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Songwriting Tip: We Don't Care What Really Happened

  
  
  
  

 

WE DON’T CARE WHAT REALLY HAPPENED

by Harriet Schock

 Harriet Schock, hit songwriter

I have a chapter in my book Becoming Remarkable called “Reality: the Training Wheels” which points out how helpful it is to a songwriter to write something real because the pictures are there in his memory to access for the story. That does not mean, however, that what actually happened needs to be the story line of your song. I also have a chapter called “Truth vs. Facts.” For my full view on both of those points, I can refer you to those chapters. The point I’d like to make here is that sometimes writers get hung up on what actually occurred and fail to see the “truth” of the situation. If the truth of your song is that you miss someone like mad, and he happens to be a few miles up the street, you don’t have to say that. Putting him in another continent can tell your story just fine. Many people know that “Midnight Train to Georgia,” by Jim Weatherly was originally “Midnight Plane to Houston.”

I rarely tell the story of how “Ain’t No Way to Treat A Lady” started out, and never in print, but here goes. The first verse starts “I guess it was yourself you were involved with…I would have sworn it was me.” The first actual words I wrote down were…”I guess it was myself I was involved with…I would have sworn it was you.” Well I knew that wasn’t going to fly (and yes, I was on a plane at the time). I immediately changed it. With the change, it led easily to the last two lines of the verse “I might have found out sooner if you’d only let me close enough to see.” Maybe in real life I had taken responsibility for the disaster of the relationship, but I sure wasn’t going to write the song that way. They say that everyone in a dream is the actual person dreaming. I happen to think that’s true of songs too. Everyone in our song is actually us. Now THAT’S a scary thought. But isn’t it also liberating? We can be the villain we’re vilifying. And ask any actor: Aren’t villains more fun to play?

So be the villain and write a song to yourself from the hero’s (heroine’s) viewpoint like Sting reportedly did in “Every Step You Take” written from his wife’s viewpoint.  No one will know who is who. And as long as it’s compelling, we won’t care at all if it “really happened that way.”

Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit for Helen Reddy, "Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady" plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored three other Jaglom films as well as starring in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s current film, “The M Word” features Harriet’s song, “Bein’ a Girl,” sung on camera. Harriet is in the process of writing the songs for “Last of the Bad Girls,” a musical with book by Diane Ladd. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and a popular online courses by private email. In 2007, Los Angeles Women In Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. For her performance schedule, list of credits and samples of her work or information on her book (Becoming Remarkable, for Songwriters and Those Who Love Songs), her songwriting classes and consultation, go to: www.harrietschock.com

 

For more information on the USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net 

Songwriting Tip: The Missing Link

  
  
  
  

THE MISSING LINK

by John Capek

 songwriting

Popular songs as we know them today perhaps found their shape and form with one of the seminal founders of American popular music, Stephen Foster. Stephen Foster is often credited as "America's First Composer" and widely regarded as one of the first who made professional songwriting profitable. Foster wrote songs that we often mistakenly think of as folk songs. His songs include:

“OH! SUSANNA”, “OLD FOLKS AT HOME” (SWANEERIVER)”, “MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME” “BEAUTIFUL DREAMER” “DE CAMTON RACES” (CAMPTOWN RACES, DOO DAH) and “JEANNIE WITH THE LIGHT BROWN HAIR”

 

The form and nature of these songs are significant in their connection to everything that followed. These songs were short, had verses and chorus’s or refrains, they were easy to learn and repeat and they tapped into the popular culture of their time. It is profoundly significant that we still know these songs now, about one hundred and fifty years after the time that they were written.

 

Stephen spent much of his life in Pittsburgh where he worked consistently at his songwriting,.  As a professional songwriter he had made it his business to listen to the various styles of music circulating in the immigrant populations of the newUnited States.  He used images and a musical vocabulary that would be widely understood by everyone.  Foster worked very hard at writing, sometimes taking several months to craft and polish the words, melody, and accompaniment of a song before sending it off to a publisher.  His sketchbook shows that he often labored over the smallest details, the right prepositions, even where to include or remove a comma from his lyrics.

 

It is also important and significant to know that Foster kept his own account books, documenting in detail how much his publishers paid him for each song, He also estimated his probable future earnings on each piece.  His contracts were written out in his own hand.  These contracts are the earliest written agreements that  we know of between American music publishers and individual songwriters.

