Making Sense of the Music: Notes from our November Craft Talk

Writing comes in all different forms, but perhaps the most mysterious is song writing. How musical melodies intertwine with poetic lyrics has long captivated curious audiences. In “Where Songs Come From,” our November Craft Talk facilitated by Max Garland, the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild set out to uncover the art behind song writing by inviting three local artists to share their songs and discuss their origins. The talk featured Jerrika Mighelle, Billy Krause, and Evan Middlesworth—all accompanied by their acoustic guitars—to help the rest of us understand this fascinating art form.

Jerrika Mighelle, who plays in sister band QuinnElizabeth in addition to her solo career, was the first to take to the mic with her song, “Where Are You Now?” When writing a song, Jerrika explained, she starts with chords she knows well, and then finds a riff that captures her attention.  The lyrics, she noted, come later. After sharing her second song of the evening, “Take My Hand,” Jerrika explained that many of her songs are rooted in personal experience, many involving the search for goodness and truth in life. At the same time, she always keeps the listener in mind.  It’s crucial, she noted, to make a connection with the audience and make them feel the emotions she relays in her songs. 

Next, Billy Krause shared two songs—“Smoke and Mirror” and “A Ballad of Farewell— and discussed his song writing methods. For Billy, the process is simply to listen to the music constantly playing in his head and wait for a bit of it to stick. Serendipitously, the music just “happens”, and then he starts to feel it out with chord progressions on his guitar. Much like Jerrika, Billy’s lyrics follow the music, many of them scrawled on scraps of paper he collects and sorts through later. He tends to write about love or life lost, and like Jerrika, strives to connect with the audience through his work. 

Closing the Craft Talk was Evan Middlesworth, who played “Holy Ghost” and “LoLo Anne,” songs that touched on losing a loved one and falling in love. Evan described his writing process as a meeting of the subconscious and the conscious, what he said was “kind of like having a dream, and then when you wake up, you can’t explain it to someone else.” Typically, lyrics come to him when he’s doing mundane things like mowing the lawn, and as he continues to do these mundane things, he writes in his head. Later, when the music comes, he tends to underscore to the lyrics to create the song’s atmosphere. 

While each musician had different techniques for writing songs, after listening to the fruits of their labor and their insights on where their songs come from, we’re closer to understanding the process. So start strumming those chords and writing down the random lines that pop into your head.  Maybe we’ll see you on stage one day!