What motivates or makes a great songwriter? What is the process of transforming a feeling, a phrase, or a melody into a fully-formed song?
“Songwriting is a very mysterious process,” Tracy Chapman once said. “It feels like creating something from nothing. It’s something I don’t feel like I really control.”
A certain alchemy also inexplicably draws a listener to a song. Determining the music that soundtracks our lives is a deeply personal choice, one that begins when we're children and defines who we are as teenagers and young adults. Whether you've found solace in Paul Westerberg, PJ Harvey, or Public Enemy — or all three — there's a reason why the intersection of lyric, hook, melody, and message elicits a heartfelt response. We look to songwriters to make sense of our state of mind, reeling from joy to despair and back again. One of the great treats of our FUV Live sessions is getting the chance to understand that intimate bridge between inspiration and song.
Every songwriter is essential to someone — here, the FUV on-air staff has chosen some of the songwriters whom we personally treasure and revere. Yes, we had to leave a lot of folks off our lists!
Skip down to: Rita Houston | Corny O'Connell | Carmel Holt | Dennis Elsas | Alisa Ali | Darren DeVivo | Russ Borris | Sarah Wardrop | Eric Holland | Paul Cavalconte | Kara Manning | John Platt | Bob Sherman | Essential Songwriters playlist
FUV Program Director, Host of The Whole Wide World
I think Clarence Greenwood is a deep genius and his fans know it. His songs live in the big moments of our lives. A hundred years from now, people will still be listening to his music.
Listen: "One Lovely Day"
FUV Morning Host
I first became aware of Nick Lowe as the guy who wrote Elvis Costello's hit "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," then much later I was smitten by the songs on the 1994 release, The Impossible Bird.
Listen: "The Beast in Me"
Assistant Music Director, FUV Midday Host
He has always been my gold-standard when it comes to songwriting, because he always writes the raw and tender truth, whether it be about the environment, love, social and political issues, or his own life. He is both uncompromising and poetic.
Listen: "Cortez the Killer"
She's impossible to sum up in a sentence; I would have different things to say about each musical phase Joni has had. But if I had to sum up why she is important to me, it would be this: she was the first artist I discovered as a teenager who made me want to write songs, long before I discovered that she had inspired countless others to do the same.
Listen: "Ladies of the Canyon"
Though she is only in her twenties, Laura possesses the strength and wisdom of a woman who has lived lifetimes. When I listen to her songs, I find that I hang on every word.
Listen: "Master Hunter"
Wilco's Jeff Tweedy
Like Neil and Joni, Jeff’s writing is, stylistically, hugely varied — from twang to rock and from loud and noisy artrock to folksy campfire fare. But across the board, his introspective lyrics pierce through, and always hit me square in the heart and, at times, the gut.
Listen: "Impossible Germany"
I need a T-shirt that says, “Neko Case is my spirit animal." Her lyrics are as unique and powerful as her voice; they're rich in imagery of nature. Her songs are gothic and haunting, sometimes biting, sometimes sweet, full of stories and characters that feel both fabled and true.
Listen: "The Pharaohs"
FUV Afternoon Host
I loved all the great '60s records that she and her husband Gerry Goffin wrote, even though I didn't know their names at the time. When she emerged as a solo artist my admiration became even greater.
Listen: "One Fine Day"
FUV Evening Host
His songs are full of insight, wisdom, and poetic observations that are unparalleled. Perhaps the greatest songwriter who has ever lived.
Listen: “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry”
FUV Late Night Host
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen
Incorporating complex song structures rooted heavily in jazz, blues and rock, Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen wrote about those who lived in the mansions and on the margins: rich and infamous, seedy lowlifes, drug dealers, skeevy relatives, and lonely lovers — with a sly smile and a tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Listen: “Deacon Blues”
Born in alleyways, junkyards, factories, thrift shops, saloons and lonely bedrooms, Waits’ whiskey-aged songs come from the heart…and the liver.
Listen: “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You”
The former Pink Floyd member gone solo tackles subjects like madness, loss, absence, isolation, war, and politics. Few songwriters express these ideas, opinions and passions as fervently.
Listen: “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”
FUV Music Director, Host of The Alternate Side and FUV Saturday Midday
Assistant Program Director, FUV Music Host
I love it when liner notes reveal behind-the-scenes masters. Whether he was on lead or not, Toussaint's songs and musical gifts wove the thread of tradition with present day purpose and pure, cool groove.
