What to expect at…Alexander Gow’s workshop

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The workshop component of The Melbourne Sessions is at the heart of the day, where small groups with a shared genre focus can exchange ideas, feedback and practical techniques on their craft. At the helm is a practicing songwriter, composer or producer who will guide the group.

What can you expect at this three-hour segment? We asked returning workshop speaker Alexander Gow of Oh Mercy to shed light on what unfolded last year, if songwriting can be ‘taught’, and what he has in store this year for songwriters.

Q: You were a workshop mentor at last year’s Melbourne Sessions. It was a packed room with yourself and Jae Laffer. How did you guys run the workshop? 

A: Well, making songs is like cooking. There’s no one right way to do it. And you can spend days sourcing the produce – winning an egg toss on a glacier in the Himalayas granting you the right to harvest a mushroom nibbled on by a half leopard / half panda creature while preparing the meal dressed up as Matt Preston in a surf shack built from cricket bats in Phillip Island – if it tastes bad, it’s bad. Similarly, there’s no one right way to talk about it. No one right way to teach it. There are however certain techniques and fundamental understandings that can help a writer to get somewhere near the song in their head. We discussed those. We also discussed our individual songwriting processes. We had a clever and interesting bunch of people in our room. Some moments spent discussing micro concepts, others spent on some broad almost existential ideas. I enjoyed the experience and am glad to be invited back.

Q: This year you’re presenting the three-hour workshop on your own, how will you prepare and how should your attendees prepare (if at all!)?

A: Well, I’m mirroring the montage from the first Rocky film. I’ve slowed down. Set it to one frame per hour. I’m currently three days into the raw egg smoothie bit. I’m sure I’ll be in peak form on the day. Like Rocky, I plan to be 100% prepared to 100% dismiss up to 50% of prepared materials on the day in the spirit of ‘going with the flow’. You know – one-half robot and one-half artist. I’ll have a laptop with a ‘go with the flow’ attitude.

Attendees should prepare to understand that writing engaging songs is one of the most noble things a human can achieve and that it may take several hundred songs written until they get there. They can except a judgment-free environment, with no rights or wrongs, where open discussion will be encouraged.

Q: Are there certain aspects of the creative process you will delve into on the day? 

A: Yes. Of course. Well, some of these aspects sound quite dry on paper. So perhaps I won’t write about them now. But. Maybe we’ll discuss the way an expert artist works during a life drawing class. They know they have a time limit per pose. They don’t burden themselves with an intention to document every detail in the scene: the power outlet, to the legs of the stool, the dirt under the model’s second largest toe on the left foot. A great artist will simply leave us with a visceral impression of the entire scene. Or, a detailed account of a micro detail. I’d argue that a similar approach is important when songwriting. Turning your attention to the micro. Then extrapolating. Using expressive and engaging language to examine the micro. And importantly, there are plenty of exceptions to that line of thought. We’ll have discussions such as this.

Q: What is something that up-and-coming songwriters can really only learn from a fellow songwriter? What did you wish someone told you when you were starting out writing songs and playing shows?

A: That it’s great to be ambitious. Noble even. It’s normal to want to be your best writer self, right away. Those traits will come in handy. But, the lesson I would have liked to have learned earlier is – ‘writing songs is practicing writing songs’. That one doesn’t have to scale an Everest every single time. An artist has major and minor works. Understanding that would have saved me a bit of anxiety as a novice writer.

Q: For someone who is unsure about signing up for The Melbourne Sessions, can you share a couple of reasons why they should seriously consider coming along on 5 July?

A: Discussing songwriting in depth for three hours with other songwriters is a wonderful privilege. Try explaining that to aliens! If you can manage it, come along and indulge that privilege.