Writing a song that tells a story with John O'Brien

Why did you get started in songwriting?

I was drawn to music very early on as a young child and I took piano lessons (which I hated because they were trying to teach me to read music) but I found that on the keyboard I could make stuff up that sounded really cool. I also took up guitar and found it very easy to write what I now understand are musical progressions. I started making up little songs and when I started having thoughts about people. I began writing lyrics to the short little ditties I was playing on the guitar. Once I started listening to the radio, I wanted to write real songs and started doing that and have been doing it ever since.

What do you love about song writing?

I love the ability to express myself in a way that is hard to do in writing prose. It’s as if you’re talking to somebody else when you write a song even though while you’re writing there by yourself. I guess the hope is when you write a song and you decide to put it out there that people will hear it and listen to it, maybe like it, maybe take something from it, but whatever it is you know that somebody’s going to be listening to it even if it’s only you.

John O'Brien 3.png

What do you typically write songs about? 

I write mainly about two different things. One thing I write about is what everyone writes about which is “love”. Songs about being in love, lost love, mistaken love, loneliness because you don’t have love, and all the other emotions that love brings us to. It’s sort of a universal songwriting subject since everyone has some element, which is usually strong, of love in them. The ability to reach out in words and music and find that in someone is what so many songwriters try to achieve.

The other area I write about is things that I experience or that I have strong feelings about. I wrote about the feelings of some Jamaican Rasta guys that shared with me their feeling that most tourists who come here, whether they’re American or of other nationalities, never seem to have enough whether it’s love or wealth or anything else and always yearning for more. I ended up in the back of a flea market playing the song with them as I was writing it in a desolate area in Jamaica (dangerous) and I wrote the song “Not Enough” which has actually become a very popular song (over 40,000 streams). 

I was also moved by the wildfire that took out Paradise California which was a town of over 25,000 people who burned to the ground in a matter of minutes. I was drawn to try and understand what those people were going through when they were awakened in the middle of the night and had no choice but to simply run for their lives. As I do in many of the songs I write about social issues, I researched it thoroughly by reading probably about 50 different news accounts of what people talked about in describing those emotions and then wrote that song and released the subsequent music video.

Check out his latest album : https://open.spotify.com/album/79z7Wvhtlpyhki0Pe4IRvf?si=k10LR4U1SMWzpVN9DjCvqA


What does songwriting bring to your life that you don’t want to live without?

The ability to express emotions in private that you really want to express to people more broadly. You can express ideas in prose and you can write things down and then ask people to read them, but it’s a heck of a lot more efficient to create your emotional communications in music because people would much rather listen to music and read what you’re writing in print.

What advice can you give to aspiring songwriters?

Don’t get boxed into one type of emotion when you’re writing. If you love your dog write a song about your dog, if you love to go swimming write a song about swimming, if you love your mom write a song about your mom, just write about something that really comes out of you that gives you that warm feeling in your heart when you think about it and you’ll end up writing a meaningful song.

Once you get to the point where you’re doing that, you’ll be surprised how many emotions and things you can write about. Mostly though, just keep sitting down and writing and when you get an idea go running off as fast as you can and write it down because you will forget it and then come back to it and get to work. Never stop.

How do you feel about the use of Ai (artificial intelligence) in music creation today? Are you using anything in your production that’s more automated and convenient as a result of technology?

Using some level of AI is unavoidable if you use a program like ProTools it is loaded with artificial intelligence. On the other hand, I have taken the tact in my recordings and in my live performances to use real musicians playing real instruments and have minimized the use of special effects in the music itself. I think that it’s easy to come to the belief that your writing and performing something really neat and complex when in reality you’re just leaning on computers and VST’s to create sounds that really aren’t even yours. I don’t mean to come across does a purist (although I guess I am) I hope that music does return to its roots which is people that are actually creating a music playing an acoustic instrument rather than a VST in a DAW.

Website & social media links:
Spotify: https://spoti.fi/2Vb5M2W
Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/john-obrien
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/johnobriensmusic
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/johnobriensmusic
ReverbNation: https://www.reverbnation.com/johnobrien7
Bandcamp: https://johnobrien1.bandcamp.com
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwzP4-jgRZ1ofrEaKgQWX4w

Story Created by Jacqueline Jax