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Chris Hillman Knows How To Write A Good Song

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Aired 2/16/11

Chris Hillman has been writing songs most of his life. He is a founding member of the 60s rock band The Byrds, and played with The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Desert Rose Band. Hillman grew up in San Diego and is leading a songwriting workshop at Point Loma Nazarene University. We'll talk with Hillman about what makes a good song.

Chris Hillman has been writing songs most of his life. He is a founding member of the 60s rock band The Byrds, and played with The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Desert Rose Band. Hillman grew up in San Diego and is leading a songwriting workshop at Point Loma Nazarene University. We'll talk with Hillman about what makes a good song.

Guest:

Chris Hillman is a songwriter and plays guitar and mandolin. He was one of the founding members of The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Desert Rose Band.

Chris Hillman will conduct a songwriting seminar on Thursday, Feb. 17th at 1:30 in the afternoon. Later that evening, he'll be interviewed and perform for the audience. That event begins at 7pm on the Point Loma Campus.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Country rock pioneer Chris Hillman talks about what makes a great song. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, coming up on These Days, one of the founding members of the bands can the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Singer song writer Chris Hillman knows a thing or two about crafting a song. He's in if town to share that knowledge at the writers' symposium by the sea. Plus a San Diego charter school tries a new approach to teaching algebra. That's all ahead this hour on These Days. First the news.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. A man who has been in some of the most influential bands in the last 40-year system share his wisdom this week. Chris Hillman of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Manssas, song writer with Rodger McGuinn, Steven Stills, and Graham Parsons, will be talking about writing songs at the writers' symposium by the sea in Point Loma this week. Chris not only has a place in rock music history, he's also credited as one of the originators of country rock. It's a pleasure to welcome Chris hill man to These Days. Chris, good morning.

HILLMAN: Good morning, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now we're inviting our listeners to join the conversation. If you have a question about the long and varied career of my guest, Chris Hillman, or you just want to say hello, give us a call with your questions and comments, the number is it 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. As I say, Chris, one of the things you're doing for the writers' symposium is you're actually gonna be teaching a class on song writing. And I wonder, can anyone learn to write a song or is it a gift?

HILLMAN: You know, it's the toughest thing in the world to teach. I never was an advocate, and I'll probably get in trouble with some of the instructors. But I know teaching creative writing is a valid course in a university. But the more you read, the better writer you could become. And that doesn't mean emulating the great writers, but you somehow by osmosis pick up what to do, what not to do. And teaching a song writing class, it's subjective to the person holding the person or the keyboard. And all I can really do, Maureen, is I can steer them out of areas and try and define first of all, just by getting there, what are you doing with this song? And you're trying really to put a short story down in a tree or four-minute period, with an opening, and a summary to the story, with a chorus that summarizes the whole story line. So it's a funny thing because you're sort of gonna end that song in a verse or two, and wrap it up, but the chorus has already summarized it briefly, what that wrap up is. If you 238 me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Write.

HILLMAN: And there's plenty to do. And I've done song writing courses before. It's not the easiest thing to do. But like I say, I give liberties to all who come in and are writing songs. I do believe it's something you develop, like anything, over the years, you develop the craft of it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. How did you start writing songs.

HILLMAN: Oh, my gosh, I didn't start until -- well into the Byrds, and about 1966, it was like this great epiphany [CHECK] and working with him and all these wonderful African jazz players. And I was way over my head, Maureen. Way over my head musically. But it worked, and something clicked, and I came home, and I started writing songs. And it wasn't anything to do with the music he was doing. The first song I wrote was called time between, which was basically a country song in a bluegrass groove. Then for the next few days, I was writing. And that's what started it. So I'm still looking for the great lyric. My hero now, right now, is Johnny Mercer, the late Johnny Mercer who wrote so many beautiful standards, as we call them now. But all the songs my parents listened to in the '40s and '50s is pretty much what I listen to now.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Isn't that funny?

