Adam Levy is a craftsman, in his Guitar playing, in his composition, in his lyric writing and in how he thinks about music. Or maybe Master Craftsman would be more appropriate;
Master Craftsman- An aspiring master would have to pass through the career chain from apprentice to journeyman before he could be elected to become a master craftsman. He would then have to produce a sum of money and a masterpiece before he could actually join the guild……
Adam is an incredible Guitar player in all styles. He tells interesting stories in his lyrics with a unique perspective. But, he can tell his story much better than I can….
Current City- Los Angeles, CA
Record Label- Lost Wax Records
Most Recent Release- Portuguese Subtitles (2013).
Band Affiliation- The Mint Imperials
I’m probably best known as “Norah Jones’ guitar player,” though I haven’t played with her since 2007. I was featured on her first three records and toured extensively with Norah from 2002 thru ’07. I’ve also recorded with Amos Lee, Tracy Chapman, and many other fine songwriters.
I started writing my own songs in 2002, sort of on a dare from Norah Jones. (She recorded that first “dared” song I wrote—”In the Morning”—on her second album, ‘Feels Like Home.’) This was a pretty big step sideways for me, having been a jazz-oriented guitar player for the 15 or 20 years prior. I kept on writing and found my own style, and eventually started performing and recording my songs. Since then, I’ve released six song-oriented titles on my own Lost Wax label. I’ve continued to write and release jazzier music as well. (My next release will be an all-instrumental album called ‘Town & Country.’)
What is your songwriting/composing process?
I write lyrics first, always. I’ll usually start with a title, or some kind of phrase that I want to work into the lyric. (I’m collecting titles and interesting phrases all the time, keeping notes on my iPhone.) More often that not, I’ll use a fixed meter and rhyme-scheme. I may borrow a meter and/or rhyme-scheme from a classic song, or make up my own. I try to do something different each time. For example, if the last song I wrote had a four-line verse form with 10 beats (syllables) per line, I’d challenge myself to write in a completely different form the next time. I don’t want to write the same song over and over again.
Once the lyric feels complete, I’ll read it aloud several times and try to hear the melodies inherent in the poetry. When the melodies begin to take shape, then—finally—I’ll pick up my guitar and try to find some chords that feel right.
Now, this how I write on my own. Co-writing is usually quite different from that—the process varying from song to song, co-writer to co-writer.
You do a lot of collaborating. Do you enjoy writing with someone else?
I do, perhaps because of my background in playing jazz and improvised music. When I’m writing alone, it can feel a little lonely. But when I’m collaborating with someone in real time—bouncing ideas back and forth—that feels kind of like playing jazz.
What are you most proud of?
The fact that other songwriters have recorded and performed some of my songs. That’s something I really never dreamt of when I started writing.
I like that you are open to trying different things in music. From the Jazz chords of “I Wish I Could Change Your Mind” to simple I-IV-V when needed, you seem comfortable doing whatever is best for the song/story. How did this develop?
Jazz had been my comfort zone, for many years, well before I ever wrote lyrical songs. When I started writing songs, around 2002 or so, I made an effort to write with mostly I-IV-V sorts of progressions. I really wanted to develop my lyric-writing skills, and I didn’t want to use my knowledge of jazz harmony as a crutch. And, of course, I-IV-V was the harmonic language of most of my favorite songs— from blues to Bob Dylan to the Beatles. Little by little, I learned to use the chords as a kind of underscoring—setting them behind a lyric in a way that helps tell the story. I don’t have a formula for that. I just experiment until it feels right.
Anyway, I think we’ll always find new ways to put words together. Chords, on the other hand, tend to follow patterns and routines. I don’t fight the chords’ natural tendencies, and I’m not afraid to borrow chordal ideas from songs I love.
Do lyrics come quickly or do you revise them over a period of time?
Lyrics tend to come quickly for me. If they get revised, it’s not by sitting down to intentionally revise them but rather via incremental changes that happen naturally over time as the song gets sung again and again.
Is rhyming still important to lyric writing?
It is to me—if only as a mnemonic device to help me remember the lyrics when I’m singing! Seriously, though, there’s magnetic power in rhyming. Then there’s Lucinda Williams’ “Lake Charles”—which doesn’t rhyme at all (except in the middle 8)—and is a thing of beauty.
What is your favorite songwriting lyric?
I want to have fun, I want to shine like the sun
Want to be the one that you want to see
I want to knit you a sweater, want to write you a love letter
I want to make you feel better, want to make you feel free
(Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want”—from her 1971 album, ‘Blue.’)
What advice would you give to young songwriters/composers?
Write a lot of songs! Write and write and write. And read a lot—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, whatever. The big idea is to go as deep as you can into the world of words.
You must have some favorite songs—classics, current hits, or anything at all. Take one of your favorite songs apart to see what makes it tick. What’s the structure? What’s the rhyme scheme? What’s the meter? What’s the chord progression? Learn to sing and play the song, then try to write something of your own using a similar form. Repeat this process as many times as you like.
If you could go back and be part of any album session what would it be?
Talk Talk’s ‘Laughing Stock,’ from 1991. This record is an utter enigma to me. So beautiful! I don’t know what I would have added, but I wish I could’ve at least been a fly on the wall.
If you could sit down and talk about songwriting with anyone, who would it be and why?
Tom Petty. He seems to have figured out many the mysteries of songwriting, yet he still sounds so down-to-earth when he sings his songs. That’s hard to do—to be so fussy, yet deliver the goods in an unfussy way. I’d like to talk about that, and about his writing process in general.
Adam on the Web
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