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The Complete Singer-Songwriter Second EditionAvailable now: the expanded second edition of The Complete Singer-Songwriter

JPR featured in the Boston Globe

New Folk Alley Session

Googling: the song you’ve been searching for

JPR Band performs in the Emerging Artist Showcase at the 2015 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival (see photos)

Almost There wins the 2015 Sammy Award for Best Americana

Interviews with Don HenleyEmmylou Harris, Norman Blake, the Milk Carton Kids, Brandi Carlile, and Elvis Costello


Interview and performance on WTBQ’s Hootenanny Cafe

IMG_1313Last week Wendy Ramsay and I stopped by WTBQ in bucolic Warwick, New York, for an hour-long interview and performance with Jon Stein for his Hootenanny Cafe show. We played six songs live in the studio and talked about my new songwriting book, my work for NPR, Wendy’s multi-instrumental abilities, and more. The full program can be heard here.

Understanding Song Form

The Complete Singer-Songwriter Second EditionBeneath all the nuances of melodies and lyrics, most songs are built from the same basic parts—some kind of sequence of verse, chorus, bridge, and so on. For writing a song, learning to play someone else’s song, or communicating with other musicians, being able to identify these parts and patterns is an essential skill.

Let’s take a look at common song forms used in rock, country, folk, and pop, and consider how their components function and fit together. Check out the Spotify playlists, which are an audio companion to the book The Complete Singer-Songwriter, for some classic examples. Continue Reading →

Chord Progressions in Major Keys

CSS 2nd edition cover 150Adapted from The Complete Singer-Songwriter

Chord progressions are the engine of songwriting. The melodic or lyrical hook may be what lodges in people’s heads, and an insistent beat may dominate the mix, but the chord progression is what makes everything move. By itself, a chord is just a static thing—a few notes stacked together—but a group of chords arranged artfully in a progression creates a little harmonic journey. There’s a kind of magic in a great chord progression, a mix of soothing familiarity and thrilling surprise that has emotional power even without the melody and lyrics.

So every songwriter needs to be fluent with chord progressions, but the process of figuring out which chords to use and how to sequence them can be mystifying. You can create progressions by randomly trying chords, but with a basic theoretical understanding of chords and keys, you can zero in much more quickly on good options to try in a progression—and become a more productive and versatile songwriter overall. Continue Reading →

Songwriter Woodshed

Woodshed banner

The Words and Music Songwriter Woodshed is a monthly gathering of Central New York songwriters, offering encouragement, feedback, and a sophisticated “first audience” for songs in progress.

The group meets the first Wednesday of every month at the Liverpool Library (310 Tulip Street), in the Sargent Room, starting at 6:30. Up to nine 15-minute slots are available until the library’s closing time at 9 pm–first come, first served. 

For info on the upcoming meeting, join our email list or Facebook group, or contact the group’s coordinator, Melissa Sieling.

What We Do

The Woodshed is a place for local songwriters of all levels to test brand-new and not-quite-completed songs on an audience of other songwriters. The goal is to use the reactions of others to help you judge and improve your own songwriting efforts.

Bring your instrument, or take your chances on borrowing one from another participant. You are strongly encouraged to bring at least eight copies of your lyrics.

Bring a song you consider still a work in progress. Don’t ask for feedback on a song that you are not willing to revise; that’s a waste of everyone’s time. You should arrive eager to change your song–perhaps radically! Incomplete songs are permissible, but songs should be fleshed out well enough that everyone can sense and judge their overall effect.

There are no rules for the conversation, except that candor should always be tempered by empathy. Songwriting is a personal and sometimes mysterious process. Be honest, but constructive. Beyond that, everything is fair game–individual word choices, chord choices, melodies, tempos, the sense of entire verses or plot lines or even the entire song! The goal is to help the songwriter understand whether the song transmits to a listener what he or she intended.

As many a songwriter–amateur and professional alike–will tell you, a workshop like this is one of the most valuable ways you have to help move your new song from a good first draft to a piece of art that audience members are likely to appreciate as much as you did when writing it. Plus, this is a great chance to meet and connect with other songwriters in the area. Join us at the Woodshed, and let’s have a great time sharing and discussing the magical craft of songwriting.

John Doyle on writing songs vs. arranging traditional tunes


Writing, of course, has a very creative aspect, but there’s a creative aspect in arranging—I’d be a historian if I wanted just to mark it down. I wouldn’t see the point in doing [a traditional tune] if it wasn’t creative in some way; I want to bring out my love of the song, to bring out the core of what I think is in the song, the idea of what can happen instead of what other people perceive it to be. What I perceive it to be and what you perceive it to be might be two completely different things. Take a simple song like “The Wild Rover.” It’s known as this huge drinking song, but really it’s about the woes of drinking: “If I had all the money I left in your care / It would buy me the food for a family affair / It would thatch my new cottage, it would buy me a barn. . . .”

So without some real searching in a traditional song, you won’t be able to find what the core of the song is. The same goes for writing historical songs. It’s not so much history—it’s more about the human condition that we’re bound to repeat these things because most people don’t pay attention. That’s why I write these songs. There’s still famine going on in many countries. We choose to ignore it. There are still people battling, and there are still wars being fought all the time.—John Doyle

From Acoustic Guitar May 2012. Read the full interview, and watch some jaw-dropping video clips of Doyle demonstrating his guitar style on traditional and original tunes, here.

Mary Chapin Carpenter unplugged, 1992

Today I interviewed Mary Chapin Carpenter for an Acoustic Guitar magazine story that’ll be out in a few months. The main topic was her very fine forthcoming album, The Things That We Are Made Of (to be released May 6). But the conversation started with my mentioning that I met her briefly after an extraordinary show at Slim’s in San Francisco in 1992 when the power went out and she and her bandmates performed on top of the bar. She recalls that show vividly and also said that someone had given her a copy of the little article I wrote in Acoustic Guitar about that night. Which got me digging into my archives to find the clip below.

Click the image for a larger (and more legible) view.

AG 1993 MCC unplugged