Our regular feature Songwriting 101 is devoted to the craft itself, so whether you're a seasoned pro or just starting out or simply interested in hearing songwriters talk about their songs then you most likely will enjoy the series.
Last week we featured an insightful two-part interview with Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket. Other songwriters have included: Mason Jennings and New York indie songwriters Alina Simone and Martin Rivas, among others. (Martin will discuss the writing of his latest record Reliquary next week.) Each songwriter has explored his/her influences and the manner in which he/she "makes music." Some even offer friendly advice to aspiring songwriters.
Today, we'll chat with a talented songwriter, Mark Doyon of Waterslide, whose latest record, Lincoln Signal, was released on June 19. When Mark's not creating stellar records with Waterslide, he's busy as the creative director of Wampus Multimedia, a music label, ebook publisher, and identity and branding group.
What was the first piece of music that inspired you to write music of your own?
It was “The Mighty Quinn” – not Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo,” but Manfred Mann’s version. My parents had a hit compilation in their LP stacks I used to cue up when I was 6 or 7. The arm on their Webcor turntable had an electrical short in it, and it would give me a little shock every time I picked it up. But I loved the song – the story, the chorus – and would just ignore these little jolts I got when I played it. “Everybody’s in despair / every girl and boy / but when Quinn the Eskimo gets here / everybody’s gonna jump for joy.” I already knew music meant more to me than a lot of other things.
What particular song has had an impact on your songwriting?
The songs that really shook me were “I Am the Walrus” and “Come Together.” I heard them on a friend’s blue Beatles (1967-1970) album and thought, “God, what the hell is that? What’s an ‘eggman’? Who is ‘old flat top’? Oh my God.”
Sometime in the early ‘70s I heard The Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare” and it just spun my head around. On FM they played the album track with the lengthy bridge rather than the edited version for Top 40. It was only years later that I could hear the Roger McGuinn inflections in my songs. And it was only after pining forever for a 12-string guitar that I even realized it was because it reminded me of “Chestnut Mare.”
What was the first song you wrote that you were proud of?
Well, songs to me are like friends who come to stay. I have affection for the closest ones. There’s a song on my first album called “Riverboat Dream.” It’s about making your way in the world as a young person, not knowing where you’re going or why, and watching your life unfold like a long, slow riverboat trip through a thick jungle. It had this laughing-while-crying tension I delved into later in my songs.
Dick Drake appears to be a character you have been ruminating on for some time. What was the impetus for the character?
I was thinking about how people are often misunderstood, and how it can isolate them from others. I spun the old Animals' song – “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good / oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” I thought about weird outsiders like Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh and Jared Loughner, and wondered if they believed they were doing good in some twisted way. I thought it would be interesting to map the emotional interior of a person like that – their vulnerabilities, their frailties, the familiar things about them others would identify with. If they meant well, did it matter at all? If they were just wounded humans – rather than cartoonish “monsters” – how would we classify them then?
The album's concept is quite literary. What literary character would you say Dick Drake is most like?
Well, he’s alienated and wounded, but he’s also empathetic, almost to a fault. He cares deeply for others. There are a lot of characters like him in literature – Holden Caulfield, Stephen Dedalus, Frederick Exley, Batman. I think of this kind of character as the “empathetic misanthrope.” You’ve seen him in rock – Warren Zevon, Lou Reed, Tonio K. He cares more about you than the guy with the platitudes does. He cares enough to take a good swing at you.
You played every instrument on the album. Is there one in particular that posed a challenge for you?
All of them, really. I’ve learned to play instruments mostly to write songs. When I play all the parts, it sounds sort of like a band of quadruplets jamming. Very focused. I’d like to be a great guitar player, but I’m really just someone who writes songs and happens to perform them, too.
What instrument did you use to compose the songs for Lincoln Signal?
I usually write on acoustic guitar. I branched out a little on this album, writing some songs, like “In Your Sunday Colors,” on piano. I wrote “Hadrian’s Wall” on a mandolin. I came up with “Off Grid on Target” on a Parker Fly cranked through a Booker V12. Sometimes good things happen (not usually) when you’re drinking a Fat Tire or two with the “record” light on.
What advice would you give to an aspiring songwriter?
Be yourself. Work hard. Forget about money. Ape the classics if you want, steal from the best if you want, but don’t abandon who you are or give less than you can. You are better at being you than anyone else will ever be. And not to discourage you, but nobody cares yet about your songs. They might not care for a long time. It’s your responsibility to inspire people to care, to awaken them.