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First Tuesday Interviews Songwriting

Jack Hardy’s Songwriting Manifesto

As told to Sharon Goldman. This post previously appeared on Sharon’s excellent Songwriting Scene website.  It was a huge influence on my starting the First Tuesday Songwriter’s Group in Nottingham.

Reposted here with Sharon’s kind permission.

Jack’s Songwriting Manifesto

When I hit New York in 1974 it wasn’t with a bang but more of a whisper. The folk scene was dead. The only thing that could fill a club was a rumour that some celebrity would be there. But there were numerous good writers who seemed to take their work seriously.

Our songwriters’ meeting grew organically, first with two of us meeting every week (myself and Maggie Roche), then a group of us at the English Pub on 6th Avenue (including David MassengillBrian Rose, Tom Intondi, among others), then the Cornelia Street Café for five or six years and (when art could no longer get in the way of commerce) at my Houston Street apartment where it has met ever since, with a few guest venues when I was out of town.

Over the years a certain process has emerged, a process that works to fuel, inspire, encourage, teach and validate the writing we do. This manifesto is an attempt to put down some of the truths that I now hold to be self-evident.

The songwriting process

Everything about writing is a process. It is a process that one must immerse oneself in to be good. We have to stop thinking of the song as a commodity. We have to stop getting hung up on the song itself, as an end in itself, and pursue the process.

The process means giving yourself the license to be something new, something potentially better or worse. To have fun writing. To trick yourself into new ways of looking at the world. Only then can you reach into your own emotions and touch the emotions of someone else without dragging everything else in a moving van with you. If you showed up at a “first date” with a moving van with all your belongings it would never allow the relationship to start.

The only thing that makes you a songwriter is writing songs. And writing songs. And writing songs. Just write. Write now, judge later. Finish the song, even if you suspect that it is no good. Finish it. Plug ahead. Even if it is only a half-baked idea got on the subway or in the car on the way to your weekly songwriting meeting, go with it. Finish it. Even if you wake up in the middle of the night and have an idea, write it. Sort it outlater.

Sometimes it takes you years to realise that you have written (for the better or the worse). Have faith in yourself, in your creative process, not in your critical process. No one ever wrote a song or improved their songwriting byhaving an opinion on their own song or someone else’s song. Theonly way to improve is to write.

The process #1: Write a song a week.

Sounds simple. It is and it isn’t. Make that non-negotiable item on your calendar. No excuses. None. Jobs, kids, weddings, funerals, hurricanes. Still a song a week. If you write a song a week several things will happen.

1. You will improve. In spite of yourself you will improve.
2. It will force you to pay attention, to seek out things about which to write. To find metaphors on just what is interesting out of the seemingly mundane
3. It will force you to take yourself less seriously, to not second guess yourself out of a good idea.
4. It will force you to take yourself more seriously. If you are going to call yourself a writer and think of yourself as a writer you must write.
5. It will take the pressure off you to expect everything you create to be great. If it fails it doesn’t matter. There will be another one next week. Give yourself the right to fail.
6. It will force you to expand your horizons: to try styles and ideas you wouldn’t have tried – and at least you will have written something.

The process #2: Get together with other writers once a week.

Not every other week. Not the first Tuesday of the month. Every week. This gives you a self-imposed deadline and a group of U.N. observers to enforce the deadline.

This group can also include other ‘kindred spirits’. Our group has included novelists, photographers, poets, painters, playwrights and actors. Make it fun. We always cook up a big pasta, people bring wine, beer or organic fruit juices (or whatever they think will help them enjoy the process).

This is also a mutual support group for this out-of-the-mainstream line of creativity we have collectively chosen to pursue. We cook together, we eat together, we drink together. We chat, socialise and have fun and then, and only then, do we play what we have created that week. If anyone hasn’t created that week they don’t play, however they can still participate.

The process #3: True criticism focuses on what is being done right.

Criticism is a harsh word. It can only come when there is a feeling of trust between the participants and only when the participants are intensely aware of where the artist is coming from and where the artist is attempting to go. If you get together with the same people every week you will develop this sort of intimate creative critical relationship where everyone is equally vulnerable and everyone is fully aware of each other’s capabilities so that one is not comparing one against the others but rather against what they are capable of and their own line of progress. This allows writers of all different levels of maturity to participate at whatever level they are currently at.

We rejoice in each other’s successes, minimise each other’s failures, and suggestions for improvement are specific and coming from a desire to see each other improve and write as well as we possibly can.

