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Learn Songwriting with Sasha K.A.

Jeremy Coleman for Learn Guitar Austin interviews songwriter Sasha K.A. from the Indie Pop group American Dreamer. Sahsa talks deeply about his inspiration and processes for songwriting.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Tell me a little bit about yourself, maybe brag a little bit. Who are you? Where are you from and what do you do?

SASHA

            I’m Sasha. I used to work with you, which I loved.

            I’m from Western Massachusetts. I moved here in 2014 to get a master’s degree in Music Education at UT. I’m starting my seventh year here, which kind of blows my mind. I love UT. I’m taking a class at UT. I came and shadowed you at school.

            At the same time, I was reading this book about Thelonious Monk, about how he taught a lot, a lot more than we think he’d do as a performer. But he taught solely by ear! It was kind of this lightbulb moment about where I was, maybe, and I was studying jazz at the University of Texas with Jeff Helmer. I kind of connected the dots, so I started the jazz program for the School for the Blind, kind of like an internship initially and then eventually it helped me get on payroll and then it became a class. So, it was really an amazing journey.

            I can honestly say – and I’m not saying this blowing smoke – it’s the thing I miss the most. That was a meaningful part of my life, something that I was proud of. So, it’s been a bummer; yeah, I do miss it.

            I have a really full music life, which is to say that I do, like, seven things. Now I do, like, still have them but I used to do seven. Right? Then COVID.

            I play under my own name, Sasha K. I lead an indie folk group called American Dreamer. I worked in the School for the Blind. I work at the Armstrong Community Music School. I teach piano privately. I do string arranging. And my band, American Dreamer, is part of the Texas touring roster with the Texas Commission on the Arts. We kind of tour around the whole state playing on behalf of the TCPA. And I have a publishing deal with a record label in Chicago. I also do a bunch of writing music for film and TV. I’ve got a song and video game. Still waiting for a song movie.

            Oh, that was a good start. And, yeah, I just kind of wake up every day and kind of take on whatever’s in front of it.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Yeah, so you’re out there living it. Living it right. Yeah, yeah. That’s great, man.

            Tell me a little bit about – I’m kind of gonna drift the conversation a little toward education eventually – but I kind of just like talking. As far as growing up goes, what role did music play in, like, when you decided that you wanted to play music? The role it was going to play in your life? What instruments you wanted to do? Songwriting – just like me growing up – like, how did you know?

SASHA

            Yeah, that’s a good question.

            My family kind of has a musical heritage. I was just reading about it. My mom found this amazing article. My grandmother was a professional opera singer. I’m Armenian, and so she did this kind of thing where it was like our Armenian traditional music, kind of like an Armenian review. She would sing opera. It was musical, but there would also be elaborate costumes and some history. So, that’s pretty cool. That was great. Yeah, I thought it was a cool article that my mom found about her.

            I was fascinated. She was so – what really made me so stoked was that a lot of what she did was play house concerts. And that’s what I do. That’s a lot of what I do. That really was a cool bond. My grandma was an amateur singer, and my mom was a singer. My mom has three albums as a folk singer and songwriter. So, it’s kind of in the family. Although my dad can’t play a goddamn lick.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Yeah, my dad either. Must come from your mom’s side, right?

SASHA

            Yeah. So, I’m from Western Mass. I’m from an artistic community, kind of like a hotbed of arts. My town, North Hampton, is where the Ninja Turtle creators are from. Wow. Yeah, so there’s kind of a lot of stuff. Smith College is there and, you know, around colleges there’re all kinds of arts. Yeah, so it was kind of draped in the arts.

            My whole childhood, I think my parents really wanted to send me to drawing class and sent me to theater camp. They really wanted the arts to be a rich part of my life and really invested in that. I started playing clarinet in second grade. I ended up getting into civil war reenacting. There’s a fun fact!

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Oh, wow.

SASHA

            Yeah, and I was a drummer boy. So, I got into that. Okay, that led to a drum set. So, it all kind of progressed.

