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

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