Singer-songwriter Dennis Russell has called Santa Barbara home for the past 10 years, but he brings with him a lifetime of memories and experiences from living in the high desert of California (Lancaster, in the Antelope Valley). In this conversation, Dennis talks about his early musical life, how a sense of place influences his songwriting, and what sustains him as an artist. In Volume 1 of SB LitJo, Dennis contributes the lyrics to his song “Santa Fe,” which you can listen to here.
LH: At what age do you remember creating your first songs?
DR: Well, I remember when I was in 5th or 6th grade, sitting down with my friend across the street and trying to write a song.
LH: Was that based on listening to the radio, or music that you’d heard and you liked it. and you wanted to try it?
DR: I think it was because that was the age of the variety show (the early 1970s) on TV. I remember watching Hee Haw, the Johnny Cash Show, John Denver had a show, and Glen Campbell, the Smothers Brothers, even Jim Stafford had a show…Mac Davis…all these songwriters had shows…and, plus, there were always songwriters singing on other shows. You could see Paul Williams on the (laughing) Sonny and Cher show, or on Laugh In….Flip Wilson had soul music on his show.
LH: Seeing all of that made you want to be part of the group of performers?
DR: Yeah! It seemed like that was pretty cool! I was able to see Buck Owens…you know, great guitar players…Roy Clark played guitar on Hee Haw…probably a bunch of other people who I know now, who I didn’t realize were great, back then…like Ray Price, people like that, were probably on that show. Plus there was radio…taking trips, being in the car, you’d listen to the radio. And my mom and dad liked to play records a lot. I heard music a lot at home.
LH: But listening wasn’t enough, you wanted to create your own?
DR: I don’t remember consciously wanting to create it until probably about sixth grade. I thought it would be a cool thing to do. I do remember I got a little tape recorder, probably in fifth or sixth grade…and I would record myself singing covers of things, before I actually started to write my own songs.
LH: Tell me about your first guitar teacher.
DR: Eric Dyne. He had red hair, and these big thick Coke-bottle glasses. I just remember him being really good, and he had a really good sense of humor, and I really, really liked him. The thing was, I just kind of did my homework really fast. I got this book, along with my first guitar, before I got lessons, and I had already filled out the music exercises, like note speller exercises, before I even had my first lesson.
LH: And how old were you when you had your first lesson?
DR: I was 9. I got a guitar for my 9th birthday, and started lessons at the same time, and I had probably 2 years of lessons with Eric.
LH: Just learning fundamentals about the guitar? What kind of repertoire?
DR: The famous Mel Bay books….they taught all the notes in open position…you’d learn “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” songs like that. Then they added in basic chords…C, G, D, A minor, D minor. It was called “The Easy Way to Guitar,” Book A (laughing), Book B. I went through Book A and Book B, and after that, we picked a book off the shelf, there at the music store where he taught. It was “Deluxe Hits of the 60s” or maybe 70s.” “Popular Deluxe Hits,” or something like that, and then we worked out of that book. One week I would work on the melody, the next week we’d work on the chords. In retrospect, that book had really great songs. “Autumn Leaves” (easy guitar versions, of course), a real variety of songs, like Creedence songs, John Fogerty songs…“Bad Moon Rising” was in that book…”Proud Mary” was in that book…Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” was in that book…I think there were a couple of Who songs in that book…(laughing) to show the variety of songs…the theme from “Love Story” was in that book.
LH: (laughing) So you had some jazz standards, movie themes, and popular.
DR: Yeah, a little bit of everything, really.
LH: So, you grew up in the Antelope Valley, in the 60s and early 70s. How much of your childhood home shows up in your songs?
DR: Well, it can’t help but be in there. There’s a couple where they are really in there. The song “Cowboy,” the song “Yodeling Reptiles”…it informs quite a bit of it.
LH: Experiences? Or place? Or both?
DR: Well, I don’t think you can separate experience from place.
LH: Good point.
DR: I think “place” is your experience of a location. So I think if I’m going to be writing about that, then I’m going to be using the images that I saw around me. So, in that sense, I’m going to be creating a sense of place by putting those images in a song, and then through association of mentioning those images with that place, it’s going to create this, perhaps, mythology of the place, according to my experience.
