Songwriters Circle allows creative outlet for local musicians

By Larissa Gula

You don’t need to be signed to a major record label to release an album — at least not in… You don’t need to be signed to a major record label to release an album — at least not in Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh Songwriters Circle has released five albums, all of them featuring an ensemble of local musicians and songwriters — none of whom consider making music their careers.

“I love writing songs just for the sake of writing songs, and the people who come to the Songwriters Circle are the only people I know who understand that,” songwriter Bruce Hoffman said.

The Pittsburgh Songwriters Circle is a local folk-singing group that meets at least once a month to share its appreciation of music and assist others in songwriting.

The meetings allow a chance for feedback and critique of personal pieces in a comfortable environment.

The group is free to join. It’s easy to get in, and yet even its members admit it took a while to grow completely comfortable in the group.

“What takes some work is for each of the members to decide that they finally want to show up and participate,” songwriter Peter Donovan said. “I am not unusual in the fact that I thought about going for years before I finally put my guitar in the car and drove to the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern.”

Hoffman also spent a period of time finding the courage to walk through the door as a newcomer.

“Once I did, I realized this was the place for me, and I have been a regular ever since,” Hoffman said. “I discovered that there were all these other people who shared my interests. That was a revelation for me.”

The shared interest allows for feedback on songs that otherwise might not be available, so composition is always encouraged.

“Songwriting in a vacuum is limiting,” Donovan said. “Sure, you can steal ideas from recordings, but it is so much more fun to steal ideas from talented people in the same room.”

Every month the songwriters pick out or are given an assignment to help narrow the focus of the song topic and idea, which also assists in the composition process.

“The more you [write], the better you get,” Donovan said. “It takes talent, practice and spark [to create music].”

“The assignment that we get each month pushes me to write, because I want to come back the next month with a new song,” songwriter Sue Gartland said. “There are so many different styles of writing represented in the group. One subject can be interpreted in so many different ways.”

With an assignment as a focus topic and limited songwriting time, the next step is to find some inspiration to write the song. The best inspiration seems to be everyday life.

“Real life is probably what informs and inspires all great songs,” Hoffman said. “Though they may be fictionalized or revised or taken way out of context, personal experiences, both past and present, pop up in my songs all the time.”

Donovan and Gartland agreed that their lives are what inspire their songs.

“The Songwriters Circle provides the camaraderie and encouragement and even the technique,” Donovan said. “But real life is what provides the fodder. That’s where the heartbreaks happen and where the spirit moves.”

Then comes the meeting and critique, and over time, the finished work is completed and recorded for CDs such as the newly released Collection 2010.

But organizing and maintaining the group can be a challenge, too.

“You need to have two or three people who are willing to take on the brunt of it and a few others to pitch in as needed,” Hoffman said. “We are lucky to have that. My hope is that when the time comes for those of us who take on those responsibilities to move on, there will be others ready to step up and take over.”

Despite the challenge of scheduling meetings, keeping members informed, recording and even advertising, the songwriters are happy with their group.

“I really appreciate that we have some members of the group that keep us all updated through e-mail, by reminding us that the first Tuesday of the month is coming up, reminding us what the assignment is and maintaining a MySpace site for the group,” Gartland said. “Our annual CD compilation is a project we all look forward to. [We work] on the project, and then when it’s done, [we get] together for our release party, [which] we just had. We have a great time supporting each other.”