Summer Programs: Making the Song

Lesley Mahoney
September 8, 2011
Mikaela Attard has traveled all the way from Malta to participate in the Five-Week Summer Performance Program.
Singer-songwriter Melissa Ferrick with Leland Corley
Myles Jasnowski and Patrick Kelsey collaborate on "Lay Back."
Sarah Knapp performs "City Lights Home."
Melissa Ferrick's role is to boost students' confidence and help them to improve their songs.
Candita Wager wrote "The Hardest Song to Write" with Gustavo Bertoni, and has gained an appreciation for cowriting in the process.
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson
Photo by Kelly Davidson

They came from as far as Malta and from as nearby as Lynn, Massachusetts, but they all had the same goal: to write and perform a killer song. And of the more than 150 who auditioned for a slot in the Five-Week Summer Performance Program's Performing Songwriter Showcase, more than 40 earned a spot on stage.

Eight of the artists performed at Cafe 939 one night in early August, one of three shows directed by singer-songwriters Melissa Ferrick '90 and Sally Taylor, and assisted by Berklee faculty members, who mentored the students in songwriting in preparation for the concert. The students brought their finished songs forth, telling tales of loneliness, home, and relationships, among other songworthy fodder.

Meanwhile, the other 32 students divided performances between one night at the Berklee Performance Center—directed by faculty member Kristin Cifelli, alumna Kate Klim, and other faculty members—and four afternoons outside the Berklee Bookstore, directed by alumnus Bob Stanton.

For the 939 shows, there was a sort of coffeehouse vibe, which was decidedly the point. "What's so important to Berklee and the Songwriting Department—is that if a song is good it should be able to stand up on its own," said adjunct professor Ferrick, artist-in-residence for Five-Week. "That is the fear we try to overcome with these students, which is their ability to get on stage with their instrument by themselves and play the song. It means arranging. It means tightening the song structures up. It means helping them get rid of instrumental sections that might work if you had a BPC band behind you and someone could take a solo, but in the coffeehouse or one-on-one setting, it's like you want to get to the chorus, you want to get to the moment."

This summer was Ferrick's third involved with the songwriting component of the Five-Week Program. "It's getting bigger and what seems to be happening is that the level of talent is getting stronger," she said. For the first time, the showcase also was open to performance poets studying under liberal arts assistant professor Caroline Harvey. Three poets performed at one of the Cafe 939 showcase concerts.

Several singer-songwriters who performed at a Cafe 939 showcase shared their thoughts on the process of songwriting with Ferrick.


Mikaela Attard

Age: 18
Hometown: Malta
Instrument: Voice and Piano
Song: "I'm Never Around Me"

On inspiration:
Well, I guess I'm like some other artists: I get inspired by every single thing that occurs around me so I don't really know exactly from where this song emerged. Music is a living experience; it might have been a person, an apple, a cat, or a Starbucks coffee that stroked something inside to write my song during my stay. Berklee has been such a great experience on its own. My song is about talking to my conscience. Sometimes you do things and then hear someone else say something about what you did, right or wrong, some sort of justification that might put guilt or frustration on the individual. In my song, I'm telling my second voice inside to shut up and let me think what I want to, live my life how I'd like to, do whatever I need to . . .

On working with Melissa Ferrick:
Melissa Ferrick helped me with the structuring and polishing of the song and also instructed me which words from the lyrics would be good to replace. She enjoyed how I transformed it eventually and supported my performance. Melissa is one-of-a-kind and I had a great time working with her on my track. I've also learned a lot from my friends at the shows. It's always good to pursue each and every song coming from individuals who emerge from different cultures, norms, and styles.


Candita Wager (with Gustavo Bertoni)
Age: 18
Hometown: San Francisco, California
Instrument: Voice/Guitar
Song: "The Hardest Song to Write"

The inspiration behind the song:
Past relationship experiences with hope for the future.

On getting over stage fright:
Getting nervous on stage is a great fear of mine. The night of my performance, Melissa helped me center myself and find a way to say what I wanted to say without nerves getting in the way of my performance.

On cowriting:
I gained a love for cowriting from this experience. I love the creativity it brings out in two or more people and the compromise involved that pulls out a deep understanding when writing together. Gustavo and I were able to share and express our creativity together and that is what cowriting and music as a whole is all about.


Sarah Knapp
Age: 17
Hometown: San Diego, California
Instrument: Voice
Song: "City Lights Home"

The inspiration behind the song:
A boy. Isn't it always? Just kidding. But sadly, not really. This song was the story of a romance becoming a dear, dear friendship.

On finding the right words:
Melissa helped me erase all doubt. Somehow she knows exactly what a song needs, what the empty spaces are—how to fill them but not lose them. I had trouble finding the words "city lights home." I had, "you're my ___" and Melissa told me that all I had to do was not worry, that those words would find me . . . the essence of the song.

On trusting yourself:
I learned to trust myself, to not be afraid of getting too close to a song and therefore becoming vulnerable to the listeners. I learned that that is what music is about.


Myles Jasnowski
Age: 18
Hometown: Aurora, Nebraska
Instrument: Guitar
Song: "Lay Back"

On the making of the song:
I wrote the song with a good friend and dorm-mate of mine, Patrick Kelsey. I already had this smooth, R&B-sounding chord progression, so Patrick added some lyrics that matched the feel of the song.

On the mentoring experience:
This experience was a blast to be able to participate in. It was nice getting mentored by someone who is not necessarily the same musical genre as I am. With Melissa, it was actually a very straightforward experience. We played for her and she only gave one or two suggestions. She liked it so much as it was, so we had to make very little changes.