HILLMAN: Yes, yes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Isn't that funny that you go back and you --

HILLMAN: Oh, you know, it's funny, and I'll bring this up tomorrow in the class, there's a correlation there. There wasn't all of this technology. We had the radio back then. We, me, I was a little baby. But basically the media was radio. And live music was ever present. And there were just these beautiful lines of poetry, coal porter, and Hoagy Carmichael, and John Mercer, and people like that would come up with these unbelievable lines of and that's something to aspire to, I think, and I would suggest that to anybody to listen to the old masters. I think any music that you embark on, as hobby or whatever your goals are, you need to go back and listen to the masters, to the foundation of that style of music or whatever, you know? And have an open mind.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's give our listeners a taste of some of your song writing. Let's hear a song from when you were with the Byrds. This is So You Wanna to be a Rock and Roll Star.

(Audio Recording Played).

That's just excerpt of so you wanna be a rock and roll star, co-written by my guest, Chris Hillman. Chris, that song takes you back.

HILLMAN: That song was actually a byproduct of my sessions with masta kala, he's playing Trumpet on that track.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Really.

HILLMAN: But that song of course it was influenced by him in the way that it was constructed, and it was a funny thing, it was sort of tongue in cheek, and Roger McGuinn and I wrote that, as sort of a parody -- here we were in the early twenties, had been around the block a few times, with the Birds having some success, [CHECK] being in a rock band and getting a lot of adulation on that, and on the actual -- on the record, there's girls screaming, and that was something that McGuinn had taped on our first tour of England in 1965, and the girls were screaming at one of the shows. And he taped it on some tape recorder, and when we made that record in 66, 67, I can't remember the date, but we just incorporated the girls screaming of so the actual girls screaming at one of our early concerts.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's fabulous.

HILLMAN: It was funny.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line, and I want to invite our listeners to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. Steve is on the lineup from Vista. Good morning, Steve, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning, Chris, how are you?

HILLMAN: I'm fine, Steve. Thanks.

NEW SPEAKER: Great. Thank you. It's just great listening to your music over the years and all the bands that you've been with, so it's a good privilege to talk to you.

HILLMAN: Thank you.

NEW SPEAKER: My question, if you can share a little bit, maybe either your experience or your influences with grand parsons or your time with him, with the Flying Burrito Brothers. Were you actively working together and how did you share work further?

HILLMAN: Steve, we had a very close bond from the time he was hired in the Birds, we did sweet heart on the road, that album. Then we started the Burrito Brothers in 69. For about a year and a half we shared a home together, and we were writing songs every day, very close, as brothers we were. And some of the greatest songs I was involved with co-writing were with Graham. And then it unfortunately turned into sort of a cane and able situation. But he was a talented guy. And he had a lot -- very bright, very bright insightful guy. And just the -- wonderful to work with. We had such I good time. The song we wrote, sin city, itself is good for an hour discussion because we were writing about the culture at the time in a sort of tongue in cheek, mirroring the culture of 1969, and a terrific guy.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Steve, thank you for that call. When you joined the band Manassas, Chris, you started writing songs with Steven Stills, and this was just after his success with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and young. Did working with him change your style of writing at all.

HILLMAN: It improved it, Maureen. Steven was top of his game back then, still I hold him very high as a singer, as a song writer, and a musician. I learned a lot -- more as -- in my growth as a song writer learning from Steve. And where Steven would always seep everything -- he would start a song, and [CHECK] there's other ones you agonize over for weeks, but I loved Steven because he'd always keep things, keep scraps of paper, and he said you never know, you never know some day you start something, and you're looking for just that right phrase and you have it because you wrote it six months ago, and it's stashed away. So a lot of little tricks I learned from him.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I everybody had their own style, how to do about it. Let's hear a song from Manassas, just to remind listeners about that great band that you were in. This song is called it doesn't matter.

(Audio Recording Played).

That's It Doesn't Matter from the Manassas, a band that my guest, Chris Hillman was in, and lead singer there, Steven Stills. I saw that -- a video on YouTube, and you're singing with Steven. It still holds up. It looks great.

HILLMAN: 39 years ago.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, when a song is credited, let's say to Manassas, or to a band instead of the individual members, does that bother you?

HILLMAN: Not really. No, it doesn't at all. Are you there?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah, sure am.

HILLMAN: Okay, I'm sorry.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm listening.

