Thursday, February 10, 2022

When songwriting goes right

Call me a hypocrite. If I stumble across a YouTube video where some no-name musician tries to speak about songwriting, I'm definitely out.

If it's someone I know and respect, though... I'll watch. Elliot Smith's songwriting lesson is one of my faves.

So, while I fall into the category of no-name musician myself, I still like to blog about songwriting. I've spent over ten years doing it, on and off. And when I'm "on," I definitely dedicate everything to it. As I quickly approach 34 years old, I'm ready to hang up the pencil and paper for a while. I think I've achieved as best as I can possibly do, by myself, as a songwriter.

Recently I wrote about four songs in four days. The routine was similar: 

Typically I'd wake up and drive to work, where an idea might strike me at some point during my daily mental monologue. I'd write a small note to myself to remember for later. In one instance I wrote the lyrics to a song while on my 30-minute break at work. I clocked out, walked out to my car, in 10 degree Fahrenheit weather, fired it up, and basked in the warmth of the sun as it came down through my car's windshield.

Usually I drink a Powerade and have Chewy chocolate granola bars. I can have anywhere up to about four in a row. I keep loose-leaf in my car, and right there on the spot I wrote out lyrics to a song, with a general idea for a melody in mind, but nothing concrete. 

The more you write lyrics you get a feel for how certain phrases are going to contrast one another, and how the words will flow together. Reading fine lit certainly would help an ability to write lyrics, though I don't read too much of it. Every so often I'll page through something, but not recently. Some stuff I've been reading recently includes: a book on Linear Algebra, Barrons, a small novel called Rockabilly, and Robert Frost collected works.

It seems like cliche advice, but the more you practice songwriting, the better you get. And I've been working nearly everyday for about two years. But, I haven't seen consistent improvement. 

I believe the results show up en masse, and usually when you've about had it and are ready to just throw your hands up and quit. 

In my case, after putting in work for years on end, I knew I wanted to continue but wasn't sure I had anything original to offer. After all, my last two collections of songs were stylistic imitation. 

I spent about a month working on material and concocted a song much like a mad scientist might. When I played it back at first I thought, "This is interesting..." and that's when I knew I had something to work with. Just one successful song gave me the confidence to say, "I got this." I wrote a total of seven in about a two months and knew I had enough to work with for a full album.

The more music I listen to, and different bands I can gather inspiration from fuel my own songwriting process. It's also like a meditation exercise. You have to be able to control your emotions and measure yourself to the process. I agree with Elliot Smith's songwriting advice that you can't cloud up your imagination, you just have to let yourself express ideas clearly and not block up that ability to express your ideas. If you go into a songwriting session with a negative feeling about your ability to make it happen, you won't get anywhere. 

This time around, I kept a Word document to try to keep track of my inspirations. It was probably around 20 different bands/artists, and maybe 6-8 different albums I had in rotation.

Obviously with practice, the ability to articulate ideas becomes more and more refined. It requires an ability to manage a lot of variables and a lot of components, both mentally and physically, at the same time, to get the songwriting expression working properly and at it's full potential. It's not easy and it does require hard work and discipline, which can be counterintuitive to the act of free-styling as a musician. You can't plan spontaneity, but in order to get anything done, you need to have discipline and observe a routine of sorts.

Personally I like to freestyle or "jam" but only in small doses. Jamming too much doesn't automatically lend itself to compositional acumen, but that's just my opinion. Hendrix was supposedly into jamming all the time, especially in the latter portions of his career.

In addition to the different music I listen to, some of my motivation is visual. One visualization I've used is a vision of Mike Tyson hitting the heavy bag. You just gotta keep hitting that bag, over and over again. Every day. There's no giving up. At some point it turns into an addiction. I gotta hit the bag, because it makes me feel good. But I also respect the discipline and if it's time to stop, it's time to stop. Hitting the bag has made me who I am, but it doesn't define me as a person. It's a tool to remind yourself to live up to your full potential as a person, and in this instance, a songwriter.

Six or seven hours later after the lunch break, I'd drive home and have a comfortable (but not overwhelming) level of self-confidence to sit down, come up with a guitar part, and create the melody over the top, using the lyrics. It just happens. I can't explain how, or why, but when you know you're "on," you know. There's no doubt.

While driving home I know I'm going to write the song when I arrive home. There's no question. There's no, "Oh please let it happen, please let it happen." I just know. It's going to happen. I'm not too anxious about it. I don't doubt myself. I'm not excited about it. I just know I'm going to do it and it's going to work. There's no other option. I'm content in this feeling. It's not a belief, because it goes beyond belief, It's the truth.

Afterwards, once the music is on tape...

