We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand close to the rumble of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tyres sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.
This excerpt written by American crime writer Raymond Chandler comes from a review of his biography by the contributing editor James Meek in this year’s first edition of London Review of Books, (5 January 2017).
Meek points out that Chandler ‘has a genius for the rare and obscure prose skill of putting exactly the right number of atmospheric elements in place to enable the reader to both grasp a topography and feel a mood’
And that ‘between the dialogue, the action, the fierce eye and ear of Chandler fastening on each cadence and fingernail and accessory of his characters, there are moments of intense experience of place that are both sensual and precise’
What on earth has all this got to with songwriting? Well, basically, everything!
Berklee College of Music’s Professor Andrea Stolpe points out in her book Popular Lyric Writing, that a songwriter’s objective is
‘to cause a significant experience in the mind and heart of our listener. As writers, we have the power to determine the intensity of the experience we cause…. Any idea can succeed or fail in causing an experience with the listener. The effectiveness is not contained with in the plot itself but in the ability of the story to connect emotionally’
She asks the challenging question ‘Are you connecting with your listeners or providing background music to their busy lives?’
This is a great benchmark to use to measure your songwriting success.
An audience has to feel something to connect with your song. Telling them to feel won’t work, but showing them how to see what you see, hear what you hear will help them feel what you feel.
This means using your senses as points of connection, just like Raymond Chandler did so effectively. He told us what the tyres sounded like (they sang), what he could smell (kelp) , what the colour of the window was (yellow), where he was leaving from (Las Olindas), what the concrete felt like (moist), what the weather was doing (fog, moist, dank) and how he was travelling (driving) – in other words he employed every sense he had, plus movement. This increased specificity makes us literally reconstruct his experience for ourselves.
Same in memorable songwriting. Not just any shoes, but blue suede shoes - not just a car, but a little red Corvette, not just a road but a dark desert highway, with the smell of warm colitas rising up through the air. Senses are being seriously stimulated here – sound, visual, smell, taste, touch and movement.
Incorporating sense-bound writing into your material enables your listeners to experience what you want them to. They can connect with your songs more fully through the choice of specific details you provide.
When next you write, intentionally think about what your characters look like, sound like, what they smell, or smell like (!), how they're moving, what or who they're touching, what they're drinking or eating. You might start to unearth some new images and lines you hadn't previously thought of, taking your song from good to great.
Talk more soon.
ps sense-bound writing is something we look at really closely in our song clinics.
It seems to me that one of the most challenging times in songwriting is finishing. In fact, I’ve often said in workshops, ‘completion is the enemy’. Beginner songwriters often struggle with completing the first draft of their songs. They may have ideas for the first verse and the chorus, an idea or riff from where the inspiration sprang or a really cool chord sequence and feel. But when it comes to getting all the various bits of the song structure, lyrics and melody in one transmissible package, something stymies them.
‘Not finishing’ is one of the main issues that provokes folks getting some more input into their writing. Generally, the conversation goes something like this: ‘I have heaps of ideas floating around for songs’ or ‘I’ve got pages of lyrics and poems in a folder/notebook’ or ‘I’ve been working on this groove for a while now and I think it’s got some legs’.
Then comes the‘Big But’. ‘But I don’t have time to put it all together’ or ‘but I don’t know how to get it happening’ or ‘but I don’t know where to go next’ followed by ‘then my brain turns to mush’ or ‘whatever I write is so cheesy’ or ‘I know I need to get back into it – I’ll do it next summer.’
Remember, the trick isn’t to be number-one-hit-perfect with your song draft, but just to finish it. There's a bucket of psychology behind why we don’t want to finish work or put barriers in our own way – partly fear of failure, partly self-doubt, partly fear of leaving our comfort zone and more, but here’s three useful things to help you write your way out of this quagmire.