Why songs move us

In that we are dealing with primarily our emotional language, let us look for a moment into what and how it is that certain songs seem to grab us by our heart strings. Often it is a song that seems to place us in a whole different place, transport us almost physically out of where we are. This can be done by a description, a character, a story line, a scene evoking a time of year or a time of life, certain weather or sounds or smells. It is the physical plane that attaches our emotions and transports them.Not the cerebral rational part of our brain.

Often I have heard someone say, “I don’t know why that song affects me, but it does. I come to tears when I hear it”. Often it can be the slightest bit of detail that makes the difference between grabbing that part of the listener; detail that alters their perspective, forces them to look at something from a different angle, so that they forget to “think” about the song and just be in it.

What bought most of us to writing songs is that we were once moved by a song. We want to be able to move others the way we were moved. Later we may be distracted by ego considerations and economic considerations in the fame-and-fortune department, or the quit-the-day-job department, but still what drew us to this was emotions. Let us not forget that.

Transcending ego

In order to improve as a songwriter one must completely transcend the ego. This seems to be a paradox of sorts in that most people who go into songwriting and /or performing are thought of a being egotistical. Perhaps this is due to the lack of realisation that the self one needs to write is dramatically opposed to the self that one needs to perform. One is introverted, the other extroverted. In order to tap into the subconscious one has to put aside any importance of the self and become a vehicle, not to form any judgment or any expectation but rather to ‘go with the flow’ and it is a flow.

Clever theft

Aristotle said, “Genius is merely the ability of clever theft”*. Consider two ‘good’ songwriters who go to an open mike. One spends his time trashing everything he hears, putting down the amateur, pointing out all the clichés and the lack of musicianship. The other concentrates on what (although admittedly little) is being done well. A good line here, and idea unrealised here and a melody that is great as far as it goes. Which one will profit from that experience? One will know everything that he shouldn’t do. Though his ego feels satisfied, he’s learned nothing new. The other has some good ideas programmed into his central computer to resurface when they are needed. For this reason,at our songwriters’ meeting we try to keep the criticism to the pointing out of what is being done well.

We can only learn from failure, by the attempting of something: If we wallow in the failure aspects of that exercise we don’t gain anything, but, if we focus on what little we have done well, we can do it better the next time (without our self-esteem being so shattered as to get defensive). No one ever improved their writing by putting down someone else’s writing.

Out of control

We live in a society that tries to control everything. Nature, psychology, history (spin doctors), health. Creativity is something we cannot control. That does not keep us from trying. Everything in our educational system forces us into rational behaviour, analytical behaviour, clarification, dissection and, most of all, adulation and imitation.

True creativity is far different. We have to unlearn everything we have learned. We have to give up the control. All we can do is program our computer (our memory) with as much useable fodder as possible: experience, imagery, tradition, vocabulary (musical and verbal), so that when we tap into that other energy we don’t have to break off to look something up or try to remember where we put something (in its neat compartment or in its file in the mechanical computer).

Call it channeling, transcendental meditation, tapping into the muse – call it what you want; it is something that comes from the subconscious and affects the subconscious of the listener.

A song is a two-way street

A song is not therapy for the writer. It is not just what he wants to say (propaganda or otherwise). It is also what someone wants to listen to. I am a big fan of Beauty: the beauty of emotions. When it comes from an emotional place and affects the emotional fabric of the listener true transcendence takes place. A songwriter must always remember that the listener is as important as the singer; that without the listener the song, like a tree in the forest, doesn’t exist (or make the sound).

Editing is crucial

Everything that comes from our trance-like creativity is not golden. It must be weighed against the needs of the listener. I remember in high school someone asking the English teacher how long an essay had to be and he replied (in dated language of the early sixties), “It should be as long as a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep it interesting”.

That is, interesting to the listener. Clear concise language. However, I have never been afraid to challenge the listener a little bit. Give them the credit of intelligence. Songwriting is not like journalism. It does not have to be written on an eighth-grade level.

Often at our meetings when someone has played some long, rambling song, I ask them to explain in twenty-five words or less what they were trying to say. They proceed to give a concise explanation, clear and to the point. Then I say, “write that song.”

The first step of editing is to get out anything that is bad writing. The second step is harder to learn: You have to get out even the good writing if it does not serve the point. It is difficult. The lifeboat is leaving. There are too many people for it.  They are all good and deserving people. But if they all go in the lifeboat, it will sink!

