Read about how to write better songs
One problem that can confront songwriters is the balance between simplicity and originality.
Simplicity is fundamental for lyricists. Simple words tell it straight.
You, me, I, love, we, good, hot,
skin, heart, girl, lips, kiss,
time, gone, sad
The words are unequivocal, clearly understood by most folks who speak the language the songwriters do. They're easy to sing.
They cut to the heart of the matter. What could be simpler than I will always love you, help! or let it be?
The issue is that songwriters have been using the same words in so many songs, it can feel like there’s no room at the simple table for anyone else.
There are two strategies that songwriters have to get around this (either consciously or intuitively): use different words or use words differently.
And yes, I’m hugely simplifying things here, but it might be a helpful framework when you’re stuck down the well.
Strategy One is: Use Different Words.
The reason this can catapult your songs into the realm of unexpected and delighted surprise is that stretching your vocabulary carves up conceptual space more precisely according to linguist Geoffrey Nunberg.
It can also push you into using words that are more specific and relevant in particular situations your lyric describes. Therefore, it can make your song more authentic.
It can mean Prince using Corvette instead of car.
Or rather than Bob Dylan saying jobs, he says
Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters’ wives.
Or Eminem on pushback,
You think I give a damn about a Grammy
Half of you critics can't even stomach me, let alone stand me
Different doesn’t necessarily mean difficult.
Changing just one word in a song can be the difference between raw or wild - both could be useful but one might work better.
It can be adding an adjective like yellow dress, leather jacket, Venetian mask, Spanish leather.
However, it can also mean atmosphere instead of air or oxygen instead of air. The syllable count goes up but that might not be a bad thing. It might make your song fresh as mint sauce on a roast lamb!
The tactic here is making friends with your online thesaurus. Full of visual prompts, it can shower your frontal cortex with words you hadn’t considered - all good song fodder.
Sure, stay local to stay vocal, but if you’re feeling your songs are cheesy or that it’s all been said before, sharpen your chisel and try some synonyms.
Thanks so much for all your feedback and queries. Keep 'em coming!
Talk more soon,
ps to level up your songwriting, come to the Next Level Songwriting Retreat I'm presenting 22-25 January in Tahora. We have just two places left. Jump in!
pps thesongfoundry.com's Ed Bell's just released a very practical book you may find helpful called How to Write A Song (Even If You've Never Written One Before and You Think You Suck).
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.
Today's blog post is in answer to a reader's question. She wondered whether to "include interesting jazz chords" in her songs, but worried it would limit the number of capable musicians available to play them. Or should she "simplify them?" The chords - not the musicians!
I think there's no particularly right or wrong answer here, but I would like to offer two framework to think this through.
This first is who are you writing your songs for?
If you already have a significant audience who have enjoyed your previous work live, online or on air, then there's an level of expectation on the style of music you'll produce. Established artists will very often moonlight or do side projects, but their audience will very often follow them into another genre because the relationship between audience and artist is already well formed. Julia Deans singing opera in the Hawke's Bay earlier this year did not hurt her long held career as a rock chick, and neither is Troy Kingi going to suffer by recording his 'Folk Album' currently. He has enough sales and awards to warrant experimenting further down his stated path of ten albums in ten genres.
But if you have no label or long term audience to attend to, then my advice is write what you want to play. If you love ska, then eat it up with an upbeat! Your commitment to the songs will be stronger, your process more productive, your chops more sound and your enjoyment will be infectious. An audience feels that and so will other musicians.
Musicians don't just want to play the best paid gigs - although how nice a thought is that! Musicians want to play - that is connecting with other true 'soldiers of song' - in that fine, fine time on stage in front of a live audience. It's different from streaming live, different from rehearsal and from recording. If the quality of songs and performance is high, it doesn't matter what the genre is - it's the bus you wanna be on!
If you love playing 'jazz chords', use them write great songs you're proud of. Then enthusiastically seek out musicians to help play and perform them. Preferably, play with people who are better musicians than you - it ups your game and will encourage you to write even stronger songs. (On a personal note, I'm usually now the least fluent musician technically when I play live in an ensemble. It makes me work harder to keep up, and I utterly look forward to those bigger shows!)