1. Reduce the size of your task. I read about one chap who was going to the gym and never quite made it, so his task reduction became “I will do two push ups each day for five days”. Now even one of our guinea pigs could manage that, but it meant he actually completed a very manageable regime and could then progress to something more substantial. What if you lowered the bar for a minute, dropped your anxiety load, and said to yourself ‘I’m going to write the next line of my verse each day for 4 days’. Now note – there’s no quality control, no editing, just a small bite sized chunk of songwriting designed to help you finish ONE song.
2. Give yourself a time limit. With the suggested bite-sized goal, I said ‘each day for 4 days’. You could put whatever time works when you were going to write – ‘I’m going to write the next line of my verse each day for 4 days at lunchtime’. So I’ve now linked the writing time frame to a (hopefully) pleasurable activity, but also one with a defined limit to help your focus. Schedule theory – if it’s scheduled, you’re more likely to action the task.
3. Switch off your devices when you write. This reduces temptation, distraction and pester power. You want to encourage creative flow, not dissipate it. Anything that helps you avoid having to use the limited supplies of willpower we have is a boon. Willpower is over rated. Help yourself to help yourself.
Let me know if any of these techniques work for you and see you at the finishing line!
ps If you want to really spice up your songwriting process, try our clinic.
It occurred to me this morning that the chorus is the soul of your song. I mean I’ve heard lots of descriptions - the meat in the burger, the point, the message and so on, but there is something indefinable too - an essence to a really good chorus.
For example, take the chorus in the Crowded House song, Weather with You. The chorus lyric is
Everyhere you go, always take the weather (x4)
the weather, the weather, with you.
Meaning maybe not immediately obvious or IMHO, not even that interesting, or useful even. But match it with the melody, it's catchy as all get out and audiences ate it up. It totally rated.
You can analyse why, for sure. Simple everyday language, the title features strongly in a key position, the melody starts higher than that of the verse and it’s easily sung and easy to remember, with loads of repetition and so forth, but in a song full of whimsy, this chorus is the highlight - not being particularly direct, yet working a treat. It is the soul of the song, a wee bit of magic and it connected with lots of folks.
Songwriting is often a solitary activity, at least in the initial stages of idea capture and development. Even in collaborations, you may be one of just a handful of intrepid soldiers of song. You can spend hours and days working on material, rewriting and revisiting your work and it can be easy to lose focus, to lose what you are trying to get across. If you want to write songs for yourself in your bedroom, that’s great –it’s valid self expression much the same way as a personal journal can be a terrific outlet. But if you want to write for an audience, there’s another process to consider and that is whether you are actually communicating something to someone else that they can relate too, in some form, at some time. If lots of people relate to your song easily and immediately, and can remember something about it – even sing some of it back to you, you’ve done something right.
Now, I’m not saying write shite. Not at all. To thine own self be true, for sure, but even if I don’t understand what your song is about, I can still have a very strong emotional response to it. (See above)
My point is that writing for an audience is about sharing an emotion, an idea, a story, a thought in song – the emphasis being on sharing.
One of the ways you can enhance that is by writing strong choruses that incorporate some of these features.
1. The Flying F--- Syndrome. Does your chorus have something a lot of people care about, understand or relate to? If they don’t give a FF, (children are reading this and they never swear), your song could be a dead duck.
2. Can I sing it? Or just Maria Carey. Keep it simple. And give me space to breathe!
3. Can I remember anything about it, preferably the title? Keep the chorus simple and short.
4. Repeat something. It will help me remember it. I may hear your song live for the first time in a bar or in a supermarket or when I’m driving. I’m not always going to be able to take notes! Songs are oral and aural.
5. Let me know this is the chorus. Make the melody different from the verse, start it higher and have a different rhythm – longer notes, on the beat, fairly resolved with any tension released. Lead me to it with a pre-chorus. I want to know where I am and have it feel good. I want to sing ‘I’m a Creep I’m a Weirdo’ or I Wanna Hold your Hand’ or whatever you want me to sing! Give me what Dr Pat Pattison calls the ‘Ahhhh’ factor.
