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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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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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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.

Download my free single Let’s Build An Airport

Writing Songs With

Writing Songs With – Ernest Hemingway

Here’s a tip I adapted from Brian Clark of Copyblogger in Ernest Hemingway’s Top 5 Tips For Writing Well

Don’t Be Negative!

Since Hemingway wasn’t the cheeriest guy in the world, what does he mean by be positive? Basically, you should say what something is rather than what it isn’t.
This is what Michel Fortin calls using ‘up‘ words:

Stating what something isn’t can be counterproductive since it is still directing the mind, albeit in the opposite way. If I told you that dental work is painless for example, you’ll still focus on the word “pain” in “painless.” Instead of saying “inexpensive,” say “economical,”

In I Got Lost I had a line that said

That dream became so fragile
It wasn’t safe to hold

this was supposed to be my big crescendo line into the chorus but it felt like a damp squib. After some scratching around I remembered Hemingway’s rule I tried to focus on what the ‘dream’ was rather than what it wasn’t and came up with

That dream became so fragile
And much too sharp to hold

which has a much more visceral feel than the ‘safe’ option (and for a bonus the C natural moves up to a C sharp! immediately after). I wish I could say that was deliberate.

If your song is lacking punch, look through the lyrics and try to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive and e-lim-i-nate the negative

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Writing Songs With – Noel Fielding And The Goons


Watching Noel Fielding‘s new show Luxury Comedy I was blown away by his level of
inventiveness, It seemed like every millimetre of the show was packed with originality – sets, dialogue, costumes, characterisation, plot (or lack of) and crazy DIY special effects.

And yet it didn’t make me laugh.

When you find yourself desperately trying to like something is a good exercise to ask why. Sometimes it’s peer pressure (everyone says Mozart’s a genius) sometimes it’s a shared history/loyalty with the band (who’s gonna fly the grumpy shoegazer rockstar banner now Radiohead have gone electro?) sometimes it’s financial (I just took out a second mortgage for this Brian Wilson box set).

Luxury Comedy

would be the kind of show that The Goons would be making if they were around now. I love the Goons. I LOVE the Goons. Why do I connect with this show that ended before I was even born, but not it’s descendant? Am I like some weirdo who prefers hanging out with his schoolmate’s dads?

The Goon Show was a bizarre blend of surrealism, subtle anti-establishment satire and corny old musical hall jokes. In the midst of the whacked out nonsense there was often a gag with a mental age of 3. That for me is the key. The corny jokes were something to latch onto until you got acclimatised to the surreal atmosphere.

And that’s our songwriting lesson.

If you’re seeking to go out on a limb in your songwriting make sure there is some familiar landmark that your listeners can grab onto.

Wanna have your song use multiple time signatures? At the same time? Maybe have really simple lyrics that everyone can relate to. Or want to set your thesis about product placement in the history of colonial Nigeria to music? Try using a simple chord progression and melody. Is your medley complex and atonal? Don’t play it on a saw.

Or do. If you must.

But whenever you find yourself climbing to the tippy top branch of the crazy tree or falling down the rabbit hole of artistic self indulgence, remember to put in a some familiar little detail, something that reminds your listeners of home. A simple sign that says “You Are Here”.

Postscript: At the very least, do the weird part a couple of times in a row. “Repetition makes the strange familiar” – Nicholas Tozier

Free songs by Matt Blick

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Writing Songs With – Stephen King

All A Songwriter Needs Is A Door

Here’s one of many things I’ve gleaned from horror writer Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing and transposed from books to songs.

“The space [where you write] can be humble…it really only needs one thing: a door you are willing to shut”.

Write With The Door Closed

Stephen learned this from newspaper editor John Gould who told him, “Write with the door closed. Rewrite with it open.” Meaning a songwriter should try to write the first draft of his/her song “with no help (or interference) from anyone” and then rewrite with the help of feedback from others.

He recommends finishing the song as quickly as possible saying,

“If I write rapidly…I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in”.

Once the first draft is finished “[let it] rest and go to work on something else.” Resist the temptation to go back and repeatedly listen to the demo. You want to be able put it on in a few weeks and hear it with fresh ears, the way your audience will.

Rewrite With The Door Open

When you start seeking objective advice the first person to ask is yourself. If you’ve been good and not put the song on heavy rotation on your mp3 player you should have gained some much needed objectivity (or at least a tad more than you had when recording it). Make notes of possible corrections, revisions etc, but don’t do anything about them yet.

