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Stephen King’s Nail

When Stephen King decided he was going to be a writer in his teens his first milestone was sending off a story to a magazine he hoped would publish it. As you might expect he got a rejection slip. No encouragement, not even constructive feedback about story development, character or anything. Just a sentence informing him that he shouldn’t staple his pages together.

Undaunted young Stephen set to work on the next story (unstapled) but also did something quite remarkable. He knocked a nail into his bedroom wall and put the rejection slip on it.

Though his aggressive filing is cool – literally stabbing criticism through the heart – saving rejection slips isn’t unique. I still have one from a Mercury Records A&R exec informing me that “riffs are not enough”. Many of us harbour ambitions to one day name and shame those who didn’t recognise our genius.

What’s impressive is that young Stephen created a place to store his failures. He was expecting this slip to be the first of many. And he was right. Eventually his nail had to be replaced by a bigger spike as the notes mounted up. King knew the path to success winds through the valley of rejection.

I often tell young songwriters that the only way to write great songs is to write a lot of songs without worrying about the quality. Because the best way to learn anything is by doing and because it’s a way of unblocking your creative pipeline. Plus starting out with a goal of deliberately writing bad songs can help you trick your inner critic into silence if you’re paralysed by overthinking. Being a creative artist requires repeatedly making things without fear of failure or rejection.

So right now come to terms with that. Many artists (especially those who achieved early or substantial success) on encountering bad reviews, poor sales or apathetic audiences hit the panic button. SOMETHING IS WRONG!!!! Soul-searching, depression or even a change of career follows. All because they have nowhere to file their failures.

Those who have learned Stephen King’s lesson feel the pain and disappointment, but when they examine the song, gig or album they say “Oh I know what to do with this. It goes here. Filed away in the ‘failure file’ with all my other failures”. Because you will fail. It’s part of growing and enduring as an artist.

Other disciplines are better at recognising this truth.

Actors know that the price of every role won, is rejection. George Clooney had multiple auditions for Thelma & Louise but still lost out to Brad Pitt. Pitt auditioned for Backdraft but lost out to Billy Baldwin. Even getting a role can lead to failure. Will Smith passed on the chance to play Neo in the Matrix in order to make box office flop Wild Wild West.

Stand up comedians test new material at open mics accepting the awkward silences as the price of developing a strong new set. As a ‘tribe’ they take an almost perverse delight in ‘bombing’ in front of an audience, treating it like some kind of resistance training.

Failure is a given in every sport. Boxer Floyd Patterson when reminded that he had been knocked down more than any other heavyweight champion simply replied “I got up more times than anyone”. Michael Jordan summed up his career in this way: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed”.

The only surefire way to improve as a songwriter is to write, record and perform song after song after song. As many will inevitably be failures at some level one of our biggest obstacles is our inability to cope with the perceived shame and pain of failure. What every songwriter needs is a nail.

Stephen King: Every Songwriter Needs A Door (The Difference Between Writing And Rewriting)

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Best Posts Music Biz 2.0 Writing Songs With

Writing Songs With – Charles Dickens: What Would Dickens Say?

With downloading we listen to everything in bits. Could you imagine what Charles Dickens would say if you said, ‘Could I just have one chapter?’ You’re creating a short story culture. What happened to narrative?

Tori Amos: Mojo Magazine May 2007

I love that quote from Tori. So wise. So perceptive. So wrong.

The truth is that one of the greatest English novelists did in fact publish full length novels like Hard Times, A Tale Of Two Cities and Great Expectations in weekly instalments. In his own way his creative strategy was a precursor to the digital downloads and the ethos of constantly releasing new ‘content’. In other words, if Dickens was a 21st century musician he’d be releasing his albums a song at a time as digital downloads.

Dickens’ example helps to confirm my belief that great art is often created by people who are not preoccupied with making great art. Think of Bach having to come up with a new piece every Sunday for the church service. Or the Beatles cranking out a new record every three months for Parlophone. Or Motown literally modelled on that shining beacon of creativity, the Detroit car manufacturing industry. Or Dickens (and Conan Doyle, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, not to mention Melville, Eliot, Hardy, Trollope, Thackeray and Beecher Stowe) producing the paper equivalent of a weekly soap opera.

But to say Dickens published in instalments doesn’t give us the full picture. Dickens didn’t just complete a novel and then drip feed it to the public. He wrote them as he went. It’s normal to read a novel not knowing how it’s going to end. It’s more unusual when you realise that the author might not know how it’s going to end either! But it gets better than that. When Dickens published The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist in monthly instalments, for ten months he was writing both at the same time! Three months after finishing The Pickwick Papers he started writing (and publishing) Nicholas Nickleby even though he was still working on Oliver. He only started to get ahead of schedule on Oliver after signing a publishing deal for the finished novel a few months before the serialisation was completed.