6. Put the title in a strong position in your chorus. The beginning’s a good place. So is the end, and reinforce this by repeating it.
Even if you focus on one of these elements in your next chorus, you could improve the connection you make with your audience. It may feel clunky trying some of these things out and feel a bit ‘wooo who made the rules’ but songwriting, like most artforms, is a meld of inspiration, perspiration and technique. Have a crack and you may be well on the way to writing the soul of your next song.
Best wishes and have a lovely summer.
More next year.
PS if you want to really pick up your game, come to our next Songwriting Clinic.
Recently, I had a couple of ‘unexpected’ shifts in my reasonably busy but not actually chaotic schedule. The first was due to increased traffic and interest in one part of my business. The second was nature reminding me I am very insignificant in her schedule by delivering a fairly impressive rapid fire series of earthquakes, floods and storms.
Now, I found I was more prepared for the seismic interruption both physically and psychologically. Our home stayed upright and was well stocked with earthquake kits and bottled water, pinot noir and chocolate. We could work remotely, the power was on, our hard drives backed up and we could communicate with family, friends and clients pretty easily. Geonet was helpful, RNZ coverage useful, Facebook a yawn, but we could all at least clock in and get on with our lives, no drama.
It was the first time squeeze that had been way more disruptive than seismology, mostly ruffling my peace of mind with an unwanted noise of ‘busy-ness’. Urggghh! It mucked with my ability to sit down and write, and by crikey, I hate that!
‘I don’t have time’ is a common refrain from people who are learning to balance family, work, socialising, exercise, Netflix etc etc and what they say they really want to do – songwriting.
How do you prioritise something that you love to do without jeopardising the responsibilities of adult life? How do you do this if you’re at school without neglecting your homework assignments, your part time job, walking the dog, household chores, netball or piano practice?
Well, you can’t conjure up more hours in the day and more days in the week. But you can look at what’s realistic for you to commit to so you don’t pop a fuse.
We know that if you invest time and energy in something, it will develop, especially as you learn new skills and techniques and start applying them. What we don’t know is if you give ten songwriters the same skill set and set of circumstances, which one will write a hit? Or that any of them actually will. What we do know is if you don’t spend time on your craft, you don’t give yourself the option.
Now, I’m not saying write ten hours a day, and you’ll be the next Neil Finn sure as eggs can boil. What I’m pointing out is when things crank up in your life, it can be very easy to put your songwriting on the back burner. At times, that may be the right thing to do. But if it becomes the default position and your momentum is constantly eroded, then change something.
Try these tactics.
1. Downsize - the more you have, the more you have to look after. Do you really need ten guitars when they all have six strings? One guitar can help you write ten songs at least. Do you need to work overtime to buy the biggest speakers for your studio when your ears can only listen so long at the highest volume? Time is valuable. Put it in your songwriting account.
2. Automate – yes, of course, for bills and income, but also use online and phone alarms and calendars to help you schedule songwriting time. Pre-planned reminders remove the need for willpower to make a start. A once a week session is better than not at all.
3. Outsource – do you need to mow the lawns this week or can Jim’s/Pete’s - insert ‘single syllable guys name’ green fingered business with a strimmer and a ute do it? Do you have to cook all the meals, or can you share the cooking with your partner or shock horror your teenagers? Do you really need to do all the after school pickups or can the kids get the bus this week/ car pool with other parents?
4. Buffering – give yourself some wriggle room so that if you get a flat tyre, the traffic’s terrible, your client’s late, the dentist took longer, it doesn’t throw the rest of your week out causing you to dump your session. Buffering allows for the things of life, the whoops-a-daisies that ALWAYS HAPPEN and yet, we’re often surprised when they do. Don’t cram your expected schedule so much there’s no room for the unexpected, which isn’t really that unexpected, eh....
Talk more soon
This week, I made a mistake during the recording of a vocal. I'd pressed 'record' but because my headphone extender lead is starting to fray at the connector, I couldn't hear all of my playback consistently. It kept shorting out. While I was mucking around trying to get both left and right channels at full signal, fiddling with the lead and connection, I missed my cue. But the song improved markedly because of it.
