Songwriting, Hymns, “Art” versus “Business” – Melanie Penn Discusses

by Bobby Gilles

in Interviews,Music Business,Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Melanie Penn "Wake Up Love" album coverI met Melanie Penn earlier this year at the 2011 Gospel Coalition National Conference in Chicago, when she joined with Sojourn Music, Indelible Grace and Bifrost Arts for a Hymn Sing. But I was already a fan of her album Wake Up Love, having been introduced to it by Sojourn Worship Pastor Mike Cosper.

Mike had met Melanie while at her home church, Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, at a conference where a team of Redeemer, Sojourn and Mars Hill Church worship leaders led the music. He said of her album, “It’s a great record with great songs, laments of loss and love, and the questions from the Christian life.”

I couldn’t agree more, so I’ve asked her to join me here on My Song In The Night for a discussion of songwriting, the music industry, Wake Up Love, modern hymns and more.

Bobby Gilles: The title cut to your Wake Up Love album references Song of Songs 8:4. What made you think of using this passage?

Melanie Penn: I had originally written a song called “Landmine.” It had parts of the same melody but different lyrics with no references to Song of Songs at all. Ben Shive and I tracked that whole song in the studio with a full band but it wasn’t working for me. I don’t know, there was something about it that wasn’t the best that it could be and in my heart I knew that the idea was dead.

A few months went by and one day I was reading Song of Songs. I started humming the melody to this “Landmine” song … but using scripture instead. So I rewrote the lyrics in about 10 minutes and a new song, “Wake Up Love” was born. It ended up being the title track!

Bobby Gilles: Early in the song you say your love is “buried underground/ a hidden landmine,” and the song continues with strong, evocative images. You seem like a very “cinematic” writer, creating scenes in the listener’s mind. Do you spend a lot of time searching for metaphors? Do they come to you out of the blue?

Melanie Penn: They most definitely come out of the blue.

Bobby Gilles: The video for “Ordinary Day” is fun. I think a lot of people would view it and immediately think “The singer is Cupid,” and then eventually grasp “The singer is the Holy Spirit.” Was that intentional?

Melanie Penn: Yes! I didn’t want that Holy Spirit reference to be too overt in the video, just like I didn’t want it to be too overt in the song. I liked the Cupid idea because it expounded on the notion that there is always someone behind the scenes helping us.

Bobby Gilles: How did you come up with the idea of using masks in the video?

Singer-songwriter Melanie Penn performing live on stage Melanie Penn performing on stage

Melanie Penn: I was on a photographer’s website, Todd Weaver. I don’t know him at all and don’t know how I stumbled on his site. But he had a beautiful art photograph of a man and a woman in a field, both wearing masks but being so tender with one another. It evoked some emotion in me … I just loved it and followed a little spark of inspiration to build a video around two characters that wear masks. I corresponded with the photographer to see if we could use those same masks but it was not meant to be.

I don’t know where ideas come from but I have learned over time not to over-think them when they do come.

Bobby Gilles: You wrote once about a songwriting workshop in New York City you participated in, during which you had some frustrating experiences with being encouraged to “get to the chorus in 30 seconds” and things like that. Would you describe the whole experience as being negative or were you encouraged in any way? Would you do it again? What do you think of songwriting workshops in general?

Melanie Penn: You know, I’m not sure. I liked the workshop because I like any structure that keeps me motivated to write songs. But who knows about those workshops. I was talking with a friend about the Bruce Springsteen song “I’m on Fire.” Kind of a silly example but seriously, that song is so vibey and great, yet I’m sure it would have been trashed in a songwriting workshop. There’s no chorus! There’s no melodic range!

Bobby Gilles: Something else you’ve written about: the business of music, and the importance of not only being an authentic artist but being authentic in business. Why do you think so many indie artists react with disgust to the very mention of “business” or words like “branding” and “marketing”?

Melanie Penn: Well, I think indie artists (including myself) have negative reactions to “business” and “marketing” because the current climate can feel so hopeless. It’s self-protection. It’s easier just to mock “the music biz” than to admit pain or hurt over it.

On the flip side, it’s an exciting season to be writing and distributing your own music because literally anyone can write songs, record them, and get them heard even if by only a few people. The market is more saturated than ever before – there are so many options. But I do believe the best will always rise to the top.

Bobby Gilles: I love the hymn you did for Bruce Benedict’s recent Cardiphonia Pentecost compilation album, Pentecost Songs. What different way – if any – do you approach writing & arranging for a worship project?

Melanie Penn: I love working on hymns because the lyrics are already written! I slave over lyrics and sweat over every word. Truly. It’s just awful. There is rarely any joy in the process of lyric-writing for me… the joy comes after, when people love a song and say that it means something to them. While setting hymn-texts I feel much more free to focus on interesting, pretty melodies.

For Bruce’s Pentecost Songs project I worked with Steve Elliot – who I collaborate with on a lot of music here in New York – both my own project and other projects. He wrote a chorus first and then I wrote a verse. We exchanged recorded ideas over email and then met up a couple of times to mesh the two ideas together. I think we recorded it at midnight one night in this old church downtown in Manhattan, so hopefully some of that moodiness comes across in the recording.

Bobby Gilles: Getting back to your album Wake Up Love: along with your own compositions, you also covered the John Sebastian hit from the 60’s, “Daydream.” It’s the best version of that song I’ve heard. What made you do that one? And do you think it’s more difficult to interpret and arrange someone else’s song, rather than your own?

Melanie Penn: I recorded that song because Ben Shive encouraged me to, and I’m so glad I did. At the time we were thinking the record was going to be too emotionally heavy and Ben was concerned (as was I) that there weren’t enough “light” songs on it. We thought we would fill that gap with a cover song.

I was on hold for something – on the phone – one day and that song came on. I had forgotten about what a nice tune it had — definitely light in terms of mood. So we decided to do it as a cover. When it was fully finished, however, the record did end up having an overall sweetness and lightness. And I am so thankful for that.

Bobby Gilles: What’s next for you? Are you writing often? Do you plan on recording a new album in the near future or will you be touring more for this one?

Melanie Penn: I am in an intense writing season. I’ve already recorded half of a record with Ben (up for round 2!) and I’ll go back to Nashville in January to finish up the second half. I’m so excited. The new one will be out in Fall 2012.

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