jan 1 beach scene

A new year encourages contemplation…What did I make of myself last year? What will I make of the coming year. Am I moving forward? Treading water? Losing ground? The answer for most of us is probably, “Yeah, all those things.” There are things of which we can be proud, things we could have done better, and some things we should not have done and would like to forget. I think that’s how life goes. So here is my “stuff.” What about yours?

Moving Forward

  1. I wrote some of the best songs of my career.
  2. Started working on my next recordings (yes, plural!).
  3. Worked with and met many new songwriters and musicians.
  4. I took multiple songwriting classes, each of which provided an expanded view on the craft and art of songwriting. I could write multiple posts about this – which I probably will in the coming weeks.
  5. Sought and received feedback on my writing from lots of sources, including thoughts from many people I barely know.
  6. Re-started a monthly performing songwriters’ showcase in Baltimore, which gave me the opportunity to hear and learn from a large group of very talented people. It was so much fun putting these shows together…kind of like making a live mix tape. But the biggest payoff – creating a better sense of community among songwriters and musicians. I think that happened and I got a lot out of that.
  7. Had a song selected for a juried CD compilation.

Treading Water

  1. Recorded some new music but did not get around to actually releasing it.
  2. Played a good number of gigs, but have not yet moved on to some of the more prestigious venues I’d like to be playing.
  3. Played with a number of really fine musicians but have yet to find that steady collaborator that I am looking for…you know, that one person with whom you can write and sing and play, and it’s all good.
  4. Even though I improved as a writer, there are many ways that I could have improved even more. I get impatient sometimes.

Losing Ground

  1. Well, I don’t think there are any ways in which I’ve actually regressed, but… time marches on and I’m not getting any younger. So the question (which is really impossible to answer but easy to fret about) is if my rate of forward progress as a songwriter is faster than the rate at which time is running out to do all of the things that I want to do as a songwriter. I try not to think about this too much and put one foot in front of the other… and write!
  2. I may be losing ground in keeping up with all of the new music coming out – especially some of the stuff that doesn’t interest me or strikes me as being contrived by music industry business people who only care about making money. I’ll refrain from being specific here because I’m not into dissing performers and songwriters. And, I am most certainly not against making money. But some stuff just seems so contrived and formulaic… like I said, I may be losing some ground here, but I’m trying. And I also realize that there is always something to be learned from new music no matter how I might judge it – because things change, don’t they?

My Resolutions For 2015

  1. Write better songs.
  2. Write better songs.
  3. Write better songs.
  4. Release some of the recordings I’ve already made and continue to work on (and release) some new ones.
  5. Find more co-writers.
  6. Write better songs.

Oh yeah… and I’ll keep wondering about my rate of forward progress. Happy New Year everyone. Care to share your thoughts on how you’ve moved forward, treaded water, or lost some ground? I’d love to hear them. We all need company on this journey. Is this your first time reading my blog? Then follow me to continue the discussion (click the follow button on the left). Conversation is a good thing.

Peace And A Cold Beer,

Craig

 



New Music From Baltimore Songwriters in 2013

Craig at El Nopalito

Baltimore’s stable of aspiring songwriters seems to grow by leaps and bounds every year. Acts such as J. Roddy Walston and the Business and Beach House get much of the national attention, and they have certainly earned their recognition. Unfortunately, there are many outstanding performing songwriters from Baltimore that do not receive the publicity they deserve. I put out a request through the Facebook page of the Baltimore Songwriter’s Association (BSA) asking for members to respond if they had released new music in 2013. What follows is a brief description of the 2013 releases of BSA members, and a listing without descriptions, of others who responded but are not BSA members. This is by no means an exhaustive listing of what was recorded and released by Baltimore artists, but if you are interested in exploring what is happening on the local songwriting scene, this will get you started. If you like what you hear, these artists would love to see you at their live shows.

2013 Releases by BSA Members

ilyAIMY – Another Life/Another Live
https://squareup.com/market/ilyaimy/another-life-another-live-double-cd

Another Life/Another Live is quintet ilyAIMY’s latest release. Rob Hinkal’s percussive guitar work and Heather Aubrey Lloyd’s grab-your-attention, silky-smooth vocals form the backbone of ilyAIMY’s sound. Kristen Thomas adds outstanding work on cello, Shareef Kellog is a solid piano player, and Rowan Corbett anchors the group’s rhythmic approach to “new folk” music with his inventive approach to cajon, and other assorted bits of percussion.

Songs of note include Oracle, Silent Little Bells, and Elephant Joke. Heather owns the songwriting honors for the first two songs mentioned, while Rob claims rights to Elephant Joke. One suspects, however, that all band members have significant input into the songs, as ilyAIMY presents as a true ensemble rather than a group that serves the direction of its lead singer or guitarist.