Suddenly, there was much needed space where there had previously been a bunch of words packed into four bars like a fistful of frightened sardines. Now, the new 'mistake' or 'missed take' space created a sense of anticipation for the next line, closely followed by a sense of relief when the 'punchline' hit. The words immediately after the space became lit up like a Christmas tree. Useful, because they're the title of the track. Helpful, for the singer, because now she can breathe during the chorus. Effective for the writer, because the whole point of the song had taken centre stage.
In essence, my ballsup fixed my ballsup!
This points to the principle of being in the room. If I hadn't been trying to get a better vocal take, if I had been trying to fix a bit of kit on the fly, if I hadn't been trying to make a new recording at all, I wouldn't have captured a solution to something's that been quietly nagging me about this particular song despite the fact that I've sung it in concert a number of times and rehearsed it maybe a hundred both solo and in ensemble. It took putting the song in a different environment, a different room, a different drafting process, me being in a diffferent role, to get to the bottom of the issue.
Remember, your lyrics are words to be sung. That means creating space for your singer to breathe, which in turn allows time for sound waves to hit the eardrums of your listeners and actually register the meaning of the words. If the singer is repeatedly slipping up over a line or phrase, maybe you need to rewrite it rather than sack the singer as a first option. Part of bringing a song to life is being in the room with it, getting it off the page, working through the practical results of your writing. This can mean singing it to yourself repeatedly, singing it front of an audience to see what a fresh response is, giving to someone else to sing or reinterpret, making a draft recording of it, putting it in different environments (solo, band, acoustic, electric, studio) so it can develop. Then you can see its strengths and work on its flaws from all angles, not just staring at the screen or the scratch marks on your page. I think of this as making your song three dimensional, rather than two and I think you get that by spending quality time with your songs, regularly. Your input may pay off more than you expect.
Talk more soon
Sometimes, when you start to really work on your songwriting, trying to figure out what you can do better, trying to learn what makes a song tick, you might take a class, sign up for another mailing list, google the latest songwriting websites or go Amazon crazy reading up anything - everything you can find about songwriting. You can find yourself veering from one 'hot topic' to another, one author who you think nails it, the one website that's going to really crank your pencil. Woohoo! What a roller coaster!!!
Part of this is really exciting - so much new information. All this stuff you didn't know, stuff that you didn't realise was bubbling through the music you love, stuff that wakes you up at night - the techniques, the jargon, the 3 Most Important Things to remember, the 5 Keys to Success, the 7 Simple Steps to Superstardom! It's so stimulating and all you have to do is just do it - right?
You sit down the next morning determined to rip into the latest batch of new songs - this is gonna be a cinch. You start writing - but wait, you haven't used the Second Key of Success so you put one of those in. You charge along to the chorus - and proudly whack in one of the Most Important Things to remember - cool. Then, you 're ploughing through the second verse, faltering under the weight of 6 of the 7 Simple Steps. The song looks weird - doesn't sound too good either. Suddenly, it's not so easy as everyone made out. In fact, it's dumb and you don't wanna play anymore. (Could be tears of frustration at this point) The roller coaster has become a big spaghetti junction. Arghhhh!
OVERWHELM OVERWHELM OVERWHELM!!!
The good news is that this is quite a normal consequence of submerging yourself in any new field of endeavour - especially one that involves such an amalgam of creativity and craft. Many beginning songwriters who dig a little deeper start to realise there's a lot more to it that first meets the eye, especially when good songs can sound so simple. Not so easy as it looks.
But being overwhelmed is hard to get out of when you're in it. You don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but how do you process the feeling? What can you do to work through it? Here's a couple of things to reflect on.