Publishing as you go has some benefits.

Deadlines are your friend

I’m a fan of deadlines . Dickens’ writing commitments kept him sharp and made him prolific.

Writing without “time to reconsider, to change [his] mind, to go back, to cancel, to rewrite” sometimes delivering the chapters to the printers at the very last minute, it killed any chance to second guess himself and succumb to the paralysis of analysis.

It was incredibly hard work. He pushed himself even harder than he needed to, working “furiously fast to give himself free time. He lived hard and took hard exercise. His day began with a cold shower, and he walked or rode every day if he could”. He was suspicious of taking too long a break from writing saying “I feel it better and wiser to keep near my oar”.

At the risk of stating the obvious, constantly working is the best way to improve at your craft. And nothing makes you work like a deadline.

In his biography of Paul McCartney Barry Miles writes

The speed of artistic creation varies enormously from artist to artist…but all would agree that the printer’s boy waiting in the hall, a one-man show in six months’ time or a block booking of a recording studio in three weeks’ time exert a powerful influence on the creation of art.

Miles is almost quoting composer Rossini who said

Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or for the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair… I wrote the overture to La Gazza Ladra the day of the opening in the theatre itself, where I was imprisoned by the director and under the surveillance of four stagehands who were instructed to throw my original text through the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below to transcribe it. In default of pages, they were ordered to throw me out the window bodily….

Audience Feedback

Publishing as he wrote meant Dickens was in constant contact with his audience. The feedback from those reacting to his work allowing him to make adjustments ‘in real time’.

Stories changed shape in the process. The Old Curiosity Shop grew from a collection of short short stories into a full length novel due to financial pressures on the magazine Dickens was editing. Biographer Claire Tomalin says “[By April he was improvising] from week to week a novel he had not even thought about in January.”

In David Copperfield there is an unpleasant character called Miss Mowcher who is a dwarf and beauty specialist. Mrs Seymour Hill, a female dwarf and chiropodist (and neighbour of Dickens) threatened to sue for defamation. To escape a lawsuit Dickens offered to change the plot and transformed Mowcher into a sympathetic character.

Not everything we try will work and sometimes (especially with larger scale works) it might be a good idea not to spend three years working on something before you find out whether it’s any good…

Peer Feedback

Dickens also got feedback from reading chapters aloud to his friends which “lifted his spirits” and gave him intense pleasure “nourishing his belief in himself and helping to carry him through … pain and unhappiness.”

In this he stands in a long tradition of mutually supportive schools, movements and artists collectives from the Inklings and the Bloomsbury Group to Jack Hardy’s Songwriter’s Exchange (the inspiration for First Tuesday).

Wizard Of Oz lyricist Yip Harburg was part of another New York artists group

Starting in the 1920’s, and continuing through the 1930’s] we got together almost every night, often at the Gershwins, where there were two pianos, and we could play everything we had written that week and see how it went over. The others gave you criticism or an idea – there was a real camaraderie. People took fire from each other. It was like the days of Samuel Johnson and Fleet Street. We all wrote for each other and inspired each other. You wanted to come up every week with something worthwhile. We were all interested in what the other fellas were doing. Sometimes you would hear the whole score of a show before it opened. We ate it up, analysed it, as the composer played it over and over at the piano.

There was a kind of healthy competition among us. You would not dare to write a bad rhyme or a cliched tune. We had such great respect for each other’s work, and the integrity of our music and lyrics. The give and take added to the creative impulse. It was an incentive, it opened up new ideas, and made it necessary to keep working.

Sources: Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now by Barry Miles and Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration Of George And Ira Gershwin by Deena Rosenberg

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Three Chords And The Truth: The Importance Of ‘Fact Checking’ Your Songs

Many years ago, I heard that legendary guitarist Ry Cooder was going to be doing a live taping at BBCs White City studios. As my sister lives nearby I felt we had a shot of getting a tape right into his hands. I had decided to write some old-timey lyrics to Joseph Spence‘s tune Great Dreams From Heaven, a tune Cooder had cut as an instrumental, and I was sure my lyrics would knock him out. They opened with the discovery of America, moved to Martin Luther King and finished with a heartwarming call to believe in your dreams. I recorded my vocals over an edit of Cooder’s track, typed up the lyrics and sent my sister to deliver the payload.

