In late July songwriter, composer and University of Auckland music lecturer Stephen Matthews attended the international 2016 ISME music educators’ conference in Glasgow. He was asked to share his thoughts on creative projects that help songwriters find a personal and authentic musical voice.
I have been fortunate to mentor songwriters and vocalists at the University of Auckland for quite a few years now. And what a privilege it is to be part of such a loyal community of 50 plus committed songwriters who on a daily basis write together, perform together and genuinely look out for each other. One of the rewards for me is jamming out new ideas with the students, making sure they get lots of feedback and giving their new songs the attention and care they deserve.
Last year I began to investigate what other songwriting teachers are doing overseas, researching online, and where possible, travelling to meet them.
I discovered some great courses but as I learnt more about the ever-growing number of tertiary songwriting courses offered around the world, I started thinking. Is this really a good thing, after all, following the birth of rock ’n’ roll, songwriters and bands were doing just fine without them weren’t they?
My own experience as a young musician had taught me that formal structured learning has the potential to crush freethinking and creativity. So really the onus is on the teachers to get it right, to lead innovative and creatively stimulating courses. Earlier this year an opportunity came up to share these ideas and concerns at the 2016 ISME international music education conference in Glasgow.
Stepping out of the train, I glance up at the enormous glass ceiling suspended high above me. I have just arrived at Glasgow’s historic central train station. Over the next six days I will be meeting many musicians, songwriters and educators from around the world. On the last day I am honoured to be leading a workshop titled, ‘Ancestral song narratives: Exploring the intrinsic links that connect us to our past’ and talking about writing protest songs, ‘A change is gonna come: Composing songs to challenge the status quo’. I also plan to catch several gigs and meet some local bands and songwriters—the vibrant live music scene in Glasgow is legendary!
My hotel, ctizenM, is in easy walking distance of dozens of live music venues. After the initial meet and greet sessions, I wander down to attend the conference’s opening concert. For me the final set was the highlight, a fusion of traditional Scottish tunes – played at a blinding pace by a group led by the Scottish folk music legend Phil Cunningham – accompanied by a super-sized horn section called Braw Brass. It was an unforgettable musical statement about where we were.
Day two started with a brunch meeting with a friend and fellow muso from the States, Andy Krikun — Andy teaches at the Bergen Community College just south of New York City. Andy and I have been collaborating on a new songwriting project for our first year students. After 10 months of online talks, this is the first time we had sat face-to-face and had a real conversation.
Later that afternoon I finished my preparation for the ancestral song workshop. At the workshop each songwriter will compose a song based on a family event or story they personally feel drawn to. This idea was born from the idea that young songwriters can benefit from learning more about themselves, where they come from, and who their families are.
This whakatauki helps explain the idea; e kore e taka te parapara ā ōna tūpuna, tukua iho ki a ia – she cannot disinherit the talents of her ancestors, they will descend upon her. In other words we cannot escape the influence of those who have gone before us – they have helped mould us, define us.
I was asked to talk at the first meeting of the popular music educators — there were five of us speaking, each representing their country. I spoke about the music scene in Aotearoa NZ and the arts school model we use at the university’s Popular Music programme. How we aim to treat each songwriter as a unique individual on a quest to find his or her own distinctive musical voice. Our students are continually encouraged to experiment, to take risks, to explore ideas that sit outside their comfort zone.
The Scottish flair for producing alternative music has been cultivated by the city’s buoyant live music scene. The numerous basement music venues and bars are the backbone of this scene, clustered along a few streets in the historic central city precinct, most within easy walking distance of each other. The staunch audience they garner fuels musical experimentation and an attitude among local musicians of ‘give it a go’.
After a day of workshops, my first night out got off to a shaky start. The whole group I was with were banned from entering The Howlin’ Wolf by the two Glaswegian bouncers. A couple of our new found Finnish friends had unknowingly gotten us barred. Lesson – while in Glasgow avoid walking the streets drinking from an open bottle.
Singer/songwriter Joan Armatrading MBE was one of the conference keynote speakers. Her incredible career has spanned over 40 years. Armatrading gave a poignant account of her upbringing in the West Indies, her arrival in the UK at age seven, the release of her first hit song in 1972 and then the many highlights of her career so far. She told us how she was incredibly shy when she first started out, and yet, she was very confident and sure about her music. Against her record company’s wishes she kept her real name, didn’t dress up in a “girly” way or sing songs that she had not written. She said, first and foremost I am a songwriter. “I will never retire. I write because I love it.”
John Rush, a local Glasgow singer songwriter, organises a weekly songwriters’ circle every Monday at the hotel citizenM. Rush and I first got talking at one of the hotel’s bars. Our light-hearted introductions soon took a philosophical turn – a thoughtful exchange on life as a songwriter, coveting success, letting go of ego and how to find an authentic musical voice. Rush was upbeat and positive about the wealth of opportunities for singer songwriters and original bands in Glasgow.
He talked about the close-knit musical community in Glasgow explaining that he and other solo artists readily support fellow muso’s and share the international contacts they have accumulated over the years. This sounded like what NZ musicians do for each other – while overseas the tyranny of distance from home strengthens the bond of connection. Another example of grass roots support for Glaswegian music is the Scottish Alternative Music Awards (SAMA). These awards are a celebration of Scottish underground music established in 2009 by university music student Ricky Muirhead. During our conversation John’s generosity of spirit shone. At the end he offered to help any NZ singer songwriter or band that wanted to visit Glasgow. He said, “Get in touch!”
The final day and I had my workshop at 10am in a drama studio. The participants were from five different countries. We sat in a close circle, talking, responding and writing lyrics. Each participant chose to share his or her personal family story with absolute honesty – the heartache, the struggle, the loss and hope. The workshop turned out to be an incredibly moving experience.
The venue for the talk was quite different — it was held in a large concert space, beginning at 2.30pm. There were around 20 in attendance. I spoke in te reo Māori and te reo Pākehā — for me this was as much a political as a cultural statement. I spoke about Aotearoa’s long tradition of protest songs, from the waiata written during the 19th Century land wars through to songs such as DLT and Che Fu‘s Chains. ‘Come test me like a bomb straight from Murda-roa, how comes I got Cyclops fish in my water?’
We listened to a couple of the uni student’s protest songs and I read out their comments. “It was satisfying to release frustration about the topic I did not previously realise I felt!” and “I realised I am not able to make a difference without speaking out.”
My time in Glasgow left a lasting impression. The numerous conversations I had with the many thinkers, educators and musicians I met, and the sheer character of the city especially its inspired musical life.