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Wam Pat Pow

May 24th 2012 | Zoe Barron

An industry festival wants an industry keynote, and this year WAMi will be snatching us Berklee songwriting professor Pat Pattison from his seminar tour of the eastern states. Zoe Barron asks him how exactly a person might write themselves a song.

We have a music scene worth celebrating. So every year, just on winter, we celebrate it, with a festival that's not only some shows put on for punters, but a series of industry events and showcases for the musos and an award night to top it all off. The WAMi festival recognises that music is an industry like any other, and that the people in it are professionals with skills to develop and a craft to practice.

This year, the festival has bagged a keynote speaker from the other side of the world, and an industry professional if there ever was one. Pat Pattinson teaches songwriting at the Berklee College Of Music in Boston. He's written a bunch of books on the topic and boasts students like Gillian Welch and John Mayer. For the past couple of decades or so, he's been travelling all over his home country and internationally, conducting seminars and working closely with musicians. This will be his sixth time in Australia in about 11 years, and this time he'll be swinging by for WAMi on his way over east. “As far as I know, everybody [at the WAMi Festival] is a musician and a songwriter,” Pattison says. “So, you know, it's my peeps. We have a lot of common ground.”

Pattison has been a musician himself. He's written a plethora of songs – if you go to his website, you can even listen to a few. But this isn't really what he does best. “When I was about 35,” he admits, “I realised that if I never wrote another song, I would survive. But if I never got to teach again, I wouldn't. And so, the scales fell from my eyes and I realised I was a teacher who writes, not a writer who teaches.”

In particular, he's a teacher who has the challenge of applying academia to a creative pursuit. So how do you teach creativity? Shouldn't songwriters be relying on their own instinct and spontaneity, rather than being constrained within the rigidities of the classroom? “If you do something totally by instinct, it's probably not as good as it could be,” Pattison explains. “If you do something totally by craft, it's not as good as it should be. There has to be a combination of the two. And what happens is that when you start bringing craft in, if you do well, then it takes the great ideas and makes them better.

“So, for example,” he continues, “one piece of craft that John Mayer used, which he cooked up in one of my classes, was the chorus to his Grammy-winning Your Body Is A Wonderland. The first time he sings the chorus, he sings,” and here Pattison begins to sing: “Your body is a wonderland. Your body is a wonderland. Your body is a wonderland…” He pauses for effect. “Three times. And it leaves it hanging. It leaves it unstable, it leaves it like it wants more. And it keeps the song moving. If he'd sung it four times, then it would have felt done, it would have felt stable, rather than the sense of longing that it produces.”

After a career like Pattison's, it would be pretty hard to listen to a song, any song, without pulling it apart and analysing it. Bad songs would be excruciating; good ones exhilarating. But never would he be able to just relax and listen to music. “The only time I really relax when listening to songs is when it's in a language I don't understand. But then I listen to the way the phrases are moving,” he says.

“There's no going back. Once you decide you want to unlock what's going on inside songs in order to make them better, then there's no hope for you after that. Though, I have to say, if you hear a really, really great song, it just blows you away.”

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