Each Month, a Group of Songwriters Seek Each Other Out for Advice

Tony Bardon has some words of advice for the six songwriters sat around him in a semicircle this evening.

“You may learn more from the rubbish than you do from the good songs,” he says, an acoustic guitar resting on his knee.

The retired accountant-turned-songwriter set up the Songwriting Collective in 2013. The group was first based in Tallaght.

Later, it moved to the Irish Music Rights Organisation building off Baggot Street, where on Thursday evening  there are some old and new faces at the monthly meetup.

“The idea here is not necessarily to write a brilliant song,” Bardon tells me, later. “It’s to give you the experience of working with somebody else and seeing what their process is.”

It is mainly guitarists each month, although singer-songwriters of different disciplines also come along. Often, they need an outside nudge for lyrics or feedback on melody.

“If you just write by yourself and if you don’t get very much feedback you’ll be locked into what you can do,” says Bardon. “If you write with other people and see their style and their approach, it broadens your perspective.”

Some Polish

After introductions, each person plays an original composition that’s then assessed or applauded or critiqued by other members.

“It’s a good thing to be around people who are writing music,” says Bardon. “It’s always a good source of inspiration.”

Stevie Cliff, a young singer-songwriter there to “get the creative juices flowing” starts with a rendition of “Rooftops”.

He strums slowly, his gentle voice naturally carrying the melody to the chorus.

“We all fall from the rooftops sometimes, still I need to make a stand. It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s more the way we land,” he sings.

“Do you know what would go really good with that?” says Daniel Kavanagh, a flamenco-style guitarist. “A cello.”

“That was one that just seemed to come out,” says Cliff. “I can’t even remember writing it. It was just there.”

Danai Kelleher strums gently on his Epiphone acoustic guitar, before launching into “Navy Blue Oak Tree”. Before the song’s end, several of the others have started to sing along with the chorus.

“Let’s find the beer that’s been made by the monks, follow the chorus of merry old drunks. Let’s find the time to sing the songs we’ve sung, at the navy blue oak tree,” they sing.

“Is that a reference to Buckfast there?” asks Kavanagh.

“It’s not so much a drink as it is a charge sheet,” says Kelleher, who is grizzled and wears a flat cap.

Bardon sits quietly through most of the discussion. As the facilitator, he is keen to let those who have come along talk, to get to know each other, and to share their original tunes in their own time.

Before Bardon formed the Songwriting Collective – originally known as the Tallaght Songwriting Collective – he was involved in a European Commission-funded project from 2011 to 2013, called Playing for Integration.

Bardon connected with various songwriters around Europe who joined him to create a songwriting handbook.

A part-time songwriter for 40 years, it’s only since he retired from accountancy 15 years ago that he has been able to dedicate himself to his music, to helping others with theirs.

He composes poetry influenced by William Butler Yeats. His songwriting is heavily influenced, he says, by “the classics” like James Taylor, Paul Simon and Kris Kristofferson.

From a small folder Bardon takes a dozen or so A4 sheets, passing one to each member seated around.

“Okay,” he says. “This is an exercise.”

Chop, Chop, Chop

Bardon hands out the lyrics to a friend’s poem, “Dodge’s Return”, which tells the story of David Conway, an Irish carpenter who fell 20 feet off a construction site in Brisbane, Australia earlier this year.

Bardon’s been tasked by his friend with fleshing out the lyrics and writing a melody. “We do exercises from time to time where you can critique a song, giving feedback on what you think of it,” he says.

It’s another opportunity to get feedback from those in the group.

“At the first bit where you sing, ‘Another book of life to close’, I get what you’re going for but I think it needs different wording,” says Kavanagh.

“I think it’s really nice imagery throughout,” says Cliff. “But there’s economy of words. If you trimmed it back a bit?”

Kelleher suggests Bardon use a new melody towards the end of the song, Kavanagh that he chop superfluous conjunctions.

Bardon nods and smiles throughout. “By throwing it out there I can hear what the reaction is and say, ‘Yes, I should do something about that,'” he says. “Or, ‘I hear that suggestion and I’m going to totally ignore it.'”

The whole group laughs.

Ultimately, says Bardon, the Songwriting Collective is a sounding board for those who come along to the monthly meetup. But it is also a chance for collaboration.

Kelleher stands up, briefly leaves the fluorescence of the conference hall behind, and returns a moment later with several scrunched up balls of paper in hand.

“Here,” he says. “Pick one.”

For the next 10 minutes, the members break off into songwriting pairs, and disappear into the anteroom and office spaces of the building.

Kelleher strums across a wooden table from Aga, a vocalist. “Long is the day, it’s full of nothing,” he says.

He works off her bluesy vocals and jots down alternate lyric after lyric, synonym after synonym, to better match her melody. “The more you scribble, the more your subconscious gets to work,” he says.

They don’t agree on every lyric. But that’s part and parcel of the meetups.

For the next 10 minutes or so, the pair move back and forth between chords and words, between melancholy, memory and love.

And then, guitar ringing out, they strum and sing. “Long is the day, it’s full of nothing …”

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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