Read how to write better songs
Motivation sure is a hot topic at the start of the New Year! However, in my realm, the repeated cancellations of performances have had a demotivating effect, even though one actually expects this is inevitable and fully understands that’s the safe and logical way forward.
But cancellations hit at one of the central tenets of performance life – ‘the show must go on’. Except when it shouldn’t, or can’t!
Certainly one is motivated to look for solutions and be prompt about the dismantling logistics that have to happen, but ‘cancel culture’ slows or completely puts a brake on the secret ingredient to maintaining motivation for the entire year - and that’s momentum.
Motivation only goes so far but it’s momentum that keeps you moving forward.
What I totally appreciated this last weekend was the momentum I gained or rather regained from the very motivated participants at our Stage Level Songwriting Retreat.
With several repeat clients, getting further tutoring and feedback on their songwriting and presentation plus sharing their successes from the previous year to like-minded folks was restorative and a reminder of how infectious momentum can be.
Some had restructured their free time or were in the process of rescheduling work arrangements to spend more energy on their music. Some had contacted producers and were in pre-production and some had performed their first sets in concert or at open mic. And one person had released an album two weeks earlier.
Each was working and tweaking their own particular pathway but sharing the small steps that had compounded throughout the year and was obvious in a ‘where I was then’ and ‘where I am now’ discussion.
This showed the power of converting the more ephemeral motivation into tangible habits, routines and behaviours that happened more regularly, needing not quite so much mental effort. Where motivation had become the hum of momentum.
Retreat had a reinforcing effect on this, with no one thinking twice about whether to harmonise or not on someone’s song – just ripping into it. Participants were stimulated by each other’s efforts and it rubbed off – on me.
So if you find yourself disheartened by the current state of play in our live performance landscape, please remember this too will pass and key into creating some momentum for your music.
It might be doing revamping your studio, finally learning that plug in or creating a practice schedule or revisiting a favourite artist’s catalogue or getting in touch with a co-writer or play some music with people, in whatever form you can – audience or no.
Rather than ‘should’, just do. Get the ball rolling rather than let the pandemic flat line your limited reserves of motivation.
Photo by Unsplash - Jonathan Hoxmark
Despite Eddi Reader’s great vocal for Fairground Attractions’ hit song, Perfect, being perfect ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. That terribly effective chorus is a curse of an earworm if you’re at all susceptible to perfectionism.
While I totally get wanting your work to be good, better or even best, there’s a downside to over polishing or waiting until ‘it’s just right’ before sharing or releasing a song. There’s also a potentially shady side to repeatedly comparing your music or your performance with other artists.
Sure, anyone involved in creative work is prone to losing perspective. Being fully immersed in a project or a production is a fine thing, but when you’re never satisfied with a job well done to the best of your abilities, then something’s amiss.
Songwriting is wildly subjective. There really is no single formula to follow for a hit or a magic pill you can take to ‘make it’. Yep, there are fairly generic songwriting conventions, sometimes misconstrued as ‘rules’ or ‘absolute truths’. But a song can technically tick all the boxes and still not appeal to an audience.
Terminology - perfect fourths and fifths, being ‘in tune’, having perfect pitch, perfect rhyme, hitting the ‘wrong’ note – applies a little pressure! And the countless mathematical qualities in music from time signatures to the number of accidentals in a key can also put you into ‘gotta get it right’ mode.
Arming yourself with great technique and theory is hugely useful – a lifetime resource. But, and there is a big but. If you feel you always have to ‘get it right’, you never give yourself permission to fail.
That’s a worry because songwriting is asymmetric – an astronomically high number of misses for every hit. There are cul-de-sacs and dead ends, ideas that don’t fly, songs that people like more than others, duff records, bombs, flops and things that seemed like a good idea at the time! Madly imperfect!