LH: When you’re writing a song, do you think about how the lyrics are going to look on the page?
DR: Almost never. Not until I write it down. I don’t often sit and write words…it comes…like for instance, when I’m driving, a melody will come, with a lyric attached to it, and then that will be something that I will sit at the guitar and work out a verse and chorus, and then write it down. I don’t sit and write things down immediately, typically, unless I come up with a line, and then I write it down, or say it into a tape recorder.
LH: Because you want to explore it later; you don’t want to forget it?
LH: When you’re writing, do you consider performance at all? Like, the effect your song is going to have on your audience?
DR: Hmm, I don’t usually. That’s a tricky question. Sometimes, I will be moved by it, and I would hope other people would be moved by it, but I’m not really thinking about how it’s going to be received, while I’m writing it. Unless it’s written for a purpose, and I don’t even think then, that I’m thinking about how it’s going to be received.
LH: A purpose like a protest song?
DR: Yeah. Or writing a song for, let’s say, a show. I’ll think about how it’s going to be received because there’s going to be a specific audience there.
LH: Or like, a song that’s a gift to someone.
DR: Right. But even then, I’m not thinking about how it’s going to be received by them. I’m thinking “I wrote this song as a present for someone. I hope they’ll like it.” I’m guessing they’ll like it, because it was written for them. But I’m not writing it FOR them, as the audience. I’m writing it as a thing that is inspired by them, and I think there’s a difference, even though they’re ultimately going to be the audience. But to me I’m just trying to write a good song. I can’t remember ever thinking “Oh man. People are gonna love this. They’re gonna rock out to this.” I’m just trying to write a good song.
LH: Do you have a favorite topic to explore in your writing: Story songs? Songs about emotion? Songs about place? Songs about relationships?
DR: I would have to say the last few things I’ve written have been “place” oriented, because in 2008 I did a California tribute record, and was trying to be evocative of rock music styles that are associated with California, and also referencing the place and what I feel about being a native Californian. So I think that “place” shows up quite a bit. I was thinking about this recently, because at the last gig, my between-songs banters eemed to be “My friend, so-and-so.”So I think, a lot of my songs are inspired by relationships of friends. And I’m not really sure about story songs. I think there are people who do them really well: John Prine, Townes van Zandt, Michael McNevin. They all do that really well.
LH: Speaking of Townes van Zandt, your song “Santa Fe” (which is featured in the SB LitJo), was recently described by a listener as something Van Zandt might have written. Do you think that’s an accurate description?
DR: Someone compared that song to Guy Clark, too. I sang it at a song circle and someone said “Wow, is that a Guy Clark song?” I said, “No, I wrote that song.” It’s flattering, because I love both of those writers, so I’ll take it as a compliment. I think it might have been written around the time I was listening to a lot of Townes van Zandt and Guy Clark, so that was probably what inspired it. I don’t think it’s dark enough to be a Townes van Zandt song. I think the construction of it, the craft of it, might be compared to those two writers.
LH: Do you think that’s what was why that comment was made, in making that comparison…was the craft?
DR: I think that’s probably what they would have noticed, the craft, and how it moves through the story of that song.
LH: Can you point to anything that sustains you on a daily basis; something that keeps you coming back to write, again and again?
DR: I almost always have a song running through my head, and a lot of times, it’s just something new in the imagination. I have not written down as many songs as I have written in my head. So I think the thing is, just sitting down and saying, “I’m going to take the discipline today and actually write that thing down that was running through my head and finish it and put it into a fixed form and play it next time I’m around some people.”
LH: So it’s really something you have no control over, it’s just there all the time?
DR: I would say that’s true.
LH: You don’t have any choice. The song shows up, and you record it, or you don’t.
DR: Yeah. It’s like Natalie de Napoleon was saying at her show Saturday night, when she said “The songs are all floating around out there…the trick is to snatch them before Bob Dylan does.” I think that’s just it, to actually sit down, or pull over to the side of the road and write that down. Or I’m going to have my recorder out, and I’m going to sing into it and I’m going to come back to it later and actually finish the song. That’s the discipline of doing it. To me, they are there most of the time.
