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The Big Fat Lie That Most Musicians Believe

Once in a while a post comes along that kicks your butt like a Bruce Lee/Jet Li tag team. Bill Renfrew’s post Who’s Ready To Work?, the spinning roundhouse kick to my overblown metaphors, crystallized my thoughts here. 

No matter how rational a being you are there is one big fat lie that almost every songwriter believes despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s this

Songs are things that just happen to songwriters.

Sure we can read books on songwriting, attend seminars and analyse the classics but deep down we believe that if that song doesn’t want to be written there’s nothing we can do about it. To paraphrase Tom Waits, we all like music but we’re not 100% sure that music likes us.

The crazy thing is we don’t act like this when it comes to mastering our instrument. The very same instrument we keep poking and prodding while we’re waiting for the muse to turn up. We know that if we don’t put the time in our playing will never improve. We know that progress won’t always be instantly obvious but improvement inevitably follows practice like harvest follows sowing. And we know that emulating the licks and patterns of the masters will train our stubborn minds and fingers. And yet we disregard all of that when it’s time to compose. Why? To get religious for a moment, we believe in free will when it comes to learning an instrument but when it comes to writing songs everything’s predestined. Only YOU can make you a good guitarist but you can’t write a great song unless you are sovereignly chosen to do so by a higher power.

 

Let’s be honest. Though this kind of ‘inspirational fatalism’ doesn’t make sense it does seem to be backed up by our failure to make songwriting work. Songs may not just happen but it sure seems like it. Why?

We don’t practice enough

Here’s Bill Renfrew : What I can’t figure out is why I, a rational, realistic human being, thought my songs should be getting airplay when I probably hadn’t spent more than about 125 to 150 hours writing all the songs I’d ever written in my life. People, I spent more time than that in the first month learning to play guitar. But with my songwriting I didn’t think it should be all that much work. You figure out a lick on the guitar and you write something about your girlfriend, right? Isn’t that all there is to it?

Practicing songwriting is tough because there is no such activity as writing a song. It’s cluster of many intertwined activities. Like a car assembly line or a game of football. Footballers don’t spend all their time playing matches. They practice shooting, passing, heck! – even running. So why not zone in on a particular songwriting skill we are weak in and practice that? Maybe you struggle finishing a song. Finish a whole bunch. The object isn’t making a great song, but dragging a few over the finish line by writing that 3rd verse or bridge. Maybe it’s lyrics. Demoing. Chord progressions. Whatever. Make doing that your goal. Once you’ve written 10 choruses the 11th one is bound to be better.

There is no finish line

Bill again: We know you can’t measure songwriting like you can measure a sprinter’s time, or a high jumper’s highest jump, or a linebacker’s tackles per game. Even a guitar player can be ranked in regard to certain things such as speed and licks (“Dude, he can play Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’ note for note!”). What are you going to say about a song? “Dude he rewrote ‘Wind Beneath my Wings’ in ten minutes and it sounds exactly the same!”

We’re trying to write a great song. How great is great? Does every note, every line, every section have to be great for a song to be great? When do you know that it’s the best it can be? Never. What they say in the movie business applies here too. Films (and songs) aren’t finished, they’re released. Many great songwriters would have happily spent another week/month/decade tinkering with that song you rightly deem as a classic, but they had to let it go due to some completely arbitrary deadline – an album release date, a tour, Bob Dylan booking out the studio, the drummer getting arrested…Other than just sucking it up and scratching a deadline on the calendar, here’s two things that might help

 

Stop pursuing the goal of writing a great song. Pursue the goal of becoming a great songwriter. Every song you complete will almost infallibly make you a better songwriter. (If you keep learning the craft as you go). And great songwriters seem to write great songs.

Don’t compare any song against it’s perfect imaginary self. Compare it against your other songs. Like this: write 10 songs. Then pick the best 4 or 5. Though it’s almost impossible to assess whether any one song is the best it can be, it’s easy to compare it to your others. As well as being able to see your progress, you’ll also begin to see your weaknesses, strengths and cliches.