You need to fail to make your best work. And have fun doing it! You actually need
to enjoy the process (intrinsic motivation!) or your sense of play, your creativity – the very fuel of your fire - is stifled. You procrastinate, fearful of critique. You ruminate, pointlessly. You become resistant to risk, feedback, new suggestions, collaborations or live performance. You shut the shop on yourself.
To turn this around, know these things:
1. Perfectionism is an abstraction. It is like infinity – you won’t get there because there is no there. Set benchmarks for yourself you can imagine and party hard when you meet them!
2. Shit happens – the things of life that look like accidents or bad luck. No, the world doesn’t hate you! It’s just a case of being human. Prepare a little for inevitable setbacks – cue checklists, insurance and spare strings!
3. There will always be people better than you. And worse! The reality is that your songs won’t connect with everyone. So find your audience, your own artistic niche and your tribe – supporters, colleagues, your natural network.
4. Listen to the positive as evenly as the negative feedback. Keep a success portfolio to track your progress (things you did better than before). Then you can balance rumination with hard evidence when things go awry.
5. If you can’t get perspective, get diverted. Sleep, exercise, take a bath, hang out with (non)musical mates, talk to your kids, volunteer somewhere. Regroup, shake it off and go write a new song.
with very best wishes
Nothing but a polite smattering of claps - a fucking clap smatter! A response so spectacularly underwhelming, it leaves you with nowhere to run.
Meanwhile, another songwriter wipes the floor with a song that sounds like it fell from the sky. WTF!
Where does this leave you? I got three words.
Comparison, for example apples with oranges, can be a strenuously soul-destroying occupation. It's a right royal joy robber and if there's one thing that little undie-packer Marie Kondo has taught us, it is to do things that spark joy. And music is a place of enormous joy! Think of the most fun place you have in songwriting and go there. Often.
There will always be better songwriters, better songs and better musicians than you. And in turn, you'll be further down the track than countless other folks. Reframe comparison into admiration, a spur to up your own game.
Relish the influences and interactions you have with other songwriters and musos. It's a grand party to be at and you'll learn far more from rubbing shoulders than isolating yourself. Ask other songwriters how and what they go through. Most are happy to share their stories.
Use close listening to your favourite artists to dig deep into subtleties and nuances in their songs because now you have experience of buckling down to write your own, with variable success, you have a stronger appreciation of how much it takes to cut through the noise.
Use selected reference tracks in your recording process to support and extend your decisions. Be influenced by music you love and stretched by practitioners more advanced and experienced than you.
I was on the same bill in a concert that the Topp Twins were MC'ing, where Linda told the highly excited audience they would be handled like horses. My, how the audience loved it! Being told what to do and how to behave by confident consummate performers - also expert horsewomen in their own right!
Do the same with your songs. Any time you play a song - live or recorded - for an audience, your song either will or won't connect. It's not the audience's fault if it doesn't.
The audience needs to be able to relate to your song, to feel something that you've encapsulated and delivered musically. They need to get it and you need to lead them, like horses, to where the 'it' is.
Finding out how to clarify your ideas and communicate them effectively in song is your job, and if you are not getting the impact you want, then luckily, you - the songwriter, can try other techniques. The onus is on you and your writing.
So write, write often, write with other people, learn as much as you can about songwriting, and use a feedback loop to improve and make adjustments.
You are not the song. If a person doesn't love - love - love your song, it doesn't mean they hate you. Some songs are strong and some are dogs. Build your catalogue and acknowledge that while your personal experiences and values may be tied up in artistic self expression of songwriting, to an audience songs are theirs and all about them.
Plenty of songwriters write about characters and mashups of their own and other folks' life events. The balance is the level of specificity of detail to create clear, unique images against the universal emotions and topics of the human condition. Too specific can get bogged down in lyrical minutiae while too universal can often come across as bland or inauthentic.
The more you get involved in songwriting, the more objective you can become about which songs land and less defeated by the ones that don't. Remember, it's a highly asymmetrical business with gazillions of misses to a hit single, so volume is key.
