Speaking from the Heart: Songwriting 101

Songwriting 101, as Taught by Local Legends
Written by Colleen Ann McNally | Photography courtesy of Cooper & Co Photography; Violet Key Photography

We all have songs that get stuck in our heads, but I have a habit of actually getting stuck on the lyrics. I’m not hooked on simply listening to them, but pouring over them. I’ve long admired — and envied — a songwriter’s ability to cleverly craft words powerful enough to make us listen, empathize and sing along. Their messages transcend such short verses and stick with us for decades.

With a catchy or soulful tune … bam! There’s musical magic. My writing, on the other hand, tends to take many more words to get to the point and rarely sounds as pretty. Speaking of hands, I wouldn’t even know where to properly place mine on a guitar, so crafting a song of my own sounds pretty farfetched, but that hasn’t stopped this idea from evolving out of a closet dream into a tangible reality in 2015. And thanks to the Red Clay Music Foundry (RCMF), I got an early start on making that happen — or at least trying it — in public.

Cooper and Co PhotographyNew Suburban Sound
Founded by Eddie Owen, the RCMF is his own longtime dream coming to fruition, with the help of Gwinnett School of Music and the city of Duluth. Housed below the Red Clay Theatre’s 260-seat listening room, state-of-the-art sound system and bright lights, is a freshly renovated basement filled with classrooms and eager

“Part of the vision of this place and why this is so cool to me is that this physical facility allows for community,
based on the premise of create, collaborate and connect,” said Owen, who has been an integral part of Atlanta’s music scene for more than 30 years. He is also two degrees of separation from one of my most-admired songwriters, John Mayer back when when he played at Owen’s first venue, Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, in 1998.

Now, will I also become a seven-time Grammy award winner? Probably not. But as Owen puts it, “There’s not a person playing in an amphitheater, to sold-out festival stages, to sold-out big rooms that didn’t start somewhere in a little bitty room.”

There are common threads he sees in artists that become successful commercially — and he’s seen many pass through his door — including Jennifer Nettles, Zac Brown, The Indigo Girls, The Civil Wars and more, from his early days at Trackside Tavern in Decatur to his recent venture making suburban cool in Duluth. Owen is humble in the role he played in the beginning of these big stars’ careers.Instead, he believes there is a simple equation to making the jump from his Songwriters Open Mic nights to the top of the Billboard charts.

“Talent, diligence, perseverance, work and being in the right place at the right time,” Owen said. What about some advice for those at the beginner’s level?

“If you want to do it, there’s no such thing as a level,” he said. “If you’re wearing your heart and your soul and your gut in words and in melody, well then, you’re successful. You’ve accomplished a huge goal in being able to do that.”

VKP_4211-2Three Unsuspecting Teachers
With that wisdom in hand, last November, I enrolled in RCMF’s inaugural Songwriters In-The-Round and Songwriting Workshop, bringing local legends Kevin Kinney, Michelle Malone and Levi Lowrey to the stage — and in front of the blackboard.

My first instructor of the night was Kinney, of the Atlanta-based Southern rock band Drivin’ N Cryin’. I had seen
Kinney perform with the band before, but from the back of the crowded, smoke-filled Hummingbird in Macon, Ga. Now, I was sitting in the front row with a clear view of his acoustic guitar that is as old as I am. Nervously scanning the quiet room, I see fellow classmates of all ages — husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, those who have been to Nashville and back — tuned in, notebooks and pens ready, to hear the seasoned songwriter like never before.

I was at ease when the irony of Kinney’s first statement made me laugh: his initial interest in songwriting — he wanted to be a “real” writer, but didn’t have the discipline for longer forms. “I write from a feeling,” the unconventional artist, who actually doesn’t read music, said of his ragamuffin prose. He encourages all ages
to song write — especially hormonal teenagers, as it’s a way to cope with emotion without slamming doors. He admitted he didn’t prepare anything to say, yet kept the class laughing as he fielded their questions before turning his chair over to Lowrey.

A big-bearded man from Dacula, Ga., Lowrey’s look and sound is reminiscent of the Zac Brown Band, and rightly so, as Lowrey signed to Brown’s record label Southern Ground and has co-written with the fellow Georgia artist on a few tracks including “Colder Weather.” For weeks this No. 1 hit was played daily on country stations, but it’s not everyday you get to hear the stories behind what you sing along to on the radio. It’ll give you goose bumps.

Both men were tough acts to follow, but the quick-witted Malone, who totes an impressive recording history, did so with ease.

“Give yourself permission to write whatever you want to write,” Malone answered to a question of overcoming the fear that a song is silly or not good enough to share with others. I turn to a blank page and start scribbling and scratching out, giving it a shot:

I live somewhere between Southern and city girl
but I live to see what’s beyond these walls
I have got notebooks full of half-baked ideas
and I’m trying to make sense of it all…

Like lyrics stuck in my head, the resounding lesson to speak from the heart is resonating in my own. Dreams of Grammy awards aside, that is one resolution I want to keep this year.

The next Songwriting Workshop is Feb. 8 and features Celtic Fiddle Festival. Tickets available at eddieowenpresents.com or 404-478-2749.

Stream all RCMF’s open mic shows live for free at omplive.com.