Ask a writer what inspires them and often the answer you’ll get is music. Naturally, I’m curious about the artists behind these inspiring songs. I recently poked my nose into the Nashville area and asked the gorgeous voice and richly talented songwriter, Julie Butler, to sit down and have a chat about her “songwriter” self. Her answers blew me away. Be sure to check out the lyrics she wrote about mermaids at the end! Yes, she’s pretty fabulous.
Me: Hi Julie! Let’s jump on in the water. Can you start things off by sharing a little about your “artist self”?
Julie: Carlene, my artist self and my “daily-grind self” struggle with each other on a regular basis. There is some very real pain connected to my creativity. There’s guilt (for not doing enough creatively). There’s a lack of confidence (because my mom is the creative one – not really, but I thought so for many, many years.) There’s shame (because I always thought I would be DOING SOMETHING BIG (LOL) and making my living doing something creative instead of working in the corporate world. There’s also guilt because I never finished college, and I believe that has held me back creatively.
My artist self is extremely shy and she lacks confidence. But she has a lot to say and is becoming more and more impatient with me holding her back! I’m thrilled that you asked for my input on “Bring a Songwriter to the Pond.”
Me: What is the secret to conveying so much in so few words?
Julie: Somewhere along the way I learned that one of the secrets to songwriting is to make every sentence and every word reflect the essence of the song. So, the first thing I do is determine the main idea of the song I want to write; usually the easy part (for me). Then I try to visualize what that idea looks like; I visualize a character representing the idea.
Sometimes the character is based on someone I know. Sometimes the character is completely fictional. Sometimes the character is a combination of truth and fiction. For my song, “Superman,” I had this idea of a high-powered business man who was successful in business but a failure in relationships. So I began imagining what this would look like. I decided that he would be tan, handsome, perfect teeth, rich, and so much smarter than “the little guys.” I knew he would drink expensive coffee, but I also knew that he would not have a clue how to relate with his teenage daughter. So, it starts out with a general idea, and the song is formed when I start breaking down the general ideas into descriptive specifics.
The main idea of “Superman” is that although we may think we are in charge of our lives, and we may take pride in “doing all the right things,” there are some things that we don’t control. And we might be focusing on things that are shallow, and we may very well live to regret the decisions we made about what was/is “important.”
You are perfection, you are the plan
The little guys don’t get the things you understand
Your beautiful smile looks so good – with your tan
What makes you think
You deserve all the things that you think you deserve?
My, how absurd.
You honestly think you’re a self-made man?
Nice try – try again.
You’re no – Superman.
Your precious possessions, do they include
Your 14-year-old daughter who’s coming unglued
Maybe four-dollar coffee will brighten your mood
Precious, invisible grace keeps us safe and we’re hopeless
You can like it or love it
Deny it – what of it?
We’re helpless without it
Grace has allowed you this place.
Me: How do you decide what to share with the world and what to keep for yourself?
Julie: This is a great question. I am still trying to figure this out. My writing so far has been an outlet for my hidden artist who has never felt comfortable out in public. I feel that my artist self is the “real” me, but she is not known by everyone. I recorded five songs I wrote, and when I shared them with a couple of high school friends, they responded with, “Are you alright?” My songs tend to be introspective and serious, and I don’t think people really want that from me. It’s a real struggle. When I used to sing around town trying to get something going, I always felt like people wanted me to sing “happier” songs, but I usually feel like a fraud when I write a happy song. They always end up sounding fake to me. I struggle to write a “happy” song that still contains the edge I want.
I have a blog, but I’ve not shared it with anyone (yet). This whole sharing/not sharing subject is something I think about often. Anna (Julie’s aunt, Carlene’s step-mom) has read a couple of my writings. One of them is called “Heaven’s Waiting Room,” and I’ve completed a few chapters so far. I’ve thought maybe enrolling in a writing class would help direct me and give me some structure and deadlines.
One more thought about how to decide what to share and what not to, is that much of my writing and ideas have come from a painful childhood with a parent who is not emotionally healthy. As brutal as this sounds, I think I probably will not allow my writing to become public until my mom has passed away. As much as I would love to reconcile the two worlds, I just don’t know if I can.
Me: Do you plot a song like a novelist plots a story? Is there an editing process you go through with your lyrics?
Julie: Although music is in my blood, I do not read or write music. I took piano lessons from a songwriter in my 20s, and I used simple chords to write some beginning songs back then when I had a piano. Later, I used an “Open G” tuning (like Dolly Parton does) on guitar which made it possible for me to write songs on guitar. With an open G tuning, you don’t have the difficult fingering required with standard tuning. For example, in an open G tuning, you can strum the strings with no fingers on the neck of the guitar and you get a G chord. (I hope this makes sense.) Anyway, all of that to basically say I do not consider myself a musician, but I can play guitar and piano well enough to write songs.
