I was asked to teach a songwriter’s workshop during a festival I recently played and although I was initially apprehensive, I was relieved to find how long-winded I became when I spoke on the subject. By no means do I claim to be the authority on songwriting; however, over the years I have accumulated a number of tips, tricks and unorthodox ticks that makes my process a bit more calculated.
Below is an outline of my discussion with the workshop audience — I think it will give you some things to think about as you approach your future songs. Good luck.
1.) KEEP A JOURNAL and/or WRITING BOOK
EXAMPLE: Many times I’ve stumbled upon a line or a word that made no sense when it was written; however, a year later, within the new context of my life, it made all the sense in the world. Whistle Stop, for example, was simply a cool word that I wrote down in my journal and it was a full year before it ever made sense.
When I first heard the word, I tried and tried to write a song but nothing in my vault of life experiences would support the theme. HOWEVER, a year later when I read that phrase in my journal, my brain immediately snapped into focus because of a current circumstance: my great friend had recently lost his mother. Even though Whistle Stop meant nothing to me a year prior, in that moment it screamed “life is a train … and since you never know when the next whistle stop will be, don’t whisper softly the things that you want loudly to be.” This delayed inspiration was a result of keeping a journal and re-visiting it often with a fresh perspective.
2A.) IF YOU’RE STRUGGLING FOR IDEAS, USE “A TECHNIQUE FOR PRODUCING IDEAS”
I studied advertising in college but because I knew songwriting was my call, every time I heard the word advertising, I would subliminally substitute it with songwriting. That said, I read a book called “A Technique for Producing Ideas” and even though it was about scheming ads, here is how it applies to the craft of songwriting.
Amazingly enough, upon reading this book, I realized the steps it described was how my brain was already working. It’s a 4 step process that is more natural than you might think:
STEP ONE – Gather Information
The goal here is to find a word or an idea (aka Whistle Stop) and collect every scrap of information that could support it. Collect nouns, read research papers, use wikipedia, interview people, etc.
STEP TWO – Grind and Explore
This step involves taking all of the raw information that you’ve gathered in step one and simply grinding it into the ground. Yes, stretch it, molest it and attempt to connect all of the dots while exploring all of the possible combinations. In this incubation period, you may not have the major break through; however, the goal is to leave no stone unturned and become overly acquainted with your information — to the point of exhaustion.
STEP 3 – Move On
It may be hard to do at times but step three suggests to simply walk away from the train wreck of thoughts in your head. Move on to the next project or song and clear your head. The argument here is that once you’ve collected all of your information and ground it into the ground, even though you’ve walked away from it consciencely, your sub-conscience has not forgotten about the task. While your conscience is away, your sub-conscience will play.
STEP 4 – Revisit with a New Perspective
Once you’ve completed the word jumble of steps one and two and then walked away for a time, come back with a fresh head and revisit the material. Again, even though you aren’t aware of it, your sub-conscience has been connecting dots without you even knowing it. You will find that upon your return, the idea has matured and your words will fall with much more precision.
NOTE: Even though I claim that I rarely write a song in one sitting, this process is the caveat. I have certainly schemed and schemed, walked away for a few months then returned to write the song in one sitting.
2B.) IF YOU ALREADY HAVE A SONG IDEA
If you’re lucky enough to already have a song title, theme or idea, here are a few very basic ideas that will help them reach their full potential.
3.) LISTEN TO THE SONG BEFORE IT’S WRITTEN
Most of my songs start with a chord progression on the guitar or piano and then I retrofit words afterward to fill the spaces. To me, fitting words into music is much easier than the alternative.
It may sound odd but when I have my chord progression established, I sit in my room, guitar in hand and play through the song about 10 times — filling the space with ad lib, mumbles, oooohs, aaaaahs, random lyric and whatever else decides to come out. I find that keeping an open mind and simply letting the sounds flow can be VERY telling.
What you’ll find is certain vowels poking up in the same place each time. You’ll find certain lines beginning with the same alliteration each time. You’ll find that amongst the chaos, there are constants. Embrace those constants and listen to them as if it’s the song revealing itself to you piece by piece.
After I’ve made a fool out of myself a dozen or so times and noted the revelations, I plot out the constants in a sort of road map and then back-fill the other information. It’s somewhat difficult to explain but when you know your anchor points, the rest of the content is immediately less random. If I know my second line wants to end with an “eeee” sound and the third line wants to start with a “B” alliteration, rather than pulling random thoughts from the air, the thought process is now: “What line can I think of that ends with an “eeee” rhyme while introducing a “B” alliteration?”
This step takes some confidence; however, I guarantee if you open your mind and let the unwritten song flow through you, you’ll find that it speaks to you — ultimately revealing little pieces of itself. By listening to the promptings, your song will assume a more natural feel because nothing was forced or contrived — on the contrary, it’s meant to be.
4.) LITTLE THINGS THAT WORK IN BIG WAYS
5.) GENERAL RULES, DOS, DON’TS, TOOLS, ETC