“Try This At Home”: A fine book and call to action

“I do believe that everyone with any small amount of musical ability has something good to say inside them. At the very least, they have the right to try.”
— Frank Turner, “Try This At Home: Adventures in Songwriting”

Photo of Frank Turner's "Try This At Home" songwriting book atop a dobro guitarNot everybody knows that I have a long, albeit hidden, track record as a songwriter. I’ve been writing songs since before high school, easily dozens of them. Styles range from punk and pop (especially in my teen years) to rock’n’roll and alternative (whatever that means) for my adult life, and most recently folk and blues.

Despite this catalog, I’ve never, ever played one of my own songs for an audience. Many of them probably shouldn’t be because they’re just not good (my earliest ones influenced by U2 and INXS and The Alarm would be dreadfully dated now, at best). Some of them are too personal to let out of the bottle. Too many of them are unfinished. But a handful might be passable at an open mic night.

This backstory, to say nothing of my admiration of his music and writings, dovetailed nicely into buying Frank Turner’s latest book, “Try This At Home: Adventures in Songwriting.” In addition to having several of his records, I also own his entertaining autobiography, “The Road Beneath My Feet.” In his books as in his singing, Frank is brutally honest, charmingly self-effacing and always very engaging.

The book is not exactly what you’d find on the syllabus of a songwriting class in a conservatory. Frank cusses a lot, draws on the lessons of poor behavior and decisions on his part, and doesn’t really get too technical. “Songwriting is an art and a craft,” he notes in the book’s introduction. “While the art part remains appropriately mystical and out of reach, the latter craft side of it can be examined, dissected, practiced and ultimately taught,” even as he next admits he’s not much trained in it.

And so, Frank takes readers through deep dives into the inspiration, structure and timelines of around three dozen songs, from tales of love lost and found to politics to the passing of Vaudeville. For whatever one might think of his music, Frank’s knowledge of world history, musical traditions and the creative process are all first-rate, and you’ll learn something about many different topics in these pages. He’s also one of the best showmen I’ve ever seen, expert at drawing his audiences into the song through call-and-response, singalongs and all kinds of interaction. Not surprisingly, his books similarly draw a reader in close.

A very valuable lesson from this book has been the difficulty for even the best writers of bringing a song from idea to lyrics to arrangement and then a lengthy fine-tuning process. One of my weaknesses in songwriting has been the initial excitement of a piece fading to the point I just want to get it done and then just leaving it. Frank often returns to songs he knows have potential to try to make them better, often trying again and again.

He also talks considerably about having a metaphorical treasure trunk of ideas. For him it’s notepads of everything from a clever turn of phrase to fragments of a tune to a song that he’s written but doesn’t feel complete. He does similar things with chords and arrangements that he later pieces together for finished tracks. It’s advice I give to my students working on ads and other creative projects — generate a bunch of ideas, because you never know if you’ll need them — but I’m bad at in my own life.

If you’re a Frank Turner fan, this is a must-have, obviously. If you’re interested in songwriting and like his style, this could also be useful. I’ve actually started writing pieces of songs — eschewing my normal habit of just writing a song to be done with it and moving on — so it’s already influencing my musical process.

So it’s truth in advertising: If you read this book about trying it at home, there’s a fair chance you actually will.

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