I was asked to submit a piece on storytelling and songwriting to Folk Radio UK, the largest folk radio station and music website in the UK. I enjoyed writing this, I hope you enjoy reading it.
Storytelling & Songwriting
I began storytelling a few years after moving from Ireland to New York as a break from music. I felt I had hit a brick wall creatively and decided to direct all my energy in a different direction. Music had become a dead end, or so I thought. The songs were increasingly hard to find, I felt I was no longer growing as a writer and that I had plateaued indefinitely. Storytelling allowed me to discover new performance venues, interesting people and a creative process that was so personal I never worried about sounding like anyone else. I was unique, my well to draw from was mine only. Everything felt fresh and new and slowly I began to rediscover what I had loved about music in the first place—a desire for connection.
Storytelling taught me how to visualize a narrative, connect events within it and then connect it as a whole piece to an audience. Each time I prepare a new story I first draw what I call a Story Map. This involves putting down the facts, which are essentially the basic foundation blocks of the story and then go about arranging them into a narrative that will draw people in while also being entertaining. All of this is done with a respectful loyalty to the truth, of course.
When I started doing music again and formed Supersmall, I began writing new songs that were more personal and visual, much like the stories I was mapping out to tell on stage. The difference, of course, is that I don’t consider Supersmall to be a storytelling band in a traditional sense; much of our narratives are told through a series of disjointed imagery.
Still, there are similarities between the way both a song and story evolve from its original “map,” based on a connection with the audience. Sometimes when I am asked to perform an older story, one that I haven’t told in a while, I return to the original story map. I always find that the story has since taken on a life of its own and changed significantly from what I initially sketched out. The facts are there but the narrative is leaner or greatly embellished in places in order for it to work best. The same can be said about a song. Sometimes when I return to a song I have not played in a long time I will have entirely forgotten the experience of writing it. In playing it on stage, the feelings and headspace I was in when writing it return, but maybe certain parts are embellished, certain lyrics are added because that is what worked best with the audience. Much like a story map, a song is a snapshot in time of what I was feeling at a particular moment, but despite the initial “blueprint” it is apt to change. It is part of the simple desire of connecting to an audience.
Storytelling has definitely changed my attitude towards music, as well. In the past I took music very seriously—there was little humor in the writing or performing of it. I was your typical clichéd somber singer-songwriter. With storytelling I avoided the darker, serious subject matter other performers were doing and leaned towards the lighter, more humorous material. I grew to thoroughly enjoy performing and grew in confidence enough to connect directly with the audience both during and after the show. In short, I learned to lighten up. This is all reflected in the new songs I was writing by having a more optimistic tone and upbeat tempo. I even enjoyed playing them live on stage, as opposed to my former, anxious self. I now also feel comfortable telling the history behind the songs and creating a more intimate atmosphere instead of hiding behind my guitar. I am now connecting, reaching out and enjoying the experience of it.
Colin Dempsey / Supersmall