            I dreamed of being a teacher when I was young, and then came my love for music groups. So, kind of at this point, in a lot of ways, a music teacher was very much a meeting of my whole life’s passion.

            But yeah, you know, I went to college without a major. I remember the moment my dad came to my side and he said, “You need to think of, you need to find something that you’re into other than music. You need to find what you’re going to major in.” And I was just kind of like, yeah, I’m not really into anything else. So, I ended up majoring in music in college, and kind of went from there.

            There’re some more pieces to the puzzle. I mean from clarinet to drums to around age 15 or 16 when I was playing the band drums when the band leader quit. I couldn’t find anybody to back up, so I literally picked up guitar out of necessity. So, I started playing guitar and singing at 16 or 17, not because I was, like, “I need to do this,” but because I was, like, “This is the only way I can keep doing this with, like, no prior experience.” I just picked it up and said I can do it. Okay. Yeah, totally no prior experience. I had been really into drummer. Really into drums, like my own drums as my identity until, like, junior year of high school. Then it was just like, “I gotta get it. I got it. I got to do this.”

            So then in my senior year I had, like, a little folk duo. And it’s been going from there. So, yeah, I’ve been doing music. I’ve been doing music in different ways pretty much my whole life and it’s just kind of permeated.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Okay, could you just talk for a little bit about that experience? You picked up the guitar out of necessity. You needed a guitar player? What skills helped you with that? Did your skills on drums and clarinet help you at all on guitar? Or did you just have a knowledge of music, like music theory? Or did you watch videos? How long did you navigate the guitar?

SASHA

            That’s a great question.

            I think playing the drums and understanding music. I mean, I had been in a lot of bands and so song form and how to approach songs was something I had dealt with as the drummer, like thinking about, like, verse chorus, thinking about a breakdown with a bridge built up. I’ve kind of been immersed in the idea of songwriting and song form, so that felt like a way for me to engage it and think from a rhythmic standpoint. I think it’s a great way to approach songwriting.

            I think the other answer is that it was a seamless, organic fit for me, which is why I’m still doing it 15 years later. I think that, you know, to this day I identify as a songwriter. It’s maybe one of the first things I’d say about myself. Within six months of playing guitar, I had already written one or two songs. It just kind of fit me. It’s all the things I do in music. It’s one of the things I feel that I do the most naturally and organically, so there wasn’t a lot of convincing myself to find time to song write or getting help from songwriters. I just kind of started, I think, and people in my life were like, “Wow, Sasha, this is a pretty good song for you only having played for such a short time.” They kind of encouraged me.

            Again, I really wanted to keep doing music and I couldn’t really find another path. My high school wasn’t super small but there weren’t a lot of people doing rock and pop and folk music. So, yeah, I just started taking guitar lessons. I played a lot every day. You know, I have really clear memories, Jeremy.

            My senior year, my school had four hour-and-a-half classes. So, your last period started at 12:30 and ended at 2.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Well, okay. And long.

SASHA

            It was really long. And actually, a side note: to adapt to COVID they’re changing the UT elementary school where Courtney works to that. Imagine an hour and a half with kindergarteners.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            God bless her, you know.

SASHA

            I walked home from school. I lived pretty far away, but I walked, and I have really clear memories that, like, after school I went to song school pretty much every day. I had those hours when I’d get home, have lunch, and have like 1, 2, 3, or 4 hours before my parents came home, the house to myself. And I would write every day – like I just fell in love with it and went for it. So, the passion was there. And it just happened quickly. And it just happened organically.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Yeah. Can you tell me a little bit about the songwriting process? How does it work? Is it like lyrics come first or does the music come first? Does the chorus come before the verse? Or do you have an idea? And how do you expand on that? Like, here’s where I’m going with this.

            So, someone comes in to take guitar, right? And they learn G,Cm,D? Yep. Then they all of a sudden learn that they can’t sing. They can’t sound right, and they need to transpose this stuff. So, I think what I’m really trying to do is get the songwriting singer process in guitar education earlier. So, it means the more you can tell me about that process of just, like, you know, what comes first, words or lyrics? Or maybe it’s different every time, or just anything about that? That would be great.

