People sometimes ask me which artists have most influenced my writing. Although I’ve enjoyed—and been influenced by—dozens of artists, including Billy Joel, Francis Dunnery, Sheryl Crow, James Taylor, Paul Halley, John Flynn, Alannis Morrisette, Christine Lavin, Sting, and many others, four people in particular had a profound effect on my style, taste and understanding of the craft of songwriting. They caught my attention — each at the right time and with the right content — to have a big impact on my development as a songwriter and performer.
Paul Simon—Although I liked certain songs that I heard on the radio when I was growing up, the first time I really noticed the artist was when I heard Simon and Garfunkle. Artists who wrote their own material were just starting to become common at that time, but only a few (like Bob Dylan) projected a strong sense of individual personality. Paul Simon’s songs projected a personality I could really relate to: intellectual and skeptical of society’s “rules,” yet still romantic.
It didn’t escape my notice that his songwriting was excellent. I was classically trained, having sung with the American Boychoir for four years, so I didn’t care much for sloppy singing or two-note melodies. These songs had carefully crafted lyrics, real melodies, interesting chord changes—and real heart. Perhaps more to the point, I sensed that I could write like that if I put my mind to it. I became a serious student of his songs (as well as his album production, which was extremely inventive) and learned an enormous amount. (If you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past 30 years and you’re not familiar with Paul’s work, I recommend checking out his albums Still Crazy After All These Years and Graceland.)
Jimmy Webb—The next person whose work caught my attention was Jimmy Webb. Although he never achieved huge success as a recording artist, his dozens of first-class hit songs (including By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Galveston, MacArthur Park, Up, Up and Away and The Highwayman) made his name a “household word” in the songwriting community.
At first I was intrigued by his big hits. I believe it was MacArthur Park that really made me take notice. While some people have made fun of this song because of certain lines in the lyrics, the fact remains that this is one of the most amazing pieces of songwriting to come out of the 20th century. The music is staggeringly original, and the emotion in the song is intense. When I heard it, I knew the writer was somebody I should be learning from.
Jim’s impact on my work moved into high gear when I discovered he had several little-known solo albums out. Tracking them down, I discovered a treasure-trove of songwriting, arranging and producing information. In addition to being a terrific songwriter, Jim is also an expert producer and arranger; in fact, he frequently arranged and produced (and played keyboards on) the recordings other artists made of his songs — recordings that went on to be big hits. On his solo albums he could really let his creative genius as a writer, arranger and producer cut loose — and he did.
The thing that made those albums especially educational was that he experimented freely. He wrote wildly original songs, added arrangements that were always unique and frequently outrageous, and produced the heck out of the recordings. Yet the results still managed to stay within the stylistic bounds of “sensible” rock/pop songwriting! He stretched the boundaries without breaking them.
I was hooked.