I don’t listen to the radio a lot anymore, so if I listen to music, it’s all music that’s generated in my own head. So it’s either going to be something new that I’m hearing for the first time, and maybe even working out, over and over, throughout the day or maybe it’s the song by a friend, or the last song I heard when I was in the grocery store. Or a blue bus will drive by and I’ll think of the Doors’ song “meet me in the back of the blue bus.” That’s what’s going through my head, as far as music goes, rather than having an external source for it. I’m kind of just letting it be all internal, for the last few years.
LH: What kind of advice would you offer to someone who is writing songs?
DR: Well, I think the only thing I could tell somebody is to just keep writing. And then, if you want to be a performing songwriter, perform your songs as much as possible. Listen to as much as you can. My education having to do with songwriting was listening to a lot of songwriters, being in bands and playing those songs (that I had written and that other people had written) and then writing my own things and developing a craft and a voice from those things, informed by all of that stuff that I had heard already.
When I taught History of Rock and Roll, and Songwriting (at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, CA) students would ask “Why were the Beatles so great?” The Beatles played in Hamburg, Germany, for 3 or 4 months at a time, for 3 or 4 times in their early days, and they played 6 hours a night, and they were playing hits of the day. You can’t even have a better college education than that. You’re gonna learn all the song structures, all the chords, all the forms, what everybody’s doing lyrically, of the popular songs of the day, you’re doing all that stuff in front of an audience, you get to see what they’re reacting to, what they’re not reacting to. All of that is subconsciously going to inform the craft that you’re working on. So those guys don’t have any formal music education….that was their school, under the pressure of needing to perform it.
I think that’s the best thing, to listen to a lot. Write a lot. Go out and play music a lot. And then, you’ll just get better at it. And then you’ll meet other people who are doing it. And then there will be people who resonate to what you’re doing, and there will be people who don’t. And you pay attention to the people who are resonating to what you’re doing, and forget the people who aren’t resonating to what you’re doing. Getting in front of a live audience is important, because you get to see how people react. You can tell if you’re getting their interest or not, through your story, if you’re doing it live, and they’re sitting right in front of you. That was really important to me, to be able to figure out.
So I think that developing a craft and a voice that is unique to you, that’s important to ME (laughing). I like to hear an individual voice. Or, if you want to get placements in movie and TV and whatever, you can listen to what everybody’s doing, and just copy that. And maybe that’ll work for ya.
I think that the important thing is to realize that if you want to get ahead, that it’s a job. I think that a lot of people don’t realize that. They think, “Oh, I’m gonna write these songs, I’ll record them, I’ll put them up online.” But there’s the job of creating a song and writing it. There’s the job of performing a song, there’s the job of recording a song. There’s a job of promoting the recording, promoting the performance. There’s the job of keeping engaged with fans and people you meet who like your music. The job of finding the community that best serves your music, who will help you promote it and be supportive of you. So it’s quite a multifaceted job.
And if you can do all of those jobs, or find people who can help you, delegate some of those jobs to other people. I think you can make something happen for yourself.
I think the main thing is, you need to have to do it. And then you have to figure out what success is, for you. In music. Is it just being able to write songs and play songs for people? Is success being able to make a living off of doing it? Is success getting rich and famous doing it? All of those are different levels of success, and all of them are going to require a different level of commitment to those jobs that I just mentioned (as far as writing, promoting, getting involved in a community, and all of that).
So that’s the advice I would give somebody, but I don’t know that there’s a prescribed way of doing it, like there used to seem to be, when I was starting out. And I think if you were to ask anybody, who was of my era that question, I think I would be surprised if they would answer “Here’s the steps to take,” because I don’t know that I know the steps to take. But maybe it would be more important to see, what does it look like for somebody who is gaining success, what are they now doing, and do that. And maybe even try to work harder at doing that, than they are, to get where they’re going. I guess that’s the answer to that question.
LH: Thanks, Dennis.
DR: You’re welcome. Thank you.