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Getting out of our own way: Dave Dobbyn on writing

Saturday, May 1, 2010 by Marianne Elliott

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Dave Dobbyn’s music has provided many of the most emotionally charged tracks in the soundtrack of my life.

For several months after the suicide of a friend I began every day by listening to Dave Dobbyn, because his music reminded me that we all walk through that dark valley and yet, miraculously, most of us still find songs to sing.

Last night I sat a few feet from a small stage where Dave talked with Nick Bollinger, music writer, about the art of writing music. Every now and then, to the great delight of the small crowd, Dave would stand up and perform a song.

What struck me, over and over again, about Dave’s stories was the importance he placed on getting out of his own way in the creative process. The important relationship, said Dave, was the relationship between the song and the audience.

The song and the audience, that is, not the song-writer and the audience. Not even the performer and the audience, but the song and the audience.

“When it arrives,” said Dave, describing the birth of a song, “my job is to get out of my own way.”

I wondered if this explained why Gemma Gracewood, in her excellent post about the evening, was able to say:

The thing about Dave Dobbyn is, it’s easy to forget he’s there.

I suspect, after hearing him talk last night, that the man would be quite happy to hear it.

Nick, whose new book ‘100 Essential New Zealand Albums‘ kept me up well after my bedtime last night, asked Dave whether he recognised the hits as they arrived, whether he knew “that people were going to be asking you to play this in 20 or 30 years time.”

Dave responded unequivocally, “There is no doubt about it.”

But what interested me was that with this recognition came not confidence but acceptance. The process of creating an enduring hit song was, for Dave Dobbyn, a process of accepting what had arrived and then getting out of his own way in order to get the song to its audience.

One story in particular stayed with me. It took place while recording the album Twist, which happens to be the album I listened to every morning in those months of grief.

It was 2 am, Dave and the musicians had been drinking single malt whiskey (Dave makes no secret of his rocky history with alcohol) when Neil Finn, who was producing the album, looked at him and said, “You’ve got one more in you.”

So Dave sat down at the piano and in one take recorded “I Can’t Change My Name.” Neil provided achingly tender supporting vocals and Ross Burge, who didn’t even have time to find his drum sticks, played the drums with his hands.

This song makes me cry every time I listen to it. I’ve felt the raw truth and sadness of this song for many, many years without knowing the story behind it’s recording.

But getting out of our own way is about more than waiting until the wee hours, when our fatigue has worn down our pretenses, to record our most honest stories or songs. It’s also about collaboration, about understanding that the power and life of the song or the story lies in it’s ability to connect to people.

“Allow collaboration to breathe life into the work,” said Dave, “don’t get in the way of the music. When you don’t get in the way the song will go and connect to the audience. Let it go.”

Another way in which Dave encouraged artists to get out of their own way was through simplicity.

“Do something that’s common to all of us,” he said. “Forget the fourth chord, go with three.”

I could have stood and applauded him at this point. I recognise in myself sometimes a desire to be very clever, to craft a story in a way which is impressive for its art. But if my purpose is to tell stories that help us recognise the truth that we are not separate, then surely what matters is to “do something that is common to all of us.”

What matters, in the end, is to get out of my own way and let the story go out in the world to connect with it’s readers.

Thank you, Dave and Nick.


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11 Responses to "Getting out of our own way: Dave Dobbyn on writing"

  1. Thank you for that post. I have loved Dave Dobbyn’s music for many years and ‘I can’t change my name’ is the song that I cry to and is just beautiful. Thank you for sharing the story behind it.

  2. Tresha says:

    sometimes, ideas that resonate with our hearts can be so very basic…i relish several in this post..surely Dobbin’s thoughts you reference..but also your interpretation…of seeking connection..of seeking finding common humanity…of perpetuating story…so grateful our journies keep intersecting:) marianne..lookin forward to more sharing with you…

  3. Lubna Kably says:

    Thanks for introducing me to his music, I hadn’t heard him before. When I am down and out I turn to Stevie Wonder.

  4. sas says:

    DD is such a huge part of the soundtrack of my life too. I can’t listen to ‘welcome home’ without falling apart with homesickness.

    I love that you love Twist.

  5. amy says:

    ‘getting out of our own way’ is such a wonderful way to think about things. thank you for sharing this.

  6. Helen says:

    “my job is to get out of my own way.” I love that 🙂

  7. Helen says:

    “my job is to get out of my own way.”

  8. […] (The following paragraphs have been edited with thanks to ZenPeacekeeper!) […]

  9. leoniewise says:

    i feel this very same way with poems. i’ve said it a lot (and mean every word); i feel like i just happen to be the person that is listening that has a scrap of paper and a pen in my hand to capture the words that want to be spoken.

    thanks Marianne for so eloquently writing about Dave – he’s one of my favourites too and ‘Welcome Home’ always, always brings a lump to my throat and my face streams with tears

  10. […] in the creative process?  Marianne Elliott, the writer,human rights advocate and yoga teacher has this to […]

  11. carol balawyder says:


    I really like your web site and I think that what you’re doing is awesome.

    I want you to know that I posted a link to your web site on my blog in Get Out of My Way! I’m Coming Through.



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