When my sister reported back she dropped a bomb of her own about my opening lines

Sailing in the Mayflower ‘cross oceans of blue
Came Mr Columbus and his merry crew

“You know the Mayflower wasn’t Christopher Columbus’ ship”.
“What! Tell me you didn’t give him the song!”

But she did. My imagination flipped between two scenarios. Ry opens the package, reads the lyrics, sneers and throws the tape (unlistened) into the bin. Or Ry opens the package, reads the lyrics, sneers and says “hey guys, get a load of this idiot!” The band all laugh as Ry throws the tape (unlistened) into the bin.

Over twenty years later and I still cringe. Should I ever get the chance to meet one of my heroes I’d be tempted to pass. I don’t think I could face hearing “Hey, weren’t you the guy who…”.

A song needs to be true.

Does that mean there’s no place for poetic license? Not at all. Generalisation and hyperbole are fine. The Beatles can sing All You Need Is Love without discussion on Maslow’s hierarchy. But a song should be factually true, true to the one singing it, and true to the metaphors and grammar of it’s genre.

Get Your Facts Straight

Stephen King in his book On Writing says that once he’s written a first draft he asks people who have expertise in a particular area to fact-check his manuscript. Types of guns, police procedure, geography etc… It’s important because glaring errors make you look dumb and take knowledgeable people right out of the book (or song). When you’re trying to make a serious point a ridiculous error can cause a mental trainwreck.

From This One Place by Sara Groves includes the lines

I was about to give up and that’s no lie
Cardinal landed outside my window
Threw his head back and sang a song
So beautiful it made me cry

Amazon reviewer K. Lacey said

The improbability of a cardinal moving way beyond its normal repertoire of a one-note chirp to improvise a beautiful song makes me wonder whether anybody tried to suggest a more appropriate species of bird before letting her go ahead and freight a decent song with unneeded controversy.

It would have been easy to check with a bird lover. Research shouldn’t interrupt the process – write what you like and check it afterwards (novelist Ann Patchett suggests this approach). Occasionally if it’s integral to the whole structure of the song do all you research first and then write the song.

Here are some of the things I’ve had to double check

At other times you just need to step back and think. The original line in Trees was “All of your dreams will be forgotten like Autumn leaves when Spring appears” I was so caught up in the clever double meaning of ‘autumn leaves’ that I forgot – Winter comes after Spring!

Get Your Imagery Straight

Factual goofs should always be fixed but a song also has to be true to it’s imagery and metaphors. Taylor Swift‘s I Knew You Were Trouble has

A new notch in your belt is all I’ll ever be

but the image of sexual conquest is a notch in your bedpost. A new notch in your belt just means your belt’s too big cos you’re losing weight.

Remember Who’s Singing

Songs should be true to the ‘character’ that is singing them. In My Fair Lady the song Show Me has the line

Don’t talk of June, don’t talk of Fall, Don’t talk at all! Show me!

but the song is sung to an upperclass Englishman by an uneducated English woman singing who is learning to speak ‘the Queen’s English’. And English people say Autumn. Americans say Fall.

Stephen Sondheim says complex rhymes imply thought and education. This is true even of songs that aren’t in musicals. An overly clever rhyme in a straight ahead pop song sticks out like a sore thumb

It’s no good. He sees her.
He starts to shake, he starts to cough.
Just like the old man
In that famous book by Nabokov

Just like a dumb rhyme sticks out in a clever song

Told me love was too Plebeian
Told me you were through with me an’
Now you say you’re sorry…

Get Your Grammar Right

A song needs to be true to the genre’s standard of grammatical correctness.

Double negatives like “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” are fine in folk and Frank Zappa can get away with “chances are they might not never find one no more” for comedic effect. The same goes for contractions. If you ‘got’ the blues you can “gonna, woulda, coulda” all you want. No one in their right mind thinks the Beatles would be better singing

“She Loves You. Yes, Yes, Emphatically Yes”

On the other hand, hymns requires correct english, but archaic language is fine and thou the syntax reverse thy canst entirely. But no genre allows you to mix and match approaches just to preserve the rhymes and scanning.

Respectfully
I say to thee
I’m aware that you’re cheatin’
But no one makes me feel like you do

You Killed My Song. Prepare To Die.