SASHA

            Yeah, so I have some good news for you. An organization in Austin asked me to answer this exact question. I made two YouTube videos that address this topic. Okay. So, by all means, link them when you put this out, and if you want, please, man, share these with your students, even parts of them. I did like 90 minutes. I really went off the deep end. Maybe a shorter version. But there’s great stuff in there, I think. Okay, well, I’ll link to those if you want to give me the short version of what each of those is about. I’ll give you the short version.

            So, when I talk about songwriting the concept that I think about and articulate all the time is the idea of seeds. I believe that all songs have to have a seed and that you’re going to let that seed grow, and that every decision you make has to have continuity and be in line with that initial decision. I am also a believer that if someone asks you what your song’s about, and I don’t mean what it’s about lyrically – I mean what is at the heart of your song? What does your song represent? If you can’t answer that question in one clear sentence, you don’t have a good song.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            So, it’s like an elevator pitch for the song.

SASHA

            If you can’t distill what the thing of your song is, the spine of it, yeah, dude, you need to reevaluate where you’re at.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Okay.

SASHA

            So, I believe that a lot of things can be the seed, this concept of a seed. It could be many different things, but you’ve got to find out what it is. And you’ve got to go from there. So, as I said, every decision after that initial decision has to be compatible. So, if I am writing a song in which I am telling my lover that I want to be with them for the rest of my life, why are you screaming the lyrics? Those things are contrasting, right? Or if you have a party song, write it in a minor key?

JEREMY COLEMAN

            It wouldn’t make sense, right? Everything relates to the core idea.

SASHA

            Everything always comes from the decision you make. When you record the bass. When you do the EQ. When you do the reverb. Think about that initial decision. Does this support and help prosper that initial seed? Okay so the video goes into depth about my different seed ideas, but I’ll kind of just do a quick one here.

            I really think that there’re a million. What I try to tell people is, like, you need so little – the germ of your song can be so tiny. The littlest thing can make a song. If you have done a song where the rhythm is cool – boom, boom, boom, seed done. You can build a whole song on wanting to use that rhythm. If you have one lyric you like. If you have a chord change you like.

            I’ve never used a major two chord. I’ve never used a minor four chord. Boom – that’s the start of something. So, don’t be afraid of accessing a song. Don’t be afraid of tackling all of it. Start small, and then make little decisions that support that initial decision. So, I think you can write a song with the lyric. I think you can write a song with a melody. I think you can write a song just with the rhythm. A great way is to write a song with a riff. Like, if you have a guitar riff, that can be the start of a great song.

            One of my secret tips that I’ll give away, which I guess they give away in the video, but one of my most successful ways that I’ve written songs is what I call “the song from another song.” What I do sometimes is, if there’s a song I like that I want to imitate, I think this is a great technique. If it’s a song that you like but it isn’t very natural to you, like you never would have written that organically yourself but you like that sound, just start playing it, playing it, and sing along. Maybe learn the chords, maybe don’t – just kind of vibe with it, sing along, get your guitar, get your keyboard. As soon as the song ends, keep going. And at first, maybe what you do is exactly like that song. But if you go for 15, 20, 30 seconds, a minute, eventually you’re gonna do something that’s not that song. It’s going to be something different, and that could be your song. Yeah, I’ve done that a bunch of times and gotten some great songs.

            So, I have written a song based on all the things I just talked about. I go over it in the video, but it really comes down to those seeds. Start with one little thing. As I said, whatever that thing might be for you that you’re excited about a chord voicing. You know: a little line and go from there.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            That sounds amazing. I remember in college when I took a creative writing class. They told me to just start writing the words of my favorite song, my favorite literature, and then just take off from there and see where it goes. And so that’s the thing we could all do, right? We could just start playing our favorite song and then drift off into something like a cadenza or something. That’s beautiful, man. I never thought about that. Just absolutely fantastic technique.