The second framework to consider is how do the chords you choose serve the song?
Are they providing enough harmonic support for your melody to take shape within the verse-chorus structure? Is the harmony operating as infrastructure to the lyric? Is there enough accessibility, yet some welcome surprise that keeps us hooked into the vibe, the story, the message of your song?
You can write terrific songs with only one chord while at the other extreme you sink the entire ship in a mass of fusion confusion that loses the listener by the end of the intro.
There are also certain conventions and signifiers that indicate roughly what genre your songs sits in. Using chords extensions and non-diatonic chords for more complex harmony is considered part of the jazz grab bag, but pop music is a magpie's lair and plenty of current artists from Adele to Khalid are working wonders incorporating diminished chords, major sevenths, minor ninths and thirteenths into their hits. And it comes across as effortless.
Your own sense of aesthetic and musical taste is a huge influence on the type of songs you create. But the clearer you are about what you want your song to project, then all the elements that go into writing that song need to interconnect and align to present that vision. This includes the chords and their progressions.
The decision to include a particular chord is not dissimilar from the decision to include a particular word. Does it fit the song? If not, then outski! But having a broad palette of chords at your fingertips is a great resource for any songwriter, because then the choice is truly yours to make.
Talk more soon and thanks for the questions!
ps Chord Spice is one of the sessions in the Next Level Songwriting Retreat held at beautiful Tahora over Jan 22-25 2021.
We'll be talking more about song harmony, how to progress your progressions and add to your chord catalogue to level up your songwriting.
One of the ways to contribute to your song's rhythm is to intentionally stack the patterns of stress in your lyric's syllables. Oh yes, words are unspeakably groovy! The very word 'rhythm' comes from the Greek word for 'flow' (so does rhyme fyi, but that's really no surprise).
If you're writing songs in English, this particular language puts little stresses on particular syllables. The stressed syllable sounds a bit higher, louder and longer.
For example a word like banana is heard as ba na
The middle syllable is the stressed one, nudged higher, longer and a little louder.
You lean on it. The syllable - not the banana!
Hearing where the stresses land becomes important for lyricists to take note of. Otherwise, you can put the wrong em-Pha-sis on the wrong sy-Lla-ble. That reduces intelligibility, feels forced at worst, or just contribute to a sense of 'off'. Not a sensation you want to create for your audience.
Professional songwriters will often line words up so there are stress/unstress schemes within song sections, much like rhyming templates. Not to be bound by some arbitrary rule-a-rama, but to align all the macro and micro elements of song structure to mesh like a mother! Thus, the song rolls off the singer's tongue and into your heart.
Finding where the stressed and unstressed syllables are in a word is pretty solid. Say it out loud. Or get a first language English speaker to, if you're not sure. (irl or online).
Finding where the stressed and unstressed words in a sentence is a little trickier because the meaning in context can change how certain words are stressed.
It's the difference between Help! I need somebody
and I really need your help
or I really need your help
and I really need your help.
This figuring out where the stresses land is calling scanning. The reason you want to do this is to match the stresses in the lyric with the stresses and important 'positions' in the song's music. Not all positions are equal!
Songs will often exaggerate the natural 'music' of speech. So both rhythm (how long a note is and where it lands in the bar) and pitch (how high or low the note is) plus volume contribute to underlining the importance of particular words and syllables. It also depends on what you're trying to say in your song.
But take a leaf out of Dolly Parton's large song book, especially this one covered by Whitney Houston.
The sentence I will always love you becomes.....
The emphasis on I ( long, high and loud, mate!) and you (long, loud and given lots of decoration) is extremely underscored musically. One is in no doubt which words the songwriter wanted our focus on.
So there are actually two kinds of stress to notice. One is the cadential stress - what happens in words when we speak them naturally and the other is rhetorical - what are the important words in the context - here it's I and You.
Give prominent musical positions and attention to the natural accents and the critical words in your lyrics and you're off to the races! Or risk squashing the banana!
Talk more soon and I'd love to know what you'd like to read about so please send in suggestions and I'll have a go at covering them.
best wishes and good health!
ps applications are now open for Next Level Songwriting Retreat Jan 22-25 2021
pps if you'd like to get up close and personal online with your songwriting project, I'm now working with Soundfly as one of their mentors.
