Read about how to write better songs
Elliott Smith live @ the 70th Academy Awards
ne of the features of my lockdown was guiltfree Youtube roll -around -scroll- around for alternative viewing and listening pleasure. And I clicked on a poor quality snip of songwriting breakdown by the late great songwriter Elliott Smith, a softly spoken man with a signature style.
He released several fine albums and had significant success as a songwriter and performer before his untimely death at 34 in 2003. His song Miss Misery featured in the closing credits of the film, Good Will Hunting, was nominated for an Oscar, and it led to him playing live in a white suit at the 1998 Academy Awards.This was my belated introduction to his seemingly simple guitar playing, wistful lyricism and sometime surprising chord progressions.
For someone who said he'd never be a big rock star, this was pretty close to the fire. There were more records and touring, and a persona that seemed to confuse interviewers, with lots of footage to watch. Unfortunately, it didn't end well, but he left a very rich and thoughtful legacy well worth being submerged in.
If you can cope with the really grainy footage, you can see the underlying strengths that this artist brings to the show from playing every day to focusing on his own way of approaching chords and strumming, using implied melodies rather than riffs per se and a bunch of other tactics and building blocks that contributed to his songs and sound. And he pursued it diligently.
I found that his interview excerpt on songwriting, creativity and comparisons relevant.
'I think it's pretty easy if you just relax and quit thinking about what you think other people want to hear, you know. If you can keep finding new things that you personally like about music and put it into the blender and see what comes out. And if you like it, there must be something good about it...
I think ...you just gotta give yourself a little confidence to do what you personally like, not get all bogged down with what you think people wanna hear.....If you see someone playing music they really like, it's really compelling regardless of what style it is.'
And there's a fundamental - to 'not get all bogged down' . When there's so much information easily accessible about music in general, about recording and songwriting, about the nuts and bolts of the business in all its funked up portrayal, the extremely likely outcome of consuming all that is to most definitely get all bogged down, right up to the tip of the last hair on your head!
The consequence of being stuck in that bog is stasis. All that energising momentum lost.
Luckily in the same interview, Elliott hands you the secret sauce - the very thing he was great at, which was creating interesting, heartfelt and unique sounding songs. Not talking about it - strangely involving though he could be, but doing it and what he spent the most flying hours on was playing guitar and piano, singing, writing and recording music and schlepping it.
While I don't advocate his model of self care, his suggested ethos of unleashing your imagination, listening to what it has to say and turning that into your own big beautiful songs makes a great deal of sense to me.
For those of you all bogged down, come back to fundamentals - play a lot, write a lot and make the strongest set you can.
Or take one step towards that.
Talk more soon
ps application are now open for the Next Level Songwriting Retreat Jan 22-25 2001
I read this interesting article written by the American contemporary classical composer Nico Muhly on how he actually composes on a day to day basis. His work involves a great deal of travel, which can fragment concentration fairly quickly, but he also has to manage several projects at once, responding to commissions and their deadlines. While the commission is the 'prompt', first he starts by mapping out his as-yet-unwritten piece's 'emotional itinerary' to give his audience something 'challenging, engaging and emotionally alluring' to 'create an environment that suggests motion but that doesn't insist on certain things being felt at certain times'. He likens this plan to an inflight map which cycles between the overview (say London to Singapore) but then gives you the hyper detail of small towns of whatever country you happen to be over. Once he's got the map-document, it can 'be coloured in and detailed whenever you like'. But, fyi, this initial map or plan by design excludes the actual musical notes. His example was for a viola concerto he wrote which went like this:
*Start with a familiar set of chords - a sort of musical home base
*Then travel as far away from that as possible through rhythmic turbulence
*Find the way back via a sense of music panic.
Then comes in depth research, and then comes the notes and rhythms. What he wants is to create an emotional and sonic architecture that gives listeners 'simultaneous but radically different experiences.'
The map-document might be on a table napkin or in a text but that, and all his research notes and whatever, go into a physical folder - a very specific type - three-flap folder that French school children use. On the top, inside each project folder is the original 'map'. There are computer equivalents but the visible slim folders accompany him everywhere around the world and act as immediate triggers to reflect on each project, generating ideas whenever, wherever. They're part of his response to what he call a 'certain poetry of discontinuity' meaning his focus is on the work, rather than the (his) constantly changing environment.