 

Within twenty years of Foster’s death, the concept which he had a large part in creating, that of writing songs for publishers for money, developed into what came to be called Tin Pan Alley, named for a street in New York City (West 28th StreetbetweenBroadway and Sixth Avenuewhere all the music publishers had their offices.) By 1890, sheet music sales of popular songs was a thriving multimillion dollar business.

Had Stephen Foster survived for another twenty years, it is possible that his catalogue of songs would have been worth hundreds of million dollars.

 

The immediate successors to Stephen Foster’s legacy were numerous well known songwriters who’s work has survived them. Irving Berlin had his first significant hit with Alexander’s Ragtime band in 1911. Show Boat, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, was the first hugely popular musical comedy in 1927.  "Ol'ManRiver" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" are songs that have become standards in the “great American songbook George Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess premiered in 1935. Summertime is an all time standard song from that show

 

The electric guitar was first seen around 1936. Alan Freed invented the term Rock and Roll in 1951. Berry Gordy formed Motown records in 1959

The Beatles had their first major hit with I want to Hold Your Hand in 1964

Hip hop, a blend of rock, jazz, and soul with African drumming,  was born in theSouth Bronxin 1978 or perhaps in Kingston Jamaica with dub DJ’s earlier than that.

 

Tin Pan Alley, the center and focal point of American popular music can be directly linked to another New York institution and landmark. That landmark, the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway became the very definition of pop music in the 1950’s and 1960’s

 

By 1962 the Brill Building contained 165 music businesses: a musician could find a publisher and printer, cut a demo, promote the record, and cut a deal with radio promoters, all within this one building. Some of the better known songwriters associated with the Brill building include:

 

   * Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller

   * Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman

   * Gerry Goffin and Carole King

   * Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry

   * Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil

   * Burt Bacharach and Hal David

   * Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield

   * Hugo & Luigi

   * Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

   * Paul Anka

   * Jim Croce

   * Bobby Darin

   * John Denver

   * Neil Diamond

   * David Gates

   * Billy Joel

   * Kris Kristofferson

   * Roger McGuinn

   * Joni Mitchell

   * Carly Simon

   * Paul Simon

   * Phil Spector

   * ChipTaylor

   * James Taylor

   * Gene Pitney

   * Artie Kornfeld

 

I believe that there are two seminal key ingredients that link the various stages of unfolding of popular music. The first is the dedication of the writer to his art and craft. The second is the economic factor.

 

In describing the writer’s dedication to his art and craft, I have discussed how meticulous Stephen Foster was in fine tuning and perfecting his tunes.

 

On a similar note it is useful to read Rennold Wolf’s account of how he, Irving Berlin, Vincent Bryan, and Channing Pollock worked together on a show song inAtlantic City:

 

     “We assembled in Mr.Berlin's imposing suite of parlors, where there was a piano.... Seated at the instrument, he was not long in conceiving a melody, which immediately he began to pound out. All night, until dawn was breaking, he sat on the stool, playing that same melody over and over and over again, while two fagged and dejected lyric writers struggled and heaved to fit it with words.... One cigarette replaced another as he pegged away; a pitcher of beer, stationed at one end of the keyboard, was replenished frequently; and there he sat, trying patiently to suggest, to two minds that were completely worn out by long rehearsals and over-work, a lyric that would fit his melody. Mr. Pollock and I paced the floor; we sat, in turn, in every chair and on every divan in the rooms; we tore at our hair; we fumed, we spluttered, and probably we cursed”..

 

These examples of work ethic continue as the songwriters process to this day. I personally have spent six months fine tuning a song, where the first draft or sketch took a few minutes to unfold. My peers work in the same way.

 

In discussing the second important link, the economic factor, it is significant to know that most of the successful songwriters who’s work has transcended time and genre were also very aggressive entrepreneurs.

By the age of 15, George Gershwin had quit school and was a pianist and "song plugger" for a Tin Pan Alley publisher.

One of the first "popular" music publishers in Tin Pan Alley  was T.B. Harms. T.B. Harms started out as a songwriter. His company ultimately became George Gershwin’s publisher.

 

At the time, songwriters were also "songpluggers," a term that is still used today. Instead of waiting for the market to come to the publisher, the publisher would use songpluggers to take songs to the market. A songplugger's main job was to place songs with performers. Songpluggers were aggressive and influential, singing to passing crowds, going to department stores and sports events, and just about anywhere they could find an audience.

 

As I have suggested, I believe that the two major ingredients involved in success as a songwriter are:

 

1  Serious and meticulous attention to detail of craft.

2.. A dedicated investment of time and energy into the business of songwriting.

