i’ve scanned a lot of books about songwriting in the book store. most of them seem pretty awful - trying to codify a method for writing “hits” and a formula while ignoring any kind of inspiration or soul or art. and frankly i find more inspiration in other kinds of books unrelated to the actual craft. that said, there are three books specifically about songwriting that i own and love. they are steve gillette’s songwriting and the creative process, jimmy webb’s tunesmith: inside the art of songwriting and paul zollo’s songwriters on songwriting.
steve gillette’s is great because it treats songwriting as an art while also giving practical tips.
jimmy webb’s gets more in to some technical aspects of songwriting. it’s long and he’s very opinionated.
funny story: i used to live in montclair, nj - a nice, artsy town about 12 miles west of new york city. one year i took a semester off of college and worked four jobs at once. one was working in a record store and a second was delivering sandwiches for a deli across the street from the record store. we got an order at the deli to deliver a sandwich to a house on gates avenue (i remember because my parents lived on the corner of gates and south mountain avenues) it was a massive house with a towering trees surrounding it. i rang the doorbell and waited. i rang it again. a man in a bathrobe with long stringy, wet hair opened the door. he apologized for the delay and invited me in while he went to find his wallet. i noticed a large grand piano in the side room to the right which didn’t seem out of place in a home like this. he paid me for the sandwich, tipped me and i went back to work.
i had a shift at the record store after my shift at the deli and mentioned this to some of the older guys at the store. they asked what the name was and i said, “uh…webb or something?”. they were like “that was jimmy webb! he lives in town! you were just inside jimmy webb’s house - he wrote “wichita lineman”, “up, up and away”, “by the time i get to phoenix”, etc!”
i didn’t really know who jimmy webb was at that point but yeah it turns out that was him.
paul zollo’s book is actually a collection of interviews with great songwriters from paul simon to madonna to bob dylan to alanis morissette. paul zollo is a songwriter himself so he asks great questions with minimal fluff. it’s a an interview book geared to songwriters and musicians and admirers of the craft and art of songwriting. it’s inspiring to read about other writers’ processes and the stories behind songs.
also, it’s not about songwriting specifically but steven pressfield’s the war of art is also great (recommended by john mayer on twitter)
maybe there are some you like? let me know because i’ve had these for a while and i’m always looking for great books.