 

The longer you go, the worse you get

We’ve all seen the phenomenon of a band that started well and went downhill. That first album was ground breaking but then…MEH! The artist’s first 10 songs were awesome but songs 50-100 are drivel. What happened? Aren’t we supposed to get better the more we do something? The reality is those first 10 songs probably weren’t the first, but the best of the first 20, or 30 or 40. So far so good. But then the band went on tour and spend the next 3 years of their lives sleeping on buses, playing world of warcraft, and cranking out those same 10 songs night after night. Then they headed back to the studio and tried to turn the rusted up songwriting tap back on to fill up the bathtub of albumness…you get the point. It’s not so easy. The moral of the story. Keep writing. It’s not so much a case of “If I don’t spend regular time writing I won’t produce many songs”. It’s more like “I’m in training to be a great songwriter, and every day I don’t train will make me rusty”. So try not to take any year long breaks.

Do you have a fatalistic approach to writing songs? What are you going to do to get in training?

Related Posts: GTD for songwriters
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What I learned about songwriting from a crazy guy in Liverpool

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Showing Up Teaching

Day 145: More Kids Than You Can Shake A Stick At

Lady Gaga attempts to eggscape from marauding pre-teen fans

Today I’ve been spending some much needed Kwal-Al-Tee time with my GLW (good lady wife). Then teaching kids. Teaching adults. Then doing a school gig. Traditionally no matter how many kids are down to do it a good percentage don’t turn up. So I wasn’t too fearful of putting a group of 40 kids aged 8-10 forward.

Well wouldn’t ya know it about 50 of the blighters showed up. So thanks to Long Jenny Silver Morton who helped me get all of em in tune so we could rock out with our rendishun of Bad Romance.

Oh Yes. I am, in fact, down with the kids.

After all that I felt, “I’m tired, I deserve a night off”. But I couldn’t do it people. I had to go down to the Matt Cave (aka my bedroom) and play through a few old songs for ideas.

Results

  • A couple of really bad old songs filed away. Did I say bad? I should be doing a blog called Matt Blick Bad Songwriting Academy where my younger self demonstrates how NOT to write songs…
  • One bad old song called That My Heart May Sing that has something about the 2nd verse lyrics that speaks to me still. Back in the song starts folder for you. (Update: This has now become Never Be Silent)
  • Some transcriptions of old Vineyard songs that I now have the real music for – bin!
  • A song I transcribed written by my old pastor! In the ‘songs written by others’ folder
  • A crazy little interesting song that I never recorded called Small Is The Gate. Into the song starts folder. Maybe I’ll record it now I have some recording gear.

So that was a productive half hour.

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Songwriting

GTD for Songwriters (pt 7)

Welcome to the final instalment. After sorting out paper & digital files let’s finish off by looking at how important titles are

Songs

It’s not just albums where we get to be creative with the metadata. Even if you get through a few working titles you’re still likely to end up with lots of versions of the same song with the same name. I avoid confusion by labelling my songs like so

You Spoke The Stars D4R2V2M5

D=Draft

This is the version of song that I’m on. When I get the idea for a song and write it out in full that’s draft one. Every time I do any substantial work on it that becomes the next draft. I may not do a fresh recording of each draft but I do want the audio name to match up with what I have written down. Lyrically a new draft is often the point where I can no longer scribble any more amendments on a sheet of paper and have to type out a new one.

R=Rewrite

Sometimes I record/perform/whatever a song, then realise it’s still not the best it can be. This can happen years after I ‘finished’ it. A song that I revisit in this way will get an R tag though I’ll keep numbering the drafts (I also stupidly put the R before the D but I think that’s because my inner geek would get a kick out of seeing a song with R2D2 in the title).

V = (Recorded) Version

I don’t bother using this for just capturing song ideas, but sometimes you attempt a demo for public consumption and then scrap it and try again (think of Love Me Do by The Beatles. Pete Best would be V1 and Ringo Starr would be V2 (Yes Beatles geeks, Andy White would be V3!).

M = Mix

Pretty obvious but probably the most useful. It’s easy to spot the version with Ringo on the drums, but what about the one where you added more compression to the bass in the 3rd verse?

One cool little bi-product of having everything digital is it’s easy to duplicate a song if you need to.

For example, you have finally completed Awesome Song. The finished article is named Awesome Song D4R2V2M5. Store it in the Awesome Song album. Then copy it and put the copy into the ‘best of’ playlist. Now retag the copy with the name of your real album and all the metadata you’d want Joe Public to see. You can do the same thing if an idea ends up inspiring more than one song and add a duplicate file to each album.