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
Each song comes with its own rhythmic imprint of how many beats are in each bar. In music theory speak, this is called the time signature. In written music (sheet music or notated score), that gets popped at the front of the piece represented as something that looks like a fraction which indicates both the number of beats in each bar and the type of beats they are.
The most common time signature in Western music, particularly for popular or contemporary music is 4/4, which means 4 crotchets or ‘quarter’ notes in each bar or ‘measure’. It’s so common 4/4 is often referred to as common time or C.
A whopping 94% of pop songs are in 4/4 ( blame it on the blues) and that reign doesn’t look like ending particularly soon.
But like any rule of pop music, there are always exceptions and when the rule of common time is challenged, it makes the song stand out instantly. There are two main ways of doing this – one is to set the time signature of your song in an unusual (for pop) time signature like Pink Floyd’s Money which ticks along in a groovily unsettling 7/4.
The other way is to change part of the song into another time signature for a short while and that’s what I want to point out today. This is like changing the key of the song – it’s just as attention grabbing for the audience - and it also has a great musical theory handle. It’s called metric modulation when the songwriter changes the metre or ‘beat' of the song from one time signature to another within the song.
You’ll be completely aware of this when it happens - it will literally make you move differently and a cracker example of it is in Hozier’s Take Me To Church.
The song starts off in a lilting 3/4 for the verse but when it gets to the line
We were born sick – You heard them say it,
we jumped into one bar of 4/4 before switching or modulating back to 3/4 for the rest of the verse.
Further metric modulation happens at the chorus when the song rocks out in pop’s standardly glorious 4/4.
Now why do this mucking with the timing? Well, it’s a great lever to pull because it grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and says listen to this! That element of surprise can highlight a particular lyric line (which is what happens in the verse) or it can create real contrast between sections (which is what happens when we reach the song’s chorus).
Another example is in Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, where she jumps from 4/4 to a bar of 2/4 on the verse lyric
I hated you, I loved you too,
which snaps us to attention.
And in the chorus we jump bar by bar almost imperceptibly from 4/4 to 3/4 to 2/4 to 3/4 underneath the lyrics
Heathcliff It’s me I’m Cathy I’ve come home
and I’m so cold let me in your window.
These changes in metre allows the songwriter to manipulate the lyrics and melody to fit in as she wants creating a unique sounding song. There’s no having to wait for the end of the bar – no extra or unwanted space.
Metric modulation can be a really exciting way to make your song stand out. If this is something you think will work for your song, just make sure the time signature changes on the first beat of the bar and that once changed the metre stays in the new time signature from then on, until you switch back.
May you all have a great time working on this technique!
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
Some days, your ideas flow quickly, but others - it’s a blocked pipe, mate! Recognising that inspiration is ‘random’ but more 'probable' when you’re writing consistently, is huge. The good news is that getting fluent, whether you’re feeling inspired or not, is totally trainable.
Cop this. If you’re learning to play guitar, you‘ll be encouraged to practice every day even if you don’t feel like it. And you’ll know it takes time to learn the instrument and the music, and for your body to manage it. Your skill develops incrementally.
Same goes for songwriting. For some reason, when we try to write a song, we can feel pressure to create an instant hit, which can turn the tap right off!
So, flip your mindset and write a little every day. Don’t stress about writing complete songs.
Book time to play with fragments, with words, ideas, phrases, riffs, melodies and chords.
Collate raw material and build your ideas file.
In fact, this whole phase is called ideation, and really, all things are welcome. You're looking for whatever sparks your imagination - what images you can conjure up and jot down from as many sources as you can access. From people you’ve met, small or large events, things you’ve read, sights and sounds, dreams, hopes, desires and everything in between, and capturing all this data.
Keep a list of titles as you go. Titles are a great place to start because they encapsulate a song’s ‘message’, and can trigger chorus lyrics.
(A word about your ideas file - use your phone, use a notebook, use your laptop, whatever but keep it close and backed up. Saves pain later.)
