A couple of months back I was on the phone with a good old friend of mine. He’s not a professional musician but he’s a real good singer and he’s taught himself how to play the guitar over the years.
He’d been knuckling down on some online lessons and he was asking me about some sort of picking technique, bless his heart. I think the closest I came to giving him advice was to tell him to try it without finger picks.
You see, I’ve never been singled out as a hot guitar slinger, and that’s for good reason. So on the odd occasion when I’m asked for tips I don’t have many. I say something like “Just keep trying until it works for you — that’s all I do.” And I ain’t lying.
I feel the same about my singing. I gotta say that I’m really fond of the trophy I won in 2009 from the Buffalo Music Awards for being the “Top Original Male Vocalist.” Mainly because, if you’ve never heard my voice, let me explain that I never could have received such an honor were it not in the “original” category. Mine is not an instrument that lends itself to … well … let’s just say I’ve never been asked to be in a cover band. I’m a vocal stylist. Let’s leave it at that. Nobody ever asks me for singing lessons.
Well, then my friend asks me: How do you go about writing a song?
Songwriting. This is something I should be able to bloviate upon. It is something I have been asked about in the past, and I do have some thoughts on the subject. Having written songs for over 40 years now (with VERY limited commercial success), I’m gonna say that it has never been easier for a songwriter to capture ideas than it is today, thanks to technology. So here goes, in no particular order, a few tips on writing a song.
- Sometimes the rhythm comes first. A beat will get stuck in your head if you let it and it can be fun to sprinkle words over and around that beat. When you have a minute, tap out the beat on a table if you like. Record that on your phone. Move on with your day.
- Sometimes a melody will pop into your head. If you can, record it on your phone. Hum it for 10 seconds or whatever. Then go about your business.
- As far as lyrics are concerned, I have never written a song by starting with the words alone. I’ve written things in many different contexts. Plays, short fiction, poems, interviews, reviews, investigative journalism, you name it — these sorts of pieces, like this little column, can stand or fall on their own as just words on a page. I think lyrics to songs are more mysterious in nature. Less dependent on literal meaning and more dependent on their sound.
- The trick is to create an intriguing story or evoke a universal sentiment through words that sound cool within a certain melody. It can take some playing around, similar to doing a crossword puzzle. Other times the Muse (more on her later) simply sings you the words in a whisper only you can hear. It’s up to you to recognize this as a gift and record it as soon as you can, on your phone. Do it and turn your attention to something else. It will be there when you return like a little clipping you can nurture. Bonus: A well-tended song grows much faster than a plant.
- A great song sung out loud shares similarities with a great poem read out loud but I believe the song carries more emotional payload. People get earworms for days over music, not oratory. So, I think, the best lyrics are ones that arrive in service to the melody that’s already there. So chords first, melody second, then lyrics. Or at least melody, then lyrics. Record it and walk away. Later, listen to the snippet you made. Songs will often lead you where they are meant to go if you listen
to them when they’re brand new. They’re like babies making sounds, and you’re trying to interpret what they need. Hear what they’re trying to say.
- Writing a song should be a fun thing to do. Even if the subject matter is not fun, the act of turning it into an artistic expression can be satisfying. Or not. Sometimes a song idea can hit you and you get off to a great start and then somewhere, somehow … you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling … you realize that you and this song have no future. Only last week I thought I’d landed on a great groove and chord progression until I realized I was playing an old Hall & Oates song or something. Freaked me right out.
- If I listen to too much music, I lose the urge to make any. If I go on a music diet I find my imagination creating its own playlist to fill the void in my head. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out how to play what I’m “listening” to. I find it helpful to be alone and undisturbed while trying to make this leap. I don’t believe I’ve ever written a song in front of another person. But this could just be personal preference. Whatever you’re into …
- Regarding the Muse: I’m of the opinion that she is very real. You don’t want her to get tired of you and your bullshit. She’s there to help you. You give her grief when you blow her off. She’s all like: “C’mon. You ignore me for a month just because the last time we got together you sat down and sounded like Woody Guthrie scratching out ‘Sara Smile’ on a ukulele?! Listen, jackass, you want us to stay together, you better spend a little more time with me.” Like with any relationship, courtesy and attention tend to pay off.
So there it is, dear reader. Those are some of my songwriting tips. If you do it to amuse yourself, you’re bound to amuse others. Take that any way you want.
In the time since my friend asked me how I go about writing songs, he received — as a gift, not from me — a copy of the new self-help book by Jeff Tweedy of WILCO entitled “How To Write One Song.” Twenty-three bucks on their website. A New York Times Best Seller.
He hasn’t read it yet.