Melody is half of a song

And then there was melody. Melody is half of a song, and yet most often ignored or not understood by the songwriter. Test: Sing the song a capella. If there is no melody there is no melody. No amount of chord progressions or production or harmony can make up for a lack of melody.

Unfortunately melody is perhaps the most metaphysical part of the song. There is really no way to teach melody. One has to learn it. One can study melodies, imitate them,pirate them until something clicks and voila! – melody. A good rule of thumb is: Do not write melodies on the guitar. You will hear harmonies and overtones and tend to write melodies that follow chord progressions. Piano is worse. You hear the whole orchestra. Strip it down. Go for a walk. Whistle your idea. Try singing verbal sounds until they fit a pattern of notes.

The gestalt

If songs are to be at their best, they are not poems set to music or words crafted to a melody but rather both words and melody crafted together, so that the gestalt of the two form something that transcends the sum of its parts. Now I am not saying that all songs should be sung acapella, but if they can’t be, then back to the drawing board.”

*Actually “Genius is a faculty for clever theft.” is a quote from Jill Johnston: Marmalade Me (p.155).

Here’s a short video of Suzanne Vega returning to the Songwriter’s Exchange

Suzanne Vega at the Songwriter’s Exchange
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Songwriting

Stone Soup For Ghosts

Songwriting is the very definition of optimism. A songwriter attempts to makes stone soup with the help of ghosts and fairies. A fisherman heads out hoping he’ll find a fish but a songwriter doesn’t even know if he’ll find a river to throw his line into.

We are people who carve sculptures out of air.

MattBlick 21/02/19

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Best Posts Songwriting Writing Songs With

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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FAWM Songwriting

Why I Failed At FAWM

This year I only managed to write eight songs instead of fourteen. While the the usual suspects, hubris and illness, played a part, there were other aspects that tripped me up and I think they’re worth noting so I don’t make the same mistakes in future. I want to make a whole new set of mistakes!

Limitations

I’m a big fan of Limitations. They can really help you “get on with it” and cut out one of the most insidious forms of distraction – ‘choice’. There’s lots studies that show that if a supermarket stocks 25 types of jam in the supermarket they won’t sell any because the customers can’t decide which to buy. Only stock 3 varieties and sales are much healthier. But for creativity there’s a tipping point where too many limitations make it harder to work.

FAWM has a massive limitation built in: you have to write a lot of songs in a short space of time. Adding any other artificial constraints could be asking for trouble. In my case I had chosen to ‘co-write with my younger self’, digging out old tapes and using the ideas to write new songs. Just consider how many other steps that assumes.

  • Digitise the tapes
  • Edit and label mp3s
  • Listen and evaluate which ideas are worth working on
  • Relearn old ideas (many of which were badly recorded and a quarter-tone sharp). Where there were mistakes, try to discern what my intention was. Try to work out if I had used a capo or an alternate tuning
  • Compile various versions of the idea scattered across different tapes

This is all work I had to do BEFORE I could get down to writing a song. As opposed to the FAWM-friendly approach of grabbing an instrument and strumming away till I come up with something.

One of my favourite FAWMers is American multi-instrumentalist, Izaak Wierman. He often sets himself narrow artificial limitations like writing a song in every key or every mode. But this year he was stranded in Australia with only a mandolin and a phone to make music with. So, wisely, he chose not to set impose any additional limitations on himself.

Chaos

Secondly I was already out of my creative comfort zone. I had been ill before FAWM, seriously enough to make me cancel some work commitments. I also had some building work done at my studio which required changing the layout. Just like the Beatles during Let It Be, this was a signal that I should have just done the old familiar things rather than introduce some more chaos and variables. Maybe even spent time fixing the broken things in my system. Getting the room and recording space into a workable state?

Motivation

Thirdly I failed because I didn’t really want to write. I’ve been on a kind of crusade for the last 5 years trying to make myself a better writer by writing a lot. Some 200 songs later I think that’s worked. But the natural by-product of that process is a bunch of good songs that I haven’t had the time to demo, let alone post online or release officially. So I’m feeling the drag of “what’s the point of writing another 14 songs that are never going to see the light of day?” Part of me wants to stop writing new songs, or at least slow down, so I can fix the next part of the supply chain – how to release music. And if part of you wants to write songs and part of you doesn’t, you’re going to have problems.