            And I think sometimes maybe teachers could do better exploring with that. You know what I mean? Because we’re, like, play this now. You know, like when you’re a teacher and you’re like “You need to play this now. Now the altos and explore a little bit. Am I right? Or we could all just kind of teach people how to improv and explore musical ideas. I don’t think a lot of people do that, especially in earlier grades. That’s basically what I’m saying. Like, fairly week. Yeah, I think It’s important and it’s such a great idea.

SASHA

            Jeremy, I feel like all songs have energy. I would almost say like fairy dust to them. And when you just have listened to a song, it’s like that fairy dust is on you. And you want it to transform you into your own fairy dust as quickly as possible. You know, it’s like when you’ve listened to a song and it’s put you in a mood, right? It’s made you feel a way that you weren’t feeling before the song.

            Say I want to write a song to sound like AC/DC. I haven’t listened to AC/DC in three months. I can kind of remember what that feels like, but this isn’t the time for me to do that. I think if I want to do that, I should spend a day listening to them. Kind of get their dust all over me, and then try to write that song that night.

            I do believe that you can get the feeling of a song in your body and then kind of spit it out.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Does that happen a lot? I mean, you hear something, and it inspires you and you’re like, “I want to do something like that.” Is that the dust that you’re talking about? Like I’m listening to Spotify and I hear Fleet Foxes, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s a great song,” so I want to be like that. Is that it? Yeah, I need to do that. Yeah.

SASHA

            Yeah.  And what I’d further say is that what’s so cool about it is that you can take anything from it. Sometimes it says, “I want to write a song just like that song.” But I think it can also be specific things, like Steve Lack’s a great example because I love how Fleet Foxes use modes. So, when I think of Fleet Foxes, I think, “Man, I should write a song that’s modal.” Maybe it won’t sound like Fleet Foxes. Or like the other week when I listened to a song that was like a slower 16th note beat like Buddha, and I thought to myself, “I’ve never written a song like that. I should do something like that.” Now, is my song gonna be like their song? No, but that element will be.

            So, this happens to me all the time. It can be as little as “Oh, my god, I loved how they did a 6/4 bar there.” And you’d never know I took it from that song. Or as much as my song sounds exactly like that song, hopefully nobody listens back to back and notices. So, anywhere on that spectrum? I think the answer is yes.

JERRY COLEMAN

            Okay, that’s cool, man. What about the guitar? What’s the role that it plays? I know you play a lot of instruments, and you talked about how you like beats coming first and all these different ideas. And what I want to know is, what role does the guitar play in the songwriting process? Is it an instrument you add after the fact, or do you use it to play a chord and then it inspires you to write a song? Just how does the guitar get into the song?

SASHA

            I pretty much always write with my guitar in my hand. Okay, there’ve been a fair amount of times when I’ve started with all the other things I talked about earlier, so it’s not always true. I’ve certainly started with a melody that I thought of while cleaning the kitchen, recorded on my phone, and then add a guitar. But anytime like that, it’s like a Sunday afternoon and I think I want to try to write a song, and I’m always having my guitar.

            I think, you know, that the guitar is like the – what’s the word for that? – the personification of the vibe. Ideally, I feel like I’d be writing music in a rehearsal space with the full band. And I could feel the energy of this thing. Let’s try that slow. Let’s try that fast. Let me let us try and think about what lyrics would feel this, you know? Music is all about that period. Sometimes, it’s like when you feel the energy. And when you’re just starting you have nothing. You have to conjure that energy. It’s like starting a fire, like your song is a fire that needs to start with some paper and some embers. And the guitar can do that. Like I try and get in the zone. Maybe it’s beautiful out. Maybe you’re watching the wind blow. Maybe you have a whiskey, whatever.

            And you get a vibe going and you have to imagine that what you’re hearing from the guitar is so much more than you’re trying to imagine. You see something that doesn’t exist, yet you conjure something into existence. So, I think, rhythmically, it’s very important. You want to get a vibe going. What’s going to be the feel? I really, really am a believer that your feel is as important as anything. Is this song going to be swung? Is this song going to be fast?

