Songwriting – Duncan Haskell

Songwriting – Freelance Writer Duncan Haskell
on Music Journalism, Lyrics and Poetry

Can you give us a bit of background to your work as a freelance writer?

I have always written… for myself, for friends and for family members. At the same time, I secretly harboured ambitions to make a career of it. Unfortunately, a giant self-doubt-shaped monster constantly held me back from pursuing the possibility in any meaningful way.

Then, in 2013, one of my best friends recommended that I wrote something for a storytelling competition that was being run by a magazine called Pretty Nostalgic. Taking her advice, I entered a tale about a giant called Oswin the Last and was selected as one of the winners.

It was a great confidence boost and, more tangibly, led to me being asked to contribute articles for a couple of other publications. At the point when strangers were approaching me to write for them, and even pay me, the monster became a lot easier to vanquish (though he does still surface from time to time).

Those opportunities enabled me to dip my toes in the freelancing waters. The television company I worked for at that time (in a finance role) very kindly allowed me to drop down to a Mon-Thurs contract, freeing me up to then get ankle deep in words every Friday. After a year of this situation I had enough work to be able to leave the office job behind and write for a living – eight days a week.

I also have to credit having a VERY supportive wife, Helen, who never once baulked at me dropping a day’s work, or completely changing career path at an age when most people are set for life. Her encouragement made such steps seem a lot less slippery or unsteppable. She’s also the first pair of eyes on everything I write, thus saving me from plenty of typo embarrassment down the years.

What motivates you to write about music?

I’ve been involved in music in some capacity for as long as I can remember. A lifetime ago, a friend and I used to run a music blog (MusicTruth) and host a regular live night in Brixton, London. I wish we’d continued it for a bit longer, we could have been Pitchfork.

Even though music is not the only thing I write about, it’s probably the one which feels most natural. I wouldn’t say that I am much of a critic, more a champion of the things I love. I’m far more motivated by shouting from the rooftops about something I can’t shake out of my head than I am by taking a crap on something that’s not my bag. That said, everything isn’t awesome and you have to acknowledge that in order to be taken seriously in any critical field.

Working for Songwriting Magazine is also a great opportunity to peak behind the magician’s curtain. Most of the time the artists that I’m interviewing will tell me that a song, “just arrives,” and I enjoy the challenge of trying to prize that statement open and see what it actually means – usually thousands of hours of practice, mistakes and tough life lessons which allow that writer to arrive at the place where a song will land in their lap.

Which artists/songs stand out to you for their lyricism?

I love a lyric which is able to communicate something universal through details which are very specific to its writer. The first song that comes to mind is Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe. You’ve most likely not been to Chickasaw County, nor dined on blackeyed peas and biscuits, but you can wholly sympathise with the feeling of a secret love and traumatic loss. There’s also the added element of mystery – what was thrown off that bridge?

There are plenty of great lyricists with that same knack: Morrissey, Randy Newman, Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, the list goes on…

How do you think the craft of lyricism compares to other forms of writing such as poetry?

At their most basic, both form are masters of conveying meaning and emotion within a restricted structure, but for some reason lyrics can be more direct without sounding trite or corny.

If you write down a set of lyrics and read them aloud they often come across as saccharine, rudimentary and a little embarrassing, even something as iconic as John Lennon’s Imagine. Then, when set to music, those same words will stir you.

Of course, there are some people who easily straddle both worlds, the Nobel Prize-winning Mr Dylan being the most obvious example. And perhaps that’s what elevates his writing – words which could function equally well in a novel, script, poem or song.

What would be your main piece of advice to others who are considering writing about the craft of songwriting?

It would be the same advice as I have for anyone wanting to write about anything… Believe in yourself. Believe that all the work you’ve done honing your craft, finding your voice and completely understanding the field that you want to work in will make you an attractive proposition to any publisher looking for the next great writer. It’s in you, go let it out.

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National Writing Day is led by First Story and partners across the UK.