Songwriter Interview: Ian Sherwood
Ian Sherwood spoke with me about songwriting in a phone interview. I recently met him between sets at one of his shows. Thanks for the great conversation Ian… we will definitely have to make the time to talk shop again!
Note: for easier reading our conversation was slightly edited.
The 12 Takeaways at the end are my opinions, drawn from the conversation.
Ian Sherwood is an award winning singer/songwriter based in Nova Scotia:
- Contemporary Singer of the Year, 2013 (Canadian Folk Music Awards)
- Best Male Artist of the Year 2012 (International Acoustic Music Awards)
- Musician of the Year (Music Nova Scotia, 2008 & 2010)
- Bring the Light, 2017
- Everywhere to Go, 2014
- Live at the Hive, 2013
- And Now the Fun Begins, 2010
- Art of Conversation, 2007
- Ian Sherwood, 2005
Links to listen to and to purchase Ian’s music are at the end of the article.
Ian, can you describe your songwriting style for those that haven’t heard your music yet?
I describe myself as a singer/songwriter. Like James Taylor, Paul Simon and Lyle Lovett, I don’t write in a specific genre or style. To me singer/songwriter is a head space or a feeling… I write what I am feeling in the moment and the musical style grows out of the song.
I know many songwriters who are very successful in their particular genre, but I grow more as a songwriter and as an artist by keeping myself open. My advice to a developing songwriter trying to figure out your style is: don’t think about your genre. Let your songs reveal their genre they want to be.
Ian, what is your musical background and musical training?
I studied jazz saxophone with Don Palmer at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Then I moved to Toronto, where I studied sax with Kirk McDonald and Bob Mover. I learned jazz improvisation and composition, including jazz theory, song forms and chord progressions.
Do you have any formal songwriting training?
I started listening to and analyzing popular music, using what I had learned about jazz theory and composition.
When I started songwriting, I didn’t really have any solid idea of what I was doing. I wrote songs… I thought they were good but in retrospect they had weaknesses. My best ones were story songs, I still play some of them in my live shows.
I learned how to emulate solid songs by picking them apart. I started questioning: Why are the songs I like better than mine? What is it about them that I’m missing in my songs?
Here’s the thing, to make a living you need to get gigs. To get gigs you need to get songs on the radio… Why is that song on the radio and not mine?
I started to hear what was important in the song structure… how many times the chorus was played, how many verses…. It wasn’t some much my lyric writing that needed work, but how I was assembling the songs, how I was putting them together.
This helped me write better songs that my audience could understand and relate to….
Ian, can you describe your songwriting process?
The way I love to write, my ideal process, is to have a moment of inspiration and go for a walk. Moving gets my creativity flowing. It might be thirty minutes or two hours, but when I get back I have most of the lyrics and a melody. Then I figure out the chords I want on guitar or piano.
So you can write a song in a few hours?
Sure (laughing)… like I said, that’s my ideal process. While I was preparing for my last album I wrote five songs in a week. I also have some songs that took years from start to finish. But, yeah… when it’s working I can write a song quickly.
How consistent is your songwriting schedule?
When I was starting out I wrote everyday. For a couple of months, I challenged myself to write a verse and a chorus by noon. I created some great songs that way and built up my songwriting chops.
My life now isn’t quite as conducive to daily writing, because of family, performing and taking care of business. I still spend a lot of time writing, thinking about writing and listening to music. I also love talking to other songwriters: I find out how they do it, I try new things and keep what works… I’m still growing.
You have to figure out you own songwriting process. It’s different for everyone, but you can learn from anyone when you listen and pay attention.
What advice would you have for yourself 10+ years ago?
The easy answer would be to go back and explain hit songwriting to myself… how songs are constructed. But then I would have missed all the mistakes that I learned from that let me write the way I do now… I’d lose some of what makes me, my “unique” factor.
No, I’d offer myself encouragement.
- Keep moving forward.
- Don’t listen to negativity.
- Don’t give in during discouraging moments.
- If you keep writing, you keep learning and improving!
What is your best advice a developing songwriter?
and get over the thought that “every song is precious.”
Don’t be selfish, share your music, offer your songs for people to listen to. Don’t be afraid to share them.
Write songs that are based in your personal experience but find a way to express them that everyone can understand. If you want people to listen to your music, write songs that will affect them, they need to be able to relate to them.
Great songs come from personal experiences that you craft with universal appeal.
How do you get your music to the people? How do you promote yourself?
I am weak at this… I need to spend more time on this.
I have an email list, I send out an email every month and use it to update everyone about upcoming shows. I also use social media… FaceBook, Instagram and Twitter. When it comes to big stuff like an album release, I have a publicist that takes care of press releases and spreading the word.
Oh Daisy by Ian Sherwood
Here’s how you can keep up with Ian:
Join his email list
Buy his music
Host a House Concert
Ian can come play at your house!
Mostly in the order they appeared in the interview:
1. Write everyday, create a consistent schedule.
2. Set goals: Ian set himself a challenge: write a verse and chorus by noon… a concrete goal (verse and chorus) and a concrete time, noon.
3. Singer-songwriter is a mindset, more than a genre of music.
4. Don’t get stuck in a genre or confine your writing… I do this too, I write songs that could be rock or pop or could go country….
5. Let the song define itself … don’t let your preconceived notions get in your way.
6. Go for a walk… move your body to find the music, don’t sit around waiting for inspiration.
7. Curiosity: find out why, find out how….
- Listen to great music and figure out why it’s great,
- Talk to songwriters and musicians and find out how they do it,
- Try different things, keep what works, then try other things,
- Figure out what works best for you.
8. Great songs are personal experiences with universal appeal.
9. Get over your “my songs are precious” problem. Finish your song then share it, instead of letting your songs take forever to become perfect … a shared song is worth ten “almost finished” songs.
10. Song structure is crucial … it can make the difference between good and great.
11. There is a reason that so many great songs follow similar patterns in how they are constructed… because those patterns help audiences relate to the lyrics and understand the songwriter’s message.
12. Learn from the best … listen to the best songs and figure out why they are great… listen to and talk to other songwriters… read about songwriting from other songwriters… then borrow those ideas when creating your own music.
Bonus: Hire professional help when you need it, either for time or skills you don’t have… especially when it comes to publicity, if no one hears about you they can’t hear your music.
To learn the epicsongwriting system for writing every day click this link: