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06

Jul

I do strive to be an artist and create art, but I’m involved in a format that’s not particularly challenging. Pop songs. Folk songs. I’m not against the grain in writing songs. That said, there’s an impulse that I have to get better at the process and make it truer.
Dave Bazan, in an interview with Absolute Punk

05

Jul

The Songwriting Duel

So a dear friend of mine came up with a novel idea. I haven’t heard of anyone else trying something quite like it, though I’m sure someone somewhere has tried it.

My friend challenged me to a Songwriting Duel. 

We had a mutual friend act as Arbiter, and this Arbiter was charged with a simple task: come up with a topic and hook for a song. Once those were provided, my Jared Hard and I would each write a song about the topic using the hook line inside the song. We would then, at a time and place previously decided, play our songs for an audience (that being the first time we were ever to have heard each other’s songs). Then the audience would vote and declare a winner.

This idea gave me much glee. Sadly, the Arbiter’s topic and hook did not. Our first ever Songwriting Duel Arbiter chose the following

Topic: Birdwatching

Hook: I knew you would fancy that

Jared and I groaned over the task at hand. In the weeks leading up to our Duel, we would occasionally chat and gripe about what a tedious task this fun idea had become. We eventually made it to our dueling date, both with songs we weren’t altogether embarrassed to play in front of a paying crowd.

The night actually ended up being great fun, and while Jared complained about his song up to the moment he sang it, I thought it was well written and quite funny.

So here’s the recording of our first ever Songwriting Duel. Which song do you think deserves to have won? Give us your vote in the comment section.

27

Jun

The Co-Write

Inspired by the two most prolific Beatles, I’ve been dabbling in co-writing songs lately. Two examples I’ll share today include being in the same room with a songwriter (a shared physical space) and having to communicate via email (a shared musical space). In both instances, I was not the main songwriter. That is, the other songwriters had songs that were 60-75% finished, and then I helped them to finish the songs. For your benefit, I’ll briefly share what the two experiences were like.

Exhibit A: Writing in the Same Room

My friend Jed (not his real name) is a great songwriter. He’s a man with a strong sense of right and wrong and a stronger sense of humor. When in town and working on a different project, we started goofing with a batch of funny tunes he’d written. One of them, a song about sneaking food into a movie theater, wasn’t quite finished.

As a general rule for working on someone else’s tune, come with a few ideas. Writers can be protective of their work, so be willing to show you’ve already put some time into helping their song. Show that you’ve invested in it. So before Jed and I started working on the song, I sat down and came up with a few alternate verses and tweaked a few lazy lines.

When we finally sat down to work on the song, I had compiled a decent set of improvements. Once Jed heard my ideas, I could sense a trust forming. Please note: Building trust between two songwriters is crucial. It certainly helps if you’re friends with the person - Jed and I are great friends who respect each other’s writing. Still, we’d yet to venture into the realm of co-writing. It’s a delicate process.

But don’t think co-writing is walking on eggshells. Once the trust is formed, it should be fun. For Jed and I, our writing became much more playful once the ice broke. Some of my bad ideas got Jed thinking, which led to another bad idea, then an awful idea, and then we landed on something solid. 

Some other co-writing rules: every bad idea is a great idea waiting to happen. Don’t laugh at the other person; go with them. Share the floor. Hear them out.

Exhibit B: Writing Long Distance

Austin (again, fake name), another of my songwriting pals, has been trading song drafts with me for a few months. He lives a few states away, so we send each other demos and talk about their strength and weaknesses via email and on the phone. Thanks to this process, we already have a decent amount of trust. We can be honest with each other, and we respect each other’s writing.

Recently, Austin sent me a draft of a new love song (most of his songs are love songs). While most of his songs are catchy, this one was nearly infectious. I couldn’t get some of the lines out of my head, and the hook was irresistibly singable. Still, much of the song needed work. Some verses weren’t focused, imagery was scattered, and when I wrote up my critique of the song, I told him so. Thankfully, Austin’s the kind of guy who takes criticism really well (he’s much better about that than I am). He takes it well because he always wants to get better.

After our usual chat, I went out on a limb. I told him I thought the song had strong potential (which I do) and asked if he’d be okay with me trying my hand at some improvements. This was a little brazen of me. He and I hadn’t co-written anything. We had tried one exercise where we swapped lyrics and each tried to write music to the other’s words, and my attempt with his words had been pretty bad. I could hear the hesitation in his voice. I was waiting for him to say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I’d like to spend some more time on it on my own.” 

