Jimmy Webb interview on songwriting

Jimmy Webb is a songwriter who’s written massive hits, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Up, Up and Away” and “MacArthur Park,” to name a few. But he’s remained in the shadows of the stars that sang his songs (Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Glen Campbell).

While these stars spend their time in the spotlight, Webb’s name is only familiar to music geeks who bother to read the liner notes on CD sleeves. That’s O.K. by Webb. He never intended to be the next Dylan. Instead, he followed in the footsteps of Burt Bacharach.

It’s been years since Webb’s been able to sell records in large quantities and yet he keeps plugging away. He keeps going because of the euphoria he experiences while writing.

When it’s done right, Webb says, the writing process feels more like an epiphany than a chore. Furthermore, he believes that the most successful songs have mass appeal because they are able to relay this sense of epiphany to others.

Webb says a well-written song allows its spark of inspiration to be shared like a revelation by both the writer (while composing the song) and the listener (when hearing the song).

In the following interview I talk with Webb about his song-writing process and gets a firsthand account of the waves of joy that rush over Webb while he is working.

Webb: A really good song has three major components that will define it and will make it more memorable and usable and therefore, give it a better chance of survival. Those components are: a good chord structure, which is the underlying foundation under any song. And it’s one of the most underappreciated and least perceived parts of the song. But it’s that chord structure that establishes the rhythm and the feel.

And then secondly, it’s the melody. You only have to make one of three decisions with the melody. You either go up, you stay where you are or you go down. But it’s the way you go up and down or stay where you are that decides whether that is a memorable thing that feels good on the ear and wants to be repeated, and we’ll say even not just repeated in the sense that [you say] “Oh, gee, I’d like to hear that song again,” but years later a performer comes by and says, “You know I’m going to do this song again because this is a memorable melody.”

And the third thing is the lyrics…In my own work, I have a kind of narrative style. One of my most important techniques is, that if you write a great first line, which is the most important line in the song, if you write a great first line, you’re halfway there.

You have all this going on together now. You’ve got these beautiful chords that are helping you subtly, almost invisible, you have this melody that you hope is irresistible because you make the right decisions up, down…and then thirdly, you have some sort of a narrative going on that engages the other temporal lobe, which likes to follow the story…ideally, that should become an irresistible one, two, three punch.

Myers: Sure.

Webb: The epiphany experienced as you are listening to a certain song, I believe is what happens when all three of these elements, chords, melody and lyrics are working together…you [as a songwriter] communicate with everybody at the same time. And in a sense that’s what a hit record is.

Myers: After you’ve written a song let’s say, “Wichita Lineman,” do you know that you’ve hit those buttons in people successfully?

Webb: Well sometimes, just from my own personal experience, and through knowing a lot of songwriters…people who are in this process have similar feelings to mine. There will come a certain point in the song where I get an endorphin rush going.

And it’s like an emotional wave is breaking in my chest and as I get into the last verse of that song and I start finishing it up, there’s something that’s bigger than me kind of rushing through my head like a windstorm saying, “This is it, man! This is it! This is what you do. This is what you were put here for!”

It’s a kind of a thrill, and it’s almost a sob that goes through your body. You go, “I don’t know whether this is a hit or not, but it certainly could be.” And I think that’s as close as you’re ever going to get to knowing.

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