To speak to your question about plotting the song and editing, my process starts with an idea, such as a social issue; or an emotion I felt when a person I trusted hurt my feelings; or an observation about life. For me, a song is ALL about the lyrics. My favorite writers are Alanis Morrissette, Mindy Smith, Patty Griffin, and Shawn Colvin. On the other hand, I love pop artists like Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga, but I don’t write those types of songs. My songs are singer/songwriter style. My process is not the same as the writers on Music Row who work 8-5 writing songs. I’m one of those “therapy” writers — the songwriting helps me process my concerns, social convictions, and emotions.
The very first step for me is to write one sentence that tells the main idea. Then I write stream of consciousness ideas that relate to the main idea. Then I usually write a verse and see how the words and flow come together for the first verse. The tricky part is finding equally interesting verses that follow the same format and poetic flow as the first verse.
Usually the chorus is repetitive and simple (in an attempt to create a catchy hook). Sometimes the chorus will end up as a string of words that sound interesting together AND say what I want them to. For example, in “Superman,” the chorus starts with “What makes you think you deserve all the things that you think you deserve….” I liked the way those words flowed together AND the words conveyed the idea I wanted them to.
For the most part, editing my songs is usually ongoing as I’m writing the song. After I establish the idea I want to convey, and after I do the stream-of-consciousness writing, I go back and pull out the things I want to try to incorporate into the song in an interesting way. This is also where most of the editing takes place.
Me: Is there an element you know you have to get right, for example emotion, sentiment, sound, message, theme, story in order for the song to work?
Julie: The answer(s) to this question really depends on who you ask. I have no idea if my answers are typical or not, but here goes. For me the most critical piece is that each lyric be interesting, AND paints part of the picture of the main idea, AND is being said in a unique way. I really want to people to feel emotion when they hear my songs. I want people to go, “Hmmm. That’s clever,” or “That’s funny,” or “That’s sad.”
Me: Do musicians have similar contrasting feelings about the evolution of music into the digital age as authors do with their books? Comparing holding a physical record or CD in your hands, something you made, to knowing the benefits that digital media offer as far as ease and speed of sharing your work with listeners/readers?
Julie: I am thrilled with the digital age and how it affects my music. I’m so happy to live in a time where I can self-publish one or more of my songs, upload it to iTunes, and share it with people instantly. I also enjoy seeing how new artists are being “discovered” on “You Tube,” etc. I think it’s wonderful that people can enjoy the talent of artists who would not otherwise have an opportunity to showcase their talent through a more traditional method.
Me: As a songwriter, do you feel more personally exposed sharing your lyrics than maybe an author writing a fictional story? Or are songs often fictionalized as well?
Julie: I absolutely feel exposed sharing my lyrics, especially when I am performing a song live (which I have not done in many years). Some of my songs are a combination of fiction AND personal experiences; but there is always a feeling of vulnerability when I share my music with people. But there is also something in me that wants to become completely comfortable with that. I so admire the artists I mentioned above because of this very thing. Can you imagine how exposed Alanis Morrissette felt sharing her first big single with the world? Have you listened to the lyrics of “You Oughtta Know?” I can only imagine how good it would feel to put yourself out there like that and not apologize for it AND have people love your work. The fear in me is always, “What if I share myself and people think I’m weird?” Now that I’m 48, it is a little easier to care less what people think, but it’s still hard. I am still trying to help my shy little artist shine confidently!
Me: Musicians are often the subjects of novelists’ stories. How many bluesy, guitar-strapped-across-his-back heroes have strutted across the pages? How many punk rock, attitude-served-up-on-a-prickly-stick heroines have been written to deconstruct the poor boy next door? Do songwriters tend to write about a certain type of person? A tortured lover or a girl trying to make her way in the world?
Julie: Again, my answers are not necessarily typical of staff songwriters. My songs are usually written from an observation I’ve made as I’ve “people-watched” at a restaurant or the mall. Sometimes my songs are written because I got my feelings hurt. Sometimes my songs stem from something a person has told me about their life. In that case, I “change the names to protect the innocent,” so to speak. I will create a different scenario with the same dynamics.
Me: What is more powerful for you, a song about a moment or the big picture?
Julie: Definitely a song about a moment. Although I enjoy writing about the big picture, it is harder to write something interesting and credible about the big picture. However, if I take a “big picture” idea and think of day-to-day examples of that idea, that can be powerful.
Me: Last but not least, if you were asked to write a song about an encounter with a mermaid (merman if you like), how would it begin?
Julie: Hmmm.Yikes! Okay, here goes:
The shadows hid your beauty ’till now
The water is your home
Those of us who live up here
May have never known
The secret world you know below
Your shiny scales of blue with gold.
Me: Julie, this is AWESOME!!!
Whatever our similarities and differences, I know the songwriter/musician is an essential component to a novelist’s artistic expression and very often the muse that drives the words onto the page. I think that means I owe you a big ole THANK YOU!
Check out Julie’s song, Superman, available on iTunes by Julie Butler!
By the way, don’t forget to enter the Waterworld Mermaid ghost story giveaway! To celebrate our month of ghost stories, the Waterworld Mermaids are giving away a trick or treat bag full of goodies for every reader that includes books, candy, swag and a $25 gift certificate! Enter here.