As a young man on stage at the Center for Southern Folklore pumps a beat out of his sample machine, Grammy-nominated songwriter Mary Unobsky sings, "I need a second chance, another try at this old romance."
"C'mon, guys. Somebody jump in here and sing this the way you think it should sound," urges Unobsky. Nine people are sitting in chairs around her, their notebooks open, pens in hand. They're here for the first installment of an eight-week summer songwriting series sponsored by the Memphis Songwriters Association (MSA).
Marvin, a class member who resembles Barry White, joins in with another verse. The song Unobsky is singing is one that he wrote and brought to class. By the time Unobsky and Marvin are finished, the song has morphed from a straight R&B song to a radio-friendly neo-soul tune. The focus of this first class is rhythm and groove, and Unobsky is stressing the importance of crafting songs to fit into today's popular sounds.
"You really do want to take your song beyond your own nurturing," she says. "You have to liberate that song to put it out in the marketplace and put it in a format to get it heard."
Each Saturday, the workshop will focus on a different aspect of songwriting. Class topics range from developing song plots and breaking down the anatomy of a hook to publishing and protecting songs. Unobsky plans on bringing in guest songwriters to speak to the class about their experiences and their sources of inspiration. She'll also have a guest publisher discuss songwriter-friendly contracts.
While the classes are geared more toward people who dream of writing songs for other people to perform, Jon Dillard, the president of MSA, says singer-songwriters can benefit as well.
"I'm a singer-songwriter and I've been writing with my guitar. Everything I write is with the same chords. Maybe it's inspired by the Eagles or this or that," says Dillard. "But [Unobsky]'s approach is to write without music. That leaves you free to experiment with different melodies."
"Most of us have a library of licks that we've learned over the years, and we end up constantly regurgitating those same licks. Unless you put your instrument down, you're going to end up recycling those same three chords," says Unobsky.
The workshops also provide a valuable place for songwriters to network. After class, Dillard schedules some weekend work helping another class member record some of her songs. Wiz, the guy who plays the sample machine, exchanges phone numbers and e-mail addresses with everyone in the class before he leaves, and according to Unobsky, several of the scheduled guest speakers will provide excellent resources for aspiring songwriters.
At one point during the class, she plays an Anita Baker single, "It's Been You All the Time." It's a song that she wrote, and she jokingly says it's the song that bought her the car she's currently driving. When the song ends, Marvin pipes up. He can't believe that he's taking a class from a woman who's written songs for such an R&B diva. "You really wrote that and sent it to Anita Baker?" he asks.
"Uh-huh," says Unobsky. "That's what this workshop series is all about."
The course is the first series of workshops MSA has hosted. Dillard says they've held numerous one-time, informal workshops, and Unobsky has taught some of those. MSA was founded by Estelle Axton, one of the co-founders of Stax Records, as way for professional songwriters in Memphis to network with studios and artists.
These days, MSA caters not only to professionals but to novices as well. Unobsky says her workshop can help beginners learn the business as well as help old pros improve their craft.
"Here in Memphis, there's no place to learn unless you're gigging, and when you're gigging, you're so into the performance aspect that you're not honing your craft," says Unobsky. "The more people know, the better, and everyone's got a story to tell. I don't want anyone to die with their music in them."
MSA's Summer Songwriting Series meets every Saturday at the Center for Southern Folkore (119 South Main) from 10:30 a.m. to noon. Classes are $25 per workshop or $225 for the entire series. For more information or to register, e-mail Sheila Champlin at email@example.com.