John Oates Visits Berklee Songwriting Class

Kimberly Ashton
June 16, 2014
Singer-songwriter John Oates
Photo by Kimberly Ashton

Just before his concert as half of the duo Hall & Oates, on June 12 in Boston, John Oates popped in to Melissa Ferrick's songwriting class at Berklee to talk about his approach to the craft.

"I think that the thing about songwriting in general is that the rules are: no rules. I think you should just keep a totally open mind and try to craft things that move you somehow," Oates told the class. That said, Oates had plenty of nuggets of wisdom for the students. Below are some other excerpts from the visit. 

On inspiration

"Just being aware, constantly aware that everything is fodder for the songwriter, every moment of your life. I think that for a lot of people the most insignificant moments can pass by as if they just don't matter. But for a songwriter, they may be able to pick up something from that that can lead to something more profound or more meaningful."

On a songwriting partner

"I just think collaboration in general is a really good thing. I think two minds working off each other can really come up with things that perhaps you just couldn't. I mean, look, ego-wise, and maybe from personal satisfaction point of view, if you get that divine inspiration and it just flows out, and the song is there and it's real personal and it's powerful and you can say it, there's nothing like that. But it doesn't always happen. And in those other situations, which is usually 80 or 90 percent of the time, having that other person to bounce it off of..."  

On universal images

"I think if you can take a universal subject but make it extremely personal. We try to do that all the time. Big ideas made small. Take big ideas and somehow make them relatable, as if you're talking to someone. That's what really seems to communicate with people." 

For example, from "She's Gone": "'alone is a toothbrush hanging in the stand.' Everyone can relate to that image. It's so simple and so direct and so real. And that's the kind of stuff that you got to hope to tap in to."

On writing with an instrument

"It's also good to try to write without the limitations of your instrument because your instrument—regardless of how good you are at your instrument—is going to limit you, in some subtle way, because you're going to what your fingers and your brain allow you to do on your instrument."

"A lot of times, humming a melody in a car, or walking down the street, with no restrictions of the instrument or chord changes—sometimes that can be the most freeing thing. I've written a lot of melodies hiking ... and then just literally sing it into my phone."

How to make a hit

"There are so many variables involved in a hit record. It's luck, it's timing, it's being in sync with the zeitgeist of the moment, you know, what people are thinking about out there in the world. All those things, they're all tied together. And it's really hard to formularize that. But you kind of know it when it happens."

Ferrick on Oates's visit 

Ferrick: "Here at Berklee I try to teach accountability and responsibility, I try to lean on "writing the truth" and living one's truth. John Oates really brought this into the spotlight. It was such a gift to have had him come tell his truth in class. I am sure all of the students will remember the day John Oates came to class and said, 'I just know what I like.' Learning to trust yourself enough to declare what you like is one of the many reasons Berklee exists."