Thanks so much for all your questions and queries. Keep them coming and I'll do my level best to answer.
Talk more soon
ps if you want to take your songwriting to the Next Level, please join us at the Next Level Songwriting Retreat this summer in beautiful Tahora. There are only five places left!!
pps if you struggle with singing or can't play for peanuts, don't let that stop you writing a song. Read this.
I can always tell when my partner has been writing a short story because something in the house has been tidied to a freakish level. Today, the linen cupboard is so ordered I’m too scared to put away a single pillowslip for fear of misfiling, so I’ll just leave this small pile of folded laundry here to discuss later….! This is how I know something’s a-brewing on her laptop.
But is it really procrastinating when you suddenly see things you have to do rather than knuckling down to the scary blank page? Or is it part of a ritual – a preparation phase that you knowingly use to mull ideas over or nut out the ‘gnarly bits’ in a song?
Turns out that many famous writers of all genres have favourite rituals they use and techniques they employ to spur them on. Some are extraordinarily elaborate – author James Clear has an assistant reset and withhold all social media passwords until he finishes a scheduled writing session, rendering him incapable of a single, sneaky scroll. He’s very big on choice architecture.
Others are very simple - Ernest Hemingway stood while he wrote, working from dawn until midday when he visited his local bar to get smashed. His mantra while writing The Old Man and The Sea was ‘done at noon, drunk by three’.
Jerry Seinfeld’s famous strategy to write daily was to put a large red X on a wall calendar for every day he wrote jokes. Eventually, there were multiple X’s in a row lining up like links in a chain. His mantra was ‘don’t break the chain’. Note nothing about whether the jokes were any good – just that he was writing daily and this increases the probability of the jokes getting better! Which brings me to the next point.
Creativity is all about probability. There are no guarantees that you’ll write a good chorus or a brilliant melody in a particular session. Your session is all about trying things out and exploring your ideas and connections. Which is why it can be daunting and contributes to you procrastinating. The outcome is always uncertain, which is why doing ‘must do’ tasks – those which have a determinable end result - can be very comforting, and actually supports your creative process. If you mow the lawns, the result will be a mown lawn. If you tidy the linen cupboard, you’ll be able to find the sheets and towels.
But if you sit down to write a song, you can’t predict what the song will be or even when it will be finished. Songwriting is not a linear journey. It’s generally full of twists, turns and cul-de-sacs before you wind up with something that you’re happy with. No wonder you’re procrastinating!
The answer is do or get whatever it takes for you to show up and increase that probability of writing a good or even a great song. Whatever ritual you need, whatever support structure works for you, grab it with both hands and hold it close! If you’re not sure, take time to explore what works best for you, what feels ‘right’ and develop your own creative process. It will be as individual and unique as the songs you write.
Today, I’m starting a new technique in my own songwriting by using a series of song prompts from Ed Bell, a songwriter and songwriting coach whose blogs and articles I’ve enjoyed reading. He’s just released a couple of new books – The 30-Day Speed Songwriting Challenge & The 30-Day Music Writing Challenge – and I’m going to quietly work through them to see what falls out. And I’m telling you to keep myself accountable! See you on the other side!
Best wishes to everyone for the summer and I hope you have a great Christmas and a very Happy New Year,
Talk more soon
This morning I’m working in a slightly unusual situation with a colleague and old friend I’d done a lot of work with over 20 years ago in Wellington. Now he’s back in the USA and we’re re-kindling that collaboration in situ at his studio in Alburquerque.
It’ s highly likely something productive will come out of a face to face session but there’s always a chance things won’t gel. And I’m doing a little second guessing.
The ‘big girl boots’ part of me is excited and aware that nothing ventured nothing gained, but the niggle that comes with second guessing (what if it’s a blow out - what if I’ve got no good ideas - what if - what if) is taking a bit more to dislodge. Meh.