Listen: "Yes We Can Can"
It didn't fully hit me until seeing Petty and The Heartbreakers at Forest Hills Stadium last summer just how much his songs soundtracked my life, and how much poetry can be contained alongside a seemingly simple hook and a riff.
Listen: "Learning To Fly"
Indigo Girls' Amy Ray and Emily Saliers
Aside from their voices and folk-rock sound, this duo's songs also merge two very different writing styles. Whether they're three-chord rockers or finger-picked essays, somehow the meaning always rises and reaches out (and did to a wave of other essential songwriters that followed).
Lyrical twists and smirking turns are only part of this wordsmith's work, and it's been refreshing to see her hold to her distinct image-filled style while continuing to evolve as a writer, a guitarist, and a collaborator.
I'm an appreciator of musical theatre and hip hop but not well-versed in either, and I usually lean toward "less is more" songwriting. However, Miranda's work and all its intricacies is a mix of art, storytelling, puzzle, and passion that blows my mind, whether it's freestyle or on Broadway.
Listen: "Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)"
FUV Music Host
Clearly a pillar in rock's foundation, his songs spawned bands. His devastatingly direct lyrics were built on a foundation of New York experience, attitude, and cool while his music merely created punk.
Listen: "Coney Island Baby"
Through introspective folk to compositions rooted in jazz, the subject matter in Mitchell's astonishing body of work veered from songs about love, loneliness, and infatuation to ones holding a mirror to characters and society — as much as herself.
Listen: "Rainy Night House"
Craig Finn of The Hold Steady
He creates resonant characters inhabiting authentic scenarios and like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Pete Townshend, Finn has something to say about getting older.
Listen: "Sequestered in Memphis"
Host of Cavalcade and FUV Music Host
Gordon Sumner does not get his due as a great song scribe. Rich images are strung along supple melodies (and of course basslines). Sting’s best songs find him wounded but never defeated.
Listen: “Message In A Bottle"
Host of UKNY
A genius who conjured funked-up midnight confessions and cool, guitar-spanked grooves that were erotic, spiritual, empathetic, insightful, and deliciously free. His far-too-early departure, like David Bowie's, still hurts.
Listen: "Money Don't Matter 2 Night"
For the past decade, Marling's preternatural gift, translating into song her vivid passage from shy teenager to assured young woman, has led to six astonishing albums. Fearless, tender, sensual, and steely, she's a masterful artist who has already influenced her generation of songwriters.
Underworld's Karl Hyde and Rick Smith
The duo's stirring confluence of electronica, dance, rock, visual art, cinematic narrative, and visceral lyricism redefined a genre, reinvented the band, and continues to expand and exhilarate. Along with Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill, Hyde's rhythmic, free-flowing observations taught me a lot about playwriting too.
The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon
Back in the '90s, Hannon's clever, quirky, and erudite songs won him some early mainstream attention. He's sustained his wondrous (but woefully underrated) career with gorgeous songs that soar with tenderness, wit, and a keen understanding of love's travails.
Listen: "To The Rescue"
She was hilariously acerbic when she wanted to be, but MacColl also wrote heart-wrenching songs of inordinate beauty and perception. Her tragic death in 2000 came just months after the release of her Cuban-splashed fifth album, Tropical Brainstorm. It's so brutally unjust; Kirsty's wise, warm, and witty voice is terribly missed.
Listen: "Soho Square"
Host of Sunday Supper
When I ask young songwriters for their inspirations, other than Dylan, the names that most often come up are John Prine and Joni Mitchell. Even Jimmy Webb, a master himself, credits her very personal style with changing his approach.
Listen: "Cactus Tree"
His range and depth are astonishing. What year was it when Paul McCartney won a Grammy and thanked Stevie for not releasing an album that year, so someone else could win?
Listen: "Summer Soft"
The songwriter's songwriter of contemporary folk, who was both a mathematician and a mystic. When I asked Joan Baez in 2001 who was writing songs that measured up to Dylan's, she mentioned his name.
Listen: "Gentle Arms of Eden"
Host of Woody's Children
An artist who gives events of widespread social and political fallout searing personal impact by weaving them into (often true) stories of ordinary people.
Listen: "Streets of Sarajevo"