Talented tunesmiths convene for special Columbia event
“Songwriter's Serenade” on November 11 at Foxfield features Tonya Tyner, Kenley Young, and Richard Strater
South Carolina’s music scene is rich with songwriting talent, something the Palmetto Songwriter’s Association was founded to help promote.
This week’s edition of their quarterly showcase, “Songwriter’s Serenade” – a free show to be held Friday, November 11 at 8 p.m. at Foxfield Bar and Grille at 406 Howard St. – features a trio of talented tunesmiths in Tonya Tyner, Kenley Young, and Richard Strater.
Cola Daily checked in with each of them to ask about their approach to writing and performing their original songs.
Tonya Tyner is a South Carolina native who spent time in the music-rich Austin, Texas scene before moving back home. Her songs lean toward folk and country, supported by a crystal clear voice. She said her method of songwriting is to have no set plan.
“I’m all over the place,” she said. “Driving, walking, and showering seem to drum up a good tune in my head.” She’s not one to simply dash off a melody, however.
“I have several songs that started out with a scribbled phrase only to be left neglected for years,” she revealed. “Many of them have a long gestation period—I also edit a lot. My inspiration usually comes from something I see, hear, or feel that gives me a sense of urgency to share it with others.”
Kenley Young is a recently repatriated South Carolinian, having moved back this year after living in Los Angeles for five years. This will be his first public show since returning, and he will also use the occasion to officially release a new album, “Seneca Guns,” recorded with fellow South Carolina musicians over the past several years,
The album is a slickly produced, major-sounding pop-rock album that’s full of the kind of songs that will still sound great with just Young and his acoustic guitar. For him, songwriting is a musical cataloging of his experiences.
“In college, my fiction-writing professor said, ‘Start with the day that was different,’ so that’s what compels me to write—whenever something new happens,” Young said.
“That used to mean heartache, which I do still draw from, but these days I also have marriage, fatherhood, and just ‘adulting’ in general.”
Young is a pack rat and perfectionist when it comes to writing, he said.
“I revisit unused lyrics and revise them, re-purpose them; I’m rarely satisfied after just one edit, and I do my best writing in absolute solitude,” he observed. “With a three-year-old son and a six-month-old daughter in the house, I don’t always get as much quiet as I need.”
Camden’s Richard Strater has been on the road as a touring musician for the past few years, playing his densely written indie-folk melodies in 36 different states and over a hundred different towns.
So when he says “life events” are his inspiration to write songs, that opens up a whole realm of possible subject matter. For Strater, it’s all about being in the moment and being open to inspiration whenever it occurs.
“Often I’ll have a melody pop into my head, quite randomly, and I’ll just start singing,” he said. “After a few vocal lines I find myself grabbing my guitar to strum a few chords until I find the right ones, then I just sing and play whatever I’m feeling.”
Writing songs, of course, is only half of the singer-songwriter job description. Playing them for an audience can bring added life to the words and notes, especially in the hands of an experienced performer.
“It’s sort of like letting an arrow fly,” Tyner said of playing a song she’s written out in public. “It can take a different direction than you intend. I try to leave enough space in my lyrics for any listener to interpret something meaningful, though.”
For Young, it is a matter of style over the substance sometimes in an effort to entertain, not necessarily to dictate the meaning.
“I enjoy a good turn of phrase and I don’t mind if it’s a little opaque,” Young said. “I don’t know if I always accomplish that, but I strive for it.”
Strater offers that sometimes interpretations from the audience can change his own perspective on a song.
“I have written a few songs that I enjoy playing to myself, but often people interpret it differently than I have intended and the situation can be very awkward,” he said.
The best part about an event like this Friday’s showcase is the opportunity to compare and enjoy the different styles of writing and performance between the participants, and for them it can be instructive as well as a lot of fun.
“I played a concert in Dallas and one of the other songwriters was from the Netherlands, with songs sung in Dutch, but I could still grasp the feeling she was going for,” Strater recalled. “That made me feel a part of some larger artistic ethos, a concept I addressed in my song, ‘Carry On.’”
Tyner said that working and playing with other writers at shows such as this one is the best way she knows to improve her own work.
“There are always a few writers in every town who are golden, and it really helps you step up your game,” she said. “I’ve been co-writing with Brodie Porterfield (her duo-mate in the act Dawn Key Shotguns) for a couple of years now, and we write differently together than apart – it’s something that influences my attitude about my work, knowing I’m part of something bigger.”
“I think performing with other songwriters, and watching them perform, is really the only way to get better at it yourself,” Young concluded. “And events like this one are really great ways to foster a sense of community.”