However, I’m taking a leaf out of Houston Symphony principal horn player Bill VerMeulen’s book and liberally applying it to songwriting! He was asked how important it was to listen to an orchestra’s recordings or play for its members in advance of an audition. VerMeulen’s response was not to focus solely on making the audition panel happy - the theory that if you play to make them happy, chances are, nobody winds up happy. But if you play in a way that makes you happy, at least one person will leave the room happy (you), and likely, the audition committee will be happier too.
It’s easy to worry about what an audience, a jury, an audition panel, and your peers might think. Harder to ignore the feeling.
The magic bullet is to develop strong convictions about what you believe in, making for a more compelling audition by reducing the second guessing that could derail your performance. I read this in Bulletproof Musician’s great newsletter.
Hmmm, I reckon the same principle applies to collaborative songwriting. Both of us definitely have a strong well of artistic vision, values, tastes and musical choices to draw on and that means strong convictions. And I know the personal connection can sustain a robust to and fro that comes with co-creation.
I’m feeling wry even writing this, because I’ve just convinced myself.
Best I practice what I preach! ‘
Talk more soon
PS Attention Nelson songwriters, Susan Jeffrey is arranging for a small group of songwriters to get together and share songs, talk songwriting and get motivated to stay writing. Contact her for more details on email@example.com.
"Several years ago, I attended my son’s freshman orientation at Belmont University. He was headed into the Music Business program. During the parent’s session, one mother raised her hand and asked (In all seriousness) “So, if my daughter gets a songwriting degree from Belmont, she is pretty much guaranteed a slot on Music Row, right?” The Dean of the School of Music stood in stunned silence for a moment. Then, he said “No, getting a degree in songwriting doesn’t mean you are a great songwriter any more than a degree in art says that you are a great artist.” The woman then commented under her breath, “$120,000 is a lot to pay with no guarantees”.
I’d like to reinforce the concept of asymmetric risk that songwriting or pretty much any other artistic pursuit brings – the relative number of hits to misses is astronomical. A particular song’s or artist’s ‘success’ is massively unpredictable. A so-called ‘normal’ job has one very appealing feature: your effort is directly proportionate to the reward you receive. If you’re a plumber, the more taps you fix, the more cash you earn. The flipside is that there’s a limit to how much money you can make - you can only fix so many taps in a day. You have to physically be there to fix the taps, but also, no one is really going to argue too much about the right way to fix a tap, or what a great tap is, or how great taps have influenced you since your adolescence or what tap was pouring when you had your first kiss! Taps and their repair are clearly definable. A tap works or doesn't so once taught, most anyone could fix a tap who completes the training.
A particularly great tap
This is what risk analyst and author Nassim Taleb calls a ‘non-scalable’ career. Richard Meadows outlines this clearly in his article The Barbell Strategy: How Not to Be a Starving Artist. Here, he explains, a baker can only bake so many loaves of bread on a particular shift. Artists, including songwriters, have no such upper bounds. Something idea-based can be sold over and over again with almost no extra time or effort. It can potentially be 'infinitely scalable.' Your debut album might sell 10 copies (three of which your mum bought) or 10 million, but the amount of work that went into recording may be just the same. Unlike getting a medical degree or a plumber’s trade certificate, there’s no set career pathway to a stable lifelong income guaranteed by learning about anything about songwriting.
So, just being musically literate and knowledgable about songwriting won’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to write a sure fire hit each week. This is why these dream crusher sentences fall out of your parents’ or partners’ mouths when you say you want to pursue songwriting more intensively: ‘what’s your back up plan?’, ‘make sure you have a second string to your bow’, ‘don’t give up your day job’ etc etc etc. I’m sure there are many more you’ve come across!
However, maintaining a positive approach, spending time doing what you love and developing your own creative plans and goals will certainly help you bring your songs to life. As does enjoying the company and support of like-minded souls, rather than feeling like you’re working in isolation. Figuring out your own ‘risk level’ will help you move forward with your songs at a pace you determine.