When I know I'm successful and I've written the melodies and the parts, there's no big wave of relief. Everything went as planned. Business as usual. The fun part comes next when I get to actually record a finished version of the draft. I draft out all the parts separately, and then usually go from there and mark down the form, then drums, then guitars, lyrics/vocals, and finally bass.

I guess the true test of success is whether or not you, yourself are satisfied with the results. In this recent songwriting spree, I'm definitely pleased with the results, but I could see how someone else might hear the songs differently and not be that into it, because the music is a little different than what you might normally hear. 

I also realize I'm limited in what I can do. I can't record a big-budget sounding track, or something that's impossibly clean and slick, which isn't my intention, either. I have to work within my limits and that's where I can find a happy medium.

Keeping a balanced relationship to the songwriting process is key. One day you're "on," but the next day you might be "off" and what seemed so easy now seems impossible. It happens that fast.

- Mike

Music recording addiction

This is a topic you won't find much information about online. Most articles about music recording are written from the perspective of encouragement to budding artists. Or advice on technical approaches. There's a whole industry built on selling new products to prospective audio engineers.

But what about the dark side of being a musician? What happened to the excesses of rock and roll?

Music recording addiction is usually just brushed under the rug as "part of the gig." It's also something that transcends any specific genre. It applies to any artist, whether a hip hop artist, or a classical musician. 

It can happen to anyone, and there needs to be some sort of recognition that you have a problem. When does recording music go beyond a hobby and turn into an unhealthy obsession? I've had to ask myself this question more than once over the years.

I think the part where it gets tricky is in terms of how much time you're spending out the day doing it. Personally, I have maintained a 40-hour a week job whilst also recording music, but not everyone has this privilege and mandatory buffer to their at-home habits. Even with time away from microphones each day, music-recording addiction can still rear it's head.

If I spend every last second of my free-time recording music, that's where I realize I have a problem. What about the other aspects of life? Going out to the shopping mall, taking a walk in the park, reading, interacting with the community, watching a movie, taking the moment to just relax for a while? 

If you're recording music (or doing any one specific task) all the time, you leave yourself no time to engage with life more fully. To me, that's where a hobby transforms into an addiction and a problem.

It's easy to hear a song on an album or the radio. Take, "Here Comes The Sun" by George Harrison for instance. Any musician might hear the song and say, "Wow, that's pretty good... but I bet if I spend enough time I can not only write, I can record something equally as cool, all by myself." Seems innocent enough. Except it doesn't just end with "Here Comes The Sun," goes on and on, endlessly.

The same way the film industry glorifies certain behaviors, the record industry glorifies recorded output. The recorded song and the album are put on a pedestal above all else. They are trophies to be won by musicians, as symbols of their artistry and dedication to their craft above all else.

Not only is there more to life, there's more to music.

Yet the streaming services want more, all the time. So what if you've put out one album? Another, more critically acclaimed artist has put out five albums. When is it enough? If you ask the industry the answer is simply, "Never."

One of the most impactful musicians I've met was a guitarist who I saw perform one night years ago. I was blown away by his ability on guitar and as a vocalist.

Afterwards I struck up a conversation with this guy, and would see him around pretty often. He gave me a couple of impromptu guitar lessons and other advice relating to being a guitarist and musician. His advice wasn't limited to music theory, but he gave insight into how to conduct yourself as a guitar player and how to maintain a healthy relationship to music. And all this advice from a complete stranger, who happened to be a brilliant musician. Who would've thought?

Obviously, when I saw him perform that night I thought, "Wow, if only this was on a album for everyone to hear. It would be incredible." 

A week or so later, I asked him if he felt a need to record his music. He said, "Me? I'm good." This definitely had an impact on me. To this guy, music alone was enough.

When I saw him on the corner now and again I'd ask, "What's going on?" He was always transcribing music onto the guitar to improve his ability. One day he told me, "I'm working on Rhapsody in Blue," and showed me the melody parts on a Squier guitar he used to carry around with him.

Anyhow, the seismic shift towards affordable, consumer-grade recording equipment has changed the average musician's relationship to recordings in general. The practice of music recording has always been instant-gratification, I guess. You hit record, and listen to the playback. It gives you a high. "Wow, so that's what I sound like..."

Still, it's never been so easy to record near-studio-grade material at your own home, at the click of a button. But as the saying goes, with great power, comes great responsibility.

I can only speak for myself, but if you or someone you know is out there and can't stop recording themselves or recording music, it may be time to ask some questions. What else does life have to offer? As a final note, it's pretty interesting to realize that many musical heroes have a relatively small output of recorded material. Once something is on wax, that might be enough to last many years to come. It may even last a lifetime. - Mike

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