Sometimes a song is broken beyond repair. I had one which started “Beautiful Cross, strange contradiction”. My friend Steve pointed out that calling an instrument of torture ‘beautiful’ isn’t a contradiction, it’s an oxymoron. “Beautiful Cross, strange oxymoron”? The song was dead in the water – I scrapped it. No one wants to be Alanis Morrisette (I’m being ironic). Imagine having to spend your life justifying your misuse of a common word (“I was employing situational irony in a Kierkegaardian sense”) or put up with people ‘correcting’ lines like

“It’s like rain on your wedding day…”

“…to the Egyptian sun god Ra”

We all need Inigo Montoya‘s in our lives. People like Steve who will tell us, “You Keep Using That Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means”

Other stuff

Do You Have To Suffer To Produce Great Art?
Writing Songs With Stephen King
The Big Fat Lie Most Musicians Believe
Three Things Every Musician Should Be
The ‘To Do’ List – A Classic Songwriting Tool

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Naming Your Band – In 10 Easy Steps

Having been through the naming process so many times, with my own bands and ones I’ve taught, I’ve learned that trying to find THE GREATEST BAND NAME EVER is a fool’s errand. The best you can hope for (and what most bands settle for) is the LEAST BAD BAND NAME.

Many famous bands don’t like their name –

Foo Fighters “It’s the dumbest band name ever”

Mumford And Sons “I definitely regret the band name. It’s a ball-ache. We thought about changing it, but it’s a bit late now.”

Arctic Monkeys “It sounds like a first band name, doesn’t it? It’s so bad that the tribute bands don’t sound worse.”

McBusted “The world’s worst band name. It was the best of a really bad bunch.”

Smashing Pumpkins “is a stupid name, a dumb bad joke and a bad idea”

Goo Goo Dolls: “We had a gig that night and needed a name. If I had had five more minutes, I definitely would have picked a better name”

Hoobastank: “It was fun to say at the time, and when we named the band we were a lot younger”

The Beatles “We had to settle on one particular name. And John came up with the Beatles one night, and explained how it was spelled and we said ‘oh, yes, it’s a joke!'”

Smokey Robinson And The Miracles picked their name out of a hat. Even TV show Sesame Street‘s name “was set at the 11th hour and fifty ninth minute”. Almost everyone on the show disliked the name. But they hated The Video Classroom, 1-2-3 Avenue B and Fun Street more. They set a deadline to come up with a better idea and “went with it because it was the least bad title.”

Back in the 80s it was enough to come up with some misspelled and often laughably umlautted monicker. I spell Vengence Vengeance incorrectly to this day thanks to my time in a metal band. In those simpler times, as long as people could pronounce your name you were OK. And if you shared a band name with someone on the other side of the world, it wasn’t an issue till one of you signed to Warner Bros. But the internet changed all that. So here’s 10 crucial steps to naming your band.

1. Brainstorm A List Of Names

Write down at least 50-100. Write them ALL down. Every single one. No matter how silly. Don’t judge. Don’t debate. The stupidest will make a cool talking point during interviews (and you never know – some goofy garage band or tribute act may use the rejected name in your honour).

2. Mix And Match The Names You Have

When you can’t think of any more, try taking a word from one name and adding it to another. Look for unusual juxtapositions like Sound-garden, Radio-head or Led Zeppelin.

3. Change The Numbers

If any name contains a number, try multiple versions with different numbers. Three Blind Mice? Four Blind Mice! Six Blind Mice! Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch 22, was originally called Catch-18, but that’s less, erm, ‘catchy’.

4. Google It – For Rival Bands

Google “YOUR BAND NAME band” or “YOUR BAND NAME music” or “YOUR BAND NAME lyrics” If there is another active band with your name YOU ABSOLUTELY CANNOT USE IT. Yes, you might beat them to the punch if they haven’t registered it, but what’s the point? If it’s so cool and original how come someone else thought of it first? Is it really worth spending money on?

The one caveat is ‘active band’. Was the last gig mentioned on their Facebook page in 2004? Is their web presence limited to a MySpace page? You MIGHT be OK. But don’t assume – your namesake may be gigging like crazy but lousy at social media. Ask the artists formerly known as Blink and Twigs.

5. Google It – For Rival Brands (And Other Things)

What if your chosen moniker isn’t a band name, but a ‘thing’ out there in the real world? If it’s a trademarked product or a person – forget it. Disney, Pepsi and especially Toho studios have bigger and uglier lawyers than you. If it’s just a ‘thing’ you may be OK, but ask yourself – is your band going to get lost in the internet ‘noise’?

For example ‘Whale’ is terrible name for your band because when someone types ‘Whale Music’ into Google your album will join the queue behind 600,000 hits for Greenpeace.