Talk more soon
ps download my free article here on more ways to mitigate the dream crusher vibe!
pps if you want to get started moving with your songs, come to this workshop May 17-19
At certain points of your songwriting journey, you're likely to encounter some fairly overwhelming feelings that can well upset your applecart. One of these is the fear of failure, and it's an important one to face off.
Sometimes, it manifests as the infamous inner critic - quite shouty, telling you to not to even bother trying because YOU'LL NEVER MAKE IT, so GIVE UP AND GO HOME! Or it's more nebulous, presenting as a sneaky feeling of worry or discontent, which produces a lethargic slump, quite effectively derailing any efforts you actually want to make with your songwriting.
There's a reason we fear failure. Like many inbuilt fears, it's a protective mechanism, protecting us from the anxiety that comes with freedom and taking risks. But if you're trying to write new songs, or present new material to your band, a live audience or simply play an open mic, fear of failure can seriously limit us. It's 'safer' not to try anything new or different just because it might fail. It can strike major artists who have had significant success as well as rank beginners, and it's an enemy of creativity. We literally stop doing what we actually want to do, because we might muck it up.
So how do we deal with it?
I used to work with a festival director whose mantra if something didn't quite work was ' did anybody die?', and I think that's a pretty good place to start. The perception of what failure is is just that - a perception. Songwriting, like any other artistic practice, is full of 'failures' - ideas that don't quite work, demos that don't get listened to, competitions where songs aren't placed, bands that break up, funding applications that aren't successful, venue owners that don't return calls and albums that don't sell. 'Failure' comes with the territory, so get ready for it and reframe your perception of it.
Artistic endeavour is also rife with countless stories of musicians and actors and writers who persisted through what could only be described as 'high rotate fail' to achieve their goals and dreams, from the Beatles to JK Rowling to Fred Astaire, whose first screen test at MGM read "Can't act. Can't sing. Slightly bald. Not handsome. Can dance a little." And Stephen Spielberg was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three times!
This is the second tactic. Be clear what success means to you by figuring out some goals. The more personal you can make them the better. A goal may be as simple as 'I want to write a song for our anniversary' or 'I want to enter my original songs in Rockquest this year' or 'I want to learn how to record my music' or more complex, like 'I want to tour the US next year' or 'I want to have my second album produced by ....'.
This means you measure your outcomes against yourself, rather than the rest of the loud and noisy world, and your perception of success is intrinsic.
Thirdly, songwriting demands 'failure' in many ways. The proportion of songs that are actually hits versus 'misses' is astronomical, but so are the number of choices available to us from chord sequences, melodic variations, vocabulary and production techniques. Give yourself the freedom to try as many choices as you can. Spending more time on songwriting with more 'attempts' creates an environment for incremental improvement, and success on your own terms. In the book Art & Fear, authors David Bayles and Ted Orland described this experiment made by a ceramics teacher.
The ceramics teacher announced that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.
Well, grading time came and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity!
It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat around theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
And I rather like Thomas Edison's wry remark after 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?" Edison replied, "I didn't fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps. I failed my way to success.
Rather makes the term for inspiration, a lightbulb moment, even more relevant!
Talk more soon,
ps Two opportunities for Song Doctor Mailer readers to learn more are
1. Use this code SONGDOCTOR10 for 10% off any Mainstage course on the online music education site, Soundfly. Great folks and great info on a wide variety of music topics.
2. Join us on our Songwriters Retreat Feb 5-9 next year in Akaroa for a deep dive songwriting intensive, fully catered and accommodated. Treat yourself! Early bird tickets available until Jan 5.
What does your audience want to hear?
Here are some questions to answer when you want to improve your material. Why do people like to listen to songs? What do they need from songs? What will make an audience listen to your song? How do you capture their attention and hold it?
When many of us start writing songs, much of it is totally unconscious and self-expression is the name of the game. Rightly so! Sometimes, our songwriting is profoundly imitative, heavily influenced by our favourite artists. No surprises there! The audience is often the last thing on our minds. As a consequence, some songs might connect but others are way off the mark and we don’t always know why.
