Monday, 11 August 2014

Charles Jenkins Songwriting Workshop

Written in Charles Jenkins Songwriting Workshop, Friday, August 7th, 11:30-1pm, Old Fire Station, downstairs:

These notes became this blog:

Photo by Tash Joyce.

Photo by Tash Joyce.

The room is full of children. Their low-level chatter is soothing in the dimness. Charles stands in front, bathed in strange, pink light. His guitar is slung casually across his shoulder; he plucks it absently, a familiar reassurance. He was born in Mildura, he says, but grew up in the city of churches, fair Adelaide. He spent ten years, from fifteen to twenty-five, on the couch, playing chords, and learning how to write songs. He made a lot of mistakes, but wrote—and played—as much as possible. He had kids, and time spent creating dwindled. Surprisingly, his songs got better.

He describes his first band, ‘The Mad Turks from Istanbul’, as “punk, snotty-nosed, pigs of people”, himself included. From the early 90s, he was involved with another band, ‘The Icecream Hands’, which recorded five albums.  Now he is part of Çharles Jenkins and the Zhivagos' and thinks that, altogether, he has been a part of fifteen-ish released albums. These days he is considered a proficient songwriter and performer. Watching him play, he is confident, relaxed, and in his element. This is a man who is meant to be in front of an audience, singing his beautifully crafted songs and strumming his guitar.

Photo by Tash Joyce.
After this brief (personal) history lesson, he gets down to business.

“The way to start writing songs is to start writing songs,” he says. “Don’t just sit around a wait for inspiration.”

So we start writing, and within minutes the audience has written a song:

Oh, hello. Is it pineapple under the sea?
Seaweed is strawberries with donkeys that party,
At somewhere secret with cake and lollipops.
Kittens stellar amazing fresh blue adventures of the ocean.
Catnip burns everything from camels to elephants.
Peanuts taste like Mexican peanuts.
Unicorns, monkeys, pandas, blank running with some extinguisher,
Against freedom and selfies begin countries derelict towards buffet.
The end. Elvis.

“Right on!” says Charles, repeatedly. Then, “I promise I’ll stop saying it soon.”

The kids giggle throughout the creation of the song. They are nervous. They are unrestrained. They try to control each other in subtle ways. They are unintentionally racist. Overall, they are immersed in the activity, excited and engaged.

It seems that Charles Jenkins is as much a “child-whisperer” as Jackie French.

Charles sings our song, and the giggling intensifies.

Next we brainstorm what goes into a song. There are a lot of ingredients, apparently, but a good song has to effectively hide these within itself; it must appear as a single entity. A good song captures the listeners’ attention, it inspires them. If it doesn't do it rhythmically, it must do it lyrically. If it doesn't do it lyrically, it must do it rhythmically.

When it comes to songs, Charles says, there are three types of listeners: those who listen to melody, those who listen to lyrics, and those who listen to the overall sound. It can be hard to please everyone. When creating, he says, you have to have faith: “The answer to your song is in your song.” Each piece of your song will inform the other pieces.

He talks about ‘object writing’, using the five senses—touch, sight, smell, taste, hearing—to write about something. He plays us one of his own songs that demonstrates this technique, Trees of Brisbane. It’s beautiful.

We do our own object writing, in pairs, then in groups. We contribute ‘rhyming couplets’ of lyrics and, as a whole audience, construct a three-verse song about our experiences of leaving home, journeying to Bendigo, and arriving at our destination. Our song is clunky, chaotic, clumsy…but authentic and amusing, apt. When Charles sings it to us, I see a few of the kids singing along, completely captivated. It make me smile.

In closing, Charles talks about how important it is to play your songs to other people. When sharing with others, your senses are heightened, your perceptions change, you become more aware of your story, what’s working, what isn't, and, overall, what you are really trying to say.

A final insight: “The more you listen to others, read their work, and engage with people, the more you will sound like yourself.”

Check out Charles Jenkins’ website for more information. He’s well worth a listen.


  1. I'm so glad you captured this pearler of a workshop Rosie. Wasn't it great to hear Charles sing a line or a word that every person in the room had contributed. Such generosity - not to mention talent. Some of those words were tough. Extinguisher? Hello!