Mastering the Craft

“There’s not just one way to write a song,” says Rick Kennedy. Kennedy is the guitarist of Strangerwolf, who headlines the inaugural Folio Weekly Songwriter’s Showcase at Blue Jay Listening Room this Sunday, Aug. 4. The Jacksonville-based trio shares the bill with three other Florida artists: Sam Pacetti, Kristopher James and Hallie Davis. At the moment, though, Kennedy is sitting in the atrium in front of Folio Weekly’s office, meditating on songcraft with his cousin and bandmate, Ryan Kennedy. Both musicians subscribe to what this scribe henceforth dubs the Aleister Crowley school of songwriting: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. (Alternately, the Outback Steakhouse school: No Rules, Just Right.)

“Absolutely,” the percussionist adds. “I don’t think there should be any rules. If the end result is undesirable, try something else. Keep moving.”

The Kennedys comprise two-thirds of Strangerwolf, whose ranks are rounded out by multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Blanton. The cousins have been playing music and writing songs together since childhood. They adopted the Strangerwolf moniker in 2014, and recruited Blanton two years later. Since then, the trio has distinguished itself with finely tuned songwriting and tight vocal harmonies. It’s been an evolution, according to Rick Kennedy.

“It started off kinda small,” he explains. “We had both played in bands before, and it’s so hard to find people who are passionate about the same things. We knew each other. We knew we were reliable. We knew we were on the same page. So we started stripped down with cajón and acoustic guitar. For each album, we’ve built on the dynamics of the sound. This latest album we’re working on is all full-band with multiple instruments, lots of guitars and keyboards. Jeremy adds that fresh third perspective. He helps spawn new ideas and adds a different level of musicianship.”

The songs have evolved with the expanding palate of sonic possibilities. “We’re spending a lot of time on each song now,” Ryan says. “We’re exploring all our musical options. The songs have benefited from our doing that.”

Which brings us back to that crucial question: What makes a good song? For Strangerwolf, it’s—surprise!—a collaborative process. The three members write together, hewing to certain songwriting norms while reserving their freedom to experiment.

“We’ve stuck to the standard verse/chorus/bridge format,” Rick says, “the traditional songwriting setup.” Each band member brings something to the table. “The lyric part is like collaboratively writing a poem,” Ryan explains. “Then the most fun part is creating the music around it, building emotion through sound.”

Jacksonville-based songwriter Hallie Davis agrees that emotion is key. “I would say a good song would be an honest and true song,” she observes, “one that you can actually relate to. There isn’t one perfect song because there are so many different people listening, and each listener has so many different emotions. If they relate to a song, it’s a great song for them and might serve a purpose for them at a certain point in their lives.”

Davis is a relative newcomer to the craft. A North-Central Florida native, she hadn’t performed in public until signing up for Lake City’s Southside Idol competition in 2017. The experience changed her life.

“That was the first time I sang with a band,” she remembers, “the first time I sang in front of anyone, really. Right then, it clicked. I thought, ‘This feels really right. I can do something with this.’”

Davis relocated to Northeast Florida to take vocal and guitar lessons. She was gigging within six months. As she delves into songwriting, Davis finds certain emotions are more potent than others.

“It depends on the day,” she laughs, “but it feels like I write best when I’m really upset or angry about something, and I use writing to get over it.”

Bradenton-based singer and songwriter Kristopher James describes another approach to songwriting. He tells Folio Weekly, “When you write a song, you fall in love. You have excitement for the words. They’re new to you, and you get to know them. And as you get to know the song, it’s not that you don’t appreciate it anymore, but you get more familiar with it. Your relationship changes.”

Still, according to James, the ultimate success of a song depends not on how it’s written, but how it’s received: “A song is an expression of some kind of person or place or thing. That expression will reverberate with some listeners and not with others.”

That’s where the performer comes in. James modulates his live set in real time to engage the various audiences he encounters on the road.

“I have different songs for different kinds of crowds,” he explains. “If they’re responsive and more intent on listening, I’ll play some wordy songs. If it’s a crowd that wants to keep their energy up, I’ll play songs that are still expressive but have a bit of a jump to them.”

All of our songwriters referenced one key concept in particular: honesty. The song must communicate a genuine emotion or idea for it to connect with an audience. For St. Augustine’s Sam Pacetti, that’s what makes one singer’s trials and tribulations universal, or at least shareable.

“What makes a good song?” he muses aloud. “It’s a seemingly simple question, but it’s not. Much of it has to do with ability to be an honest, relentless observer, and steer into places that exemplify the human conditions in such a way as to make a certain experience or circumstance archetypal.”

And, of course, a touch of overwrought anguish doesn’t hurt. “Pain, suffering, catharsis, trauma,” he adds wryly, “these are all very fertile soil in which great songwriting grows!”