Steve Forbert’s music career has spanned six decades and he has long been considered one of American folk music’s premier songwriters. By phone we spoke about the dynamics of songwriting, what makes a song a good song, and about his new album Early Morning Rain.
Americana Highways: You have been a prolific songwriter for six decades. How would you describe your current songwriting process?
Steve Forbert: These days, I get the inspiration and I wade into it honestly knowing that it’s going to take a bit of work. I know that work, sometimes weeks of it, is what I am committing to when I have an idea now. So, I go through my drafts of the lyrics and I work on it. So that’s how it is for me now, but don’t get me wrong,I like working on songs. I’m used to working on something. Songwriting is all I’ve been doing these last fifty years. I just know now that it is going to require a commitment on my part and it’s not just like writing a song in 20 minutes or an hour, which I used to be able to do and often did.
AH: In your opinion, what are the elements of a good song?
SF: That’s an almost overwhelming question because we both might agree that a song like “Coconut” is somehow a good song. I mean Harry Nilsson made this fine record back in 1971 and used the crazy idea for a song that had the lyrics “Put the lime and the coconut and call me in the morning”, and we both agree it’s a good song. Right?
AH: Yes, and the album that it was on, Nilsson Schmilsson, was also a great album.
SF: Yes, that was a great album and on a great album it’s good to have something fun to kind of break up the flow and to keep it varied. To get back to your original question of “What makes a good song?”, I want to say, to be really kind of critical and to set a really high bar, is that people have to cover the song. Because we could talk for an hour about why this song is great, and why this song is great and on and on and on, but a truly great song is one where people cover it and sing it. And that means that it’s not just somebody’s opinion that it’s a great song, it being covered is proof that it’s in the culture, in the zeitgeist, if you will.
AH: How would you best describe the “magic nature” of songs?
SF: I am glad that you asked me that question. I put out a memoir a couple of years ago and it was primarily about my whole experience as a singer/ songwriter. It’s called Big City Cat and in it I talk about, among other things, the magic of songs. So, basically, what you’re looking at is a combination of three things – melody, lyrics, and rhythm and that’s it. You know after a song is recorded, various production techniques can be utilized to make it a better listening experience, but the basics of the song are the melodies, the lyrics, and the rhythm and the magic lies therein.
AH: How important do you think it is that a songwriter is honest with himself and his audience?
SF: It’s not important at all. When it comes to songwriting, I don’t care what a guy has for breakfast or if he is actually feeling great if he writes a song like, let’s say “Hello Walls” by Willie Nelson. All that matters is that it’s a good song idea. As a listener, I don’t need to know the truth about what’s going on with the songwriter. In the end, what matters is whether or not you are connecting with your audience with the songs that you are presenting to them.
AH: If you could transport yourself across time and share the stage with any three artists who would they be and why?
SF: I would have to interpret that question as “Who would I have liked to have gotten a closer look at ?, and when I think of it in those terms, I would have to start out with Jimmie Rodgers. I would have loved to have been able to check out the energy and the aura surrounding him, if you will, and to have heard him sing, of course. I don’t think there would have been a lot of surprises. We know that he recorded a lot of his stuff by himself in front of a microphone, so it wouldn’t be that he didn’t really sound that good when we know he really did sound that good, so there wasn’t any deception there. That would be one. I would take a deep breath and say, Robert Johnson, for another one of my choices. I think with him it would be a situation where you would just want to be able to see how he did it and just be able to hear that level of art and American Folk music. My third choice would be Sandy Denny because I am a big Sandy Denny fan and I never got to see her in person. So those are the three that come to mind.
AH: Your new album, Early Morning Rain, is an album of cover versions of songs that you have loved through the years. How did you narrow it down to the 11 songs that made the album, and what was the winnowing process?
SF: Through the decades I’ve always maintained a list of songs that I had strong feelings about or felt a certain affinity for. For this album, I started with a list of 130 such songs, and beginning last May, along with my producer Steve Greenwell, we started doing demos of the songs and working our way through the list. Though there were some other factors involved, it really came down to a group of songs that I thought needed to be heard right here and now.
AH: Some of the songs on the album have lyrics that sound like they could have been written about our current situation in this country. Was that something you took into account when choosing the songs for this album?
SF: Honestly, no. When I think about these eleven songs, I think they just exist and stand on their own. It doesn’t surprise me that they would reflect something of this moment in time because great songs always tend to reflect something and always tend to capture our attention and imagination. A great song is always a great song, no matter what era it comes from.
AH: What advice would you give to anyone who wants to be a singer/ songwriter?
SF: If you feel like you have to do it, then just do it. I would also say play in front of people as often as you can. I don’t care if it’s 7 people or 75 people, perform and record the show and listen to it, try to be your own critic, and see what can be improved upon. Do this last part and do it often.
Steve Forbert’s new album Early Morning Rain is now available on his website.