            A lot like my initial seed feeling. I feel that you should have a really, really defined idea of how you want your song to feel, and guitar is a great instrument for that because you can be so rhythmic. That’s why I prefer guitar over piano. I feel that when you come about feeling like you make other people feel. No, I’m talking about the groove. Okay, feel the feel of the rhythm. Okay like swung half swung fast, a sharpie staccato. I find it a little harder to create feel on piano because they’re not as rhythmic as guitar. With your right hand, you can be so rhythmic that even if you’re just holding your left hand still you can get that thing flowing.

            Then, of course harmony’s important. Maybe your song is going to be a one, four or five, and it doesn’t fully matter. But maybe if you go to a minor chord on the chorus, it opens up the whole song and gives it direction. Maybe your song is going to be really stuck until you throw in a cool chord, a flat six or something, you know what I mean? So, when I think guitar, those are the three things that it gives. It allows you to kind of start to conjure the vibe that can bring you into this. It’s like you could kind of see. With a song, it’s almost like it is an act that you kind of have to imagine it being great before this even exists. You kind of have to believe in it before it is even real.

            So, you kind of have to like how the guitar can help you if you start to like a strum pattern you’re doing, convince yourself, “This is cool.”  And I find that, for me, the more confident I am as I’m song writing, the more likely I’ll get a good song. If you start to get in your head that your song is going to suck, it’s gonna suck. So, getting positive, getting confident, getting a vibe that’s going to allow you to imagine this future finished product, rhythmically getting the feel – and not the feeling – but the feel of the groove. And then also exploring harmony, which could enhance the song and where to go.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Yeah. Hey, just a quick side note. What about the negative voice in your head that says, “Oh, that sucks!” What? What do you do with that guy? I feel like there are tons of times I’ve written songs and I could take like my DVD manual and turn that into a song right now, you know. But there’s something in your head that goes, “Now, that sucks.” How do you silence that stuff and be creative?

SASHA

            Oh, you are so right. And I think a lot of people struggle with that.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Yeah.

SASHA

            I know a lot of people who have fifty unfinished songs because they get to a point where they convince themselves their work sucks, or they’re afraid to kind of bring it to an end. I think that’s to your point.

            The scary thing about finishing something is that when it’s finished, it is what it is. Yeah. And there’s no escaping that. It could be amazing, right? That could suck. And it could be anything. You know, we all live with it as musicians. Jeremy, you’ll totally get this. We all know that. We all know that, yeah. But when I put in the real vocal, it’s gonna be good, yeah, but it’s a demo. You’re living those caveats, right? That’s how we all protect our egos. Right? Yeah, well, I’m gonna redo the drums and the bass, and it’s gonna be great. And when you finish something, you can’t do that, right? It is what it is, and people know it is what it is. And I think people are afraid of that.

            I think, honestly, and I’m totally sincere about this, that one of my biggest strengths for some reason is that this isn’t something that I struggle with. I came from a really nurturing family. My parents are huge advocates and I have a great family situation. I’ve always kind of been encouraged. So, I think I have high self confidence in certain ways. So, for me, I just kind of do stuff and I don’t really worry if it’s not great, right? I know a lot of people do worry. I think my advice to people is, like, think about the process. Just focus on improving.

            The only thing that matters is your improvement relative to your last thing. Don’t compare yourself to me. Don’t compare yourself to John Fucking Lennon. Oh, he said I could swear, right? Yeah, don’t compare yourself to John Lennon. Don’t compare yourself to Paul Simon. Don’t compare yourself to Stevie Wonder. Just compare yourself to your last song, and just try to get better.

            I think the good thing is, there’s no final destination. You’re never going to arrive.

            You’re going to be 67 years old and you’re still going to want to write a better song, right? So, honor that and know that even if your song was amazing, you’re still not going to be happy. So, if your song’s mediocre, who cares? And I would just say, like, put stuff out.