1. Apples or Oranges??
As aspiring songwriters in our hyper-connected mass media mad digital world, we're exposed to more music than ever before. Recording production standards have developed exponentially and the rate of music generation and the number of folks that pop their work up whenever on YouTube is mind boggling. It leads to constant comparison - with some very average writers and performers, to really talented people at the top of their game. You can see Prince live with a single click of a mouse, or watch your third cousin from the left playing Raspberry Beret on the harmonica in his pyjamas.
A more realistic yardstick to 'measure' yourself with is your own progress. You may have some goals - some big, some small. Maybe you've written them down or have them filed in your reptilian brain. Even just making your writing a habit and getting one of your songs actually 'finished' can be massive progress. Not to be sneezed at. Having the guts to go to a workshop or actually show someone else your work may be huge steps, let alone firing a song off to a competition. One of my students rang me when she received her first royalty cheque. It was $NZ68, but you would have thought she had won Lotto! What have you done since you started your own journey ? It may be more than you think!
2. I am Songwriter - hear me roar!!
By spending more time writing songs, you are, in fact, becoming a songwriter! No shit!
The kid holed up in his dorm room writing shitty songs is still a songwriter. The kid worried about writing shitty songs so much he doesn't write anything...just isn't. John Mayer
This means you're changing the way you see yourself, and the ways others start to see you. It's a change of identity, and that's hard at any time of your life. You're absorbing a ton of new information, learning new skills and focusing on different goals. You may be doing something you've always actually wanted to do, and dammit, you're doing it! But it can contribute to feelings of being overwhelmed by provoking discord with those around you who 'just don't get it'. Pretty hard going through that on your lonesome.
So, reach out to like-minded folks who can support you - songwriting circles, music clubs, open mics, facebook groups, mentors, whatever. Surround yourself with people who support your new identity, who support you as a songwriter. It helps!
Learning to rewrite your songs can be daunting for a developing songwriter. After all, it can take an enormous amount of effort to just get the first draft down.
But at some stage, as you go through some sort of verification process - your bandmates don't LOVE it, or the audience is well lukewarm on it or your producer goes yeah - nah, you're going to have to either face the re-writing edifice or file your baby away in the 'almost ran' folder on your hard drive and quietly log off.
Sometimes, other people's less than positive reactions can provoke quite a significant response in you. If someone performs a detailed teardown on your tune for you, and you're not ready for it or you haven't disconnected from the material enough, it can be pretty ouchy. But as an old lecturer of mine once said criticism only hurts when it's justified.
This is where you going to need some core resilience to bounce back and judiciously sift the wheat from the chaff of this input. Why is the song not connecting as you want? How tied up with this song are you? Can you figure out why its stumbling? Does the singer persistently forget the lyrics to the second verse? Does the audience drift away before the second chorus or are they sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for you to deliver the next installment of heartfelt well-crafted lyrical gems?
If your song flops around on the sand like a dying flounder doesn't mean it's wasted work. Dead fish make good fertiliser. I would strongly encourage you to keep your drafts, even your dungers. Something's been triggered and it may just be a pit stop on the way to something stronger, but keep the whole log book of the journey.
A group of Song Clinic attendees are debating the pros and cons of how you keep your drafts online at this very moment. While Google Drive makes editing, especially collaborative editing, so much quicker, you can lose the first drafts (which you may very well go back to at some stage) or even just a choice line or solitary word. Furthermore, getting your drafts off the screen by using printouts and old school biro can stimulate you visually, as does the physical act of handwriting in a journal. I think use it all, but keep it all. When you get stuck, you've got something to kick against, something to review.
The seams won't always show on your favourite song, but you can bet your bottom dollar, someone sure did some serious stitching on it.
Talk more soon!
One of the most common issues folks talk to me about is the ' I have absolutely no idea' scenario or blank page syndrome. This week I worked with a small group of teenage boys who have to write a song as part of their high school music assessments. Now the problem in that sentence is 'who have to write'. One kid, in particular, was seriously stumped by having to start writing lyrics. Part of his conundrum was that the assignment had been structured in a way that the boys had been asked to write music first. I was brought in to help them write their lyrics. This boy was so detached from his music he couldn't connect any words with his track.