Instead, Austin was gracious and allowed me to tinker with his work. This forged a great trust, because I now understood that Austin had enough faith in my songwriting to let me have influence over his work. After my tinkering, we ended up with a close-to-final draft that had taken the song to new and interesting places.

So, a few long distance rules: Be open and continually encouraging. That means saying whatever you feel about the song, and if it’s something bad, add a double portion of counter-encouragement. If you don’t like a part of the song, say so; just make sure you say it in a way that shows you care. People don’t normally try to fix things they care nothing for. So remind your co-writer of the things you like in the song or the idea. This will help them understand where you’re discontent is coming from.

Good luck in any co-writing endeavors!

27

Sep

On Co-Writing

Recently, I’ve been reading a special edition issue of Rolling Stone magazine: The 100 Greatest Beatle Songs. Initially, I was interested in the obvious questions: which song got number one, who wrote the most songs out of their list, which album ended up with the most songs, etc.

But those questions are all answered quickly: A Day in the Life; John Lennon; The Beatles (also known as The White Album). A new question emerged as I began to read, one that refused to be answered on a whim: what was the songwriting process like for all those Lennon-McCartney tunes? How did they share the craft of songwriting?

Thankfully, the Rolling Stone writers provide stories and interview snippets with each song, and they attempt to determine the main writer for all songs attributed to Lennon-McCartney. Some songs were prominently McCartney’s, others Lennon’s, but the most interesting songs are those which prove a true collaborative effort. Three of the top 10 songs were true collaborations, including the number one and number two slot. The latter is their famous single “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

According to interviews, Paul and John wrote this schoolyard ditty while at the home of Paul’s girlfriend’s parents. At that time, says John, he and Paul would sit side-by-side on a piano bench, taking turns punching out possible melodies.

"I remember when we got the chord that made the song," John recalled sometime later. "We had, ‘Oh, you-u-u/ Got that something,’ and Paul hits this chord, and I turn to him and say, ‘That’s it! Do that again!’ In those days, we really used to write like that - both playing into each other’s noses.”

While I’m not exactly advocating co-writing songs like this, one can’t help feel something profound and simple when picturing two great songwriters sitting side by side on a piano bench. It’s a picture of being willing to share authorship, to toil together in the craft of song, to let go of pride or preference in order to create something in tandem. When you’re co-writing a song, both writers must agree to share the space allotted. Agree to share and you may not end up with some of the most recognizable songs in the world, but you will probably end up with a pretty good song.

26

Sep

See here’s the tricky thing: when you’re a writer you get inspired for a living. The more things that inspire you, the better your writing comes off.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Interview, September 2010.

25

Sep

As always in a musical collaboration: One has to like each other. As simple as that.

13

Sep

Receiving Feedback

After you’ve crafted a song and gotten it to a place you feel comfortable with, you start to play it for other people. For me, this usually begins with my wife. Other times, I’ll record a lo-fi demo and send it to a couple of my songwriting friends to get their feedback first. While they might be a little critical, they’ll never be quite as brunt and honest as my wife. Then I’ll make tweaks and changes based on the feedback I get from other songwriters. I might shift a bridge or change a few verses.

Before we proceed, though, I need to admit something: I really hate getting anything but positive feedback. Secretly, I wish that everyone would tell me my songs were fantastic, that I didn’t need to change a thing. I kind of cringe when someone tells me a song needs work. I get all manner of frustrated when someone says, “You know, there’s just something missing.”

But I know I’m not alone. There’s an entire society of closet narcissists. They just call themselves writers. It’s like a code word. The ego is a fragile thing to start with, and its even more fragile when you’ve spent time and energy trying to create something. It can be hard not to take personal offense at someone disliking your work. It can even feel particularly unfair for someone to dismiss your work after only a moment’s thought when you’ve just spent the last few days or weeks slaving over each verse and melodic line. Such is the writer’s life, and the writer’s challenge is to swallow her enormous pride and press on.

Today’s lesson: receiving feedback (and even criticism) well can be the greatest asset to your songwriting.

STORY = PROOF

Billy Edd Wheeler heard about a new play that had come out. Critics were raving about Edward Albee’s latest work - a tour de force, his magnum opus, a masterpiece. The play was called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf and it was creating a huge buzz in New York City.

So broke that he couldn’t actually go and see the play, Wheeler read the script. He was inspired by the characters, and he got an idea for a song about a couple whose marriage is heading south.

As a means of metaphor, Wheeler used a city to personify where their marriage was headed. The verses had a progression to them, climaxing at the song’s last verse. Wheeler felt pretty good about the song, especially the last verse. He decided to see what his songwriting friend Jerry Leiber thought. The feedback, as told by Wheeler, went something like this:

When I played it for Jerry, he said, ‘Your first verses suck,’ or words to that effect. ‘Throw them away and start the song with your last verse, “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout.”’ When I protested to Jerry that I couldn’t start the song with the climax, he said, ‘Oh, yes you can.’ So I rewrote the song and thanks to Jerry’s editing and help, it worked. 

With Leiber’s help, Billy Edd Wheeler went on to write one of the most famous songs in country music’s history: “Jackson.” Most famously, the song was performed by Johnny and June Carter Cash, for which they won a Grammy. 

I can’t imagine what those initial first verses were, but I’m glad Wheeler was willing to listen to a critical voice. I don’t know that I would have been so humble. But that’s probably what separates me from writing a Grammy winning song and being a world-renowned songwriter. 

So the next time someone tells you part of the song “just doesn’t work,” I dare you to throw it out and try something different. Pick the song’s best verse and start from there. Get rid of that bridge and write a new one. Rewrite your refrain. I dare you. Sure, there’s a chance you won’t like the changes. So go back to the initial version.

But I bet you will like the changes. In fact, I bet you’ll want to make more changes. Welcome to the world of editing, which is the least championed and one of the most essential portions of songwriting.

Get to work.

12

Sep

You have to make sure when you’re writing personal songs that they’re personal and they’re not diary entries. If you put that deep-dark secret out there like a diary entry, you’re giving people way too much information and you’re leaving them no room for their imagination.

Justin Townes Earle

Interview, 2009

09

Sep

Album Art
10 plays

My wife has a strange fascination with birds. This is not a dabbling or a seasonal interest. It is a perpetual love, a sustained passion, an unfailing attraction to the avian world.

As her 25th birthday was fast approaching, I decided to write some new songs, and I’d cobble them, I schemed, into a prospective EP of sorts, a little project I called Songbird. This was supposed to become an EP of Courtney-exclusive songs, as Courtney had be asking for me to write more songs for her to sing. Admittedly, she wasn’t the only one asking for more Courtney songs.

During many post-gig discussions with audience members, very nice middle-aged ladies tell me I need to write more songs for Courtney to sing. These conversations always made me a little defensive, and I would jokingly suggest that if Courtney wanted to sing more original songs, she should try writing some original songs. Of course, this was never a wise counter. I always ended up looking lazy or jerkish - usually both. 

I remember writing Bluebird in the car. No, I wasn’t playing a guitar with my hands while driving with my knees. I was just singing. That’s how I’ve been writing songs lately, singing on the way to work or while driving around town. For some reason it’s the repetitious, semi-brainless activities that get my creative juices flowing. The routine and monotonous elicit from me the exceptional and compelling. This explains why I (and many writers) often write better and more often when I hold a steady job and create a distinct routine than when I take a week and attempt to freeform my schedule and write a bunch of tunes.

I started with these lines, which I sang over and over:

Bluebird, what is it lately that you’ve heard?

I heard it’s gonna get worse before it improves.

Starling, what’s the last you’ve seen of my darling?

Heard she’s chasing some barfling, pretty soon she’ll have to choose.

That was all I had. I sang it over and over, trying out different birds, seeing what sounded effortless and what was clearly forced. The song’s not perfect, but it’s grown into a pleasant tune - one of Courtney’s favorites to sing. 

I’m tempted to tell you, as I often tell other songwriters after playing them one of my songs, “I’m still working on it.” But that’s not true. I usually say that if I feel insecure about a song, a copout to avoid any critiques they might offer. This is the struggle of many writers: confidence in the work vs. cowardly insecurity. Part of you feels proud of what you’ve written, and the other part tells you everyone has written this song before, and they did it better. Ultimately, you’ve got to face those demons and be proud of your work. Don’t cop out by telling everyone you’re still working on it. Let a finished song be a finished song. 

So, for me, Bluebird is finished. Perhaps it could use some more work, but I think I’m done. More than just being done, I’m proud. Even if no one else likes the song, I like the song. Even better, my wife likes the song; she’s a much harsher critic of my work than I am. So I’m proud of it.

Unless you don’t like it, in which case, I’m still working on it.

08

Sep

SONG: King of Spain

ARTIST: The Tallest Man On Earth

FIRST: Listen to the song.

THEN: Read on.

Typically, Pitchfork is where I go to get my musical feelings hurt. Going to their site to read what they think about the latest album, I often feel like a country bumpkin in tattered overalls absentmindedly strolling into a Louis Vuitton store, or like politicians going on SNL: I know they’re going to make fun of me, but I can’t resist how cool it is.

See, I’ve looked up some of my favorite albums to see what Pitchfork thought of them. Mostly 6’s and 7’s. One album, which I think is quite good, was completely eviscerated. It got a 2.9. Ouch. Conversely, I’ve purchased some of their top rated albums and thought they were a little drab. Still, I find myself coming back to their evil, snobby site over and over again. It’s too cool to resist!

However, Pitchfork and I will agree every so often. And with Swedish-born folkie Kristian Matsson (aka The Tallest Man On Earth), they really nailed it. Admittedly, Matsson’s voice can be a little grating. He’s not a great singer, but he’s got a knack for songwriting, and I think his guitar playing is respectable. Unsurprisingly, the guy’s been buried in Dylan comparisons before he’s had a chance to show himself as something more than another poseur. So I like that Pitchfork’s review gave him a chance to stand on his own. The reviewer chose to analyze not what seemed to be similar at Mattson’s surface, but what, with studied listenings, is absolutely unique about Mattson’s brand of folk. This quote sums up Mattson’s songwriting with great insight:


"His lyrics are rough and often ragged, more concerned with evoking aching emotions than with making explicit sense. But that coded aspect only makes him sound more urgent, as if he’s trying to convince you of something he couldn’t possibly put into words."


- Pitchfork Media

NOW: Listen to the song again. 

 Sometimes appreciating a particular artist requires but a small change in perspective. Be careful that you don’t end up listening to this song all day. It’ll sneak up on you.

07

Sep

A Songwriting Genesis

I remember the first time I wrote a song for my wife Courtney to sing. While this wasn’t the first song I’d ever written (far from it), it was the first song I’d written for a woman to sing. It was the song Lazy Laughter, which is a deceptively sweet, sentimental tune I wrote while we were dating. In truth, the song was born out of her frustration with me.

During college, Courtney was busier than almost any other student I knew. She was a Vocal Performance major, which, to me, sounds like the slacker route. All you’ve got to do is sing, right? Wrong. She always had a pile of courses, many of them only worth one credit hour, and all of them requiring a substantial amount of study.

A typical day for Courtney included (but was not limited to): waking at 7 am in time for an 8 am ear training class, music history class, practice songs for a half hour before chapel, chorale practice after chapel, a quick lunch followed by more practice, a gen-ed course or two, meeting with her accompanist to practice, practicing on her own, one more gen-ed class, back to her apartment for a quick something to eat, followed by an hour of practice/preparation depending on if she had either a voice lesson, musical/opera/cabaret rehearsal, or a masterclass performance (and those often stacked on top of each other), a little more practice on her foreign language pieces, and then back to the apartment for homework, late night snacks, and maybe a little time with her friends and boyfriend before bed, all so she can get back up at 7 am and do it again.

The rub: after a day like that, would you have much energy for kissing? No. And neither did she.

But as a lazy English major, I always had energy for some couple time. I was ready and waiting for her to come hang out, typically with the explicit expectation that we’d spend the majority of our time together locked in each other’s arms, passionately embracing like two characters from one of my assigned classic novels.

Due to her fatigue and my under-attended, over-zealous libido, our evenings frequently deteriorated into me trying to make out with Courtney while Courtney was trying to relax. Incidentally, it’s very difficult to relax when a young man is trying to put moves on you. In fact, it doesn’t just prevent you from relaxing; it can stress a person out.

So after one of these nights, Courtney left my apartment frustrated, and I sat on the floor with my guitar and started to write a song. I remember working through the chords and humming a sort of half-melody. A refrain began to form:

You kiss me after the day is done

And you wonder why lazy laughter

is my favored response.

I’m just so tired at night,

and I wonder why you try.

Over the next couple days, I added a verse and sat down with Courtney. I played her what I had so far, and then we started working together on a melody for the verse. In my more recent attempts to write songs for Courtney, I’ve tried writing everything without her. That’s a mistake. Sitting down with her and letting her be part of the melodic process gave her ownership of the song. It was something she’d created, even if only a fragment of the track. That, for her, was enough to connect her to the core of the song.