What I loved about this article is how specific this composer is about his process - it's definitely his own brand of physical and digital creation and storage, which deals with his own schedule, his artistic strengths and weaknesses. It reduces the amount of reinventing the wheel every time he needs to write music - there's no starting from ground zero, but most importantly, it defeats an important myth - the myth of the scattered genius artist, the 'wait-around-for-inspiration-to-hit' artist and the 'I'll-do-it-when' artist (when I'm not so tired, not so heartbroken, not so broke, not so busy etc etc ). It negates the myth that real artists aren't 'organised' or 'business-like' or 'good with technology'.
This guy has planks in place to keep his music coming and growing and getting performance ready, despite his real life with all the dull and exciting demands it can have. He has a system that supports him, one that is bespoke, one that he has tailor-made so he doesn't waste precious brain space needed to make the good stuff up.
What can you do to 'systemise' your songwriting so you can be more creative, when you want to be or need to be?
Would love to hear your thoughts.
ps Thanks to those who've booked for Songwriters Retreat 2019 at Akaroa. Excited to announce early bird ticket prices are staying open until 31 January 2019. Look forward to seeing you there!
Photo by Ivan Karczewski.
17 March 2018
Auckland Town Hall
Love Me As I Am
by Mahinaarangi Tocker
Performed by the entire cast of the Auckland Arts Festival's tribute concert.
I had the privilege of performing in a musical tribute to the late singer/songwriter Mahinaarangi Tocker last weekend on the tenth anniversary of her untimely death in 2008. She was a close friend, and while the event and its preparations elicited a high degree of emotion, it also made me think a great deal about her music and my experience of her creative process.
Mahinaarangi chose to make her music a priority. She had trained and worked as a nurse, but she actively decided her songs and her unique voice would take precedence in her adult vocational life. She described a clarifying conversation she had with her father at this time. He was profoundly aware that this was a challenging lifestyle, but wise man, supported her decision.
Estimates vary pretty wildly as to the actual amount of material generated by Mahinaarangi – in the last week I’ve seen figures cited from 600 to 1000 songs. But there was no doubt that she wrote often. There was a wellspring of words and music within her that she drew on. And it generated a significant repertoire.
She most definitely had one. Both vocally, and compositionally – from the topics she chose, the rhythm and melodic tics she wrote to the vocal inflections and largely improvisational guitar technique she played. Nothing was particularly studied – she didn’t read music or take tuition, but her songs were inherently and deeply hers, and she didn’t particularly care for comparisons!
And I mean catholic with a small ‘c’ as in her capacity to listen to other artists' music – she had one of the largest NZ album collections I’ve seen and a voracious appetite for reading all sorts, even on one tour devouring Harry Potter – the first adult I’d seen do so! She loved watching others perform across genres from folk to classical, on the marae and in church, with allies and affiliates across the musical and cultural spectrum.
She connected with many people at a highly personal and authentic level - in the music industry, in her whanau milieu, and across a myriad of causes from mental health to adult literacy, Maori rights to gay/lesbian issues. She had a view and wasn’t afraid to defend it. Though she was respectful, good humoured and polite, she could call it when needed. And when and where she could, she would help.
I hope you continue to enjoy and explore her music – it’s all over the internet, but here’s a live clip from early days. And if you have an itch, scratch it. If you have a loose end, lose it. Fill your life with things that really matter to you and forget the rest.
RIP Mahinaarangi Tocker
First of all, she was at pains to point out the time commitment it takes to creating a full length album, particularly with the number of artistic hats she sports. Utopia has taken her two and a half years to make. For a long time, as is her wont, she was creating it without a huge idea, just working.
Björk fills in more details – 'I write one song per month, sometimes two months'… 'Eighty per cent of my music is me sitting by my laptop, editing. Weeks and weeks on each song'.....'It took me three months to mix the album'
Time is also spent on rehearsing other musicians who perform on the recording, arranging, conducting, tracking, mixing, editing, working with producers. She spoke of the Friday Flute Club, the 12 piece all-female flute ensemble who met at her cabin every Friday for some 50 or 60 days to rehearse and prepare for recording.
