Definition of Singer-Songwriter?

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So, "singer-songwriter" is a popular tag to use for our songs. I'm just wondering what the definition of that is?

I have a song that will be electric guitar and vocals recorded, and the rest will be various synths/plugins/etc. So does that count? Or is "singer-songwriter" used for just 1 instrument and vocals?

I know people will say the definition is up to the individual, but what do people expect from a song tagged "s-s"?

dzd's picture

I'm always happy when I'm surprised, but I usually expect sparse instrumentation. Usually 1 guitar/vox or piano/vox 1v1, with maybe a click drum track or something Singer/songwriter as a genre(or most sub genres for that matter) have never made much sense to me, but I assume most people expect to hear like a James Taylor/Bob Dylan/Paul Simon/etc/etc/etc/etc type thing when they see singer/songwriter.

Yup I'm sure it can mean a lot but i am pretty sure its a person who writes then plays their own song at its base level. In common usage it really started 60s and did start with a singer who wrote the song and performed it often just with a guitar. It expanded out over the years, but i still think singer songwriter tends to be considered pretty easy listening not over complicated melodic style, perhaps unfairly called middle of the road. Musicians often over complicate genres, maybe their expertise needs more genres, the general public generalise it into just a few groups.

Okay, thanks. I won't use that tag then. It's gonna be more than just 1+1.

Generally agree with the @coolparadiso definition and would expand the 'it really started 60's' comment by adding that until the 1960's most popular singers/performers usually did not write their own songs (e.g.: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley in the 1950's). There were exceptions (Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison). Even among songwriters many were lyricists only, or added music to the lyrics. So to me the 'singer-songwriter' is someone who writes their own lyrics and music, and performs/records it. That performance/recording may be solo, or it may be with a group of backing musicians (James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, John Prine, etc.). That said the label is often associated with certain musical styles and genres.

I find the singer-songwriter tag not terribly informative for the reasons Andy and John gave. So I usually label my stuff "one-take" or "acoustic". I mean, especially here, I'm obviously a singer-songwriter as soon as I sing a song I wrote!

i agree @AndyGetch singer songwriters have been around forever i just think the term specifically became popularised in the 60s. I admit i use it sometimes but usually when i cant think of anything else to call it

A songwriter who sings the song. I typically think of a song that *can* stand on one instrument, one vocal. May be a band or whatnot, but usually isn't.

Going by how I've always seen the term used, there's a connotative meaning involving an adult contemporary bent, one that eschews catchy hooks and musical tricks in favour of more sophisticated (and often intimate) lyrics. There could be layering, but the focus is very much on the individual behind the instrument.

If you wrote the song and sing it I think singer-songwriter fits just fine!

Here is a list to see who else Wikipedia considers a singer-songwriter!

@johnstaples wow that is an impressive list! Lots of multiple genre people well beyond the 'person with guitar' connotation like Eric Clapton, Trent Reznor, Glenn Danzig, David Bowie, Prince, Lou Reed, Todd Rundgren, etc.

Also +1 @metalfoot , even though I meet the definition at some level, I do not use a 'singer-songwriter' tag myself here. Instead I tag significant instruments and something more descriptive of the nature of the individual recording like 'acoustic', 'acoustic one take', 'experimental', 'distortion', etc.

Yeah, I don't want to use a lot of tags. Just the 2 or 3 most pertinent ones. Another reason for me to not use singer-songwriter, I guess.

cts's picture

@johnstaples and @AndyGetch - yep, that's a mighty fine impressive list of singer-songwriters. I guess I'm in good company!

Interesting discussion. I doubt I've ever used the singer-songwriter tag, although I suppose I fit that category fairly typically.
I used to call myself a "performing songwriter," but I haven't done much performing in the last year. Still, I write most of my songs so they could be performed with just me and my guitar or ukulele.
I wonder if Elton John and Jerry Garcia - two of my favorites - are considered true singer-songwriters since they don't/didn't write the words they sang/sung.

Isn't a singer songwriter just somebody who writes songs and sings them?
It does seem a redundant tag for 5090, where everybody singing their own songs (ie the vast majority) is a singer songwriter, so maybe it does have a more niche meaning here. I was thinking about this recently listening to Neil Young. I feel like he did solo stuff after Buffalo Springfield out of necessity, and i have subsequently heard loads of people covering his songs, and they are usually quite influenced by how he did his original version, so just writing the song wouldn't have had that level of influence on other performers. Is that the definition?

This way, it makes me think of Carole King, who wrote loads of songs that other bands basically did the "original" released vrsion of, Everly Brothers, The Monkees, loads of bands. But we have the original demos of eg Porpoise Song or Crying In The Rain and they are eerily similar to how the bands ended up actually recording the song. Would that have happened without actual singer-songwriter demos at the piano? Even A-Ha's version of Crying In The Rain is very similar, and they were covering the Everlys and probably had never heard Carole King's demo.

Anyway, blah blah blah and no real helpful input from me.

Singer-songwriter....I guess it's the '60s folk-singer scene, but whenever I see the tag it means guitar-slinging (or uke, or mandolin, or some other strung instrument cradled in the arms or slung off the neck but never banjo. Or keytar.) singer. It never seems to apply to thing-with-piano, or Andrew Lloyd Webber! See? No real helpful input from me either. What's new?