Considering their role as leaders of the show, as guides for the audience, songwriters can be surprisingly squirrelly. Walk with them down a sidewalk, and they may duck behind a tree to scribble some passing line onto a napkin. Or if you live with one, you know there's a space dedicated to setting ideas onto paper, and like most flavors of human genius, it works best with solitude, please, thank you.
But it's probably not as difficult as actually being the songwriter, having to translate the personal and emotional and assorted white noise of the mind into something that sounds reasonable and that the bassist isn't going to screw up, damn it.
As to where the songs themselves come from, the songwriters don't seem to have a clue. "I don't know how to write a song on purpose," says David Shultz, frontman for The Skyline, a pop quartet that holds up well under lyrical comparisons to Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Paul Simon. Shultz says his ideas translate into basically folk songs, which he takes to the band, which turns them into rock songs. "Which is usually a little more interesting," he says.
"I didn't have to sit and cuss and complain," says Billy Ray Hatley of his birth pains. "It just came to me." Opening for Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s, Hatley recognized that here was a look and a sound that was right. In the intervening years, he's chased that specter, picking up blues and rock and Americana until he ended up playing in Big City and with The Show Dogs.
Drawing from the endless well of nostalgia, Hatley writes songs he says are intensely personal, sometimes too much to play onstage. But he says he counters them with tunes that are lighter, sillier or "somewhat vulgar" his blue material. Whatever he comes up with, he has to balance against what he says is one of the songwriter's goals: to have a big-name musician pick up a song and deliver it out into the world, with appropriate financial compensation. So songs have to be as universal as they are personal.
Like Shultz, Hatley delivers his songs to the band, and they work to make something of it. "In general, if they don't particularly like it, we don't play it," he says. "If I feel real strong about it, I fight."
MoonFace, aka James Johnson, doesn't have to worry about filtering his songs through a band. With hip-hop, two strains of lyrics emerge: the written and the freestyle. Moon, fed on hip-hop while growing up in New Jersey, says he can do both.
"I like to come prepared," he says, "but it's never an issue" if a freestyle circle should occur. "When the music comes to me, I really try to go with the idea." Which is how he managed to out-freestyle 14 other rappers from a balcony in Miami some years ago, even after his friend offered $500 to anyone who could best him.
Moon says he writes to tell his story, or someone else's story, without a lot of the pomp and flash of big-budget hip-hop. "You get a lesson rather than me glorifying it," he says.
Songwriters can say things that sound either fortune-cookie profound or gee-whiz obvious. Whatever the case, they seem to know where to go to get the songs. They have their inner sanctums where their particular muse hangs out, waiting to tell them the latest on their own inner lives, feelings about love, mothers, the streets.
But they never seem to be far from it, the muse running Wi-Fi right into their minds. "There's always a song playing in my head," Hatley says.
And maybe it all goes back to that moment that Moon remembers, that Miami balcony when he triumphed over more than a dozen spitting opponents and, he says, made fans out of them. Maybe it's because in that moment all those gathered around the balcony learned from his words not what he thought, but how.
And maybe that's why he and Hatley and Shultz and all the others scribbling away on napkins and ragged notebooks do it religiously, even though they can't always explain what they think:
Because they're trying to understand how they think.
MoonFaceAlias: James Johnson, Moon.
Style: Freestyle hip-hop set to unusual rhythms.
Subjects covered in song: Poverty, education, the streets.
Subjects covered when he started writing at 8 years old: "Scooby Doo raps and things like that."
Can't a man get some privacy? "I used to go in the bathroom for two hours and write."
Where you might have seen him: "BET Basement," "BET Live," Blaze magazine.
On fame and its flavor: "I've tasted the poison life of the industry."
On the goal of freestyle battles: "Humiliate but in a fun type of way the opponent."
Singer-songwriter, frontman for The Skyline
Sounds like: A cross-pollination of Tom Petty and Bob Dylan ("Tom Dylan").
Subjects tackled: "Growing up, money, work, of course love."
Selling himself short: "This is why I was a bad student. I'm not good at analyzing much."
Sample lyrics (perhaps about love): "Heavy photo album, paperweight./I got nothing going on here, so I'll wait./Humidcicadascreamnightair,/Questions of value and worth/We are the cameras documenting the earth,/And I don't know if it's natural." from "Natural"
The secret to recording ideas: Sturdy notebooks from truck stops.
On time management: "There is a difference between the poor bookkeeping of ideas, which is really just part of how I live, and these periods of time when I'm writing with a purpose. During these times writing becomes my job my focus and what I wake up for. It seems that I spend half the year out there leaving random carvings in the trees, and the other half deciphering them."
On image cultivation: "It's hard to rectify seeing me half-drunk and singing songs in a basement one night, and the next night hearing some really catchy song from our new album with Heartbreakers-style backup vocals all over it."
Billy Ray HatleySinger-songwriter, frontman for The Show Dogs
Genre: Roots rock, blues, dash of country.
Subjects tackled: Men and women, family, dogs licking selves (from his late-night "blue material").
Got them symphonic blues: In September Billy Ray Hatley and The Show Dogs give a concert with the Richmond Symphony, in which the symphony will perform Hatley's song "Things."
Lyrics that almost made it to the next generation of boy bands: "Life is like a dream/It's never what it seems/But love is like a dream come true/If we had another chance to try this romance/I'd love to take a chance on you."
On the interpersonal dynamics of a band: "After the band is just sick and tired of me talking, then we start the song."
Blue material: "This stuff usually comes along after a long night out: 'While driving to my mama's house just the other day/The day was bright and sunny as I was on my way/A state trooper pulled me over, he said boy you drive too fast/I said if you don't like my driving how'd you like to kiss my ass?'"