There are other songs I’ve written for Courtney, songs she loves very much. But she’ll often forget the words to those songs, panicking if she doesn’t have the lyrics in front of her. She’s this way with many of the songs I’ve written - a little standoffish toward them, a little lackadaisical. But I’ve never had to help her with the words to Lazy Laughter. She knows them by heart - by soul, even. And I think that’s because, in essence, she really did write it. Not just with the melody bits she worked on, but the whole song. It came from her. Sure, I transcribed the words and the emotions, but she had lived them out, night after night. They were part of her existence before I’d ever penned them.

This revelation gave me a glimpse into the collaborative process. Ownership, however minute, is of great importance to performers. If you try writing songs for someone else to sing, find a way to include them in your writing process. They may not be good with words, so let them help you with the melody. They may not sing well, so let them offer advice about the chord structure. You may be surprised by their contributions, and you’ll assuredly appreciate the loyalty such inclusion inspires.

P.S. Yes, those of you who smirked, the song has provoked a somewhat different interpretation now that we’re married. But you know what? Such is life. 

Giggle away.

06

Sep

Album Art
20 plays

Some songs are real labors of love. They come to you in little pieces, and you have to keep working at them. It can start with just a few lines. All you have is a small scrap of lyric and melody, and every time you try to write more, you can’t seem to make it work. For weeks, nothing you add to the scrap sounds right. Then, in a few weeks, you get a few more chords, you figure out a bridge, and then you have to wait out another few weeks of nada. Those songs, the ones that refuse to come, those are usually the songs you really feel like you wrote.

But then there are the songs that write themselves, songs that arrive fully formed in under an hour. I read an interview where J.K. Rowling said Harry Potter walked into her mind fully developed, like he’d existed somewhere else. Some songs come to you like that. You wake up one morning or sit down one afternoon and the song is there, waiting for you. Coal Pile was like that for me.

This song reared its head about a month ago, on a morning when I was in a writing mood. I had been enduring a pretty painful writing process with a different song, and after I finished banging my head against the wall with the uncooperative song, Coal Pile spilled out in a half hour. Though I don’t like the thought, I know that trudging through the slow-going song got me to Coal Pile.

Josh Ritter’s quote (yesterday’s post) refers to our subconscious taking part in the creation of art. A few months ago, that concept would have seemed pretty silly to me (or at least overly Freudian). But after working on a song like Coal Pile, I get it.

As I started writing the song, I pictured two characters. In my mind, they were factory workers of some sort, though the imagery really conjures up miners or lumberyard workers. At any rate, the narrator is resigned to his fate as a manual worker, so much so that just about all he can talk about is work.

"There’s a coal pile waiting on our hands,

to take somewhere new”

Whether we realize it or not, whenever we’re steeped in work we start to use language that implies we have a relationship to our projects. Someone will say, “I’ve got some spreadsheets waiting on me back at the office,” or, “I’ll only be available after I spend some time with this proposal.” We use relational language when we talk about work that consumes us.

So this narrator, swallowed in a job that barely pays enough to keep going, admits that work is waiting on him. And all the work he does, it’s dependent on him. The coal is waiting for his hands, the lumber for his back. We often convince ourselves that our work needs us. Without his hands, the coal won’t go anywhere. Without his back, the lumber won’t get where it needs to go. See, whenever we need to feel needed, we’ll find a way to create that reality. If no person needs us, our work needs us.

Anyway, back to the subconscious thing: I was writing about myself. Well, myself and my wife. We’ve had some dreams we were hoping would have been realized by now (don’t we all?), and we’ve felt a little stuck recently. Honestly, I didn’t think so much about myself while writing the song. But, like the Ritter quote, my subconscious was at work - even logically so - I just couldn’t recognize it at first.

Whenever you sit down to write, whether a story, an sonnet, or a song, you are not sitting alone. Beside you, working in a strange, beautiful logic, your subconscious sits. And, if you’re watchful, it will show you things about yourself you didn’t realize.

But one question: why did I get a factory worker and J.K. Rowling got a boy-wizard?

I call re-deal.

05

Sep

One of the greatest things about art is that it gives us a view into our own subconscious, and that’s really amazing. It’s active in just about everything we do—working logically, though not necessarily in a form of logic we recognize.

04

Sep

Life isn’t a support system for art.

It’s the other way around.

Stephen King

On Writing