Adam Levy on songwriting

Added on Friday 17 Sep 2010

Photo: Adam Levy.

I want to know what makes other songwriters tick; how and why they write the songs they write.

With that in mind I've put together a set of questions which I'm sending out to the songwriters I know - and the songwriters I don't yet know. First to tackle the questions is supremely talented Adam Levy: guitar virtuoso and noted songwriter. Here is some information about Adam to give some context:

"Adam Levy is best known for his tenure as the featured guitarist in Norah Jones' Handsome Band. He played on her breakout 2002 diskCome Away with Me, her '04 follow-upFeels Like Home, and her latest CDNot Too Late. In his downtime between steady gigs with Jones, Levy has been onstage and/or in the studio with Rosanne Cash, Amos Lee, M. Ward, and up-and-coming Aussie artist Eran James. In addition to Levy's skills as a player, he is a gifted songwriter. He penned "In the Morning" for Jones'Feels Like Home, and other artists have recorded his songs as well. There's no doubt, though, that the best way to hear Levy's folk/pop/blues gems is straight from the source." Copied from

What is your name?

Adam Levy.

Why do you write songs?

Two reasons. First of all, because I enjoy the process of writing. It's like finding a shiny coin in a bag of popcorn, watching it disappear before my eyes, then finding again somewhere else. Then losing it once again, and finally bringing it back by sheer force of imagination. Secondly, I write because there's something fantastic about singing a new song for people. But new songs don't stay new, so I keep writing.

What genre/style(s) do you write songs in?

I try to write classic songs--something you could imagine the Beatles singing, or Sam Cooke, or Leonard Cohen.

What type of music did you mainly listen to when you were growing up?

Classic American and British folk-rock of the late 1960s and early '70s.

Name some of the artists you listened to when growing up?

I remember listening to three records over and over when I was young--the Beatles' 'The Beatles' ('The White Album'), Cat Stevens' 'Teaser and the Firecat', and Simon & Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'. I was also into Stevie Wonder's 'Songs in the Key of Life', the Doobie Brothers, some Chuck Berry, and Ry Cooder.

What genre/type of music do you mainly listen to now?

It's pretty random these days. People give me their own music, or make CD mixes for me, or recommend stuff and I'll check it out. I don't chase music as much as I used to. Maybe I should.

Names some of the artists you listen to now?

Sam Phillips, M. Ward, Wilco, Nick Lowe, Neko Case, and Gaby Moreno. Gaby is a relatively new artist--someone to keep an eye on, definitely.

What cover songs did you first learn/play?

My first, I think, was "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry.

What musician/bands in particular have you learned the songs of?

None in particular, though I can probably play 100 Beatle songs from having listened so much as a kid and through my whole life. I've rarely sat down to actually learn these songs. I know them deep down. I did learn "Julia" note-for-note a few years ago. It's so great!

What age were you when you started writing songs?

I started writing when I was 12 or 13, then soon stopped--as I got much more interested in playing the guitar for its own sake. I started writing songs again when I was 37 or 38. I'm 43 now.

How long have you been writing songs for?

As a real pursuit? Just the past six or seven years.

What instrument (if any) do you mainly use to write?

The guitar. And a pen.

Of those songs that you are most proud of, what is it you like about them?

That they seem inevitable. I don't feel I "wrote" them, so much as found them. They were going to be written with me or without me.

What is the first thing that happens - that leads to a song being written?

It can start in many different ways. I've been into starting from titles lately. If a turn of phrase hits me as interesting or intriguing in some way, I'll try to build a song around it. When I'm lucky, simply saying the phrase out loud seems to suggest a melody. If I've got a good title and a few notes of melody, that's enough to get me off and running.

What percentage of the songwriting process would you estimate is down to inspiration as opposed to perspiration?

For me, it's usually very close to 50/50.

List three techniques that you use when writing songs.

Use the meter and/or rhyme scheme of another song as a model. Use pen-and-paper (not the laptop) and keep the pen moving non-stop for a certain amount of time--say, 10 minutes, on whatever subject I have in mind. Write one line of lyric, at the top of a page, then fill the rest of the page with lines that rhyme with the first line.

List three overall ideas or 'things that you know' that help you finish a song.

Book a gig, or a recording session, or a song date with a friend. A real deadline is the only sure way I know to get a song finished.

How do you create melodies for your songs?

I often write words first, with a metric scheme in mind. (The meter may be inspired by another song, or a poem, or a roll of the dice.) Words written in strict meter, when read aloud, suggest melodies to me. That's the most natural way, for me.

How do you come up with your lyrics?

I'm driven by meter and rhyme, the old-fashioned way. I and I borrow ideas all the time--from poets, painters, film-makers. I try not to lift ideas from other songwriters, though I'm sure I do. I'm always happiest when the lyrics fell like strangers I'm meeting for the first time.

Did you learn music as an academic subject?

Yes. I studied music at the Dick Grove School (now closed) in Los Angeles, in the late 1980s.

If so how did it impact on your songwriting?

I'm not sure. Back then, I mostly was interested in studying jazz guitar. I don't think many of my songs reflect my jazz studies.

If you had to choose - would you say you are better at - the words or the music?

I think I'm naturally more gifted with music, but I work a lot harder at crafting the lyrics.

How did you learn the techniques/mechanics of songwriting?

Studying the mechanics of classic songs--Dylan, the Beatles, Neil Young, Tom Waits. Transcribing the lyrics by ear (not looking at them from a book or the Internet), watching how the chords move, how the words and melody become one.

What makes your songs different from everyone else's?

I don't know. I really don't know how to answer.

What advice would you give to a person who is just starting out writing songs?

Always be writing! Scribble ideas on whatever paper you have handy, right away. Sing into a portable recorder or leave yourself a phone message. Some ideas--many ideas, actually--will go nowhere, but you must follow where they lead. You always learn by trying, and by finishing what you've started.

Where can people hear examples of your songs (URL). or

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What the critics said about 'Every day is sunshine' by Jim Byrne.

  • "a heady and exotic mix. " Q Magazine.
  • "..full of cinematic turns of phrase, dressed up in alluring melodies delivered by some of the most respected players on the modern-day Celtic Folk scene." UNCUT
  • Album of the week on Celtic Music Radio
  • Added to 'God's Jukebox' on Radio Two Mark Lamarr show
  • "A beautifully produced collection of Americana" The Daily Record. Four Stars
  • "Great record... a complete, compelling listen. ", Adam Levy (Songwriter/artist, guitarist with Nora Jones)
  • "ten beautiful, atmospheric songs..", Folk, Blues and beyond
  • "a fresh, original album", Eilidh Patterson (singer songwriter, vocalist with Beth Nielsen Chapman)
  • Sounding like Johnny Cash never left Folsom prison...meditations on life that'll soon sound like old friends. Spiral Earth

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