Another Life/Another Live is one of the best releases from Baltimore-based songwriters in 2013. It bears repeated listening. And, don’t miss their live show. They never disappoint.

Richard Walton – Cover Me
http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/richardwalton2 or http://www.amazon.com/Cover…/dp/B00BV9JDCK/ref=sr_1_1…

Richard Walton’s newest release, Cover Me, features songs by 60’s, ’70’s & 80’s recording artists including The First Edition, Poco, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, and, Badfinger. If you are searching for updated interpretations of classic songs from earlier decades, Cover Me gets you there. The production is outstanding and the numerous musicians who contribute tracks to these songs are all top-notch performers.

Naked Blue – Weightless
http://www.nakedblue.com/music.html

Jen & Scott Smith released their 5th CD in 2013. Weightless is a collection of pop music gems featuring Jen’s sweet voice and Scott’s classy guitar playing and intricate production. As long time members of the local songwriting community, Naked Blue continue to prove that they are one of Baltimore’s most talented and accomplished acts. Every song on this CD is solid. I especially enjoyed Tilt-A-Whirl, Left Standing, and Charm.

Queen Earth – Adult Contemporary
http://www.amazon.com/Adult-Contemporary-Explicit-Queenearth/dp/B00DOPRKLU/ref=sr_1_3?s=dmusic&ie=UTF8&sr=1-3&keywords=Queenearth

Missy Smith (AKA Queen Earth) has recently located to the left coast, but for many years she was a mainstay of the Baltimore songwriting community. Her latest release, Adult Contemporary, features spare instrumental arrangements of mostly guitar and percussion accompanying her soul-sweet voice. Her songs of personal empowerment, romantic relationships, and social justice are heartfelt. Now that she has relocated, the local songwriting community will miss her contributions. But it’s a small world these days – so I’m sure Baltimore will hear more from Queen Earth in 2014.

Woody Lissauer & Rachel Elise – Faded Name
http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/woodylissauerrachelelise

Faded Name is a 4-song EP released by prolific songwriter/guitarist/producer Woody Lissauer and vocalist Rachel Elise. This is an intoxicating, dreamy collection of songs that would have been a great musical backdrop for the defunct TV series Twin Peaks, or any other dreamy, hard-to-grasp-narrative. And don’t get me wrong – I love these kind of stories, and I think the songs on Faded Name would be an excellent choice as a soundtrack for an art house movie or cutting-edge television series.

Woody also released numerous videos of his work in 2013. The list is provided below.

Will Jenkins – Earth Anthem
http://www.amazon.com/Earth-Anthem-Free-Will-Jenkins/dp/B00CWVDHWS

Earth Anthem is the latest single release from Will Jenkins. It reminds the listener of a 60’s era pop song that might have been released by Stealer’s Wheel (Stuck In The Middle With You) or The Cyrkle (Red Rubber Ball). While the arrangements and production are simple, there is a certain charm to this cut, and it will be interesting to see if Will has more coming for us in 2014.

Mosno Al-Mooseeki – Shukrah My Totem; No Kingdom (Faisal Goes West)
https://soundcloud.com/mosno

Third-world rocker Mosno Al-Mooseeki released 2 singles in 2014. Shukrah My Totem is a song from his upcoming full-length release, Novella. It features Mosno’s rhythmic guitar playing and soulful voice over a middle-eastern melody. No Kingdom begins with a spare rendering of Mosno’s voice and guitar, and continues, accompanied by djembe and beautiful harmony vocals. It will be exciting to hear Novella when it is released and performed in its entirety.

Other 2013 Releases from Baltimore-Area Performing Songwriters

Harlan County Kings
https://www.facebook.com/harlancountykings/app_2405167945

Firekite – Five From Five
http://www.reverbnation.com/firekite

Paul Nitzberg – As Far As I Know
https://soundcloud.com/sam-nitzberg/as-far-as-i-know-final

Dave Cohen – The World Didn’t End Today
https://soundcloud.com/decsounds/the-world-didnt-end-today

John Seay – Old New
http://www.sonicbids.com/band/johnseay/

Woody Lissauer – Video Releases
Woody Lissauer & Rachel Elise – What Are You Waiting For?

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151782601743055

Woody Lissauer – Bent but not Broken
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10152041477413055

Woody Lissauer – The French Garden
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151624335083055

Woody Lissauer – Send in the Clowns
(arr)
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151531351768055

Cubic Feet – PCTV Live from Park City, Utah
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzw3yMF9uHs