Written on February 3, 2011 – 11:54 am | by Cameron Hussey
Do you need assistance channeling your inner Johnny Mercer, Paul Simon or Rhett Miller? Ojai songbird Rain Perry can help. Starting Tuesday she’ll show aspiring rock stars how to put the “bomp” wherever it goes during an eight-week class for beginning songwriters at Zoey’s in Ventura.
If you can “Imagine” being a “Free Bird” who’s “Born to Be Wild” on that “Stairway to Heaven,” then you just might have the kind of brain that could be trained to create a hook-filled pop classic. You bring the brain, Perry will help mold it.
Perry’s music skills run deep. She’s recorded three albums, won songwriting awards and can be heard each week singing the theme song to the CW network drama “Life Unexpected.” The song, called “Beautiful Tree,” is a Perry original, of course.
Hey, Rain, so tell me about this thing? Can you show up anytime or do you have to be there at the beginning?
It’s a songwriting class that runs for eight weeks. It will cost $200, it’s open to the public and space is limited. E-mail me at .
You’ve already done this in Ojai. How did those work out?
A few months ago, I decided I wanted to teach a songwriting class. I e-mailed people on my list asking them, “Does anyone want to be my guinea pig while I try this out? I won’t charge you this first time. I just want to try it.” I had a bunch of people sign up and we did this shortened class.
How many participants did you have?
I had about 10 and I taught the class in my friend’s pilates studio up here, Ojai Pilates.
Do you have to bring stuff? A guitar or a tuba?
You don’t have to have a guitar. You don’t have to have any musical experience. You just have to like music and want to try writing songs. Basically, the way that I learned to write songs, which is probably the way a lot of people learn, is singing and playing songs that they love. Eventually you start to figure out how to write your own. I was trying to figure out how to teach that way. I know they do this in fine art. They teach you to paint by copying the masters, you know, and that’s kind of the approach I’m going to take. So I’m going to use the way I learned to write as a teenager and try to distill it into eight weeks.
Could it turn into “Free Bird” 101?
If people want to model their work on “Free Bird,” they totally can. I probably need to cap the class at 10 so we can have time to discuss stuff.
What if 20 people with delusions of John Prine show up? Will you add a second session, or what?
Well, people just need to contact me.
Will there be classroom rules? Will you bust folks for cellphones, talking or tagging?
I’m hoping they’ll be interested in the topic of songwriting and that will outweigh any interest in talking on the phone. It’s never been a problem.
Did you go to one of these things at some point?
I never took any songwriting lessons per se. I learned by listening to music and loving music. I went back and listened to some of my early stuff and there are some really obvious influences. But after awhile you start to develop your own voice. I feel that copying and theft are rock ‘n’ roll traditions that we should embrace. I think everyone from Led Zeppelin to everyone has had influences that made them who they are. That’s just how it’s done.
What’s the difference between plagiarism and influence?
That’s a hard one. I think the difference is that if you rip off an idea directly without digesting it through your soul, that’s plagiarism.
That’s not “Stairway to Heaven.” I just made that up — really, I did.
Yeah, well, this is just a songwriting class. And the amazing thing is that people do get inspired. We do one lesson where we all work from the same song and, soon enough, you can’t even tell what song these songs come from. It’s pretty interesting.
So is writing a song, in fact, a craft — like making a cake or building a book shelf?
That’s exactly what it is. I feel very strongly that songs can have all types of different structures but if a song has no structure because you don’t know how to write a chorus or a verse, then you’re limiting yourself from tools that you could really benefit from. I think our brains are wired to remember songs when songs give us a way of remembering them. By having a structure that our brains can connect with, songs become memorable. That’s what I’m trying to teach.
Not to give away all your secrets, but what are some steps to encourage and/or avoid when it comes to songwriting?
I just encourage people to be really specific and avoid generalities. I feel there’s so much to be learned by studying those that are really good at it and have done it. There’s a book that came out a few years ago. Tom Russell co-edited it with Sylvia Tyson. It’s called “And Then I Wrote: The Songwriter Speaks.” It’s just a collection of quotes about the craft of songwriting and the life of the songwriter. There’s all kinds of incredible observations by all different kinds of songwriters. They all started by trying to copy someone they admired and then they all developed their own voice.
Who do you admire? Who made your shortlist of great songwriters?
Oh boy, there are, of course, the people I grew up listening to — Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman and Rickie Lee Jones. Then lately, of course, there’s Eliza Gilkyson. She’s just a great writer, a great songwriter and a great performer.
Plus, she can sing better than everybody and that helps.
Yeah, yeah. She has everything. She knows her way around the craft of a song and I really respect that about her. I’m also into Death Cab For Cutie. I think Ben Gibbard is a really great writer.
Is this class a no-pressure scenario? Do you have to write the next “Born to Be Wild” by 7 p.m. each night?
I want people to do their homework but I do understand that this is an optional class for people. Whatever time they can give it is good. People have lives, so it’s not graded.
What’s your background?
I’ve won several songwriting awards and I’ve had my song placed in “Life Unexpected.” I also got another placement on the show “Make It or Break It,” a cheerleading show on ABC Family. That one doesn’t air until March. I won the John Lennon Song Contest and the ROCKRGRL Discoveries Contest. I was a finalist at the Telluride Troubadour Contest.
Is songwriting just a respectable way to be poor?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I think it’s respectable, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to be poor so, I guess, yes. Definitely.
What’s the goal? A song a week or what?
We’re going to be doing exercises. By the end of the course there should be a couple of songs. We’re just learning things and trying things.
Do songs have to rhyme? Are there rules?
Yes, there are rules.
And these will be revealed to your students shortly?
Yes, absolutely. I am pretty open-minded as to which words rhyme with each other.
So you won’t be like John Houseman in “The Paper Chase” or Sgt. R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket”?
No, I won’t be like them. It’ll be fun. I’ve done three of these and it’ll be a lot of fun. After this, we have the advanced class when we actually perform these songs.
Since the class will be at Zoey’s, I’m assuming that your students are not supposed to get faded during class through excessive elbow bending?
Oh, they can get drunk after.
For CD reviews and more show previews, view Bill Locey’s “I Love Locey” videos in the Media Player section of The Star’s website, www.vcstar.com.
E-mail Locey at .
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