Tom Freund on Developing Your Own True Songwriting Voice

Tom Freund  •  September 11, 2014

We all grew up listening to music and it invaded us early, even in the womb. Probably mostly in the 7 to 11-year-old range, I was hearing stuff my mom and dad played around the house like Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and some jazz like Duke Ellington and the great songbooks of Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Pan to my early teens, it was a wild mix of AC/DC, Zeppelin, The Who along with Grateful Dead, James Taylor and then what (?!) - Charles Mingus, Coltrane and Parker (I was also playing a lot of upright bass at this point). 

Somehow, I still like all the music I grew up on. Maybe most influential as a singular artist was Joni Mitchell. I loved her honesty and raw emotion as well as her vocal chops and guitar tunings and never standing still. She was the queen of exploration, incorporating jazz horns and bass players like Jaco Pastorius, but I loved her early stuff with dulcimer and voice too. I think it is the true test of an artist: can you travel with them through the years (and/or albums), explore with them, let them turn you onto new avenue and hues...dig? 

I digress into Beatnik talk 'cause I, as a writer, am equally influenced by words on the page by some amazing authors and poets...can’t even list them here, it’d be very self-indulgent. But there’s words, styles, sounds, delivery and recording technique: these are all areas where you can learn from people that have come before you or who are jamming a long side of you. Influence is not just a past thing - it is current. Some peers can turn you on very directly, without even the boundary of being from a different generation.

I think there’s a way to pay homage to some of your heroes of words and music without it being so in plain view and formulaic. It has to contain your own brand of mystery and your own delivery for it to be valid. I think the “greatest form of flattery is copying” - but not so much in the songwriter's case! We like what we come up with and if it’s gonna rub off on someone then we can feel good that we have turned them on, but if that person takes direct quotes or vocal timbre and does a “tracing paper” version of the song - for me it is a big buzzkill and I want a music biz referee to throw a yellow, or even heaven forbid, a red flag - out of the game!

Some examples of being too self-indulgent in copying without naming names include: the string of singers that immediately followed Alanis Morissette or Eddie Vedder, doing their same vocal inflections - without that really being their true voice. Or how ‘bout the unabashed use of the chords in Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry?” Please MAKE IT YOUR OWN! It seems like 40% of commercials these days use this chord pattern, not to mention many radio singles - still! 

It’s okay to learn a trick on a cool chord, like the way James Taylor does that hammer-on, on the suspended D - and put that into your song - there's nothing wrong with that. That's a beautiful transfer. But don't take the same melody that he used and sing it over the same chord progression with that same hammer-on. When I was first learning guitar I used to take what I learned from lessons and immediately apply it into my own song - like the riff in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” or my first bar chords, and make something a little different, give it a good twist. This is natural. It's okay for an audience member to recognize a nod from another artist in your song, but it needs to be just a nod, not an entire length and style. That is copying.

One more thought on the matter, an offshoot perhaps, is doing cover songs. One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone does a cover song, but they do it as close as they can to the original, same instrumentation and same harmonies, etc. Again, make it your own, make it interesting - give props to the writer of the song you love, but use your interpretation of it. I am so much more turned on when I hear an original delivery of a cover - again, no naming names.

The other interesting part of songwriting for me is that within the task of conjuring, writing and working out lines and melody on a page, in the end it has to seem very “unworked out.” This may be different in stricter Wagnerian classical music perhaps, but here in the indie, folk, rock world many of us travel in, we need to be relaxed and remain “cool” in our presentation. Bob Dylan may be the most obvious example. He was writing prose and he probably could have become a sheer poet without the music, but somehow he did the combo package: words and music. He had to learn when to give the listener a piece of candy and when to take it away from them, when to give them a repeating line or when to have a line not rhyme, let it unravel or break out of the mold. 

Also, you gotta have fun. Sometimes just singing “doodle-do” is better than a profound couplet - at that point in the song (of course, there are those times when a song just spills out of you without so much conscious thought and it still retains its deepness and mystery in a very un-labored way. These are GREAT moments as a crafter of songs). Maybe it is also a bit like the great painters, for example Picasso or Miro, who showed you they could paint in the classic style first, studied the masters before them, but then went their own way and started their own revolution, found their own voice, their own personalized passion for art. I would hope that this is a longing for every writer, singer and musician out there: to follow your own style to its greatest height, to Dig in and Reveal and Uncover - and of course, to have a damn good time doing it all. 

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Tom Freund is a singer, songwriter, producer and multi-talented music maven based in LA. An in-demand bass player, Freund got his first big break in the mid-’90s playing for the Austin-based roots-rock cult heroes the Silos. He settled in Venice, California around the time of his 1998 solo debut North American Long Weekend. Over the years, he has alternated between making his own music and working with folks like Ben Harper, Mandy Moore, Rachael Yamagata and Graham Parker, who hailed Freund as one of “the best singer/songwriters operating today.” Freund released his newest album Two Moons on his own Surf Road Records earlier this year. 

Buy Two Moons at Tom Freund's website: tomfreund.com