6. Does It Mean Something Bad?

Does your name have nasty or unintended connotations? Think about it and ask lots of other people (eg “What do you think of when I say “Ben Dover And The Batty Men?”). It might seem funny taking your name from some obscure sexual practice until your fan’s eyeballs get a baptism of fire on google images. Check Urban Dictionary and a regular dictionary too.

If you have a multiword name, try typing it without spaces as in ‘yourbandname.com’. Sometimes a perfectly inoffensive name can create a terrible URL. What business do you think Penisland.net, Expertsexchange.com, Speedofart.com and Powergenitalia.com are in?

7. Is It A Song Title?

More specifically, is it a song by a band that you are heavily influenced by? Then Don’t. Just don’t. Nothing marks you out more clearly as a slavishly unimaginative copycat.

But otherwise, that’s fine. ‘Radiohead’ is a song by Talking Heads. Judas Priest took their name from a Bob Dylan song ‘The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest’. Deep Purple, Jet, The Kooks, Death Cab For Cutie, Nine Below Zero, Right Said Fred and The Sisters Of Mercy are all named after music they sound nothing like.

8. Can Everyone Spell It?

Think carefully about this. Is it something that people are going to have trouble spelling? Or remembering?

I was once part of a band called Aistaguca. Pronounced Eyes -Ta – Goo – Cha. It doesn’t mean anything in any language. It’s not spelt phonetically. I lost count of the number of times people who had really enjoyed our gig asked me what we were called. Then asked again. Then asked me to spell it. And then I would see their eyes glaze over as they resigned themselves to the fact that they were never going to be able to find us online, tag us on Facebook or even tweet that they’d seen us. FAIL.

The only exception would be spelling your name ‘wrong’ to help people get it ‘right’. Led Zeppelin went with the ‘Led’ spelling to prevent people saying “leed” – as in ‘lead guitar’.

9. Don’t Pick A Name That Sound Like A Completely Different Genre.

One day a hundred, very unhappy, very drunk, thrash metal fans will show up to watch your folk trio play the local art gallery. Your ironic name won’t seem so funny then.

10. Live With It

Once you’ve got it, stick with it and get on with the real business of making music. If you do a good job with that, the music itself will come to define what that name means, not the other way around. Say Buffalo Springfield now and we think of Neil Young and a bunch of hippies not the steam-roller they were named after. And when you see the word ‘Beatles’ you don’t think about insects or ‘beat music’ do you?

Sources:
Foo Fighters, Mumford And Sons. Arctic Monkeys [Hit The Floor]
Smashing Pumpkins [Cracked]
McBusted [Irish Mirror]
Goo Goo Dolls [Rolling Stone]
Hoobastank [Rolling Stone]
Sesame Street [That Eric Alper]
Catch 22 [Spectator]
Judas Priest [Classic Bands]
Jet [Wikipedia]
Speedofart.com [Boredpanda]
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Do You Have To Suffer To Produce Great Art?

Beethoven was my homeboy growing up. Every artist has a ‘narrative’ and Ludwig’s was suffering made him a great artist. The 5th Symphony was him shaking his fist at the lightning, cursing fate. The world seemed to say, “You think he wrote that in his Malibu beach home while his lingerie model wife and 2.4 perfect kids lazed around the pool and the servants polished his Ferrari? No, he wrote it in a disgusting hovel with a piece of wood clamped between his jaws as he struggled to squeeze the last drops of hearing from the vibrations entering his skull. THAT, my boy, is how you create great art”.

This always bothered me. Not because I thought the statement wasn’t true . It bothered me because I wanted to created Great Art. And I didn’t want to suffer.

And as I grew older this worldview gained weight.

Shostakovitch labouring under the gaze of Stalin, the genocidal psychopath, Brian Wilson’s mental illness, Van Gogh’s self harming, Cobain’s chronic pain. All kinds of suffering – crushing poverty, disease, sexual shame, disastrous business deals, broken marriages, alcohol abuse, drug habits, wrecked friendships…

And yet so much beauty growing out of so much pain. Fragrant roses blooming with their roots covered in excrement.

A few years ago I reached a turning point. I was not creating great art. And I was suffering anyway. I was drowning, pulled down by all the things I didn’t feel I could share with my church. Or talk to my wife about. Or say to God in prayer. Or even write down in my journal. I had to get those things out. And for me, wired like I am, I had to set them to music.

At first they were simple and tentative

Looked for a star but the night was black
Fell from grace, right through the cracks

On the ropes and off the rails
Hanging onto God by my fingernails

but things started to flow. And I started to be more bold, more honest and even go beyond what I was feeling just to break down the walls.

