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A Lesson in Songwriting from Tom Petty

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

I feel I have a bias toward singer-songwriters. Now, that’s not to say that can’t be some bullshit term for an overproduced pop musician like James Blunt or Chad Kroger, but I do think it is a certain unique skill to put together a series of chords that blend with lyrics that have the power to resonate as a piece of music that has lyrical meaning. There is a long list of people who have found very different ways to accomplish this from Hank Williams to Trent Reznor but I think the skill, at it’s most basic concept, is the ability to hear certain chords and be able to come up with lyrics that not only rhyme and make literal sense but that also sound good.

I’ve come to realize that when I was eighteen to nineteen I wanted to be Tom Petty, a notion I would have fought at the time and maybe even said I favored Dylan more (which is true) but Petty was really the person I sought to emulate, one of the ultimate singer-songwriters which is what I wanted to be. I can remember watching his documentary, Running Down a Dream, where he talks about writing the song “The Waiting” and how he came up with the riff. Then he would play it over and over again, basically until someone complained but that was how he would come up with the lyrics to a song. He would play and perfect the most basic rhythm or chord progression until he knew the medley so well he was able to put the perfect words to it. This is what taught me how to write songs (never any good ones) and what a songwriter was, a producer-lyricist.

Listening to the new Wildflowers album releases, I can’t help but see Petty sitting in his home studio, painting pictures with his acoustic guitar, the way only a proven master can. I can hear it in songs like “California” and “Confusion Wheel” where it’s truly just a man laying his heart out there but from someone who’s done it before and knows how to pass on his wisdom. What this new release of songs from Petty offers us is a look into his process of creating these songs and the development of them with Rick Rubin and the Heartbreakers, it’s an insight to different phases of writing and recording a song. The Home Recordings, which were recorded by Petty in his backyard recording studio, are the stripped down version, typically just Petty and his acoustic, it shows what the songs were first like when Petty spawned them into life. An article from The Ringer explains the process more in depth, “Typically, Petty recorded the pieces alone at home to an eight-track recorder before linking up with Rubin, Campbell, and Tench at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys and fleshing everything out (Reiff).”

On this 54 song collection, we are given multiple versions of almost every song, offering us an idea of what that song became from its stripped down origin to the final cut and it really allows you to see into the process of developing the songs, adding the other instruments and refining the production process. A quote from Petty’s daughter describes this process with Rubin, “They would take a song and then they’d break down each movement and really cleanly record it. … They basically got in there and just kept growing with each other, making better and better stuff and just didn’t stop until they had to (Reiff).” Not only does this collection offer us this insight into such classic as “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, “It’s Good to Be King”, and “You Wreck Me”, but it also gives new unreleased material like “Confusion Wheel” and “California” in the same two formats, so we’re even able to see this process for things that didn’t quite make the cut. It’s really on the home recording of the title track that we are able to hear the brilliance of an unrefined Petty. What was apparently the first take of the song and the lyrics coming ‘off-the cuff’, it is mostly the same lyrics as we hear on the final version, as if Petty is dreaming in real time, it’s like capturing a capturing a sunset in a bottle, a moment of brilliant creation caught on tape. Maybe a story that’s too good to be true, but I’ll go ahead and believe it anyway.

Lastly, we are given live versions of many of the songs from the album and this really adds another layer to the dynamic because it shows us how Petty wasn’t just a great songwriter but also a great performer. It basically offers a lesson to young singer-songwriters today for how to take a song through all the stages, the growth of it not just into something that could go on an album but also how to make it come alive. The live cut of “You Don’t Know How it Feels” with the Petty interacting with the crowd, allowing them to sing certain sections, offers the perspective of the song a kind of jam and we are treated to yet another unique side.

It’s rare we get to see something like this from an artist and I understand why. Songs are already such personal things that to divulge what their origins really pulls back the blinds and exposes the artist. We are now aware that even though Petty was in an exceptionally creative place, his personal life was not necessarily going very well and you can see why this is the type of album that comes out posthumously. The thing that this offers that is so valuable though, is it’s essentially a blueprint into songwriting, how to take something we are feeling and put it into a piece of art because Petty was one of the best at it.

Reiff, Corbin. A Higher Place: The Full Story of Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’ and Its Massive New Reissue. 2020.

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