An Austrian singer-songwriter whose music is informed by blues, country and Americana teaches us about how to subvert different genres
Austrian singer-songwriter Prinz Grizzley (Chris Comper) recently released his new album To My Green Mountains Home. With a style that incorporates elements of country, Americana and blues, he seemed like an ideal person to talk about how experimenting with genres can add a little extra to your songwriting armoury, so that’s exactly what we got him to do for us…
Through genres, we can identify music without even hearing a single note. People can identify with the ideology of a genre and be part of something bigger. Spotify can make you an awesome, or not-so-awesome, playlist. But all the genres we know once needed brave men and women to add something new to take them in a different direction and help them stand out.
I know nowadays it’s pretty hard to invent a new genre outside of electronic music, but it’s still possible to add some new flavour into an existing genre and give it an interesting twist.
1. OPEN YOUR EARS
The most important thing: listen, listen, listen, listen! Don’t be afraid. There’s so much beauty in different styles of music, you just have to explore it! Jazz?!? Alright, you got me, I also can listen to jazz for no more than 20 minutes. But I did talk to jazz listeners and played with jazz musicians to get to know what it is they like so much about their genre. So I learned some cool guitar chords, went home and immediately wrote a song with a bossa nova beat and dark spiritual gospel lyrics. Don’t close your ears, get inspired!
2. USE GENRE-UNTYPICAL INSTRUMENTS
You’ve written a song, let’s say on acoustic guitar, you’ve demoed it but still need to find a great hook or lick for it… Don’t go to your main instrument, don’t use an electric guitar and play the same old licks and scales as you normally would, try for example a synthesizer instead! That keeps the hook simple. I grant you, you’ll play something different than you do on your guitar. And when you find a hook you like, you can then switch back and play it on your electric guitar.
I did that on my new album on the song Keep The Fire High. I wrote the lead hooks on a synthesizer and then my pedal steel player played it note-for-note.
3. LEAVE SOMETHING TYPICAL OUT
I just produced a record for a blues duo. Their instrumentation consists of vocals, blues harp, upright bass and drums played by the blues harp-player’s feet. And no guitar! It’s great live; it has energy, its loud and wild. But in the studio, I really missed the midrange rhythm sound to fill the gaps and to carry the song along. So instead of playing that on guitar, I had the harp player kind of simulate the rhythm guitar. Lo and behold, it worked out awesome. Now they have something unique, there’s not a single guitar note on their blues album.
4. WRITE DIFFERENT LYRICS
By all means, there are recurring phrases, events and pictures in the lyrics of any genre. Try to get away from the phrases that have been dealt with a hundred times. Don’t start your blues song with, “Woke up this morning,” (I’m guilty of that on my new record, but in my defence, it’s not a typical blues song).
Try to find topics that deal with your life or your surroundings. For example, I don’t dare to write lines about pick-up trucks. First, it’s in 2000 songs and second, we don’t have those kinds of pick-up trucks in Austria. I wouldn’t write a song about Vietnam veterans, because I don’t know anybody who fought there.
But I can try to write about my grandfather who was forced to fight in the Second World War. I know his story. So try to tell your story and take advantage of your country’s unique history and people. There might be stories no one ever heard.
5. DISCOVER NEW RHYTHMS
The drumbeat is the most distinctive thing when it comes to distinguishing styles of music. And for me, that’s where the real magic happens. Turn on your drum computer and try to write something over a drum beat you never played to. The different rhythmic structures ask for certain chord changes, different timings etc. You really can break free from the scheme in which you prefer to write your songs.
A good example of what a “foreign” beat can add is in the music of The Police. They evolved out of the post-punk scene using all kinds of different beats, rarely using those that all the other bands used and ta-da, unique. Are they punk, pop, reggae, new-wave? No, they’re The Police!