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.

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


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


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