(another bug to watch out for is the way iTunes renames files when you rename tracks – WMP sensibly leaves the filename alone. I like it like this because sometime I can’t remember which mix I chose to release).

If you didn’t check it out before let me recommend the Songwriting For Busy People podcast by Graham English. He covers many of the ideas I’ve put forward in these posts, but fits it all in to 7 minutes!

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Showing Up

Day 144: The Walking Cure, Going Straight & The Fear

I haven’t let you know what I’ve been up to down at Shabby Road for a couple of weeks, but that’s because I’ve been doing the same thing every night. Chipping away at the final rewrite* of Faithful And True. But here’s 3 things I’ve noticed

Walk

I was stuck on a few lines of lyrics – nearing the end of a song inevitably mean I’ve painted myself into a corner knowing exactly what I want to say but held captive by rhyme scheme and syllable count. No great solution but I find the best way is to go for a walk and mull em over. Making a bit of a list of problem lines means I can work on it on the tram (oh Nottingham Trams how I love you), buses (not so much), anywhere

How does it go?

I’m pretty strict on melody anyway but when you’re writing a worship song for a lots of people all to sing at once you have to really nail everything down. Even if you keep the lines all exactly the same length It’s so easy to sing a crotchet and two quavers in the first verse and 2 crotchets and one quaver in the next. Things migrate from the on beat to the off beat seemingly at random. This is all part of interpreting it as a singer but when you’re expecting hoping people will join in you have to be clear about the uninterpreted melody first. So what I did was write all the verses out bar by bar in manuscript form to compare. This is about as micro as you can get and it’s mind numbing work. Singing each of 4 verse and trying to work out whether the third or fourth word should be on the off beat. Or neither. Or both. Good times.

Just Do It.

for the last couple of days I’ve been doing pre-production. Or procrastination as it’s also known. I knew I was suffering from the fear of finishing when I noticed I was avoiding getting my new audio interface out of the box and loading the drivers. What’s the problem?

I’ve been working on this song for so long and in such detail that I don’t feel I know how to play it, arrange it, record it. I mean, I started this bad boy Bill Clinton was still running America and the Spice Girls were in charge of everywhere else. It’s on it’s 2nd major rewrite and I don’t want to work on it anymore*. Not cos I hate it. My love and patience for it aren’t running out. Just my objectivity.

Solution? tonight I put on my trust Nike Pegasus 25s and recorded a scratch vocals and guitar and real bass. Cos I know the demo that will result from my pathetic efforts to play this song will be a zillion times better than the non demo I’ve got in my head that no one else can ever hear.

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Songwriting

GTD For Songwriters (pt 6)

I’m taking a bunch of posts to look at applying the ‘next action’ principal of GTD to songwriting. Let’s look at managing audio files.

You and Media 

So, rather than files and folders, your media player is where it all happens. But how does it happen?

Through a creative use of playlists, albums and titles.

Playlists

Getting back to GTD terminology, your playlists function as ‘next action lists’ You can have any number of lists but the three basic ones are

Song Starts
Raw ideas that might turn into a song

Best Of
Which is the playlist you might use to share songs with any interested party, or just play to yourself when you need reminding that you’re not a talentless loser who can’t finish a song

Current Song
This is your work bench for the things you’re working on right now

There doesn’t seem quite the same need for a dead/completed audio playlist as a physical song folder as the sum total of all your hard work just sits there in your media player anonymous but searchable and sortable.

I said this system was a work in progress – a bug in the system is that whenever I’ve backed up data and wiped my hard drive the playlists are the things that never quite come back properly. Loosing track of which rough ideas are worth working on would be a big problem…any ideas?

Albums

Albums are your key filing system component. What you do is create a separate album for each song. Eventually this one ‘album’ will contain all the versions of your song from initial riffs through various drafts and alternative versions to all the different mixes and the finished track. The advantage (other than having everything in a handy bucket) is that if the song title changes you only have to rename the album (a simple move in WMP and iTunes) not all the individual tracks. For example the album for my recent song Brother contains tracks called CivilSatrianiZepHel (the original riff), Not About The Pigs (the original title/concept) and Brother (the finished song).

