Q and A with Mark Caro and Steve Dawson, Co-authors of TAKE IT TO THE BRIDGE
1. Tell us a little about Take It to the Bridge: Unlocking the Great Songs Inside You.
It’s a songwriting book for people who love music and being creative and aren’t necessarily looking to monetize (I hate that word) this passion. So much public discussion of songwriting revolves around hit-making, but my experience — and that of Steve Dawson, my co-author — is that many people enjoy making up songs for the sheer joy of making up songs. They’re not aiming first and foremost to be rock stars, but they might perform these songs at an open mic or for friends in a living room or on a recording, or they’ll simply feel good about having added music to the world.
That’s how I feel at any rate. Our hope is this book will encourage creative expression —everyone, after all, needs to express her or himself creatively, especially in times of stress — and jump-start people’s songwriting while offering inspiration that extends beyond music.
2. How did you and musician Steve Dawson (frontman of the folk/rock band Dolly Varden) end up collaborating on this book?
I’ve loved Steve’s songwriting and performing ever since I first saw his and his wife Diane Christiansen’s band Stump the Host around 1990 when I had a local music column, Home Front/Local Heroes, for the Chicago Tribune. They disbanded Stump, formed their current, wonderful band, Dolly Varden, more than 20 years ago, and I’ve continued to enjoy them as musicians and friends over the years.
Eventually I took Steve’s songwriting class at the Old Town School of Folk Music a few times, and it was fantastic. I’ve written songs on the side for years, but many went unfinished. Steve would offer a creative, fun assignment each week — write, say, a Monkees song or something that involves a certain approach to chords, words, rhythm or melodies — and we’d return the following week with a new song. Boom. You’d write a song a week for eight weeks, and I really liked how they turned out, and I also enjoyed the wide range and surprising quality of my classmates’ work.
One day Steve said to me, “People keep telling me I should make a book of my songwriting assignments. You’ve taken my class, and you’ve written a book. Would you like to work on it together?” Collaborating with such a generous, talented guy on such a labor-of-love subject was a no-brainer. So we got to work.
3. Take It to the Bridge has several sections: a Q and A between you and Steve, chapters on song form and chords and keys, along with a series of assignments. Did you know from the beginning that you would structure it this way?
See, this was the tricky part. We knew it couldn’t just be a book of songwriting assignments, but how would we expand it? And, on a practical level, how would we write it together? Would we sit together at a computer with my fingers on the keyboard while we hashed out the whole thing? Would we each write sections and eventually conjoin them?
Finally, I said to Steve, “I’m going to email you a question, and I’d like you to respond, and then I’m going to respond to that, and we’ll get a conversation going. Either this will generate a whole lot of content that I’ll rewrite, or the dialogue will become a big chunk of the book.”
The first question I emailed was: “Songwriters love to talk about inspiration, but what exactly is inspiration, and how much of songwriting is about getting inspired vs. getting down to work?” He provided a typically thoughtful reply, I riffed on that in response and asked another question (“Which generally comes first for you, words or music?”), and the ball was rolling.
By the way, Christine, you’re a movie person, so maybe you’ll appreciate this: The book I had in mind when I suggested our dialogue was Hitchcock/Truffaut, in which Francois Truffaut engages Alfred Hitchcock in a book-length discussion of his career. I love that book; it’s such a breeze to read and so insightful. Of course, neither Steve nor I is Hitchcock or Truffaut, but it was a fun approach.
Anyway, after we finished the dialogue, we wanted to provide some useful, basic information about song elements and forms — Steve hands out such material in his classes — and then came the assignments. We wanted to offer them with enough context and information to make it easy for all readers, so you should be able to make up songs even if your training or skill level are on the minimal side.
One last note: We hired a pretty cool firm, Thirst, to design the book, and they came up with visual interpretations for each assignment. We liked the idea of artistic expression being extended to the book’s design.
4. As a journalist, nonfiction writer (e.g. The Foie Gras Wars) and film critic, how did those skills inform your songwriting? Would you liken it more to poetry-writing than prose-writing?
The perhaps counterintuitive or unexpected aspect of songwriting for me is that I’m much more comfortable coming up with music than words. I do have some songs that sprang from a phrase or idea, but I have many more that began with melodies and chords, and the unfinished ones tend to be those for which I’ve constructed the musical architecture but have yet to match lyrics to it. It’s like the music suggests a feeling that sometimes I have difficulty putting into words.
So I think my writing career helps in that I’ve developed some facility for choosing words with precision and care, but working in non-fiction also can be a cerebral activity, and sometimes I have to tamp down the thinky part of my brain to let the words flow more freely. I do care about the lyrics, but I’m always pleased if someone thinks one of my chord changes is cool.
5. What are you working on now, if you don't mind telling us?
Hey, thanks. I’m always happy if someone’s interested in what I’m working on. I’ve been exercising the creative part of my brain by returning to work on a novel that I set aside a few years ago to do “research,” which turned out to be a real momentum killer. That’s the project that I’m most consumed with finishing, even though balancing artistic ambitions with the business of being a writer can be tricky, as you know.
I also wrote a first draft of a first screenplay over the summer and at some point should go back to fix all of the rookie mistakes, if that’s possible. I still take on the occasional journalistic assignment as well and have some pieces in the works, and I’m thinking about the next non-fiction book.
Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying hosting the “Is It Still Funny?” series at the Music Box Theater. I launched that last spring, and I’ve been gratified to see the audience build month after month as we show classic comedies and discuss afterward how they held up over time. We did Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb right after the election, and it both amused and scared the crap out of a crowd that mostly hadn’t seen it on the big screen. We’re showing Tootsie on Tues. Jan. 3 at 7 p.m. and His Girl Friday on Feb. 7.
6. What's the best way for interested readers and aspiring musicians to get their hands on this book (besides via Amazon)?
Aside from Amazon, they can order it directly from our publisher, GIA. And if they use the code “bridgebook,” shipping is free till the end of the year.
We went with GIA because they specialize in music education books, so they’re early in the process of getting it out to music stores as well.
There are also some independent bookstores carrying it, including The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square and Bookends and Beginnings in Evanston.
Mark Caro is author of The Foie Gras Wars (Simon & Schuster) and for more than 25 years covered music, film and cultural news for the Chicago Tribune. He has written for the New York Times, the Forward and other publications and hosts the popular “Is It Still Funny?” series at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre.
Steve Dawson is a songwriter/musician who leads the rock/folk band Dolly Varden as well as the more jazz-oriented Funeral Bonsai Wedding, and he has taught songwriting and guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago for more than 10 years. He also operates the recording studio Kernel Sound Emporium.