Spotlight on SSG – February 2011

Highlighting Vic Lewis for January just naturally led me to picking Nick Torres, one of the founders of the Sunday Songwriters’ Group (SSG) and its mentor for its first year, for the month of February. And it’s a guilty pleasure on my part because I enjoy reading his writing a lot!

And when it turned out he had video of a live performance of his song, “It’s Not a Love Song,” well, that was just icing on the cake! This particular performance took place on October 4, 2009 at Dewey Hall, Sheffield, Massachusetts. Accompanying Nick is Greg Nease on electric guitar, Karen Berger on piano, and myself. That was a fun night!

GN: I know it’s been more than nine years, but what can you tell us about the very beginnings of the Sunday Songwriters’ Group?

Nick: Nine years? Really? Was that the same year I flew out to Chicago to meet some guitar player I’d only met on the Internet? Funny how random internet searches can change everything, isn’t it?

Well about Sunday Songwriter’s…I guess I had joined Guitar Noise about six months earlier when I decided I wanted to play guitar. After I had mastered the Key of G, I figured I was ready to conquer the world and woo women by writing my own songs. The problem was that most of what I wrote sucked, no I mean really, really bad stuff. So I posted some of my lyrics in the Guitar Noise Songwriter Club forum for help, but most of the feedback I got was “Nice” or “I like it.” Not at all what I was looking for.

What I really wanted was someone to help make the song better, an honest assessment with ideas on how to improve it. Now sometimes when I tried to help other writers they took my critique as a personal attack. I can see why that happened since writing is a very personal thing. To have someone find fault with your written feelings is hard to swallow. I know it took me a while to overcome the kneejerk “I like it my way better and I’m not going to change it. Who do you think you are telling me how my song should go?”

So I needed something different. I wrote an email to Ryan Spencer, my moderating predecessor, asking what he thought about a new forum to work on the skill of songwriting. I think the initial email had the following description of my idea:

The objectives are:

1. to bring songwriting to the front burner, once a week.
2. to learn to write creatively on demand.
3. to force yourself to think creatively in new ways.
4. to stretch your mind and writing beyond your comfort zone.
5. to exchange ideas, tips and encouragement with other writers.

From there, Ryan, David and I stretched those ideas into the Sunday Songwriter’s FAQ that you find stickied in the top of the forum and the Sunday Songwriter’s Group was born.

GN: What was it like running the SSG until handing over the reins to Bob?

Nick: Because the concept behind the SSG is so simple, here’s a topic…now write, the first year actually worked pretty well. We usually had 5-15 people working on a topic any given week. There was a lot of learning going on that first year for me, what topics worked, what didn’t, what was too much to accomplish in a week, how to critique, how to respond to critiques, etc.

On top of that I also was learning a tremendous amount about my own songwriting. Two of my articles, Songwriting for Beginners and Songwriting for Intermediates were written based on what I learned in my first year. The last time I looked they had been downloaded close to a million times. I’m not bragging about that, (well okay, just a little), just pointing out that the knowledge I gained from the SSG seemed to strike home with many, many songwriters. I even had someone tell me they memorized the first one.

But you don’t have to memorize anything, you just have to write, open yourself up to accept the critiques and critique others. Lather, rinse, repeat for a year and you’ll amaze yourself. And wow, there were a lot of good songs written that year. I think a tremendous amount of songwriting skill developed.

I must admit I felt a little nervous about handing my baby over to anyone, but to tell the truth I was a bit burnt out. I felt obligated to critique every song, which is hard to maintain. But it makes you a better songwriter in the end. Bob did a fantastic job with some innovative topics and my fears quickly evaporated. I really appreciate the efforts that everyone who has led the SSG has put forth. The SSG’s success is only possible because of the contributions of the leaders and the writers.

GN: How do you feel the SSG is doing in regards to your original vision of it?

Nick: Apart from it’s doing exactly what I intended, or perhaps because of that, I’m amazed. SSG is coming up on a decade! That is unbelievable. I wonder how many songs have been written and performed because of it. Does anyone know? I would guess hundreds. I wonder how many people who would never have written a song or performed something they wrote have done exactly that. That I am a small part of the process that helped create those songs or helped those songwriters express themselves makes me very proud.

You know what we should do? We should have an index in the SSG forum of SSG songs and MP3s.

GN: Do you have any favorite SSG songs from over the years? Yours as well as those from other SSG members?

Nick: Oh that is a tough question. I could tell you a few but there are so many. There is your “Orange and Cinnamon”, Kathy Reichert’s “Dancing with the Stars” and “No Reflection”, Marvelous Optimist’s “Amphibian,” Vic and Celt have written several, and really there are dozens more.

Of mine “One by One,” which I didn’t know I was co-writing with you, will always hold a special place in my heart. Thank you for making that song a reality. I really like how “Lost Summer Days” turned out. And “Romeo” and “Without Words” I’m especially proud of because they are songs only because SSG worked. I had an idea. I had practiced how to write. I knew where to write. When the inspiration hit me for each of those songs, I had the words completely done in about an hour. I never could’ve done that before SSG.

GN: We’re featuring your song “It’s Not a Love Song” this month. If I remember correctly, you weren’t even sure you wanted to keep this one, not to mention that it went through quite a number of changes. Can you describe the process that led to the wonderful song we now get to hear?

Nick: Thank you for the kind words. “It’s not a love song?” Well, the assignment was to write to a chord progression which I think morphed into something else.

Unfortunately I don’t remember the inspiration for the words. What amazes me though, when I go and look at the post as seen here is that this song is really a collaborative effort and an excellent example of what the SSG can do. You can see the changes happen as you read along. It starts with my rough draft, Kathy and Vic have structure questions, which I fix. You suggest fixing passive for active, which I do. Ken says switch some words, Celt puts in his two cents. I shorten the whole thing up by combining two verses. Next I take credit for everybody else’s suggestions and there it is…a pretty darn good song. It was a magic songwriting moment for me.

GN: What advice do you have for folks just getting started with songwriting? And what tips do you have for those who are trying to get back into songwriting on a regular basis as well as for those who are trying to revitalize their original song repertoires?

Nick: Has it been said before, just start writing? Well, just start writing. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be a complete song. It doesn’t ever have to see the light of day. You just have to be practiced for when the inspiration strikes. If you need some help there are plenty of pretty accomplished writers hanging around in the SSG that can give you a hand. What are you waiting for?