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Sound Advice 

New Orleans Songwriters Festival

Fri.-Sat., Dec. 5-6

Multiple venues; www.nosongfest.com

click to enlarge Renowned songwriter Jimmy Webb will speak at the first New Orleans Songwriters Festival.
  • Renowned songwriter Jimmy Webb will speak at the first New Orleans Songwriters Festival.

Two years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing New Orleans' quintessential songwriter, Allen Toussaint. For decades, as a producer, arranger and writer, Toussaint shaped — as much as anyone — what we now consider the New Orleans sound. Working with everyone from Ernie K-Doe to the Meters, he crafted dozens of hits, although he'd only written one on purpose, "Ride Your Pony" for Lee Dorsey, to get back in the game after taking time out from the business for Army service.

But is it really possible to write a hit on purpose? If so, how do you do it? Questions like these may be answered this weekend at the first annual New Orleans Songwriters Festival, sponsored by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). During the two-day event, Toussaint and many other accomplished writers will participate in group performances, discussions, concerts and an open mic for aspiring songsmiths (ee the Web site for a full schedule and list of guest artists).

Jim McCormick, a Nashville-based songwriter for Warner Chappell (whose songs have been recorded by Trisha Yearwood, Tim McGraw and Randy Travis, among others) is participating in the event. He stressed that the festival is not intended to teach anyone how to write a song, but he hopes attendees will "just come and get enjoyment out of the song as an art form, stripped down to its bare sense and performed by some of the masters in its stark beauty."

One of those masters is multiple Grammy-winner Jimmy Webb, who penned songs like "Wichita Lineman" (recorded by Glen Campbell and Tony Joe White) and "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" (recorded by Campbell, Isaac Hayes, Solomon Burke, Nick Cave and others). McCormick recently interviewed Webb, a conversation he says was mesmerizing. "We spoke for an hour, and I asked maybe six questions," McCormick says. "I can see why he's a storyteller." He hopes that kind of dialogue will repeat itself many times over at the festival.

The songwriting business itself has changed a great deal over the years, evolving from song factories like the Brill Building's stable of writers into the intimate, confessional writing of singer/songwriters that exploded in the '70s. (Carole King, a former Brill Building writer, reaped the fruits of that with her record-breaking Tapestry album.) As a professional songwriter, McCormick says, "I love the tradition I'm part of. There's no reason an artist can't be a writer and a producer, too, but each one of those jobs is very demanding by itself. It's enough to do just one very well."

McCormick sees a slight negative effect to the template of first-person writing, which has, to some degree, caused audiences — and artists — to expect the singer to be the protagonist of the song.

"I wish more artists would be more open to songs they didn't write, or songs that aren't from their point of view or position in life," he says. Some artists look for songs to record that are simpatico with their own experience and may reject good material because of it, he adds. "It'll exclude great story songs because the singer's not a jet pilot or an alcoholic or a parent."

Writers participating in the festival come from all corners of the business — from behind-the-scenes wizards like Toussaint and McCormick to writer/performers who open up their own lives for material, like the haunting Louisiana performer Mary Gauthier and roots-rocker Susan Cowsill, who's worked from both angles. The festival also features Cajun performer and poet Zachary Richard, soul veteran Cassandra Wilson, past president of the Nashville Songwriters Association Ralph Murphy and others. Proceeds from the festival will be donated to area music-related charities, including the New Orleans Musicians Clinic.

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