While we have yet to identify a specific ‘music centre’ in the brain, there’s plenty of neural science that shows when we listen to music, there is increased blood flow to the areas in the brain associated with reward, emotion and arousal.
Songs work when an audience is moved. When an audience feels something they care about deeply, you’ve made a real connection. Creating a strong and clear emotion with your song is a top priority for any songwriter. It doesn’t particularly matter what the emotion is – angst, joy, disillusionment, anger, sorrow, regret –we love them all, and at an intense level. Just don’t be boring!
Choices you make about the chords you use, the trajectory of the melody, the groove and the lyrical content all contribute to the development of your song’s emotional appeal. Quite small shifts in a song’s construction can have a huge effect on the song’s impact. Anything from a slight tempo shift to changing just one of the intervals in the melody or simplifying the chord progression or adding that unexpected chord can heighten emotion. Of course, major surgery can help your song hit home too. Shifting the chorus to the front of the song for a change, dramatically increasing contrast in the melody between the verse and the chorus and adding (or deleting) a bridge can really spice things up.
Substituting stronger words in your lyrics can up the ante in a song too. While erring on the side of simplicity, you can spot check your verbs – should you go or should you walk/stride/run/stagger/stumble? And your nouns – is she wearing a dress or a gown/skirt/bikini/shorts/jeans? Is she a Spanish lady/ a virgin/ a queen/ the girl next door? And adjectives can colour your world - is it a car or a little red Corvette, a big yellow taxi or your daddy’s Thunderbird?
Once you start consciously trying to develop the emotional impact of your songs, test them on an audience who have never heard them before – open mic or your songwriting circle. You’ll soon know if your listeners are feeling it.
Talk more soon.
ps if you want to really deep dive into improving the emotional impact of your songs, join us in Akaroa for our Songwriting Retreat Feb 5-9.
Last month, I mentioned amping up your creativity as part of dealing with imposter syndrome (I’m not good enough/everyone will find out I’m a fraud) or in songwriter speak, the ultimate throw your toys out of the cot tantrum, my songs suck!
Well, newsflash! Lots of them will! Not every song you write will be a number one hit, or even a number 53 climber. In the same way no one picks up a guitar and plays a solo worthy of Jimi Hendrix immediately, neither does a budding songwriter have a number one on first attempt. (please someone prove me wrong!) Get used to the long haul, the multiple shots at goal and making incremental improvements with each completed song. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I repeat, completion is the enemy.
Finish what you start. What that does is make you commit to a process and allows you to progress with each finished song. You may have started with a flurry of inspiration and got stymied by the sixth line of verse 1. You may have found an idea for the chorus but run down a rabbit hole with the melody. You may have set up a fantastic groove but not been able to come up with any powerful lyric. But by staying in the room, you will have had to face these problems and solve them, thereby developing your songwriting resilience, confidence and shock !horror!, even a sense of satisfaction. Your completed draft is now also available to show your collaborator, your band mates, your producer or whomever you make yourself accountable to, with the very clear possibility of further refinement and improvement. Note - it's a draft!
Just how you deal specifically with the ‘problems’ in your songwriting process is part of what makes you a unique songwriter. It’s what’s in the personal toolkit you bring to the table. Everyone will have a slightly different take on how to come up with a great hook or smash out an unforgettable chorus. Everyone has different strengths for the curious recipe of a good song, which is partly why collaboration works so well. A better sense of harmony, an infectious rhythmic sense, a bent for melodic contour – each of these facilities is at a different level in all of us, just as our varied backgrounds in musicianship, vocal ability or vocabulary contribute.
