By Patrick Sullivan
For some young string players, the first steps into songwriting can feel terrifyingly akin to walking off a cliff. Carrie Rodriguez remembers it well.
After the Austin-born singer-songwriter begged her mom for a violin at age five, the instrument became the center of her childhood. Rodriguez raced down the classical track through her first year at Oberlin, before embracing fiddling and songwriting.
The transition wasn’t easy.
“I felt very insecure,” she recalls. “There is so much perfection needed in classical music, and that doesn’t really go with songwriting.”
Today Rodriguez is a globetrotting star who has made a whole lot of music by herself and in collaboration with everyone from Lucinda Williams to Los Lobos.
But her struggles—and those of fellow violinists Amanda Shires and Carla Kihlstedt—offer valuable insights to string players turning to songwriting.
“My number one piece of advice is, don’t be afraid to not know what you’re doing at first,” Rodriguez says. “It’s important not to get hung up on what you don’t know. That can block you.”
Rodriguez often starts her own songwriting process by holding her violin like a guitar. “I start finding some chords I like, and I don’t worry about what they are,” she says. “Just start strumming and see where that takes you.”
The best songs, she says, come from further back in your consciousness—often while you’re doing something else. Inspiration once struck her at a John Prine concert. “I was so moved by his honesty and simple language,” Rodriguez recalls.
“The [songs with potential will] keep you up at night. The rest are like compost—totally useful, but in a more roundabout way.”
So she went home and wrote. The result was “The West Side,” her lyrical, painfully frank account of being one of the only Mexican-American kids in an affluent white neighborhood.
Of course, Rodriguez notes, you often can’t wait for inspiration. Songwriting is a discipline—a point driven home in recent months as she crafted songs for a new musical premiering in 2019.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. But it also underscored the distinctive joys of songwriting with a violin.
“Whatever you come up with your stringed instrument is going to be so unique from what a guitar would produce,” Rodriguez says. “Don’t ever shy away from that. Embrace your string-playerness.”
The greatest songwriting challenge facing Amanda Shires of late has been short and giggly—her two-year-old daughter.
The Nashville singer-songwriter has been crafting songs professionally for some 15 years. She’s played the violin since age ten, when she picked up her first instrument in a Texas pawn shop.
But, as Shires discovered, having a toddler changes everything. While crafting songs for her forthcoming fifth album—To the Sunset—Shires tried to keep working in her home office, with her kid running in and out. “It was fun, but I was not getting much done,” she says with a laugh.
So, with her husband watching her daughter, Shires relocated to the bedroom closet. She spent hours in there, taping half-finished works to the walls of the tiny room and the bedroom beyond.
It was the first time Shires had displayed her intimate, uncompleted songs where others could see. That yielded unexpected benefits.
“It led to comments and questions from my husband and my friends,” Shires says. “That was fun. And I sort of learned to accept myself and my writing.”
But new songwriters should be strategic about sharing a work in progress.
“Don’t show it to someone who doesn’t believe in your dream,” Shires says. “It’s hard enough to become something crazy like a songwriter. You need to be uncomfortable sometimes, but not to where you quit.”
Shires often starts her songwriting by practicing scales and then experimenting on her instrument. “If something comes out of that, I’ll work on it until I have a story or something to put into words,” she says.
But spend as much time practicing writing as you do playing your instrument, advises Shires, who recently got an MFA in creative writing.
“Finding words to match exactly what you’re thinking takes precision and a lot of practice,” Shires says.
Carla Kihlstedt’s childhood was steeped in the classical violin. “But I started having the wrong heroes early,” Kihlstedt says. “I was blown away by Laurie Anderson when I went to a concert in middle school.”
These days, the Cape Cod–based Kihlstedt is recognized as an innovative violinist-songwriter who has collaborated with the likes of Tom Waits and Fred Frith. She’s currently one-half of the experimental duo Rabbit Rabbit.
When she’s writing for herself as a violinist and a singer, Kihlstedt has her hands on her instrument and a giant piece of manuscript paper where she writes sketches of ideas.
“It’s actually a really sensual process,” Kihlstedt explains. “I feel like writing on the violin is like sculpting with water. It wants to flow in a certain way harmonically and texturally, and I have to let it.”
Indeed, you should let your songs boss you around, Kihlstedt advises. “They’re like children,” she says. “You have lots to learn from them.”
Give yourself sandbox time, she suggests—periods when you’re totally unconcerned with producing an actual song.
One approach: “Write tiny musical postcards to yourself that have no development, just bits of possibility,” she says. “Do one a day for a month.”
Some will beg further development. “They’ll keep you up at night,” Kihlstedt says. “The rest are like compost—totally useful, but in a more roundabout way.”
But don’t toss discipline aside. Songwriting takes work. “Simple is the hardest thing there is,” she says. “It’s harder to say something in ten words than 100.”
Writing a song, Kihlstedt stresses, is about creating a constellation of tiny details that combine to convey something important. Humans, she notes, instinctively connect the dots.
“Your real canvas is not your instrument, but the listener’s body, mind, and memory,” Kihlstedt says. “And you can count on the fact that your listener, if she is like most humans, is creating stories of her own with the smallest details you give her.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Strings magazine.