There was no specific topic that they were supposed to cover and the lack of boundaries, while utterly freeing to some students, provoked a kind of songwriters' agoraphobia in this guy. The other kids were beavering away but he was dumbfounded and kept reinforcing his lack of flow by saying 'I have absolutely no idea' on high rotate. He was literally sitting at a desk with a pen and blank paper.
While a high school assignment seems quite an artificial writing environment, many songwriters who want to get better at writing do find themselves saying 'now what'. Whether it's for the next album or an upcoming gig or a song you said you'd write for your sister's wedding, suddenly everything dries up and you can't muster up a halfway decent thought. What to do??
Time to pull the trigger. As Sting once said, 'Anything can be the trigger for a song.'
Give yourself a jump start/kickstart/quickfire jolt with your handy set of triggers. Say what?
These are a close at hand bunch of audio or visual short and sharp cues that make you respond in a hurry.
These can include but aren't limited to:
*A list of song titles that are currently charting. Write down the ones you like (whether you like the song or not).
*A list of book titles from an online recommended reading list. Write down the ones that appeal.
*Listen to the week's tracks from SoundOut Track Of The Day ( new tracks emailed to you direct 5 days of 7 ) via www.slicethepie.com . Write down whatever words/emotions come into your head while you're listening.
*Listen to the latest cd you've bought or got from the library (yes, I'm deliberately retro!). Keep a list of artists you're going to follow or follow up just for this purpose.
*Look at the words in a magazine (non music) that are printed in different fonts, colour and sizes. Lorde famously got the title of her song Royals from a full page photograph in National Geographic magazine of a baseball player in action. His team was the Royals and the cursive font on the front of his shirt set something off in her mind to great effect!
*Look at the words on the street that are printed in different fonts, colour and sizes - billboards/posters/poems from Phantom Bill Stickers/ ads in shop windows. What catches your eye? What sets you off?
From having nothing, you should now have some words on a page and something to shape or develop.
Let me know if it works for you. And the boy who had no words? He starting writing a song called 'White Walls'. The rhyming dictionary helped!
OK, so I feel a bit sick. I've just started my new online business, Song Doctor and it feels remarkably similar to what I call blank page syndrome. You know, when you switch off your phone, make yourself a fresh pot of coffee, sit down importantly at the table, open your shiny new notebook, pick up your favourite pen and you're faced with your nemesis .....a blank page. What have you got? Nothing. Nada. Zip.
You shift in your seat, sigh loudly, look left to the kitchen and the dishes you've already done so they don't actually need doing, but they might. You look right to the laundry basket but yes, everything's already folded. Bugger. So there's no alternative but back to the page. The blank empty white page. So blank. So white. So empty. Like your mind. Right now. No number one hits falling out of your brain cascading onto the pages to dance off into the musical stratosphere, like a real songwriter would have....but then, are you an actual REAL songwriter. Maybe not, maybe you just CAN'T DO IT! Maybe you should give up now, BEFORE YOU EVEN START! Before everyone FINDS OUT YOU'RE A PHONEY!
Sound familiar?? Even just a little bit??
Well, if it does, take heart. YOU ARE NOT ALONE!!!
Sometimes, it feels like we have to fight for any bit of spare time to sit down and actually attend to the business and pleasure of songwriting, but when we finally get there, it seems an almost insurmountable task to put one songwriting foot in front of the other.
What's up with that????!!
Here's the issue! The number one thing that stops us writing is the absence of flow. If you've got flow, you can write anywhere anytime, but if it isn't there, it's a massive effort to squeeze a single note out, let alone a whole song.
You have to do everything in your power to encourage, support and develop your flow.
And I'm going to show you how.
Then writing becomes miles more satisfying and way more fun. It becomes something you can't wait to do, rather than something you gunna do one day soon, mate. Yeah, right!
Hi, I'm Charlotte Yates and I can help you get better at writing songs.