HILLMAN: I don't really, you know, when I was a little younger, sometimes you get hooked into the negative aspects of music, the business of music. Not music in general. The business of music. I'm getting all confused here. And the competitive part of it. No, it doesn't bother me. I know what I did. For a long time I'd read Graham parsons' beautiful song, sin city. And I go, well, wait a minute, I had that half written before he was awake. But it doesn't matter, Maureen. It really doesn't matter. If a song can stand up. Some of the greatest advice we had in the birds, we had a manager named Jim Dixon. And we had Jim told us -- I was 19, and David Crosby and McGuinn were in their early twenties, he said you guys go for substance and depth. Don't go for the quick hits. Write songs and perform a song that you'll be proud of in 30 or 40 years of greatest advice I ever got.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, it's interesting how you're, like reading my mind, because that was the next question I was gonna ask you. So this is a different in writing a good song versus a hit song.

HILLMAN: Yeah, but you know, at the time you're sort of following your heart in a sense, lack of anything deeper to say to you here, but it's really, you are. And you don't know. I mean, I've thrown songs away that actually I through -- I had a song of John Hyatt's that we were gonna do in the desert rose band, and I just tossed that, I didn't think it was right. A year later, a member said, why don't you take a look at this song of John's, she don't love nobody. And I looked at it again, and it was a whole different perspective. [CHECK] number one single for us. But the point being, at the time, sometimes what you think is the greatest thing in the world doesn't resonate with the general public. And what you dismiss as being sort of secondary, well, this is an okay song, is the one that works. And that's the funny irony of it all, so --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, Chris, one of the things that you are credited with in your biography is being a pioneer in country rock. Do you think -- do you see that as a natural trajectory of you being in the Birds and then, you know, Burrito Brothers and Manassas? Was that all forming during that time.

HILLMAN: Well, it's a silly term.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you think so?

HILLMAN: Sometimes a journalist has to figure out which category to place it all in.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

HILLMAN: I was a bluegrass man. And I cut my teeth in San Diego right on midway drive at the blue guitar, a guitar shop in 1963. And basically what I brought to the Birds was that traditional bluegrass and country music background into every band I was in. In the Birds and Flying Burrito Brothers, the Birds did sweet heart on the rodeo, [CHECK] it's funny, I don't want -- once again, I'm gonna backtrack here. I don't mind it. I've gotten used to it, country rock. And basically I remember saying on one of the albums, I was writing notes for a record I'd done about 1995, and I said, you know, the Birds sort of formed this style and Graham and I defined it country rock. Well, basically what we were doing, Maureen, is we were taking a little more on the emphasis on the rhythm section on a country song, putting a little bit more of a back beat to it. And I said Graham and I defined it, and the eagles took it to the bank. Because they really started it as that. They were a fabulous group when they started the original quartet, and they were doing take it easy, and witchy woman, and I love that stuff. 'Cause they really took all of the ingredients that we were trying to mix together, not consciously, mind you, but it just happened that way, and they really refined it. And did quite well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you just a quick last question 'cause we're running out of time. You know, we just had the Grammies last weekend. Any musicians today give you hope about the craft of song writing?

HILLMAN: Well, there's a group I like -- I don't follow it. I gotta be honest with you. I'm not in the loop so to speak. I just don't pay attention. And you know what's funny? I did watch the Grammies. I haven't watched the Grammies in years. And I wasn't watching it out of bitterness, I was watching it in total confusion. I said what is this? Most of the songs were dismissible. They were -- it was built around the production of the song. You know what I'm saying? It was incredibly dance -- beautiful dance movements and stuff. And that warrants itself on talent and all that. I didn't hear anything. The best part of the Grammies of bob Dylan coming out and singing Maggie's farm with a bunch of guys. There are some great bands out there. [CHECK].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We just have to end, Chris, I'm so sorry.

HILLMAN: Okay.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But thanks for being with us. I want to tell everybody what you're gonna be part of the writers' symposium by the sea, Point Loma Nazarene university, you're gonna conduct a song writing seminar at 1:30 in the afternoon. And later that evening, you're gonna be interviewed and perform we the audience. That begins at 7:00 PM on the Point Loma campus. Thank you Chris.

HILLMAN: Thank you Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And if you'd like to comment, KPBS.org/These Days

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