Conclusion

I really want to revisit my old music and see if there’s any way to absorb some of the more complex compositional approaches I’ve been neglecting. I’ve pursued a deliberate strategy to simplify and become truly melodic rather than churning out monotonal melodies over tracks constipated with chords and riffs. But I think I’ve got some kind of handle on that now and I need time to go back to the drawing board and explore. And leisurely exploration isn’t what FAWM is about.

So with hindsight I should have attempted everything I wanted to do … in March through December. And let FAWM be a sandbox for my subconscious to play with whatever catches it’s eye.

Next year, whatever I’m feeling and whatever my plans are, I’m going to take February off and just play. And whatever happens, happens.

Lesson (hopefully) learned.

THE END … or is it …?

Why I DIDN’T fail at FAWM

I wrote 8 songs

Writing songs of any description is a victory. If you write bad songs, you may be a bad songwriter, but if you write no songs, you’re not a songwriter at all.

I wrote 3 or 4 songs I’m happy with

One popped right out of my subconscious with no warning. Another is an idea I’ve been trying to write for 2 years. I doubt any of these would have been written without FAWM kicking me in the pants.

I wrote 1 song I love

Other people seem to love it too. The fact that FAWM is so non-judgemental made it easy for me to write and record something so left field for me. The network of writers, musicians and producers meant I could easily hook up with people that had the skills to complete it. The positive response from feedback on the site encouraged me to go all the way and release the track.

A few old ideas have been turned into songs

Some revealed they weren’t worth much and can now be cleared out of my ‘song starts’ folder. Many more ideas didn’t even make it to the writing stage, so again FAWM prompted a kind of spring cleaning of ideas. Others, while not great songs, have proved that they’re good ideas worthy of shaping and developing in the future.

I learned a few things

About co-writing and myself as a co-writer. And of course I have learned some valuable lessons about the right and wrong ways to use limitations and about how I can self sabotage my work.

So did I fail to deliver 14 songs in Feb. Yes.
Did I fail FAWM? No.

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FAWM Guest Posts Songwriting

Guest Post: Izaak Wierman – Setting Creative Limitations

Izaak Wierman is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, music educator, and songwriter from western U.S.A. I met him through FAWM and asked him about his view on limitations (natural and self-imposed) as a songwriter.

There Is Always Some Kind Of System

Music is organising sounds, and the possibilities are truly infinite. I took the classical university music path, and one of the things you learn when you are studying the history of music is that there is always some kind of system (even in free jazz). Order from the chaos.

FAWM is a great system. There will be 14 new songs in 28 days. Your time is limited. Try to post a song every two days and move on. From there I usually come up with an additional self-imposed system before February. Since 2011 I’ve come up with some fun ones, and usually rely on some music theory to help. They’re like song cycles, sets of related songs. Here’s a list of some of my past attempts:

  • 7 songs, one for each of the modern modes.
  • 12 songs, one in each key signature, lyrically based on each symbol of the Chinese Zodiac.
  • Songs derived by randomly selecting two or three from a list of 126 fundamental rhythms.
  • 12 two-chord songs using parallel Major or Minor triads at each interval (m2, M2, m3, M3, P4, Tritone)
  • 14 songs each focusing on a specific melodic interval (m2, M2, m3, M3, P4, Tritone, P5, m6, M6, m7, M7, P8, m9, M9)
  • A set of rounds

A Path Through The Wilderness Of Possibilities

I know it looks a little intimidating if you aren’t into theory, but these kinds of systems give me a purpose and a direction and a little step to take on the long path to 14 songs. Also, understand I’m not a die-hard completist. I think the Chinese Zodiac is the only one I actually completed in its entirety. I managed that by writing the last three songs during the following 50/90. I find these kinds of systems really helpful because they give me smaller decisions to make. What’s the key signature? What are the chords I will use? It’s like a game. A path through the wilderness of possibilities. Additionally I’ll take on any of the weekly challenges or forum challenges that strike my fancy, especially for lyrics. I’ve had a lot of success with story cubes, tarot cards, Loteria, and animal totems.

A Mandolin And A Phone

This year was different because I didn’t really have any self-imposed music theory ideas. I intended to leave things a little more open because I knew I would be stuck with mandolin only, and only the phone to record with. I found the acoustic one-take to be surprisingly difficult because the simultaneous singing and playing gives you many more chances to mess something up on a brand new song demo. I did get lyrics ideas from challenges on the FAWM site (Superhero themes, Loteria and Story Cube) as well as songwriting games like Explore the Core*, Morph** and Auntie-Sin***. I also wrote four traditional folk instrumentals because it’s something I can do without any instrument at all.

