Read about how to write better songs
Development is about choosing ideas, tune fragments, snatches of lyrics, titles and techniques from your ideas file and figuring out how to use them, how to weld them into new songs, or a decent sized song-like chunk anyway!
Development involves decision. It involves your musical tastes and personal preferences – both artistic and stylistic. To follow one idea, you wind up discarding others. What you decide to do on one day won’t necessarily be what you choose the next. That’s the beauty of a regular practice.
But here’s the exciting part - what you do with the basic ingredients – all those song ideas and triggers that you’ve gathered - will be utterly unique and completely individual. No one else can write a song exactly like you. There is no template!
Development is the process of moving from an idea to a draft or more likely a series of drafts. The more often you do this, the more intuitive it becomes. Remember the end result may appear effortless, simple and elegant – but appearances can deceive!
Things can get pretty messy in development! And they should do – you’re testing new connections, and newsflash – they won’t always work. You should expect plenty of dead ends. So don’t get too attached to your first or any idea. They may not ‘work’ or be the best fit for the song. You have to be able to let things go and come up with a different approach, preferably multiple approaches. Give yourself options.
Assessing what works or not is initially your decision. When you’re in the thick of it, keep recording what you’re doing, saving all drafts on your phone or Save Copy As in your DAW or on your laptop. Write stuff down so you can mix and match. It’s easy to forget small variations that may come into play further down the track. Don't worry if what you produce isn't perfect. You’re building right now. Refinement comes later.
Some of the things you’re looking for: do things stick? Does a piece of music catch your ear or a couple of lines stand out in your journal? Does something hit you in the eye from the list of titles you’ve kept? Run with that and free write as long as you can.
Does the chord progression you’ve started feel really good to you? Can you sing something - anything - over top of it? Can you sing three different things over top of it? Record them and then start adding lyrics.
Can you take the linear melody you’ve started with and try some skips or a leap up or down and see where that goes? Vary the rhythm a little or lot and record that. Can you change a couple of notes? It may not seem like much, but small motifs or groups of notes (2 – 8) are the raw material of great melody.
Lyrically, are you saying what you want to say? Are there five other ways you could do that? One of these will be ‘better’ than the others. So the more the merrier. Are you being the observer in the song or should you be the subject of your story? Try both approaches and record them.
One of my clients recently sent three options per line for a song. One line looked unusual on paper but was very difficult to sing, and hard to make out. Even though he loved what he had written, it didn’t fit with what words actually need to do in a song, which is to be sung. Decision made.
Remember you are also developing several things simultaneously. There’s interplay between rhythm and melody, harmony and melody, melody and lyrics, verse and chorus. Which is partly why pieces like this can come across a bit ‘here’s the magic formula’. Trying to ‘explain songwriting’ as a purely sequential process isn’t the point. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your creative brain doesn’t travel in a straight line! Go for trying as many things as you can.
In one of my own collaborations, we discussed how my first lines weren’t hitting the spot. They were ok. Just ok. But rather than being asked to write them again, my songwriting partner said ‘Write 10 verses’. What a breath of fresh air!
Wishing everyone the best of health during lockdown
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sometimes the ideas just stop. Where once there were multiple bursts of inspiration that you couldn't wait to scrawl on the back of a paper napkin, there's now a strange and eerie silence. At first, you don't stress. Could just be your GST return needs dealing to or one of the kids is sick. But then on it goes, and song-less days turn into weeks, maybe months. Never mind, you say. Summer will fix it - a good dose of beach/beers/bbqs and the tunes will start bubbling over again. But what if they don't?
A special case of writer's block is the difficult second album syndrome. Your first release turned out to be a great debut - critically acclaimed, you are heralded as a worthy new voice and things really start to happen for you, but when the expectation of 'what's next' arrives, your pen stammers and your sessions are a little same old, same old.
No matter what stage of your songwriting career you're at, at some stage you will experience some kind of stall in your creative process. What's worse than labouring at songwriting? Not songwriting at all. While songwriters are certainly not alone in this experience, there are more than enough one hit wonders out there to plead a special case.
Here's a list of the things that many songwriters hit by writer's block have experienced.
This list comes from author Gary Ewer who has written an entire book on beating songwriter's block and I've included it because I took considerable heart from this list's specificity. It plots a multi-level landscape that many folks I know have encountered. While I'm not sure one ever actually avoids the block or stalls at some point, it sure helps to know what may be on the horizon and prepare to mitigate it. Forewarned, being forearmed.
Exploring how to deal with songwriter's block - trying to start or to finish a song in this context – requires an understanding of the concept of creativity and this comes weirdly from a professor of business administration at Harvard University, Teresa Amabile, a researcher in creativity which she depicts as 3 intersecting circles - creative thinking, expertise and motivation.
The theory is each of these circles needs regular attendance and input to keep the wellspring of creativity full to the brim. Learning new chords or a new instrument, reading up on favourite artists, going to and playing live shows all up your expertise and capability as does a decent diet, enough sleep or just jamming with your mates. Feelings of positive self worth, resilience and just the joy and personal challenge (intrinsic motivation) of songwriting all contribute, but the least understood area is that of creative thinking - something that luckily, artists have in abundance - the ability to present novel, different and alternative solutions to problems or opportunities. It seems there's really is never one way to write a good song. And upskilling won't kill your muse - it will foster it.
ps If you'd like to up your expertise in songwriting, there are still places available on the Wanaka Songwriting Clinic this coming Labour Weekend ( Oct 19-21). See you there!
The number one complaint from aspiring songwriters I hear is that they struggle to finish their songs. There are so many folks out there with reams of lyrics and musical fragments languishing in diaries or on various recording devices just waiting to be completed….(cue music!)