Finishing what you start also brings up the idea of constraint as a spur to creativity. Songs have form and expectations for listeners. Songs have multiple identifying features, which tells us they are songs, even when fabulous iconoclasts and innovators subvert them or fashion changes them. Songs don’t exist in anarchy. This contributes to the sensation that they have brick walls we sometimes bang against – arghhh! my lyrics don’t fit that eight bar phrase or I can’t sing that high – only Mariah Carey could sing that high or my song sounds like cheese…arghhhh! But constraint reduces scope to manageability and makes you focus on creativity with borders. I’m not talking about a crossword mechanistic type of formulaic approach but recognising here’s the raw material I can work with and here’s the rough sketch of what I need to build. Right, let’s do this. Time is one of those constraints you can easily apply – as a defined session - I’ve an hour to work on this – I’m going to finish that verse at lunchtime, or as a deadline – Song One draft by Thursday, ready to sing at Saturday’s open mic.
Talk more about er, constraints next time but right now, I'm finished!
ps these folk completed their Songwriting Clinic at Akaroa. Fun much!
(left to right) Robyn-Lynn, Cindy, me, Sol, Matt, Yve, Jake, Hanni, Lisa and we were joined by Neville on Songwriting Circle with his new tunes under production
Some of the folks I work with are exceptionally good musicians –really great guitarists or sensational singers – for whom putting songwriting as a front and centre occupation is a relatively new experience. They face a disconnect between their skill level (and comfort level) for something they may have been honing for ten, twenty, thirty years and something (songwriting) that they’ve recently felt the need to focus on. It’s a particular type of frustration that presents a divide which can appear impossible to cross. Sometimes, this comes as a real surprise for the musician, but more often than not, it presents as a nagging sensation that ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘I’m not good enough’ highlighted by their contrast in seriously competent performance ability. Result – loss of momentum and enthusiasm, loss of patience, personal disappointment, and feeling, well, a bit shit!
I think this is a particular version of good old imposter syndrome. And the shock that comes from realizing that musical performance ability doesn’t have as much to do with the songwriting skill set as expected. It also means that a very good musician might actually be a rubbish songwriter at first attempt. And here’s the thing – folks that spend a lot of time working on their songs and finishing them are songwriters! They may not be famous (yet) or critically acclaimed (have mercy!), but they’re on task.
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.
The feeling of not being immediately excellent can put people off trying and learning new things – including songwriting. It reduces risk taking – one of creativity’s most important tenets. It literally stops us offering ideas – however ‘dumb’ and stops us playing. (Remember, we play music!).
There are a number of ways to combat this. The first is evidence based. Look how long it took for you to really learn an instrument – lessons, training, the number of productions or gigs you’ve done. Think about applying the same amount of effort your songwriting to be of an equivalent level. How many songs have you written? Workshops or lessons taken? Seminars attended? Tutorials watched or attended? Have you had any songs performed? Sent to competitions or masterclasses? Had any independently assessed? How many songs have you co-written or let’s be honest, re-written, post critique. Here’s a very big reality check to life in the professional songwriting lane. Sure, there are levels of talent but most musicians have added a ton of homework and experience to their natural flair before they consider themselves ‘good’. Cut yourself some slack and look at the relative time/money/commitment you can or want to put into your songwriting. Any moves forward in that direction will increase your growth and output as a songwriter, one step at a time!
The second way is to amp up your creative input. This comes back to fostering your curiosity and imagination. When you’re a grownup, you sure can forget this bit! When you’re a kid, you don’t think twice. Look for ways to experience and appreciate creativity long term. Listen to your favourite songs and writers, deeply. Read up about them. Try working on things with your musical mates. Go to concerts. Go to exhibitions. Find new music. Find new songs by established artists. What are they doing? How are they doing it? Get nosey! You’ll be surprised by the habits of many artists who continually stoke their own fires to create new and distinctive work. Suddenly, the feeling of fraudulence and stalling dissipates, and profound involvement returns.
The combination of effort and enjoyment can bridge the gap between what you want to write and what you do.
Talk more soon
ps I look forward to seeing those of you coming to the Akaroa Songwriting Clinic real soon! (June 1-3)