Iona MacDonald

Added on Thursday 23 Sep 2010

Photo: Iona Macdonald.

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. Tackling the questions today is supremely talented singer, songwriter and member of the Doghouse Roses, Iona MacDonald. Here is some information about Iona to give some context:

Paul Tasker and Iona Macdonald started playing music together soon after meeting in late 2005. Tasker's inspiration to play the guitar came after hearing legendary guitarist Bert Jansch in a Glasgow working men's club in the early 1990s.

Tasker & Macdonald formed Doghouse Roses in 2006, after one too many nights drinking red wine and listening to Pentangle, Fairport Convention and Gillian Welch records. Since then they have played many shows in the UK and Europe. They also started their own record label, Yellowroom Music, on which they have released one single, two EPs and a full length CD, distribution being handled by Proper Distribution.

Read more here:

What is your name?

Iona Macdonald

Why do you write songs?

Because I always have and also because I am now in a band and they kind of come in handy.

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

Ordinarily in a folk style, although I have written a number of indie type tracks too that haven't been recorded.

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

Female singer songwriters.

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

I got into the habit of stealing my sister's tapes. The first one I fell in love with was Tracy Chapman's eponymous album. I also listened to a lot of my family's other music... Bob Dylan, Tammy Wynette, Mary O'hara, Don Williams, Johnny cash, the Beatles, Anne Lorne Gillies. My dad's a gaelic singer, so I heard a lot of traditional music when I was younger, but wasn't steeped in tradition, as we moved to England and his passion was Scottish music (not so much of it kicking around down there!). I also listened to a LOT of pop music: Lisa Stansfield, Brand New Heavies, Soul II Soul, Kylie (!!!), ABBA, U2, the Bee Gees, Fairground Attraction, Whitney Houston, the Housemartins... I was very partial to a bit of Celine Dion (shh, don't tell anyone), because of her voice - I wanted to be able to hit all the notes that she could.

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

Mostly folk/blues/Americana, but I'm really not into putting music into boxes, to be honest.

Name some of the artists you listen to now?

Sandy Denny, Gillian Welch, Natalie Merchant, Steve Earle, Feist, Fairport Convention, Blind Willy Johnson, The National... it's a very long list and it changes every day...

What cover songs did you first learn/play?

I think that would have been hallelujah (Jeff Buckley version) and then onto a lot of Leonard Cohen.

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

Leonard Cohen, Natalie merchant, Fairport Convention, Gillian Welch

What age were you when you started writing songs?

Can't remember. I always have done it - I just haven't always written anything down.

How long have you been writing songs for?

I've been writing with intent (and writing songs down) for about 7 years.

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

I usually use the guitar, although my best songs come to me as a melody in my head, prior to touching the guitar.

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

Melodic dynamic and connected emotion.

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

It pops into my head.

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

Difficult question. The song wouldn't arrive without inspiration, so 100% inspiration really. But, in terms of actual time, probably 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.

List three techniques that you use when writing songs

Persistence, phrasing, performing

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

Depends on the song. If it's a story, then it has to have a beginning, middle and end (usually). Other than that, it comes from the song and I don't like to use any generic 'ideas' as such in a song... that takes out the soul of it. I'd rather leave the song unfinished than brutalise it.

How do you create melodies for your songs?

In my head. The words/phrasing tend to suggest a melody, if they have come first. If I use a guitar to come up with a melody then it is ultimately limited by what I can play or what I have played before.

How do you come up with your lyrics?

I tend to focus on the mood of the subject I am writing about. I go from start to finish, whereas, I know people who create chunks of lyrics around a structure and then fill in the blanks. I don't think it matters, either way.

Did you learn music as an academic subject?

I learnt piano from the age of four, but have not studied academically.

If so how did it impact on your songwriting?

I'm glad I didn't - I can usually tell when someone is directly applying an academic technique to a song and, very often, it takes the soul of it away. Because you are taught the skills by an individual, you are judged on their subjective opinion of what you are writing. They might very well be completely wrong, or you might end up being a clone of them. Better to be judged by a wider audience, or just yourself.

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

The words, probably. But then, it's different for every song.

How did you learn the techniques/mechanics of songwriting?

By listening to a lot of different styles of music and knowing what makes me like them. In doing that, I can recognise the things that I like in my songs as I write them and then I know which songs are worth persisting with.

What makes your songs different from everyone else's?

What makes my life different from everyone else's? It's mine.

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

Relax, don't force it. If a song comes to you, record it as soon as possible (mobile phones are good for this), or write it down. Remember that you don't have to finish every song... Just because you want to write songs, doesn't mean you'll be able to. It's a bit like deciding you want to be a tennis player... if you've got no hand-eye coordination and you're not very athletic, then you'll really struggle. Give it up. Above all, don't set out to write a particular kind of song, or to write like someone you admire... it sticks out like a sore thumb and it won't be believable, it'll be a pastiche.

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

Thanks Iona

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