Oh no, oh Noah you don’t know
The way my poor soul sprung a leak
My faith turned greener than cheap gold
As fake as American teeth

One day, reflecting on my journey, a tiny light came on. I realised I’d had it backwards.

Suffering doesn’t infuse art with meaning.
Art extracts meaning from suffering,
like drawing poison from a wound.

We WILL suffer. We will ALL suffer. One way we can process it and work through the suffering, is to MAKE something. It’s part of what makes us human.

We shouldn’t court chaos just to feel artistic. Or wait for pain to come before we create. If you are in a good place at the moment, learn the nuts and bolts of your craft. It’s probably too late to take ukelele lessons when you’re lying in intensive care.

Postscripts

  • Another way we can heal is to appreciate something that someone else has made, probably through some suffering of their own.
  • If you want to remember Robin Williams this interview is a good place to start. I want to watch The Fisher King right now.
  • Depression is an appalling harvester of talented peopleKeir Francis
  • I think Cyril Connolly was full of crap when he wrote “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”.
Related article: What I Learned About Songwriting From A Crazy Guy In Liverpool
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Three Things Every Musician Should Be

A big welcome if you’re visiting from CD Baby – you probably want to jump straight to the application, right?…

I’m a guitar teacher by trade. Sure I write songs and perform, but if you met me at a party and ask what I do I’d say “teach guitar.” If I won the lottery tomorrow* I’d still carry on teaching (but maybe reduce my hours a little) because I feel a responsibility to pass on what I’ve learned and I think it’s something every musician should do.

At the same time, it’s a battle. Full-time teaching tends to squeeze the original creative impulse out of my soul that made me want to play guitar in the first place. And I’m aware that not having the time to learn anything new on my instrument dries up writing AND teaching, keeping me going round the same ever deepening ruts.

Many of us will be firmly in one camp. A teacher, student or creator. That’s fine. But to be a truly healthy member of musical society, we need to be a little of each.

A Teacher

I am self taught. What that means is my school music teachers, Jonathan Trout, Steve Milward and Lesley Lear, taught me a little notation, broadened my horizons, got me to listen critically and perform in school productions. Malc Rowe, an older guy at school, taught me all the Judas Priest songs he knew in return for me roadying for his band. My art teacher, Ken Jones, introduced me to lots of jazz & avant garde music. My sister Roberta loaned me everything from Gershwin & The Beatles, to Ry Cooder & Led Zeppelin. Denton Williams gave me a case full of gospel tapes. I devoured instructional books and columns by people like Mickey Baker, Paul Baloche, Paul Gilbert, Joe Satriani and attended courses and masterclasses lead by Brian Doerksen, Jon Gibson, John Etheridge.

I hope you get the point? No one is self taught. We all had help coming up and we all have to give something back. Not everyone could or should teach formally – some of us lack patience, punctuality or an analytical mind, or have issues with alcohol or the police. But we can all do something to help the next generation.

A Student

Sadly, most teachers stop learning anything new about their subject right after they qualify, just like recording artists stop learning once they start touring the first album. Thereafter the next 20 years worth of music (or teaching) is drawn from an ever diminishing pool of ideas.

Teachers and lecturers get long summer breaks (some even get sabbaticals) but many down tools just to collapse and recover. And the few successful artists that do seek out formal tuition usually do it to correct career threatening flaws in their technique.

A Creator

Art & Fear warns of the danger that –

“…an artist who teaches will eventually dwindle away to something much less: a teacher who formerly made art…like some perverse recycling process from a sci-fi novel, the same system that produces new artists, produces ex-artists”

and goes on to say

“The greatest gift you have to offer your students is the example of your own life as a working artist” (p.82-3).

Meanwhile students are sometimes trapped into a mindset that they must learn everything before they create anything, not realising that the best way to understand any musical concept you learn is to use it.

So if you know you’re lacking in any area here’s some tailor-made suggestions

A Teacher who Creates
A Teacher who Studies

A Student who Creates
A Student who Teaches
A Creator who Teaches
A Creator who Studies
Take me to more cool stuffb

A Teacher who Creates

  • Write for you school/church/organisation – A colleague who teaches piano recently wrote a song for a school’s centenary celebration. One of my english teachers always wrote the book for our school musicals. He later quit to write radio plays for the BBC.
  • Write with your pupils. Many have the ideas to kickstart a song but not the skill to bring it to completion. Filling in the gaps for them can be inspiring for you. For the last 3 years I’ve co-written and recorded songs with groups of kids aged 6 to 18 for events like FAWM and 50/90. Speaking of which…
  • Sign up for FAWM. An insane one month writing splurge is doable and Feb is a good time to do it. You even get a half term holiday.
  • Have a summer recording project. Don’t be too ambitious – maybe write and record a solo acoustic EP and stick it on Bandcamp.
  • Hit the open mics. It’s hard to hold a band and a career together but getting up to do a couple of tunes in front of a handful of other musos is low maintenance.