And here’s she revealed another aspect to her musical make-up - Björk has played flute from the age of 6. Songwriting is an amalgam of musical creativity and experiences as well as an individual’s linguistic heritage and influence. I’m not saying that every songwriter should rush out and learn the flute, but that what has helped shape each songwriter is never the same, and this hugely contributes to each person’s unique output of lyric and melody. Those with some experience of learning an instrument tend to be more comfortable with creating and manipulating music, but not always. Sometimes, it’s just means the ability to be quicker explaining what you want to achieve to other musicians.
Thirdly, she spoke about how she works with her own emotions, up and down, often at a profound level, binding them eventually with music, refining them into a single album. Her music involves her exploring small triggers connecting ‘emotional coordinates’, matching technical difficulties with musical aims…
In some ways, Utopia is a ‘lighter’ reaction to her previous ‘break-up’ album, Vulnicura described as ‘bleak’, with one song Black Lake having Björk at her most vulnerable and bitter. The point being that she’s not afraid to dig deep, but neither will she shy away from using her full palette of feelings.
Finally, she spoke almost incidentally about being an active listener. She’d come to the interview after going to a gig the night before. The reporter described her as ‘off-duty’ then, but somehow I think that’s not often. Another time, she wrapped herself in loads of coats, lay down on the moss and listened to an audiobook of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And she worked with a friend who researched flute myths around the world on her behalf, ping-ponging ideas back and forth by email. But all ingredients are put in Björk's pot to season her heady brew.
Look forward to hearing some of your own heady brews!
ps If you’d like to season your own songwriting this New Year, join us for the Songwriters Retreat @ Hanmer Springs over Waitangi Weekend (2-6 February).
pps Just a reminder, early bird tickets close this Friday January 5.
I went to a very enjoyable concert yesterday by Auckland band, the Bads, where one of the band members told the audience a great story against himself. Brett Adams is a formidable guitarist who, along with his co-conspirator vocalist/songwriter Dianne Swann plus assorted musical colleagues is currently touring their latest release nationally. Brett’s guitar skills are also much in demand as a skilled sideman to many other NZ performers, including the legendary Tim Finn.
( This is the Bads live in Napier - Brett on the left and Dianne, right.) Photo Andrew Caldwell
The story goes like this. Brett and Tim are touring just as a duo across the US and have to play a show in Colorado, where the snow piles high in winter - very high. Having chugged a good 9 hours or so to their destination, they arrived only to be told that, ‘due to the weather’, the show had been cancelled. Tim’s reaction was priceless. He said let’s go to the hotel and write a song. As you do. In Brett’s anecdote, he wryly remarked that wasn’t the reaction that he'd had. And that the song Brett had started writing then took a good ten years to be completed describing himself as ‘less disciplined than Tim’, whereupon the Bads played his tune.
As well as a great intro to a song’s genesis, this story highlights the difference between the musician who has songwriting front and centre in his life, and the musician who has a different focus. There’s no doubt the guitarist is extraordinarily disciplined to be able play as well as he does night after night, with such a variety of artists and repertoire. But having your songwriting process so close to your heart so that when you get a block of unexpected blank time, you can pick up where you left off is a state of being to aspire to. There’s never any time wasted because you always have something at your fingers tips to tap into. It’s what tunesmith Jimmy Webb calls continuity and rappers call flow. You ‘re able to switch between writing and ‘real life’ modes quickly and easily
The trick is that the relative effort of getting to that creative sweet spot is far less for those who write regularly, who practice their craft often, for those who, as the weightlifters say, do the reps. It’s keeping a mindset of ‘downtime = song time’ or ‘unexpected delay = songwriting hay’. It’s also being aware of the positive feedback loop that comes from finishing drafts. The more you do, the better you get. No different from running scales or shooting hoops. So, when you get ‘extra time’, that’s seen as an opportunity, rather than a drag and that you have to ‘pass the time’.
My guess is that Tim Finn, a skilled and very experienced songwriter, thought ‘yeeha - snowed in, with no expectations on me, no commitments I have to fulfil…. plus the added bonus of unimpeded access to a really good guitar player …I'm a kid in a candy store’. If indeed it was even that conscious, because I suspect that's just how he rolls but I would love to hear what his final output was from their canned Colorado gig.
Talk more soon.
PS if you'd like to pump up your songwriting muscle, check out our Songwriting Clinic this Labour Weekend in Wanaka