Some how. Some day. Somewhere.
And here is the cure – write more. The cure to not finishing songs is to spend more time writing songs. It’s that obvious!
The trick is to set yourself up so you don’t have to think or wheedle or force yourself to do this. Set yourself up so that you don’t have to treat yourself like a kid who doesn’t want to eat vegetables, and then feel bad afterwards because you didn’t write a song today, and therefore you are a REALLY BAD PERSON! The idea is to create a process that lets you write your songs. You give yourself permission, put some planks in place, and then, just like you clean your teeth, you write songs – as a habit. It becomes weird if you don't!
None of this is hard – in fact, your life will feel a whole lot more better because you wind up doing something you REALLY WANT TO! It’s just about removing any vestige of will power that you have to summon up to write songs when you want nothing more than to faceplant drooling on the couch with Netflix.
The process you create (and it’s pretty individual, even though there are some common themes) will support you to write more. When you write more often and you write more material, you give yourself the chance to deep dive into your songs, and you will finish them. You will write and rewrite, refine and create, critique and tweak. And I can, hand on heart, tell you that the profound pleasure that comes from finishing a song’s first draft – one you can show someone – is a mighty thing to feel. It is empowering.
When you read Pip’s story, you can see she has a long game, that she’s a realist, she’s thought about her goals, why she wants to write and the form she has chosen. But the very individual process she has set up for herself has supported her to treat writing as an ingrained habit, allowing a great deal of continuity. Note that what works for her may not necessarily work for you. Here are a bundle of processes and rituals that have worked for some of the most famous writers in the world to get you thinking what might!
Without being formulaic, there are very practical issues you can consider to let yourself write more songs.
The point is that coming back to your process means that you will be write songs consistently, and that will build your ‘muscle’ and let you finish your work.
What if you wrote one song a week? That's 52 songs in the next year. Or one song a month? (like Bjork does). That’s an album a year. Just saying.
It's no surprise the first thing we cover in our Songwriters Clinic is how to set yourself up for successful songwriting. That's success on your own terms. It's something you can revisit at whatever stage of your career or lifestyle. And it's one of the kindest things you can do for yourself.
Please feel free to share what some of your own process quirks are - I promise to keep them anonymous!
Talk more soon.
ps thanks for all those who have booked for the Wanaka Songwriters Clinic. Please note our early bird ticket price is only available until 22 Sep.
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
The exercise reiterated for me why co-writing is such an important skill to learn and practice, so much so that when fact checking for this blog, I noted that Berklee College of Music is now offering a senior level course in Collaborative Songwriting. Of course, many great songs have been written as collaborations between two or more songwriters. In musical theatre, collaboration was the rule, with lyricist and composer working in separate domains, yet with a combined output that contributed some of the most popular songs of the mid-twentieth century from The Sound of Music to Oklahoma. Perhaps the premium example of collaboration where artistic success translated into commercial reward was that of John Lennon and Paul McCartney whose individual efforts subsequent to the Beatles' collapse aptly illustrated that the sum is greater than the parts.
Back home, the 2017 APRA Silver Scroll Award for Songwriting went to a three-way collaboration between Ella Yelich-O'Connor, Joel Little and Jack Antonoff for their song, Green Light. Furthermore, of the eleven #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, six were collaborations, including the #1 song of 2017, Shape of You. Let's just say collaborative songwriting is seriously trending!
Whether you're a track and topline writer or prefer the immediacy of hands on instruments real time in the band practice room, there are some tangible benefits to co-writing. Firstly, it can stimulate you. You can wind up interfacing with songwriters you may not know very well, if at all, and create music you never would have written on your own. Secondly, it makes you aware of what you have to offer. Sure, you'll have strengths you may already know about but co-writing can often reveal new aspects of your own creativity you haven't uncovered. Thirdly, you can learn a thing or two from other writers, be it a go-to technique or a more general problem solving approach you can put to good use.
Working collectively can really nail a song's intention too, giving you a good reality check on a song's ability to capture a audience. And from a personal style perspective, you have to be present, leave your ego at the door, yet know when to speak up and put your nose to the grindstone to make the fledgling song its best.
The good news is that the joys of technology are so helpful that you can work collaboratively with folks everywhere - in different towns or different countries, in real time or overnight- all useful for shaking up your songwriting. And co-writing can be socially supportive, bringing new creative compadres into your network. You know, like fun, as singer-songwriter Jason Mraz describes his co-writing experience with Raining Jane.
Because they’ve been a band for about 15 years, they have this awesome ability to create foundations of music... Everyone brings a different instrument to a circle and we start jamming. Maybe somebody has a progression in mind, or maybe we just collide until we find something we like. Once that bed is happening, the four of them start rocking out like a band, and oohing and aahing, putting backing vocals on sections to create a beautiful wave of music that I then begin to improvise on, surf all over, and start telling my stories....
When we all agree that we like where something is going, we stop and everybody goes off and does free writing. They pass them all to me and I go through them and I decide what feels good to sing, what works with the story. It’s a ton of fun. Lastly, it’s great to collaborate because you have to show up. If I’m collaborating with only myself and my guitar, it’s easy to put it off, and then I am tired and I don’t give myself the best experience. But when I create a date with Raining Jane, we say we are going to start at one o’clock, we start at one o’clock, we jam it, and it gets things done.
Talk more soon
ps bookings are now open for both the Akaroa Songwriters Clinic ( 1-3 June @ Queens Birthday Weekend) and the Wanaka Songwriters Clinic ( 19-21 October @ Labour Weekend).
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
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!