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Songwriting Questions with Julie Pennell

What is your favorite part of songwriting?

The moment of "spark", I'll call it, when simple words or melodies ignite in my mind. It's different from when you actually sit down to write; these are moments when inspiration strikes, and if feels kind of magical.

Where do you find inspiration for songs?

Sometimes, as mentioned above the inspiration finds me, but when I'm sitting down to engage in the act of writing, I think of times when I was moved by people or events and write from the perspective of how I was feeling, or how they must have felt. When I took a writing class when living in Toronto, one of the activities the teacher had us do was to re-read the first chapter of a book we enjoyed and pull some interesting lines from there and see what creative story we could build from it. At a banjo camp I attended in 2019 Tony Trishka made up songs from some phone numbers...applying notes to the numbers. Sometimes these are a big flop, and sometimes these activities actually result in something cool, but nevertheless they're fun things to do that put your mind in a creative zone.

Do you try to write regularly?

I write often, but don't necessarily have a schedule. I just keep a log of ideas going on an ongoing basis. I find myself finishing songs when I either dedicate a chunk of time to write or things are just slow and I'm in waiting mode (like when the phone lines are slow at work, or I'm waiting in the airport).

What advice do you have for new songwriters?

Listen to who inspires you when you feel dried up or discouraged; it will infuse the passion for music in you again. Listen to a variety of music. Immerse yourself in various art forms; I love going to the Frist Museum in Nashville, or doing wood work or coloring with my kids....all of these activities put my mind in a different zone from the normal, day-to-day activities of life. Take drives....many of my writing ideas come when I drive; every drives can feel like a pilgrimage, even when it's dropping my kids off at piano.

What things do you find difficult about songwriting?

Balancing the time to finish ideas, and being patient for the best ideas to come. If you push too hard to make ideas come then these sometimes just turn out bad, but if you're patient then things lock into place, eventually.

What insights do you have about writing songs in the Nashville scene?

I don't engage a lot in co-writing, although this is a big thing in Nashville. I've co-written only a handful of times, and have enjoyed it. I work a regular 9-5 job and possibly would be doing more co-writing if I had a publishing deal, but this is not the case, nor is it the norm for most songwriters in town. It's most helpful (living in a town full of amazing musicians and songwriters) to keep focused on being unique and honest, even if the story in the song is the same, tell it from your perspective.

Do you have advice about co-writing?

Be open to it, and approach it with honesty; if something doesn't feel right be gracious but speak the truth. It helps to have ideas and starts to bring with you to the table.

You play lots of different instruments, do you write songs with specific instruments in mind?

Not necessarily, but playing the different instruments typically sparks different ideas and emotion. Just the tone or vibrations of an acoustic bass will evoke a different feeling than strumming a dulcimer or banjo. Having said this, I recently started a song that I really want to hear fiddle on as it's inspired by fiddle tunes....sadly I don't play the fiddle.

Does your relationship with your songs change over time?

Yes. They sometimes take on a different feeling years later when my life circumstances have changed; interestingly, looking back they seemed prophetic for my life years later. Also, there are many songs that I didn't really like after hearing it again several years or months later, and vice-versa.

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