[back]

A Teacher who Studies

  • Allow your pupils to bring in current music and learn some of it. It’s a great way adding to your catalogue of teaching resources.

  • Always have a piece of music or some scales/chords to work on in down time – lunch breaks, kids not turning up. Redeem the time rather than zoning out in the staff room.
  • Try to have one composer/artist who you dig down deep into and try to master their whole catalogue and style. Read, watch, and listen to all you can find on them. Here’s mine.
  • Pick a genre you’re not too familiar with. Find a good ‘best of’ compilation (eg “Now That’s What I Call Samba Metal Vol. 1”) and learn every song.

[back]

A Student who Creates

  • Every time you learn a new chord, scale or technique, get into the habit of writing a short piece of music using it and record it. Don’t even wait till you’ve mastered it.
  • Try to mutate a song you’ve learned, changing it a chord/phrase/word at a time till it becomes yours. Subconscious plagiarism is a massive problem for beginners. Solve it by deliberately stealing your ideas!

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A Student who Teaches

  • Find someone who knows less than you and show them something. Don’t try to be a teacher, you’re just someone a few steps further along the road, so remember to act like it.
  • If you’ve been learning a while you’ve probably found some good songs, books, articles, youtube videos, even real live teachers. Point people to the good stuff.

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A Creator who Teaches


  • Work with the younger generation, let them learn from you up close as they write, record and tour with you. That is how the apprentices of old learned, side by side with an experienced craftsman.

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A Creator who Studies

  • Find a new chord, tuning or scale and write 5 songs in it
  • Learn a new instrument and play it on your next album.
  • Learn to play all the songs on a classic (or brand new) album and perform the entire thing at a one off charity gig
  • Record a side project EP playing a completely different instrument or genre
  • Every month listen to the top 20 songs (or top 20 in your genre) and try to write something as good or better. Incorporate any new ideas you pick up.
  • Collaborate with an ‘outside’ co-writer from a different genre.
  • And yes, if you have some downtime you could get some formal tuition from an expert.

Over to you

  • What area do you fall short in?
  • Is there anyone you know who’s a good example of a well balanced musician?
  • Do you have any tips to share?

Leave me a comment

*unlikely, as I don’t do the lottery.

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Steve Jobs And The Rewind Button

I got the biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs for Christmas. I was hoping for some insight on how to be a creative thinker but it’s actually a pretty depressing read and there is little in the way that Jobs is portrayed that I’d want to emulate.

But in one passage Steve talked about the moment in the development of every great Apple product where they realised something was wrong and felt the temptation to just ignore the alarm bells and plough on regardless. But in each instance they ‘hit the rewind button’, missing deadlines and delaying launches to fix it, and in doing so lifted the product to the next level.

I’ve hit 3 such points that I can identify during the recording of the Let’s Build An Airport EP. First, after getting the mix I realised Brother Bull dragged towards the end. I felt tempted to say “never mind, it’s just the weakest song on the record” but I realised that cutting a verse and chorus (something I’d been fighting ever since I wrote the song) made it move along at a much more satisfying clip. I did a mock up of the edit in Garageband and then Mark my producer did it for real. I lost some cool xylophone and steel drum moments but gained a tighter final track.

Next a cello part wasn’t working. Tuning wise, tonally and it lacked expression. Rerecording the part helped, but not enough. I’d run out of ideas and we ran off mixes with and without the part. But then Mark started copying over snippets of violin and viola from other parts of the song and layering them. The section of the song is really striking now thanks to string parts that I never would have composed.

Finally one little cluster of pitchy notes at the end of the record, almost inaudible when mixed is now sadly very noticeable now the track are mastered. To fix them means going back a step and remixing that portion of the song, then adding it into the mastered track and remastering. But I’m hopeful, like the previous examples that the whole track will end up noticeably stronger.

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You Need Deadlines (Slight Return)

 

My recent Ben Folds post got me thinking about how helpful deadlines really are to the songwriter.

Q: Do you sit down to write or do you have to get struck by [inspiration]?

Ben Folds: I have to get struck by the deadline. I always have songs in my head and I always have things that I’m starting but I find finishing it is really tough. Most of my best stuff was finished on a deadline.

