Thursday, July 7, 2011

Some Thoughts On Writing Songs

An old friend of mine wrote and asked me about my process and approach to songwriting. I thought I'd share my response here as well:

You have this vast reservoir of artistic intention that you need to somehow express, and it is being held back by a giant dam, allowing just a little water through at any moment. Most of the time this massive block functions to funnel that excess of feeling down into a slow trickle so you can perceive everything as it passes by and choose what you want to work with. Sometimes though, the dam may be constructed with negativity: fear, perfectionism, self-imposed or society-imposed ideals of what a song should be, laziness, self-destruction, self-sabotage... Keep an eye on it. The better you know yourself, the better you will understand the limitations of your creativity.

Most of my songs happen in this slow trickling process. I’ll often spend a year on a song, tossing around lyrical ideas, trying to fill in the gaps. Sometimes I look at the process as an attempt to solve a puzzle - some songs feel as though they have already been written in some mysterious way, and I simply have to go searching for the pieces. Being patient and allowing for the right element to come to you is an approach that works well for me, as does writing drafts and editing.

Sometimes though, there’s a flood. You’ll feel compelled to pick up your guitar and it will suddenly all rush out at once. A lot of times I’ll find that these sorts of moments happen around subject matter that I hadn’t intended to write about -Things that had been waiting in the shadows, needing to be expressed. Other times I just yank a lucky stone from the dam and the whole thing crumbles as one thought leads to the next. Knowing what you’re writing about helps with this, as does finding a theme or a hook that you can follow through the song, though that’s not always necessary.

* * *

When people ask me how I write my songs I tell them that I don't have a singular method, but it usually forms from a seed that grows into the final product. The seed could be a lyric I've been thinking of, a concept or insight I feel like I should express, a story I want to tell, an experience I’ve had, a chord progression or guitar lick that I'd like to build around, a melody that feels good, a beat, a new instrument that I want to try to write with, and on and on... Sometimes I'll have an emotional charge that I want to express - I'll want to yell, so I write a song that tears apart my vocal chords to get to that feeling. In the past I've had songwriting assignments, where I’ve been asked to attempt to write something for movies or commercials, and I like those challenges as they provide a framework and motivation that I wouldn’t have been able to impose on myself - though too much constraint can sometimes suffocate your work. Whatever the seed is that you plant, you have to cultivate your song, pay attention to what it needs and what you need from it.

To build around that initial seed, I usually begin by trying some random chords and singing nonsense over them, which will eventually evolve into a structure of rhythm and melody and rhyme. The attitude and speed of the song will start to show as well. Then I’ll have a constrained space to write lyrics in: a part of the process that, for me, tends to happen on a drive or a walk or in a conversation with a friend as often as it happens while sitting with my guitar. I don’t usually write lyrics down, they come together slow enough that I remember the good ones, and the rest just get filtered away.

You will inevitably end up with a heap of scrap parts: verses with no choruses, choruses with no verses, random scattered lyrics and music... There isn’t a need to force those unique parts into a full song right at this moment. Keep them around, revisit them, and you’ll find places for many to live - their counterparts simply have not been born yet. Often times I’ll realize that I haven't been able to finish a song because I haven’t yet lived through the conclusion, had a realization that led to the core message, or my skill at a certain musical element hadn’t yet been strong enough. It takes some faith in the song to see it through at such a glacial pace. It takes a lot of trial and error.

* * *

You’ll probably begin with writing in a sort of conversation with the whole canon of music that has come before you. It’s great to be influenced and inspired by other artists, but make sure to look for the things that are really “you” and showcase those, develop them with time. Dropping musical references in your songs can get a bit like dropping names - it might open some doors for you, but not from a genuine place, so it might not remain satisfying for long. I’d always advise someone to keep their song from being one more echo of a fleeting trend. Be you, even if it isn’t cool right now.

* * *

Songs are an interesting intersection of so many things, of rhythm, of melody, of poetic rhyme and meter, of performance, of concept, story, arrangement, etc... Musicians are an interesting crowd because, even though everyone has all of these abilities available to them, everyone has refined their skills in different ways and to different degrees. Some musicians are athletes who can play with record breaking speed and precision or sing on perfect pitch, some are mathematicians who can conceive the angles of a symphony on a bar napkin, some are actors who must show you and perform for you the meaning of what they are saying, and of course there are poets, there are comedians, marketers, party promoters, thieves, revolutionaries, prophets... Everyone has a different approach and passion and belief about what's important. That's how so many songs can exist together, uniquely, in the world.

Any of these separate elements can be endlessly refined on their own. There is an infinite amount of searching to do within the assemblage of words, from their meaning to the quality they have on the tongue. There is an infinite amount of work you can do on scales, on timing, and on breaking out of the rules of those techniques that have arbitrarily been built up around us. You must explore these infinities as you grow, but you need not become a master of any domain to write a great song. That whole 10,000 hours of practice thing - that's an interesting observation on what it takes to have opportunities and excel in a competitive landscape at this point in time in our society as far as technical skill goes, but art is not the same as skill and technique. I believe that you can make great art right now while you’re developing your craft.

This leads me to a quick side-note on competition: it’s a trap. You are in a process, you are on your own path and you need not wrestle to move forward. It takes discipline, not violence. Don't compete with yourself, and especially don't compete with others. Our society judges art as a commodity, on economic markets - virtue in art is too often measured in sales, or perceived monetary value, or status through fame or fleeting hype. It seems like we can only fully appreciate something in this culture if we've turned it into a product, if it gets love from professional critics, if enough people click a button that says they "like" it, if it can be judged on a scale, can have power over something else... Stay away from that if you can, even if you're making your living from your songs. It will only be an excuse to hurt yourself and hurt others. Everyone's taste in music is different, and everyone's taste is right. No one wins. Write for you, because you love music, love expressing yourself, love the challenge, love yourself - and be proud as you grow. All of this I’ve learned the hard way.

Art happens inside of you, in your mind and heart and perceptions, and you can refine different tools (technique, skill, craft) to turn all of that abstract feeling and vision into something concrete. I think that one of the most important elements of songwriting is being able to feel for those piercing moments, for when something mysteriously plucks a heart string or gets the blood pumping. There is no recipe for that, that’s the art of it, and over time you’ll know how to encourage those moments to blossom, to explode. You know what gets you, what lyrics, what melodies, what rhythms and textures give you chills. Recognize when you’re delivering those feelings.

* * *

Write all the time, from every approach that you can. Take it slow, let it unravel at its own pace. Have faith in yourself and the song. Don't force it, and try not to be hard on yourself. Enjoy it. If it isn't coming together in one moment, set it aside before you get frustrated and come back to it later. I probably am able to finish one in every couple dozen songs that I begin - not every one of them makes it to the surface. Be patient, allow the seed to sprout and take root before it grows too tall - take the time to examine each individual branch and leaf. Then eventually, share your song and experience it as it is experienced by others.

And that of course would lead us into another discussion...