A winner with words

The American Songwriter magazine has awarded first place in their songwriting contest to Jay Burgin ’17. The song, “You Make Sense” beat out thousands of other submissions from around the country. This piano ballad is a piece about Burgin’s confusion and search for clarity in tough times.

“Songwriting and music composition have always been part of me,” says Burgin. “At times, it is a way of understanding certain moments in my life. Sometimes talking about my experiences doesn’t feel right, but singing about them, and putting music to the words, does.”

“You Make Sense” originated from a conversation with a friend about art in which Burgin said, “If you framed all the graffiti in a subway station, and put a plaque next to it, you could probably charge admission.”

He kept thinking about that statement and about how societal value systems and institutions may not be what they seem. “Art, science, religion, etc. are bigger than any one person can know. All of these things I am able to ‘doubt.’ But I can get a grasp on those I care about. These thoughts inspired my first verse of lyrics, and then momentum did the rest.”

Burgin’s favorite lyric, “The more that I know, the more that I doubt, the more than I just can’t get off my couch,” speaks to what he sees as “the collective apathy and cynicism in American communities.”

“We’re seeing it at the polls on Election Day and we’re seeing it on talk shows. I think a lot of us are frustrated with how disconnected and indifferent we have become, and how it is so difficult to get up on the couch and make a difference.”

Jeff Kurtz, associate professor of communication, admires Burgin’s gifts. “Jay possesses an enviable balance of compassion and creativity, and intellectual rigor and persistence. I can't imagine that there's one formula for an aspiring songwriter and yet — Jay feels the world's joys and sufferings, responds to them in ways marked by compassion and vulnerability, and sweats to get the right words arranged in just the right way, buttressed by notes that make the lyrics sing off the page. Maybe that is the formula.”

Burgin finds that songwriting is more than simply a hobby. “It interacts with most other things I do. It has become part of my time on campus, learning both through extracurricular music involvements and music courses and lessons.”

“My music is always bouncing around my head – it informs who I am both inside and outside of the classroom. My liberal arts education has helped improve my lyrics, as I can pull from what I know about the world and put it into song. Songwriting, a learning experience in and of itself, has been an excellent complement to the classroom experience.”

 “Jay approached me over the summer wishing to take composition lessons his senior year. Usually, students popping out of the woodwork late in their Denison career signal a deep passion for creating music, but for one reason or another, didn't get a chance to do so in their earlier year here,” said Ching-chu Hu, professor and chair of the music department.

“I was very impressed with his songwriting skills, his careful attention to lyrics, his desire to push himself harmonically, and the constant drive to improve his craft. I wish I had had the opportunity to work with him over all four years of his time at Denison, but we're making up for lost time with his productivity this year. It'll be great to see where he takes his songwriting skills after he graduates.”

Kurtz adds, “In class, Jay is tenacious and persistent, in the best senses of both of those words. I have lost count of the number of times he has stepped up to raise the quality of our classroom discussions. He listens seriously to the ideas of his classmates and strives to understand; and he also works diligently to lay out his own thinking in ways characterized by coherence, rigor, and honesty.”

Burgin plays piano and guitar, experiments with different types of instrumentation, and has sung in a cappella groups, with bands, and in musical theatre. “But I thrive when it is just me with my instrument, where I can tell a story and rock a good melody, true to the singer-songwriter ideal.”

Since he began songwriting at the age of 15, Burgin has written more than 150 songs and he runs a music blog, where he comments on the world of music.

“I discuss lyrics, musical themes and imagery, music culture and the industry itself. I even dabble in poetry, and find that many of those poems eventually are reworked into song. An initial idea can take a song in thousands of different directions —there simply is no formula to writing a good song.”

Check out some of Jay’s music at soundcloud.com/jayburgin and look for his feature in this month’s edition of the American Songwriter magazine.

November 4, 2016