Artist Interviews

An Interview with Tam Lin
Sep 16, 2009
Tam Lin Interviews
Tam Lin, Singer/Songwriter
from New York, NY
New York musician, Tam Lin, is not just a regular performer around the city but also a prolific and experienced songwriter. As true artist, Tam Lin performs as a solo singer/songwriter or with his band. He also frequently sits in with other musicians.

He estimates he has written upwards of 150 songs to-date. We asked him about his music and approach to songwriting.

Lilac Writer (LW): You have said that Bob Dylan is a key influence. It seems that besides being and influence, his music was the spark that got you started down this path. What was it about Dylan's songwriting that hooked you?

Tam Lin: I'm not sure how much Dylan has been an influence on my music. What has influenced me, though, is the way his lyrics don't tell the listener what to think, but rather, create a world that can be inhabited. I remember hearing "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" for the first time and being able to touch and taste everything in that song: the magazine husband, the Kings of Tyrus, the geranium kiss. I didn't know what it meant, but I knew I wanted to create worlds like that too.

LW: You are not just a writer but also a live performer. How does this impact your songwriting. Do you your songs evolve from live performance and audience reaction?

Tam Lin: Performing for me is both the hardest and most rewarding aspect of playing music. It's hard because when I perform I see right away that there are ideas and words that I'm going to have to let go of because I can't perform them. I might really like a line I've written, but if I can't feel it on stage, well, it has to go. On the other hand, when I perform I get to let go of my own ego as a writer, which is very freeing. I can let the song be separate from me, and just focus on being the voice, the vessel, that lets it come through me and into the world. That's when I love the music most sincerely.

LW: Tell me a little about how you write. Do you have a process or do you wait for inspiration?

Tam Lin: I never wait for inspiration, because the only inspiration I've ever experienced has come to me two-thirds of the way into writing a song! If I waited for it I'm sure I'd never write anything. I like to start by building lists of images and emotional statements -- things that feel true, yet unexpected. I'll generally cultivate and grow this list for a while -- sort of like gardening -- and at the same time, I'll start working on some chords and a melody. Then, when the music starts to gel, I'll try to sing through my list till the words sound like music. If I feel like I have a verse and chorus, then I'll start thinking about the story-line too. It's sort of like when a carpenter screws in a piece of wood: he can't screw in any one side too tightly or the other sides won't fit, so he screws each side in a little at a time. I try to do that with melody, rhythm, and story.

LW: Have you found that you write songs completely in one sitting, or do you re-write over time until you are satisfied?

Tam Lin: I've written songs in one sitting, but I don't like to do that, because it's rare that I can get into my emotions that quickly. Writing fast is fun because you're unattached and the songs usually have good hooks to them, but I rarely want to play those songs on stage. I don't especially like re-writing -- it sometimes feels like torture -- but that's how I get best results.

LW: Recently, you have started using Lilac Writer. How has this impacted your songwriting? What potential do you think it has for songwriters as it becomes more widely used?

Tam Lin: I like the fact that Lilac Writer is structured in more or less the same way as I've always intuitively written: juxtaposing lists of words and rhymes. I like to write by long-hand, but keeping track of what I do in my journal can be cumbersome, so being able to arrange my best ideas online is very helpful. It's a really great service you provide for songwriters to help them stay organized, and I think it will help many people to get over their fears of not being inspired -- not to mention that it will help make collaborations easier.

LW: Do you ever co-write with other songwriters?

Tam Lin: I do, but for some reason I tend to work mainly on music when I co-write. I think my lyrical style is a little too specific and unique to work well with others, and for me it's often more fun just to write the melodic hook.

LW: You said you list ideas and words when starting a song. Do you look for rhymes or try to find rhyming words for the ideas at that phase?

Tam Lin: Both. I find that going too crazy with rhymes too early on in the process often makes a mess of things, but finding a really good rhyme is always good, no matter when in the process it happens.

LW: How does rhyming play into your songwriting? Do you consciously choose a rhyme scheme or does the rhyme develop more organically during the writing process?

Tam Lin: I usually let the melody dictate the rhyme scheme. There's no logical way to explain this, but whenever I listen to music I've written, it's always clear to me where the rhymes should go. So I take that intuitive sense and build a scheme around it. Often a conventional rhyme scheme works better than something fancy.

LW: Is there any song you can point to that you are most proud of or that you feel best represents your artistic voice for the new listener?

Tam Lin: That's like choosing which of your children you like best! Okay, well I do think "In the Twilight" is a good example of a success in bring words and music together into something that has my voice. I think I managed to tell a story, tell the emotional truth, and write a good melody on that one.

LW: What's next for Tam Lin? What projects do you have in the works?

Tam Lin: I have about forty or fifty songs ready to be recorded. Honestly, though, in today's music business it's not feasible to be releasing records all the time. So what I'm working right now on (aside from the usual business of promotion) is just writing new songs. You never know if the next thing you write will be the best thing you've done yet!

LW: At Lilac Writer we have been really focusing on rhymes recently. So I would like to get into that a bit deeper if you don't mind. How do you find rhymes for you lyrics? Do you use a rhyming dictionary, the Lilac rhyme look-up, or other tools? Or do you just come up with them from your head?

Tam Lin: I find that the best rhymes tend to come spontaneously, i.e., without looking them up in a rhyming dictionary. That said, a rhyming dictionary is a great way to generate ideas when a song is still pretty young.

LW: How do balance the use of perfect rhymes with near rhymes or even non-rhyming lines? Do you manipulate these things to match the emotion of the song?

Tam Lin: I'm pretty conservative when it comes to rhyming. I always shoot for a perfect rhyme, unless it's a an internal rhyme. The one exception I make is that I treat "m" and "n" as identical consonant sounds, since they are just that when sung. I also can be lax with adding an "s", as in "field" and "yields". But of course, sometimes I get stuck and have to go with an imperfect rhyme.

LW: What advice do you have for singer/songwriters starting out who want to get unstuck or write enough original tunes for a solid live set?

Tam Lin: There are many techniques. I'm a big believer in the idea that you can't get unstuck until you actually start writing, so doing "morning pages" or journal writing is great. Finishing songs even if they are terrible is really important for being able to write good songs in the future, so sometimes trying to write twenty songs in the course of one day -- the "twenty-song game" -- is a great way to break down the walls of self-criticism. Being in a workshop or having other types of deadlines is helpful too. "Just do it" is sort of what it comes down to.

You can get more information, music, video and Tam Lin's live show schedule at these links:

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