If you have ever been anywhere near a writing group or book festival of any kind, you will know that writers come in all shapes and sizes, from big, robust circles, to tiny, stabby stars. They come in different flavours too, from cool, classic vanilla, to eyeball-exploding, triple-hot chilli sauce.
Thrillers With Attitude is on a mission to find out what makes these weirdly-shaped and strangely flavoured writers tick.
My guest this week is singer-songwriter, Robert Smith-Hald.
Hi Robert, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord. Please tell me a little bit about yourself. What kind of child were you?
Hi Lorraine, it’s nice to be asked, so thank you. I was an artistic child, always drawing and when I was able to-playing music on whatever instrument that was available, with a focus on composing. Mostly lyres and, recorders (Camphill had a lot of lyres and recorders lying around) but we also had a piano. My parents didn’t like that I played the piano so it was locked, and musical instruments hidden or put under lock and key. I managed to scrape together money from deposit bottles along the roads outside the compound and bought harmonicas with that money. These I played in the woods, teaching myself songs and also making up songs.I also loved to work on the farm and took part as much and as often as I could, milking the cows by hand, feeding, shoveling manure, taking the cows to pasture and making hay, to name a few. One of my favorite things was when we made maple syrup. We tapped the trees by hand and collected the sap from each bucket and boiled it down in a good old fashioned wood fired sugar house. So I was a kind of hard working, artistic, imaginative child. A strange mix I guess. Now I write songs and make beer, and I work hard at it. It reflects my childhood in every way.
Since my parents and the general Camphill community endeavored to quash my love for music and playing instruments/composing I kind of internalized that musical composer side of myself. I think that’s the main reason why I became the type of introverted yet personal songwriter I am today. Also, I’m pretty strong-headed about my music and take control of all aspects, from the writing of lyrics and music, to arranging and recording. When we moved to Norway I was allowed to have and play a guitar finally, (just not electric and definitely not a steel string western guitar) and I started writing songs as soon as I learned three chords. The songs sort of wrote themselves and I was just thrilled and decided to just go with it. I’ve pretty much done that ever since, although some songs are pure storytelling. I have a rule – when I find a cool chord I write a song with it as the main pivotal musical point.
I do. I write text driven songs. The music is of course equally important to the song as a whole, but for me I think of a good song as having meaning. So I work hard at finding songs that say something about this condition we all exist within, the human condition.
I don’t know. I used to think it was an obsession. I’ve come more to terms now that it’s just me. Who and how I am.
I go all the way really, every single time. And to tell you the truth, I never know what the song is about until I’m done, sometimes halfway, if I’m lucky. Some songs are pure stories though, like Jesus. I just had to write that story down in a song, just as it had happened. Also The Easter Bunny Is Dead song was a story me and my son made up about some terrible neighbors we used to live next to. Recently I’ve been writing songs from the perspective of life changing events, but I still never know what the angle of the song is until it’s done. I like to say that I “find” the song, or it finds me. I just write it down.
Time. Getting in the zone. I need to be able to shut the door. It has to be a real door. A physical door. And when I close it, it can only be opened again by me. Since that door usually was the kitchen, that could prove problematic, obviously. I have a music room now, my own space to disappear in. Time to stay there.
Letting it happen when you’re in the zone. You’re just a bystander, an observer. It just happens. Some songs are written in a shorter time than it takes to play them. Literally.
Stephen King funnily enough. I love his language and storytelling skill. I learned a lot from his book On Writing which was the first book of his I read. John Lennon and Bob Dylan, of course. Carl Perkins. I love his simple straight forward lyrics. I just got into Phillip Meyer. He’s amazing. And of course John Steinbeck. His book East of Eden inspired my song Thou Mayest from the album of that name. As soon as I put it down I wrote that song. It’s my short version (the live version is about 9 minutes long) of the essence of what he was writing about in that book. That life is what you make of it and that you have choices. Thou Mayest, as opposed to Thou Shalt. There’s a helluva lot of Thou Shalt in the bible. John Steinbeck’s opinion was that the translation went awry, it should have read Thou Mayest. There’s a difference.
There have been so many. Every time I write a song I experience it as pure magic. Every time. But writing Kissed By The Sun, which was just released on iTunes still stands out as a pivotal moment for my evolution as a writer and songwriter. Since I write by letting it all just happen/stream of consciousness I don’t really know what a song is going to be about or how its going to be, or come out/sound. But life gives you pretty strong indicators sometimes, and with this one had a strong feeling. My wife had just been through a terrible time and had to deal with serious illness. She did and came out the other end better and stronger. So in a way she got a second chance and took it and went with it. That’s really what the song is about.
I’m working on songs inspired by life changing events. We all have them. From childhood but also in our day to day lives. How we react to these events defines and evolves who we are. But as always, I let the songs just happen. They come to me. My job is to let them. I’m grateful for every one that floats down into my lap.
I try to keep ambition out of it. I just try and do my best and stay true to my craft. I just want to write a good song.
I get a lot of text ideas throughout the day. I used to write them in scrapbooks and bits of paper. Now I use my iPhone. My ultimate time to work is between 1000 and 1300, but my day job still demands my presence so I get most of my work done of an evening and on weekends.
No. I measure it more in terms of good songs about to come or coming. If I get a good one I go with it and don’t stop until its finished. Usually in the one sitting. Sometimes though, I get halfway through and realize it needs time to mature or I’ll mess it up. Then I record it as it is, and go back to it after a period of letting it develop. Sometimes that means a couple of days. Other times it can be years. I’m working on one right now I started in April 1983 or 4. This time I might find it. We’ll see.
I write longhand, in a ledger. I write as fast as I can to capture the ideas and my handwriting is really messy and downright illegible. So I have to write it down better when the song is finished. I used to type them out afterward on a typewriter, then a PC when that came around, and collect them all in folders. But now I kind of just fill up ledgers with songs. The illegible one on the left, the legible one on the right. My latest ledger is a black leather one, with really nice thick paper. It was a gift from my wife for songwriting. She keeps track of my piles of ledgers and loose reams of work. I’m a bit of a mess-pot when it comes to keeping order in all my songs. She’s also my main barometer. She’s brutally honest and does not mince words. She says it’s crap if she thinks it’s crap. And it always is. But she’s also my biggest fan and support.
A nice room with good acoustics and a door you can close.
The human condition.
Work hard at your craft. Study others, particularly your inspirations, both musically and lyrically. Find your own voice, and write about what you know. Don’t listen to naysayers and be wary of yaysayers. Be true to yourself.
Yes. The next one. It’s always the next one.
I love beer. I love whisky too, especially single malt, Laphroaigh and Glenlivet among my favorites. But my day job is as a brewmaster. I run a microbrewery in Bergen, Norway and I make new beers every 2-3 months, year round. It’s kind of like songwriting. Something new every time, using the same, basic ingredients.
My wife and I love movies and TV series. I get loads of song ideas from a good story- whether it be a good book, movie or TV show. We watched a fantastic series called Deadwood some years back. It was a kind of a drama meets mockumentary of sorts of how a town grew in no-mans land in the Dakotas (before statehood) in the gold rush era.
What are you reading right now?
Stephen King – The Shining and Phillip Meyer – The Son. I’m fascinated by the language in The Son. I also just finished your book Erosion and before that Each New Morn. I loved them both but particularly the latter. You’re writing is creative and alive and the pace is pulls you in.