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Songwriting

GTD For Songwriters (pt 5)

As I’ve written about previously I’m using the GTD philosophy to sort song ideas. I’ve already covered the physical stuff (lyrics and chords on paper etc) but what about all the audio? This is much more of a work in progress but here’s what I’ve got so far.

The future is not digital

Everyone has an iPod (and a Kalashnikov)

Digital is the present. It’s pain for old timers like me because so many of my songs and ideas are stored in analogue form (I rocked a C90 back in the day) but digital is really the best option for all the reasons that persuaded us to start buying CDs in the first place. Ease of access, storage, portability…y’know – the whole ‘being able to carry your entire music library with you as you fly to work in your rocket suit’ shebang. And you can eat your breakfast off it. (No wait, that was a lie…)

I’d also add the benefit of being able to instantly access and do A/B comparison on ideas from the last 28 years of my music career. But lest you think this is just an issue for geezers like me, do any of you young whippersnappers have ideas spread around on voicemail, WAV, mp4, FLAC, CDs, minidiscs and DAT?

So the goal here is to rip everything onto one computer (or cloud) in mp3 format (lofi, but fine for capturing ideas).

Folders Shmolders

The next issue is sorting all this stuff. Listen to me carefully here. Labelling folders is no use whatsoever. You don’t access audio files via folders you access them via your media player so what you name your folders, where you put ’em and how you arrange them is irrelevant. What folders are is a place for storing and to find when you need to back em up. So just make sure you’re music is all in one place (and preferably somewhere separate from everyone else’s music on your hard drive).

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Songwriting

GTD For Songwriters (pt 4)

Here’s another post applying the principals of GTD to songwriting. If you missed them, here’s the intropart one, part two and part three. Today, let’s look at clearing the backlog.

Being a song filing champ isn’t the Win you’re looking for

I’ve started to make a few steps on this journey of reclaiming all the old material from my files. It feels great. At least one song which I thought was a great concept turned into a great song (Everything Is Broken) and others that turned out less great are now out of my hair.

That said, it’s important that we don’t start filing wild geese by making ‘sorting out our archives’ our sole goal for the year. A chef doesn’t have the right to feel he’s getting somewhere cos he finally cleaned out his spice rack. Productivity for song writers means writing songs.

Diary of a recovering song hoarder

Here’s what I’m doing. I’ve got my potential folder containing the last few years worth of ideas in there. Songs in the front, single line ideas in the back. I’m still finding songs masquerading as single lines and vice versa. I’m starting to pull out the single ideas that are actually titles and group them together.

From that I select ONE idea at a time and put it into a wallet folder and work on it till it’s finished.

I’m also ripping up my old note books. Songs I’ve finished are easy to deal with. Each song gets it’s own poly-pocket in an alphabetised folder three folders four folders). All my rejected ideas and songs go there too. That one step alone means half the pages I’ve accumulated I’ll never have to look at again. My head feels clearer already!

What about audio? Well that ‘s more of a work in progress for me – but I’ll be back on Monday to share what I’ve come up with.

No matter how original you think you are some one has always thunk your thoughts before you. Graham English did a great (and very short podcast called Songwriting For Busy People that I’d recommend – unless you’re too busy to listen to it. He covers some of these very same points.

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GTD For Songwriters (pt 3)

I’m taking a bunch of posts to look at applying the ‘next action’ principal of GTD to songwriting. If you missed them, here’s the intro, part one and part two.

Say No To Moleskines

Not moleskin! Mol – eh – skeen – ah!

So you’re gathering things according what you need to do with them next. That means all the drafts of your current song need to be together. All your potential songs need to be together. All your rejected and finished songs need to be together – out of your sight! Tozier won me over. If you’re going to jot ideas down in a note book it needs to be one you’re not afraid to rip up and file the pages away (so don’t write a different song on the back!).

Speaking of which…

Everything Digital?

Why not keep everything digital as word docs or even something fancier and shmancier than that? Because sometimes you need to flick through all you ideas quickly (like pages in a book) and sometimes you need to lay out a million ideas where you can see ‘em and move em around (like pages ripped out of a book) but mostly because you need to not see a whole lot of other ideas (like pages that have been stored away in a totally different book).
“But I’ve got a billion terabytes on my laptop and I can store everything I’ve ever written!” you cry. But your brain can’t – that’s the point. The reason songwriters get into this mess is too much raw data. It needs sorting.

