Dispatch from Seattle 2: Writing Workshop with John Roderick of the Long Winters

The Pitch, Wayward Blog
Jason Harper
Publication date: 
February 12, 2009

To: Local Aspiring Songwriters
Re: Writing Like John Roderick

One of the first things that I did upon my move from KC to Seattle was to make contact with 826 Seattle. Dave Eggers (author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, among others) started 826 as a nationwide non-profit organization to provide free writing help to students age 6 to 18. Part of their fund-raising efforts includes various writing workshops across the country, featuring local and national authors, poets, musicians, and assorted interesting characters.

The first workshop of the Seattle series was called "HOW TO BE A MUSICIAN WHEN YOU'RE NOT THAT GOOD OF A MUSICIAN," hosted by John Roderick of the Long Winters. I was vaguely familiar with John's songs, but much more familiar with his writings for the Seattle Weekly, and as ridiculously net-geek-y as it may be, I was a huge fan of his Twitter musings. Who would have thought that 140 characters could speak such volumes? After seeing the description of what subjects he would be addressing ("How to keep writing when everything you write is boring and terrible," "How to, when all else fails, become a colorful personality"), I was sold on the workshop.
I joined about 25 other people in the back of the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co. to spend a couple hours listening to Roderick talk about how he started writing (he wanted to get in his high school paper and ended up writing an essay on the C-squad football team), when he discovered songwriting (making fun of his sister and her friends for trying to be punk rock), and dissecting his own writings over the years (never throw anything out, go back and pick and choose the gems in your old writing, and write on a typewriter so you can't self-edit like you can in a word processing program on a computer).

The crowd was a mix of aspiring songwriters, poets, and curious onlookers who were interested in the process of putting pen to paper, getting past writer's block, and how to make your writing more interesting. Pointing out his corduroy jacket and arm patches to emphasize the college-professor look, Roderick touched on his own milestones, such as thinking of the characters in a song as actors and switching pronouns around so you aren't always writing from your own point of view. He talked about things that shaped him as a musician, especially living in the Northwest, where musicianship isn't celebrated as much as the actual weight of what was being conveyed with the song. And he got into some of the intricacies of how to write hooks and challenge a typical chord structure with unconventional placement of lyrics. Speaking about his own lyrics, as well as what he found interesting in other songs and songwriters, he made the boldest statement of the night: "What makes a great song is what's left out of it."

Roderick told the stories behind some of his most well known songs ("Cinnamon" and "Honest"), spoke of the satisfaction of leaving a song without resolution and causing that open-ended frustration with a listener, and how unrewarding a song that resolves itself can be ("Why do you need to listen to it again? Problem is solved. Next?"). He praised Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the criminally underappreciated Joe Pernice as masters of song structure (the never-ending quest to write an effortless bridge, especially), and offered a well-seasoned snarky take on when songs convey too much emotion to the point of being schmaltzy (see "Tears In Heaven," with minor apologies to Eric Clapton) and how irritating it is when bands rely on cliché instead of branching out.

Somehow, fitting in an incredible amount of information and insight into a two-hour workshop, Roderick gave us a refreshingly unpretentious glimpse into the world of a professional songwriter who also knows how to not take himself too seriously.

Also, just on a general "stand-up guy" note, he invited all of us down the street to have a drink and keep up the conversation at Gainsbourg, a new French tapas-y place down the street owned by Scott Kannberg (Pavement) and Hannah Levin (writer for Seattle Weekly and The Stranger). About 10 of us went down and continued to pick his brain over drinks and a blaring episode of Twin Peaks.

Craziest revelation: John Roderick doesn't have a stereo in his house. And if he's driving around, he's listening to the oldies station. "All I need is Motown."