Writing Songs That Matter (Part One)
WRITING SONGS THAT MATTER (PART ONE)
Anyone can write a song. In fact, there are a great many people who can write good songs. Songs that are unoffensive and perfectly listenable. Maybe even 'fun.'
For most songwriters, though, the goal is to write a great song. What do I mean by 'great'? I mean a song that will matter to people so much that they don't want to live without it. No matter why you're writing – for money, for fame, to win your crush's heart, etc. - this is the key that is most likely to unlock your goal: Write a song that a significant number of people want to keep in their lives.
This is a broad definition. All kinds of songs matter to all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. But in the end, this is what you're trying to do: make a product that people will want.
In this post, I'll share what I've learned about the craft of songwriting. Some of this was learned 'on the job', some was learned from mentors and fellow artists, and all of it has been tested in the crucible of my own experience. Although I'm not a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, I have gotten much better at writing songs that mean something to people, that matter to them to the point that they will give up something of theirs in order to have it in their lives. And that journey continues, as I'm learning something new with every song I write!
This series of posts is targeted at people who have written quite a few songs, but find that their tunes just don't seem to be moving people, that they are 'falling flat' for one reason or another. I think I have some advice that can help your writing come to life and grab listeners without letting go.
[A disclaimer: Every writer must find her or his own methods, workflow, rhythm, technique, etc. For every piece of advice you'll find here, there are hundreds of successful writers who swear by doing more or less the opposite. So if I sound a bit dogmatic at times, that's unintentional. I'm only sharing what has worked for me and recommending it to songwriters who have not found that magic method on their own.]
THE MYTH OF THE MUSE
It may sound like a classroom-poster cliché to say that failure is the ladder to success. However, allow me to quote the Official Greatest Songwriter of All Time (OGSAT), Bob Dylan:
'There's no success like failure, and failure's no success at all.'
When it comes to writing, this is one of the great truths that you must internalize – the sooner the better! In order to write great material, unless you are an extraordinarily gifted artist (and therefore are somewhere making a million dollars with your pen instead of reading my humble advice), you must write mountains of stuff that ranges in quality from shitty to mediocre.
Like all writers, you will inevitably write garbage. Probably more garbage than good stuff, and definitely more garbage than gold. This means that if you're afraid of writing garbage, then you're afraid of writing, period. And if you're afraid of writing, you won't write. And if you don't write, you'll never write the gold.
If you've ever heard a salesperson say 'Every No gets you closer to a Yes', this is a similar principle. Or as Leo DiCaprio's character said in the movie 'Inception': “Sometimes downward is the only way forward.'
This brings me to a pet peeve: Writer's Block. There is no such thing as Writer's Block! What does actually exist are writers who feel they don't have anything worth writing. And you know what? They may be right. But here is probably the biggest 'secret' that separates successful from unsuccessful writers:
Having nothing worth writing is no excuse to not be writing!
I call this 'the Myth of the Muse.' There's this notion in the cultural ether that great writing (and art in general) is somehow something other than Damned Hard Work. According to this theory, what distinguishes 'great' or 'successful' artists and writers is some preternatural connection to an elusive creative Muse that is somehow less accessible to the rest of us.
Look at all the cool stuff people make: houses, cell phones, cars, functional plumbing, gardens. None of this stuff just springs spontaneously into full-fledged, awesome existence. And yet, people somehow think that objects like songs and poems – which are also cool stuff that people make – should.
No way. Great songs do not write themselves, any more than great meals prepare themselves. As Tchaikovsky famously said: “I sit down to the piano regularly at 9 o'clock in the morning, and the Muse has learned to be on time for that rendezvous.” That's what I'm talking about! Waiting on a Muse is really just a way of shirking. If you want to be a successful songwriter, by any measure of the word, it starts with taking responsibility for your own creativity!
Now, don't get me wrong: Nothing is easier than to write a shitty song. There is a Muse for that. But I'm assuming you want to write songs that are better than shitty. For this, you cannot wait for a mysterious cosmic force to strike you with a wave of inspiration. Instead, you must literally grasp a writing utensil and press it against paper. Or else open up your laptop and punch those keys. Gleefully – recklessly! - fill your blank paper with the most god-awful wall of insipid word-vomit the world has ever (not) seen. At this point, don't worry about whether or not it's “good.” It's far more important that it be “there in the first place.”
Confession time: I used to be one of these writers. In my younger days, I actually thought I had a special relationship to a Muse. I was writing lots of songs, and people (i.e. the entirely meaningful and representative sample consisting of my family and friends) were telling me they were good. I would write song after song, and after each one I'd pat myself on the back for yet another tune well written. It all seemed so … breezy.
Never have I been more wrong! (Well, there was that time when I was 7 and tried to explain to my parents where I thought babies came from...) Listening to those songs now, I see that I wasn't inspired by a Muse to write great songs. Instead, out of a combination of naivete and laziness (a.k.a. “youth”), I was settling for fairly good songs. Writing them didn't feel effortless because I was a conduit of some higher creative power. They felt effortless because I didn't put much effort into them. And it shows in the quality of the songs. (More on effort and what it looks like in future posts.)
So let me summarize: The first step in writing songs that matter is a change of mindset. I can sum it up in a single short slogan: 'In art, there is no muse. Work is the Muse.' So don't wait. Write.
You should write every day. However, keep in mind that writing can take many forms. Some writers physically sit down to write every day, on a schedule, Tchaikovsky style. This isn't the rhythm I've personally found to work. I tend to sit down and punch the keys in bursts where I do it intensely for a week or two, and then it settles down a bit. However, I still write every day, because I devote at least some energy each day to developing song ideas. Even if all you get for the day is a killer line or compelling chord progression to build a song around, look at how much you've accomplished! Maybe the most important thing is that you don't get disconnected from the process, from the creator within.
The next post in this series will be more about the nuts and bolts of writing. And butterfly collecting! Stay tuned for that. And if you enjoyed this read, please share on social media! Thanks!