That said I do type things up and have digital copies of most drafts. These live in files marked current (songs in some stage of development), finished and old. Old contains a sub folder for each song. The others don’t need sub folders as they should only contain one version of any song.

Next time – filing and hording

Related Posts: Writing songs with Joseph Pulitzer
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Songwriting

GTD For Songwriters (pt 2)

Have you read the intro and part one?

Getting Things Done (GTD) teaches you to sort things by what you need to do with them next, rather than what they are (a CD, a chord chart, manuscript paper).

As I’ve wrestled with the problem of how to file songwriting ideas, I’ve realised everything pretty much falls into one of six categories

Best of

This is your portfolio of your best work to date, finished enough to share with the world in a form that the world can understand. For me it’s a playlist of my best final mixes and a folder with all my best songs in chord chart form.

Current

The song you’re working on right now. Song. Singular. Not plural.

Potential

This has two parts. Song ideas that actually might be worth working on someday and fragments – a line, a title, a chord, a metaphor that might fit in any number of songs

Retired

It’s over. It may have even been in your ‘best of’ once upon a time but the years (or months) have not been kind to it and it’s time to put the little fella to sleep. These are the demos your next of kin are going to be fleecing your fans with long after you’re dead. (BTW you can always gut the song and put any parts worth saving back into your potential file)

Archive

These are all the various drafts and rewrites of the songs that you’ve already completed. These are documents your next of kin are going to be fleecing collectors at auctions with long after you’re dead.

Rejects

You got the inspiration and faithfully wrote it down, but now you look at it in the cold light of day you realise that the muse meant to drop it off at Mr Poopie’s house for inclusion on Poopie Music Vol. 10.

Next time – why I don’t like nothin’ and what the point is not

Related Posts: Writing songs with Stephen King
Download all my 2011 songs for free!!!
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Songwriting

GTD For Songwriters (pt 1)

(read the intro post here)
For the last 2 years I’ve been attempting to implement David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system into my life and for the same amount of time I’ve been trying to get some kind of meaningful handle on the mountain of raw song material I already have.
Did I say mountain?

50 odd cassette tapes (yeah remember those?), 4 track master tapes, a DAT tape, 30 CDs, a couple of hundred mp3 files, not to mention mp4s, WMAs & WAVs. That’s just audio. 4 ‘page a day’ diaries full of lyrics, 7 or 8 manuscript books, a couple of exercise books and a few ring binders. 


No wonder I never go there. That amount of information frightens me. I might go in to look up some old chord progression and never come out again, only for one of my kids to find my body weeks later crushed under a pile of mp3s.


The way out
Last year I’ve began to see a way through the mess and it was inspired by an insight from GTD. Allen say…

Most undermining of the effectiveness of many workflow systems I see is the fact that all documents of one type (e.g., service requests [or lyrics]) are kept in a single tray even though different kinds of actions may be required on each one. One request needs a phone call, another needs data reviewed, and still another is waiting for someone to get back with some information – but they’re all sorted together. This arrangement can cause a person’s mind to go numb to the stack because of all the decisions that are still pending about the next-action level of doing.

GTD p. 151-152
can cause a person’s mind to go numb ?


 – David, you know me so well!
Our natural habit is to store ‘like with like’. Take books for example. Where do you keep the books you love and reread and refer to? What about the ones you’re probably never going to read again? Probably rubbing shoulders on the same shelf somewhere. And that’s fine. For books.
What we really need to do with our songwriting ‘stuff’ is gather and organise it according to what the all important ‘next action’ is – the very next thing we need to do with that file or piece of paper.



Portrait Of Chaos 

Look at my files. In one manuscript pad I have a transcription of a John Scofield solo followed by the finished score for a 4 voice minimalist piece, excerpts from the Rite of Spring, various riffs, scale and rhythmic ideas to explore and finally horn charts for one of my songs.
In audio files finished mixes rub shoulders with rough mixes, live performances, single riffs, snatches of melodies & chord progressions. I have music recorded in professional studios next to ideas captured on a built in laptop mic.
The way out of this creative jungle is to file things not according to what they are , but according to what we need to do with them next .
I’ll unpack how I do this in practice in part 2

Related Posts: A songwriting masterclass with Peter JacksonSteven Spielberg

Download all my 2011 songs for free!!!
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