For the Love of the Song

Danielle Dreilinger
August 26, 2009
Five-Week Summer Performance student Harry Gensemer and Melissa Ferrick celebrate as the August 4 showcase winds to a close.
Gensemer performs his song "Firecracker Dunes," which benefited from some one-on-one work with Ferrick.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again. But it took only one teacher at Berklee to help a student take apart and put back together an almost-there song—"Firecracker Dunes," by 16-year-old Five-Week Summer Performance Program attendee Harry Gensemer.

After graduating from Berklee in 1990, Melissa Ferrick '90 became a traveling singer/songwriter with an impassioned delivery and passionate fan base. This summer, she returned to share her knowledge as a visiting professor for the five-week program.

Dressed like a teenager herself in skinny jeans and a T-shirt, Ferrick started out her July 30 class with a listening hour, highlighting the lyrics of favorite songs by the likes of Ryan Adams and Dayna Kurtz.

When Patty Griffin described her father's grave in "Long Ride Home," Ferrick pointed out, it's "not just 'six feet' but 'six long feet.'"

Ferrick wove bits of road wisdom into the discussion: how to finesse an off-rhyme, how repetition "helps people sing along." (In fact, she had to head straight from class to a gig.) Kurtz is so good "it's upsetting," Ferrick said. "I felt that with Ani [DiFranco] when I was on tour—like, I have to go on now?!"

Several students were especially open to performance tips: They were preparing for a series of concerts featuring five-week songwriting standouts. Ferrick coordinated the August 4 show and had Gensemer on her roster.  For the second half of class, she called him up to work on "Firecracker Dunes."

Gensemer woke everybody up with his raspy roar and unconventional lyrics.

Sittin' here in the woods
I got no canteen
I'm growing a beard it's gonna cover my face

"I love this song," Ferrick said. "I think you're such an original."

Still, even a solid song can stand a change or two. Ferrick wrote the lyrics on the board and dove in. She and Gensemer found a chorus, swapped around melodies, and added lines to make the verses fit, with Gensemer gamely trying variation after variation.

Ferrick emphasized, however, that he was free to ditch every new idea. "It's okay if you never play this song this way again," she said.

When they were done, she said, "Great job, man, great song. I love it."

Though sound check for her gig loomed, Ferrick stayed after class to answer questions and schedule song consultations—some with students who weren't part of her showcase.

Read a Q&A with Ferrick.

The following Tuesday night brought 12 somewhat nervous young songwriters to perform for a packed house at Cafe 939. Ferrick tended to one ill performer and stocked the green room with Mexican food before opening the show with a few songs.

Getting into the spirit of the night, she included one piece she hadn't quite finished; its lyrics included the line "I need a chord change right there."

Then it was the students' turn. "I could see being on tour with [them] in a few years," Ferrick said. "Or I might be opening for them in six months!" (They were already stars to the audience, which cheered every one.)

See a slideshow of the night's performers.

Arielle Deem, 17, of Davis, California, had never performed her own pieces before this summer. But Ferrick "made me feel really comfortable," she said beforehand. "I felt very appreciated and like she was really honored to hear what I had to say."

Deem sang "Goodbye for Now" with confidence, her warm voice flowing over country-tinged chords.

Then came Gensemer. Ferrick introduced him by recalling his audition for the show: "As soon as he opened his mouth, it was over. He was in." As he thundered through "Firecracker Dunes," alternating gruff howls with a pretty melody, it was clear that he'd kept many of the changes developed in class.

In that session, Gensemer said, "I saw the flaws in my song and I knew what I had to do to perfect it and get my message across." With anyone else, he would have been scared. But Ferrick "tries to look at the song through your eyes," he said.

Though a fan might think that the experienced singer/songwriter was light-years ahead of the five-week students, "There's no real distance between us," Ferrick told a performer afterwards. "You guys are two steps away."

And she was helping them advance. In fact, she'd already sent one student's recording to her manager.

Visit Melissa Ferrick's homepage

Hear Harry Gensemer in a louder mode on YouTube