Every year’s a bit different. I can’t call 2016’s limitations clearly good or bad. My demo recordings definitely suffered, and I won’t likely listen to them as much as my full production demos in the future. But at the same time, the songs I wrote for 2016 are much more likely to find their way into actual live performances. Much of the music I’ve made for past FAWMs isn’t something I’m able to recreate for a live audience. But this year’s mandolin songs? … no problem. In fact, I need to get out to the local open mic here in Adelaide, and see what people think.

You can check out Izaak’s music on Soundcloud and ReverbNation and of course on FAWM

*In Explore the Core each person writes a completely different song based on a the same set of lyrics and using a list of possible chords.

** In the Morph challenge Songwriter 1 writes and posts a song. Songwriter 2 listens to the song before them and changes 51% to create their own song (eg lyrics, time signatures, melody, harmony, chords, style, every other word – whatever your interpretation of 51% is). Songwriter 3 listens only to song 2 and the game continues. Later, everyone listen to the whole chain to see how it morphs along the way.

***Auntie-Sin is a Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis chain.  Someone writes a song and the next person in the chain writes and records the “Anti” or opposite of that song, the thirds person then writes a synthesis – a new song that combines the first two songs. The fourth person writea an ‘anti-song’ of the third song which is followed by a synthesis of the anti-song and the previous song and so on.

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Interviews Songwriting

Matt Blick: Creative Insights Interview

Creative Insights

Matt Blick interviewed by Henrique Fogli (originally published on creativegibberish.org)

Being a beatlemaniac, an aficionado about the creative process and a music student for about 3 years now made me come across a wonderful jewel on the internet, Beatles Songwriting Academy by Matt Blick. On his outstanding blog, Matt dissects the creative job done by the Fab Four, analyzing their creative process, the music theory behind it, the sources of their inspiration and other aspects involved in their songwriting. I became a big fan of his blog.

And I got real lucky! I asked him if he could share a bit his view of the creative process involved in songwriting – not only from the fab four, but his as well, for Matt is not only a music teacher but also a songwriter. And he agreed! So here I’m sharing a piece of his insights about creativity and inspiration.

Henrique: Matt, let me ask you about Yesterday. Paul claims that he woke up one day with the tune in his head and found the notes and the melody on the piano. A moment of divine inspiration I would say. But as a songwriter yourself, do you think that this would have happened if he’d never touched an instrument before? I mean, would inspiration take place without technique and practice to back it up?

Matt: The story is true, though it’s worth pointing out that he only had the verse melody, not the bridge, lyrics, chords or string arrangement. Without Paul’s technique Yesterday would have only been completed through a massive amount of trial and error, which would have taken so much time, the original inspiration would probably have be lost.

Practically speaking we have Yesterday because Paul was a good enough piano player to roll out of bed and figure out what he had heard in his head quickly enough to keep it. Then he also had the skill to come up with a complimentary section (“why she had to go I don’t know”) and use his instinctive, but very developed, sense of harmony to come of with a chord progression that suits the melody. Not to mention the poetic ability to craft a simple, memorable lyrics (which he did over several months). So I would say inspiration happens to anyone, but it takes a lot of skill and practice to catch the inspiration and turn it into something that others can understand and appreciate.

Henrique: How does inspiration reveals itself to you?

Matt: When I go looking for it! I think for any artist it’s important to have some kind of capture system. The nature of creativity and the unconscious mind means the great or original ideas often come at times when you’re not thinking directly of creating something. So I write down lyrics which go in a folder and record musical ideas which go into a playlist. But it takes work to turn those inspired idea into songs, and it’s only at the end of the process that you can listen to a recording, or play a song for others and know whether it’s any good or not.

Just to be clear I believe you can be inspired in the ‘hard work stage’ too, but you can’t stop every two minutes to take your own ‘creative temperature’. Trying to figure out if what you’re doing is any good while your doing it shuts down the whole creative process.

Henrique: When writing a song, do you have a method you mostly use? Do you write the lyrics first? The harmony? The melody? Even if you don’t always use the same pattern, what do you think is the easiest one? Why?

Matt: My usual method starts with lyrics. Once I have a rough idea of what the song is about, I can get lots of clues about what the structure and feel of a track needs to be. I have written every other way too, but I often have a clear idea of something I want to say and I want that to dictate the mood rather than whatever chord progression my finger landed on. I think for a beginner whatever’s easiest is the best method, but if you find your method is making all your songs sound the same then it’s time to try another approach.