            I’m also a big believer in things being timestamped. In addition to being a better musician at 32, I am also just a way different person that I was at 28 or 25. And in addition to being better technically and being a better songwriter, I also think that those songs just spoke to that time. So, also just kind of, like, let yourself just let something represent you, then write it. It doesn’t have to be you forever. And if you decide that you hate it, you can take it off Spotify one day – that’s all possible. Yeah, but I do think that people can get caught in this neutral zone of never, never finishing.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Stuff. Yeah.

SASHA

            And my advice is always, like, put it out, move on, just move on. Just put it out, move on. It’s not going to get that much better. If you want to delete it later, fine. But put it out, move on. And then, if your next thing is better than that, take pride in that and just stay focused on that, and then look back in two or three years and think, wow, look how far I’ve come. That’s my recommendation.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Cool. It’s a good recommendation. I think it was Henry Mancini who said that he wrote for the wastepaper basket. You know, he would write something, and it was total B.S., but he was practicing. He threw a lot of his stuff away, and the world will never know what that was, but he was really working on it. And he didn’t care that it was gonna suck. He was practicing. And he was doing it, you know, and then just like, “I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna finish here. I wrote it, it’s in the book.”

            And you don’t have to put everything out there. And not everything, like, defined you that one second. You know what I mean? It’s just go do it. You know?

SASHA

            Yeah. And know that, like, you can always redefine yourself. If that’s what you were at 25, that’s fine. Yeah, like it doesn’t mean that’s who you are now. Make something better now. Makes me different now. Yeah. So, don’t be like, because I put this out everyone is gonna think of me that way. No, they’re not. They’re gonna thing about you the way you are now. So, give yourself some kind of release for this pressure and this anxiety for everything to be the thing.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Down. Okay. I totally agree with you. That’s just a lot to think about right there, man.

            Where can we find out more about what you have coming up? What are you doing in this time when you have a lot of time? Are you writing a lot?

SASHA

            What am I doing? Yeah, I’m doing a thing where I’m putting out a single every other month. That’s kind of my big thing. When this all started, I found that I didn’t have a way to record, which was crazy. But I got a mic and interface, and I’ve been recording in my office consistently and I put out a song every month. That was way too draining, so I’ve cut my pace in half.

            But it takes, like, a month to promote a song and then it takes, you know, another month to get the next song out. So, it’s too fast. So, my next song, Iris, comes out on the first Friday of November and then I already have my next song finished for the beginning of January. But I’m sure to have some good vibes, Jeremy, as my last single, Tumbleweed, was the Chaotic Song of the Day. I remember that.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            I remember seeing you on Instagram with that.

SASHA

            Yeah, yeah, that was good. And that was exciting. And my current song is going to be released on Austin 360. Wow. Cool. Very so, so feeling. So, getting some momentum.

            So, at this point my goal is to kind of keep trying to get all these songs premiered and trying to focus on growing Spotify. My band, American Dreamers, is doing some things. We don’t have a ton. We just played a really awesome house concert two weeks ago. Socially distanced house concerts are really fun. So, yeah, I’ve played some gigs. It’s, you know, hit or miss.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Yeah. It’s kind of a weird time, a tough time for musicians for real. And a terrible time. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Tried to shine it up. Gentle. It’s horrible, terrible, but I’m hoping we’re coming out if it soon. I mean, that’s what I’m hoping, that we’re gonna come out of this stronger and everything.

            So, where can we find out more about you and your projects?

SASHA

            Yeah, I would send everybody to my website, sashakamusic.com. My band is American Dreamer, americandreamermusic.com. We have a lot of good stuff and a lot of great videos.

            I’m kind of trying to make use of this time. I’ve started a kind of media content website, musicmoviesandhoops.com. I’m just kind of connecting some things I like, trying to kind of be fun, a little more lighthearted in the face of all this hardship, but covering a lot of music stuff. And, yeah, I’m on all the socials. Anyone who sees this, please like or follow. It would go a long way.

JEREMY COLEMAN

            Cool. That’s awesome, dude. Thanks for hanging out with us today. This was great. This is kind of what I wanted to always do with you, like, between classes. This is amazing, dude. You’re doing great stuff.

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