Here’s a few other takes on the need to have a finish line. Brenton Brown likens the worship songwriters roles to a pastor who has to preach a sermon every Sunday whether it’s ‘finished’ or not.

Matt Redman … or Paul Baloche’s catalogue of songs don’t just happen. At a certain point, you can make a decision. You can either wait for the songs to come or you can treat these albums almost like a Sunday morning service, as a pastor, where I’m preaching to the church on Sunday. I need to prepare, I need to find bread for the brothers. I need to get the Word of God for them. Once you set up that structure, we’re going to try to record an album once every three years or something. That focus, that target, that deadline whatever you want to call it collates everything, coheres everything. You get more intentional about your songs. And that’s not a bad thing, is it?

Classical composer Rossini relied on deadlines to help him to complete his operas

Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or for the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair. In my time, all the impresarios in Italy were bald at thirty. I composed the overture to Othello in a little room in the Barbaja palace wherein the baldest and fiercest of directors had forcibly locked me with a lone plate of spaghetti and the threat that I would not be allowed to leave the room alive until I had written the last note. I wrote the overture to La Gazza Ladra the day of the opening in the theatre itself, where I was imprisoned by the director and under the surveillance of four stagehands who were instructed to throw my original text through the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below to transcribe it. In default of pages, they were ordered to throw me out the window bodily….

Calvin understood the role of adrenaline as an aid to creativity

Lastly, Douglas Adams perhaps serves as a negative example. I remember as a young HitchHiker’s and Dirk Gently fan feeling the frustration of waiting years for the next novel as Adams tinkered around on the latest Apple product.

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

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A Classic Song Finishing Tool – The ‘To Do’ List

In the realm of personal management it doesn’t get any more basic than the humble to-do list. But for me this little fella has made all the difference between a song getting lost in development hell and actually making it across the finish line.

What I’ve come to realise is this –

First we get inspired. Then we have to work hard. Things that don’t work are big and obvious and we give it all we’ve got to find solutions. We work on song vision, we fit the parts together. Finally all that’s left is to tidy up & smooth the rough edges. And that’s where we can easily get bogged down.

When I’m inspired, I’m mostly writing ‘by feel’ – sensing this chord or that phrase feels right. And eventually what remains are the few minor parts that bug me. It’s tempting to wait for inspiration to strike again. But it probably won’t. I’ve come up with every alternative there is and I just have to pick one. The song is 98% there. Whatever I decide won’t affect the song that much. But waiting to lightening to strike a 3rd time will. I’ll get bored, lose interest, lose perspective and then lose my faith in the song completely.

That’s where to to-do list comes in. I’m learning to create an inventory of all the decisions left to make, and then one by one MAKE THEM. By a process of elimination, drawing straws, asking your people to vote, doing ‘eeny meeny miney mo’. Whatever. Just make a decision already!

For example, here was my to-do list for my song Brother Bull –

1) Stick with the original structure, drop the 5th verse or move the 5th verse and drop a chorus?

I just played the options through. I knew the original was too long – that’s what was bugging me. But I didn’t want to lose a verse I liked and the narrative shape was nice.

So I turned v5 into verse 3 and dropped a chorus. I played it all the way through and it felt OK.

*Update July 2013 – during the mixing of the Let’s Build An Airport EP I hit this issue again and for the sake of not letting the song drag I cut the verse 3 (aka the verse formerly known as verse 5 and another chorus). Read about the process here.

2) soft as her skin/cheek/face/neck/breast/thigh/back/arm/throat/smile?

I had brainstormed every possible body part for this line (plus a few others we won’t mention) and none were great. But I wasn’t going to come up with a better idea. So I sang the line with every possible word in turn.

The original line (soft as her skin) wasn’t very…well…original, but I liked the way it ‘sang’ and I figured that a song built on such a weird premise (A love song that consists of asking various animals to donate body parts) could stand one line that was too normal.

3) pockets are bursting with/pockets hold nothing but

The questions were “do I want to change the chorus the last time around?” & “will ‘bursting’ sing OK?”

Answer: Yes and yes.

4) Gm or Bb?

and

5) F or F/A?

all through the writing process I’d been switching back and forth between these chord versions in numerous places in the song. But now I was done and it was time to nail things down. Just make a decision already!

I was uncomfortable with singing a G over a Bb chord rather than a Gm, but, emboldened by the example of John Lennon I decided to go for it.

What’s preventing your current song from being finished? Try drawing up a list and working through it as cold bloodedly as if you were doing the laundry or servicing your car. Let me know how you get on.

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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?

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