I'm sitting here today with Melissa Ferrick. She's an Associate Professor in the Songwriting Department at Berklee College, but that's probably the least of her accomplishments. That's very kind of you. She is a super famous Indie singer-songwriter who's released 20 records. She has her own record company. She's toured all over the world opening for Morrissey, Joan Armatrading, Ani DiFranco. Weezer. Weezer was a fun one. That was a good one. She's here today to talk about her process in creating a main rhythm part when she's writing songs. So this process is intertwined with arranging, right? Yeah. This is where songwriting and arranging really start to intertwine. So I want to start by just talking about, do you write your song as you write your main guitar part? Do you start from a guitar part? How do you approach this? Yeah. Most of the time I start with all lyric and that comes out of a creative flow, almost diary entry. I have pictures of this process that I've been keeping lately, which is just papers and papers of writing. They basically just get more and more narrow, so they're just more micro, I guess, would be the fancy word for it. So you can see that it's pages of diary entry and then cross entire lines out in the creator editor state that goes back and forth pretty quickly. Then when it gets to a certain width, I start to hear something. Well, I hear something and I can see. I actually don't hear something, I see the rhythm in the words. So you find the rhythm in the words? Yes, I can see it, how it's written, which I talk to students a lot about. Just look at the line. With stresses, we talk about here at Berklee, we use those stresses. I also count syllables. That's an old school way I used to do it. But mostly, before I even think about stresses, or counting syllables, or rhyme schemes, or anything like that, I just look at the line and it helps me intuitively know honestly whether it's going to be a fast song or a slow song. So you play the tempo? Yeah. Then you might find the subdivisions, the feel out of it? So what point do you pick up your guitar and start to build? Right about there. Right about there. So one of the songs that I'll show you, this is a song called Still Right Here, and the first line and second line were, hey big lonely, how much for your body? I had first written it as one long line, hey big lonely, how much for your body? I can't remember the words unless I play it, which I'm sure you do too. So I knew I was just going to repeat it there once I had the first line. So I didn't write them together. I didn't write, hey big lonely, how much for your body? Hey big lonely, how much for control? I just had the first two. But I knew that I wanted it to be like chugga chugga chugga because it was about a car wreck that had happened with a friend. I wasn't in the car, but she got in a car wreck. So that's important to know, I think. There's usually an idea, like a subject. So it's like prosody? So you're using some of the material from the lyric? Yeah. It also sounds so reckless. It's in a weird tuning, so it's sloppy and rattly, and it's fast. So when I separated the line into two pieces, it's almost like when you cut a piece of pie and it's too big a piece, and then you cut it in half again, like when your mother says, "I just want a sliver. You cut the piece and it's always too big for your mother, so you have to cut it again. That's how my mom is. That's how I feel about lines of songs. I try to teach that too, which is what would it look like, what would it sound like, what would it feel like if you just make that three words and then take the other six words and put them down here so you'd have short, long? I'm a big fan of line length. Well, I'm a big fan of the rhythm. I love the description of pulling the rhythm out of the lyric. Yeah. So now, how close is what you're playing right now to what happened when you first wrote the song? It's exactly. Exactly the same. Yeah. So what kind of refinements did you make, if any? Well, I had to find more words. So I only had the first two lines. So now the music might- Yeah. So I only had two lines and then I had a chorus, which I knew because it had the title in it, Still Right Here. So I had written the chorus further down the page, just like I do and I knew in this tuning that I could do this fun. I heard the melody for it and I knew I want to let it take off. I knew I just want let it not be choppy anymore and have it be a reflection of what I would tell them, if I could, to help them understand that no matter how fast they tried to run away from where they are, they're not going to move, really. We have to deal with where we're at. So she was trying to run away, and that was the idea of the car, driving a car too fast. Running away from yourself is only dangerous. So it was. So it really releases in that chorus just the emotional stuff that the person's going through? It's like when you get out of a tunnel when you're driving, and it's like. Well, when you finally get past Chicago and you're headed west. When you finally get on the freeway? Yeah, when it just opens up. So now, did you record this? Yeah. This is actually the single off of an album called Still Right Here. This record did really well. This record came out in 2012. When you recorded it, how did you record it? Did you record the guitar part first or what happened? Yes. I got to do this song with a producer named Alex Wong who I love a lot and Alex's first-gen Chinese, American obviously. He's from Brooklyn, and he was one of these cool Williamsburg dude's. At that time, it was very cool to go to Williamsburg and record. We had worked with Vienna Teng, who I really liked a lot. Oh yes, that's great. He was in a band called Paper Raincoats. He's a national noun. I sent a lot of students down to him. He's a drummer. So because he's a drummer, I wanted to just bring my song to someone and say "I just want to play the guitar and sing. Do whatever you want with it." Because at that point I had relatively recently produced an album of my own with a bunch of musicians like Julia Wolfe and stuff. I had a lot of talented musicians, but I was in