In another session, you look for which ideas you think can go places, which can be developed. You may have several songs on the go – it can happen that way. You may have an ideas bin on your desktop with tracks in progress and a list of titles in your phone.
Some ideas may go nowhere, which is normal. Some can be cannibalised and wind up in other songs. Also normal. The point is exercising your songwriting muscles regularly and positively.
You are in the process of making something. You’re ‘in flow’!
Talk more soon
ps here's an interview I did on RNZ about songwriting
Happy New Year Everyone!
Often the beginning of the new year or, in this case the decade, provokes a flurry of goals and resolutions, wish lists, schemes and plans to exercise regularly, quit smoking, eat less, save more, study harder or even have that nebulous thing - a 'better work-life balance'. Exhausting just to write them down! Folks start off with high hopes and good intentions, but come February things can dwindle and peter out as so-called 'real life' encroaches.
This can happen with our songwriting goals too. We get fired up big time but somehow lose momentum with our ideas, drafts, schedule, practice - all the bright and beautiful things we said we'd do. How do we keep things going once started?
Here are some interesting strategies that might resonate. Some may work better than others or you could go the whole hog and have a go at all of them. But they work on the principle that motivation and self-discipline is extremely finite. Rather than winging it, arm yourself with a more systematic approach.
1. Accountability - make yourself accountable by enrolling the support of a buddy or several in an active songwriting circle. This helps you get your songs written because you commit to sharing them or drafts with someone else on a designated day at a designated time. Using Google Calendar or similar to send you reminders is a good start too. Other 'professionals' can help with this source of momentum from bandmates to publishers to producers.
2. Consequences - making your goals more public can seriously draw a line in the songwriting sand. One of the boldest goals I've heard publicly stated belongs to local musician Troy Kingi who announced his recording goal of 10 albums over 10 years in 10 genres - so far he's completed 3, but his ambitious declaration has garnered support too, as well as the threat of negative feedback if he's 'unsuccessful'.
Note I said 'more public'. You can restrict how public to a certain extent. On a smaller scale, you can use a closed facebook group/songwriting circle to state your goals and set up a 'fine' /'reward' system if you don't or do meet your 'deadlines'. Flip side is getting the pot if you do!
3. Pay someone to keep you on track - whether it's just scheduled accountability calls - yes, people will do this for you - or specific coaching sessions, tailored systemised support contact/tuition on a formal basis can keep up your momentum. Like a personal trainer - but for your songwriting.
4. Pay someone to do it for you - major recording artists and labels with staff writers do this, understanding that more writers mean more new songs. This in turn means a higher probability of finding songs that fit an artist, perfectly. Quincy Jones auditioned over 600 songs before deciding on the tracks for Michael Jackson's Thriller. But from a more domestic perspective, cutting in other co-writers or producers can lighten your load and really add to your own momentum.
You can also pay or barter for other services that take you away from songwriting - from mowing the lawns to getting your car washed, cleaning your house, getting foodbags delivered to doing the books. Comes a time, even just once or twice.
5. Small Steps - setting up smaller achievable tasks can mean quick wins, which keeps the ball rolling. If your goal for 2020 was 'Write New Album', and that paralyses you, start with 'Write 5 Song Titles' this week. The scope is reduced and completing the task moves you forward quickly. Momentum!
6. Song Prompts - getting on to a songwriting challenge or using song prompts functions like reminders on a calendar, but with given starting points that act as triggers to starting some aspect of a song. There are loads of free ones online, but I've just finished Ed Bell's useful book, The 30-Day Speed Songwriting Challenge, which pokes and prods you to write for 60-90 minutes every second day.
Sure I had to modify which were my 30 days, but the combo of manageable task (quick win) plus supplied prompt made it too convincing to ignore over a really busy time for me. While I wasn't looking at the productivity side of the challenge, rather wanting to see what it would do to my comfort zone, it definitely made me stick to the output. Plus I'd told you ...so no way could I shame out! Haha! Double whammy.
Whatever works for you of course, but keeping the wheels rolling makes it a heck of a lot easier to move in and out of active songwriting sessions and mulling things over. It helps with your continuity.
best wishes and talk more soon
ps here's an article that might help you with rhyming.
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