Now get a few trusted people to give you feedback. There are two types

Factual. If your grammar or theology or anything else is objectively incorrect – change it, without delay or argument.

Aesthetic. Look for consensus. Do they all hate the chorus? You probably need to change it. Does everyone has a problem with a different aspect of the song? You don’t need to change anything unless you want to. And if some people love the part that you hate or haven’t noticed that ‘horrendous’ note in the pre chorus maybe you need to let that go too.

The ‘get the first draft finished as fast as possible’ approach is new to me. I have to confess that struggling with a song for ten years has felt like a badge of honour for me, but perhaps it’s the most insane example of multitasking ever attempted. I’ll let you know how it works for me.

  • What’s your method?
  • How does Stephen’s advice differ from your approach?
  • Has this post inspired you to try anything different?

Related Posts: Songwriting with Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg
Lessons from U2’s coffee table
Keith & Kristyn Getty songwriting seminar

Best Posts Songwriting Writing Songs With

Writing Songs With – Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg

Welcome to an occasional series of posts gleaning songwriting tips from unusual sources. Can a worship songwriter learn anything from horror writer Stephen King? What can a prog-rock band learn from The Goon Show? Find out in the next few weeks, and read on to see how YOU can shape future posts…

Do It Yourself (For Now)

Films are made by casts of thousands, even tens of thousands. One in every 25 New Zealanders worked on Lord Of The Rings in some capacity, so the legend goes. Alongside the extras and assistant to the third assistant directors are a core team of incredibly talented people who carry major responsibility in their own right.

But Peter Jackson didn’t begin by moblising a whole country to his vision, kick-starting the tourist industry and driving down unemployment. No, before Richard Taylor & Weta Workshop had been set to work making a single Hobbit ear, Peter Jackson was mixing foam latex in his mother’s food mixer and baking alien heads in the family oven for Bad Taste.

And before John Williams entered Steven Spielberg’s life (no doubt preceded by a menacing Cello leitmotif) Steven was composing his own score for the 1964 film, Firelight, on the clarinet. Both directors did these roles out of necessity rather than choice and were happy to make way for more talented men or women when they arrived, but in the early stages they did everything. When Jackson needed a steadicam (RRP $40,000) he built one (for $20). When the Nazis in Escape To Nowhere needed matching shirts it was Spielberg who got dye on his hands.

Music has a smaller but no less essential crew.To get a song from an idea to an audience you probably need at the very least a songwriter, a singer, musicians, a producer or engineer, a publisher, and a publicist. Who are you going to get to do all those jobs? Long term – who knows? But short term I’m pretty sure it will be you. Some of these roles you’re gifted in. In others you’re hopeless. But it doesn’t matter. You have to do them anyway, at least till you can pay someone or talk ‘em into doing it for nothing. And that may be never.

What I’ve learned from Steven and Peter is there are jobs to be done and they ALL need to be done. You can’t work doubly hard at some and ignore others.

  • It’s pointless writing great songs if you never record them.
  • Pointless making great demos if you never get anyone to listen to them.
  • Pointless being a master publicist with no songs to promote.

Until your dream team (and the funds to pay them) arrives do the best you can. Study if you have to. But remember as you struggle with SEO, or Pro Tools, or playing the drums that incredible projects like The Two Towers or Close Encounters only exist because something came out of Steven’s Clarinet and Mrs. Jackson’s oven.

Over to You.

Is there anything you’ve learned from someone outside of the music business that has really shaped your songwriting? A preacher, sports coach, cookery expert, business mogul? Maybe even a fictional character? Leave me a comment – who knows? It might be worth turning into a guest post?


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Why Weird Al is a great example for worship songwriters
Songwriting Writing Songs With

Writing Songs With Joseph Pulitzer: Here’s A Pulitzer Prize For You

Joseph Pulitzer gave this advice to journalists but I think it is wonderful guidance for writing great songs too…

Put it before them
Briefly so that they will read it,
Clearly so they will appreciate it,
Picturesquely so they will remember it
and, above all,
Accurately so they will be guided buy it’s light

(quoted: The Daily Telegraph)

Related Posts:

Flaubert On Songwriting
John Bunyan on being in the worship team