Storytelling & Songwriting

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

Audio Fuzz – Powerful Folk Pop

AudioFuzz.png

Kind words from AudioFuzz about our single Riot. Click HERE to read the article.

“Supersmall is composed of singer-songwriter, Colin Dempsey, and drummer, Daniela Schiller. Dempsey is an Irish writer and storyteller based in New York. He has performed his unique blend of indie-rock music in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and most recently, the US. Schiller is a musician, storyteller and Neuroscientist, who leads the Schiller Lab of Affective Neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.  Together, they make beautiful dreamy pop music in the same vein as The Mountain Goats and a more straight-forward version of Neutral Milk Hotel with stripped down production.  There is nothing at all small about Supersmall, they are a large sounding folk/pop group.  Beautiful vocals, beautiful arrangements.” – AudioFuzz

Imperfection

I was lucky enough tonight to be invited by my friend Joe to a showing of a short film on Rosanne Cash and then meet with her afterwards. The film was mostly on her songwriting process (or at least that’s what I focused on) and was followed by a short interview. The audience got to ask a few questions also, always an entertaining mix of personalities who volunteer their hands. I had a burning question but like every Q&A I’ve ever attended, never volunteered mine.

Songwriting has always been something I was naturally drawn to, hated and loved at times in equal measure and never quite felt that I knew what I was doing at any given time. It was reassuring to hear a celebrated artist talk about her struggles with it also. Those long periods of droughts, sudden inspiration, the fear that the last song you wrote would be your last and of course, working with other great musicians. Something that really stood out was the fact that sometimes she’d write a line and her co-writer would ask her “What does that mean?”. She’d respond “I don’t really know”. “Oh, it’s one of those lines…you will.” And in time she would discover it herself.

I remember walking to meet a friend for a few beers one evening in spring and the line “sometimes love is a stray dog that follows you home” appeared out of nowhere. I had no idea what it meant. I tried to fit it into several half-written songs I had at the time but with no success. I eventually wrote a new song around it called “Wherever We Are” and it’s meaning became crystal clear. If you listen to the lyrics you can work in out yourself 😉

“Where is the madness?”, this is a phrase one of Rosanne’s mentors would ask her about a song she would bring him. It was an attempt at removing perfection, both in structure and lyrics. I loved this as perfection is what I always try to achieve even though I know it creates nothing but anxiety. Writing perfect songs is writing bad, or worst still, boring songs. I began thinking of the tracks I have recorded for the new album and how stressed I became analysing a guitar part or vocal here and there. When I step back, I like the songs and I say what I want to say and that is all I set out to do. It will be imperfect because I am, the first record was too.

After the event there was an impressive layout of food and I found out that Irish Poet Paul Muldoon who Joe spoke with also plays in a band. Maybe in the future we can convince him to do a show with us.

Both Rosanne and her manager recognized me from performing with her last year but yet again I couldn’t pluck up the courage to hand her a Supersmall CD, and for the second time came home with a few still in my pocket. She’s such a huge influence on Neko Case, a major influence on Supersmall but I wasn’t quite sure how to say that. Maybe next time, or the time after that.

In other news, with two dates in Nashville I have decided to drive down and make a road trip out of it. It will take two days with a stop over in Roanoke, Virginia. I’ve already noted the attractions and whatnot along the way. Expect lots of photographs and musings from the middle of nowhere. Until then, expect lots of photographs and musing about the next Supersmall record.

B'Dum Dum!

The bass lines have been recorded for the first five songs on the album! I’ll return on January 19th to record the vocals and another day to fix up some guitar work. After that we should have solid ground to bring in additional musicians, some of which have agreed to be apart of our next record already. It’s all very exciting. I have two more songs I want to demo which will bring us up to seven tracks, we’re aiming for eight or nine. We’ve been pretty ruthless in cutting songs from this record. A lot of material I’ve mentioned as “definite” has already been regulated to the trash or the “edit” folder. I feel like I’m writing at my best at the moment but it’s always the rogue song that suddenly appears out of nowhere, or just arrives that seems to work. The one that when you try to explain how it manifested itself devolves into describing a fading dream out loud to strangers. Then again, this is all the mystery of creating something. Although at times frustrating, it is always enjoyable.

Lady Starlight

 

Lake Champlain

Songwriting means a lot of them just won’t make it no matter how much work you put into them. This is one I wrote while actually sitting on the shore of Lake Champlain, VT in a small cabin. Sober, most of the time. I guess I knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t make the cut as everything I do now is for Supersmall but I continued writing it because it was fun. I’ve been collecting folky songs like this along the way that I hope to release as a solo E.P. sometime in the future. Maybe it will see the light of day, for now it’s just lyrics.

Lake Champlain

Skipping stones on the lake,
Built a fire on the shore and watched it slowly wash away,
I put all my mistakes,
In the bottom of a bag I let the river take away.

I am no one
I am no one
I am no one all the way out here
I surrender
I surrender
I surrender to the elements

On a cloudy night,
Watch all the lonely souls become stars in a mountainside,
Such a beautiful site,
To hide myself away from all the troubles close behind.

I am no one
I am no one
I am no one all the way out here
I surrender
I surrender
I surrender to the elements

Red and blue sing their song,
Down a dirt road by the barn that I had just come from,
I can’t change what I’ve done,
But I’ll try to steal another day by the shore of lake champlain

I am no one
I am no one
I am no one all the way out here
I surrender
I surrender
I surrender to the elements
I surrender to the elements
I surrender to the elements

Lake Champlain

Songwaiting.

Songwriting

Inspiration at last. I thought I might never write another note or word ever again until tonight. Well, that might be an exaggeration but I definitely felt I had dried up lately. It may have been my trip to PS1 and The Sculpture Center yesterday, or maybe it was staring at a blank page long enough tonight but I finally began putting words to the music I had written months ago.

Empty Spaces is the first song I ever wrote out fully without music, just lyrics. When the music came it couldn’t carry the words so I had to edit them to the point where I was left only with my original idea. I was happy to get the first verse and chorus down tonight. I managed to sketch out the rest of it but it may be a while before I complete it.

A Better Life (720 Broken Clocks) is a strange one that seemed to come out of nowhere. It was a slow noodle that I found in my demos from over a year ago. Something about it kept bringing me back to it until I re-recorded it on my classical guitar at double the speed. Tah-dah! A song is born. It has some nice chords and melodies but I won’t be sure until it’s fully finished. I got two verses and a chorus down, I’m pretty happy with that.

Give Me The Fight I’m Looking For and Imperfect are two half-written tunes that refuse to finish the crossing line for now. Maybe later in the week I’ll give them a second chance.

So, after a brief spell of all music and no lyrics I’m eventually finding the words. It feels good. It looks like Supersmall may have its next record later this year after all.

As_soon_as_I_find_a_word_that_rhymes_with_Purple_this_song_is_finished___supersmall__songwriting__purple__words__theuniverse