charge of a lot of it and I didn't want to be. When I went in and I played him the song, and we did exactly what we're talking about, which is I just played and sang it. You played the guitar down, you did a vocal and then he built a track around it. Yes. Actually, what I always do first is I play and sing at the same time. I don't record them separately. Separately, because it breaks up the vibe. I don't play or sing the same way. No, most people, most songwriters. Yes. But it was to a click, I'm really good at playing to a click, which took a long time. Not a tambourine or shaker, just a straight click, like a coordinate click? Yes. Clean shot like a dry stick. That part is doing all the work. It's basically telling us everything about the subdivisions and the rhythm. How did he play drums to that or how did he arrange the drum? The whole beginning which is, [inaudible] just claps and then when I went, he just kick [inaudible] that's it, [inaudible] nothing else, [inaudible] for the drums, because I'm doing everything else. Then when he goes, I didn't want any symbols anywhere until the bridge. Because my guitar kind of like the wallflower song, one headlight which is a great example of a song without any crashed symbols on it. You can really hit the one with other instruments and with a vocal. Drummers create the crash all the time on the one. Crash takes up a lot of real estate. Last for ever. So it was approach that was written around your part and your part is really specific to you that you play guitar in this way. Do you think that's from being a solo performer or what do you think is the reason for that? I think the combination of being a classical violinist. I started playing violin when I was five and I took lessons till i was 13, that's a long time. I started playing trumpet when I was in first grade. That's what got me to Berklee. I was here on a topic scholarship. I also played bass, I took lessons from Rich [inaudible] who is retired now. So I think the combination of classical and jazz and I remember with [inaudible] here, he was my trumpet teacher here and he's the one that said to me "Do you sing?" I was "I hadn't told anyone that I sang." But I had been writing these little songs and I was embarrassed to tell him I sing. Because I thought I was here because I was supposed to be a trumpet player. I said "Well, yeah a little bit" He said "You played trumpet like a singer, you should sing. " I had bought a guitar my first day of school here with my parents. You never played before? No. Well, my aunt had a lick up. She gave me an acoustic guitar but it was completely action was out to hear and I was more interested in the bass, because it was like fancy and blue. Plus it's one note at a time. Yeah. I taught myself how to play guitar. I bought the music for 99 red balloons and I taught myself those five chords, and then I bought a [inaudible] , then I wrote a 160 songs with those in different tempos and all over the neck of the guitar and different melodies. I think that that's what made me begin to be a good melody writer and also be able to write really good bridges. I do write good bridges and those are hard to write. I only have these four chords. So you didn't have that many, so yeah. I had to start on different notes. But the style is very specific. But what I'm trying to get at here for our students in our class is that you're sculpting the rest of the arrangement around the way that you playing guitar, and you're not really changing your parts of very much to accommodate. So I have another question, have you ever written on any other instruments? Yeah, bass. Bass. You are on bass. A ukulele, I have a baritone ukulele I wrote one song on that, that's it. Do you ever replay? Has it ever been where you made a record and the guitar part wasn't the main thing in the song? No. So it's always, that's your sound, which is just having the way that you play guitar front and center. Yeah. Which is something that we're not going to get into this but yeah. It's something that has recently bothered me but it's hard for other people to let me, honestly. Because I've been doing this for so long and it's like a thing that I am. People don't want to not let me do that, which is odd like my fan bass. What's your sound? I have tried to put out a couple electronic. [inaudible] no they don't like it. I'm not really talking about electronics so much, it's just replacing, some people will replace their main [inaudible]. Sure, with like piano I think what we're trying to get people to understand is that there are a bunch of different ways to do this. Totally. Your way is a really classic songwriter path, which is to develop a really distinctive style. Both in the way that you sing and the way that you write and then create the arrangements. I think what you said earlier is true which is that because I do play so rhythmically, it is unnecessary for me to have a band when I play live and in some ways detrimental. So because I am playing all of the notes so to speak, there really isn't any room. It's hard to find a drummer who can play with me because they generally need to play not like a drummer, not like a like a taut drummer and they need to learn to play less. Another example of when I was at Berklee when I first started playing and had my style coming to the drummer that I worked with was Abe Laboriel Jr., we were in school together here. Now he's wicked famous, but at the time, we were both kids and he said that the reason why he liked to play with me, which is so sweet, is that I was the hardest person to play with, because I played so much and I would ask him to do things like just one, two, kick, there was no filling that I wanted. I hear that on a lot of younger writers stuff especially when you're starting to produce around it. If you are a lyric centered, melody centered writer, it's important to not cover up the honesty with a bunch of other instruments, because you're afraid for your truth to be heard. I think that that is something that I'm good at, only because it was forced on me. I couldn't afford to have a band. Well, I think that's a that's a reality for a lot of people.