Henrique: Do you believe that studying any other art form can help you write songs more easily? Like having experience writing poetry, for instance?

Matt: Most definitely. I’ve written posts on my blogs about what songwriters can learn from famous authorsfilm directorscomedians, even album artwork. You can learn a lot from poets and poetry so long as you understand that lyrics are not just poems stuck onto music.

Henrique: Do you try to communicate the same message with the music and the lyrics?

Matt: Yes. The only exception is where you’re trying to create a humorous effect from the two being mismatched.

Henrique: Most people tend to think that, in order to work with creativity, you must stay away from rules, patterns, organisation and schedules. What do you think?

Matt: I would say that most unsuccessful artists think like that! I’m a football (soccer) fan. When those guys train they spend hours passing balls to each other, running round cones, shooting from the penalty spot, taking corners and practicing different tactics or set pieces. They practice all these things so that when the game begins they can do them at the instinctive level. It’s the same with songwriting. That’s why I spend so much time analysing the Beatles songwriting techniques in order to ‘master the basics’. There’s a world of difference between ‘forgetting everything you’ve learned’ and never knowing it in the first place!

____________________________________

Matt Blick is a singer/songwriter from Nottingham, UK who is analysing the songwriting tips and trick from all 211 Beatles songs and sharing what he learns at Beatles Songwriting Academy

You can check out his own songs here and pick up more songwriting tips at www.mattblick.com

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Best Posts Songwriting

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

Categories
Humour Ruining Songs With Science Songwriting

Ruining Songs With Science #3 – Like I Can (Sam Smith)

He could be a lawyer on a witness stand
But he’ll never love you like I can, can

But if he’s a lawyer he wouldn’t be on the witness stand. He’d be in front of it questioning the witness. Unless he WAS a witness. In which case his profession as a lawyer would be “Not pertinent, or germane, to the matter at hand or to any issue before the court”.

If you’re self-seeking an honest man
Then stop deceiving, Lord, please

If you are seeking an honest man, then it would make sense to stop deceiving. Unless it’s your intention to find a man you can easily deceive. But if you are self-seeking in your motives but nevertheless quite an honest man generally (particularly about your self-seeking tendencies) then you probably don’t need to stop deceiving.

Unless you’re not an honest man after all … well are you? Lord, please!

More Songs Ruined With Science

Categories
Songwriting

Filled Up With Bad Songs (Or Craft vs Inspiration Revisited)

Songwriting isn’t easy. Who said it should be? One reason to learn the craft is that we are filled with bad, boring and self indulgent songs that we need to force out before the fresh melodies and lyrics can flow.

As Mike Viola sings

Songs, songs, songs, they pour out of me
Not all of them are worth finishing
But you got to finish them to see

Secret Radio

Here’s more wisdom from novelists Ann Patchett and Cheryl Strayed (via Brain Pickings)

Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

Cheryl Strayed: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? If a person … picked up the cello for the first time and said, “I’ll be playing in Carnegie Hall next month!” you would pity their delusion, yet beginning fiction writers all across the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker.

Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story.

Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath.

Ann Patchett: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

More on the craft/inspiration battle from Tom Waits, Chuck Close, Tchaikovsky and Leonard Bernstein

Categories
Songwriting

How To Catch A Song Without Killing It

The bad news is – you can’t.

I’ve been thinking about the fear I sometimes have of working on a good song. When I’m uninspired the fear and loathing is easy to comprehend. I’m worried that I’m worthless and I suck as a songwriter and the tune I’m attempting to finish is shortly going to provide solid evidence of that fact.

But why do I drag my feet when I’m working on an idea that has a life of it’s own and is pushing it’s way out of my guitar and my mind? I think it’s because I know, deep down, that the real life song is never going to match up to the fantasy version that lives in my imagination.  But if I want a real song, in the real world, I have to come to terms with the fact that ‘pinning it down’ is probably going to ‘kill it’.

Some recent posts on the Brain Pickings website summed this up beautifully with quotes from authors Ann Patchett and Cheryl Strayed

This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its colour, so wild and loyal in its nature … my love for this book … is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin … Everything that was beautiful about this living thing – all the colour, the light and movement – is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.

Ann Patchett: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

[I] finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked

I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely nowhere-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.

Cheryl Strayed: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

Everybody loves music, but it’s important that music likes you

Read Tom Waits on Catching Songs