 

In recent months there has been a lot of hand wringing, whining and complaining about the state of the record industry. InCanada, there has been the biggest decline in CD sales in the history of the world. Similar situations are occurring everywhere. Industry think tanks are focussed on how to monetize the new paradigm.

 

No-one anywhere has suggested that perhaps the reason that CD sales are about to die is that the songs suck.

 

There was a time where singers and bands were not the writers of the songs that they performed. Songwriters and artists were two separate entities. In our current environment, artists write their own songs. This has repercussions. I believe that rather than blaming the intrusion of a new technology on the demise of the record industry, I would point to the fact that there are no great songs being written that will last for 150 years or more like the songs of Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin or Cole Porter.

 

Perhaps the cycle will bring back the art and the craft of songwriting when the attention to detail and art and craft become a priority again. At that point i believe that the audience, the market will respond and be willing to spend money for music of quality.

 

Rod Stewart leads the list of popular music icons who have recorded John Capek compositions. Others include Bonnie Raitt, Cher, Diana Ross, Joe Cocker, Toto, Chicago, Olivia Newton John, Little River Band, Heart, Manhattan Transfer, Isaac Hayes and Amanda Marshall. John Capek’s most performed award winning songs include : “Rhythm of My Heart”, ”This”, ”Soul on Soul” and “Carmelia”.  Capek’s most performed productions include Dan Hill’s Billboard hit duet with Vonda Sheppard, “Can’t We Try” as well as work with Ken Tobias, Gene McLellan, Good Brothers and Downchild. As a keyboard player, John has recorded with Diana Ross, Olivia Newton John, Ian Thomas, Marc Jordan, Dan Hill, Kermit, The Chipmunks, The Simpsons and countless other international performers. John’s songs are heard in the feature films, “A Perfect Storm”, “Cocktail”, “Blown Away” and many others. For more information go to www.johncapek.com

For more information on the 19th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to:http://www.songwriting.net

 

Songwriting Tip: Beginnings

  
  
  
  

Songwriting Tip: Beginnings

by John Capek

Songwriting

What comes first. lyrics or music?   That’s probably the most common question I am asked when I conduct workshops and seminars.

 

My answer is that the more variety that a songwriter can add to starting a song, the better.

I try to start each song that I write from a different point of view as my starting point.

 

The choices include:

 

1. Writing a full lyric first and then putting it to music.

2. Writing a full track without melody first.

3. Writing a full track of music with melody but no lyrics.

4. Writing based on a song title.

5. Writing based on a story concept

6. Writing based on a beat or drum loop.

7. Writing using a musical instrument that is not your primary instrument of writing. If you are a keyboard player try a guitar, or vice versa.

 

All of these are valid and commonly used, or of course a combination of any.

 

My latest writing technique has been to try to write a complete lyric draft first without even thinking about music. Apple Loops has revolutionized my song writing. Once I have a draft of a lyric, I’ll explore a bunch of possibilities in Apple Loops and choose a groove, usually a guitar lick that works for the first line of my lyric. The rest of the song usually unfolds like a jigsaw puzzle from that point on.

 

1. Writing a full lyric first and then putting it to music.

 

In order to write a lyric first, we need to have a starting point for that. Many of my song writing friends and peers always carry a notebook with them during the day and keep one close when they are sleeping. A particular person encountered during the day, a sign on the street, a line from a newspaper or from something on TV is usually a catalyst for a word or line or visual image that can be noted and used at a later point.

 

I find that in my case, I never think about or analyze my song structures. Usually that first line will dictate where the song is going to go structurally.  A teacher friend of mine has noted that 90% of all; songs follow a structure similar to the children's nursery rhyme

 

MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB

IT’S FLEECE WAS WHITE AS SNOW

EVERYWHERE THAT MARY WENT

THE LAMB WAS SURE TO GO

 

Although that may be an oversimplification, I find that structural simplicity is a good thing to aspire to . In fact simplicity in general works best

 

2. Writing a full track without melody first.

 

Many producer/musician/songwriters work this way. If you have skills as a musician producer, many lyricist/melodists enjoy writing to tracks.   The majority of my song covers were written using this method.  When I have produced a track to submit to a lyricist/melodist, it is produced in a specific manner that I have found works very well.

In my case I try to make my tracks either very contemporary sounding or sometimes, in the case of a ballad, as timeless as possible.  The most important thing to do with tracks, is not to turn them into instrumental songs. They must leave space for the lyricist/melodist to add their part.

 

3. Writing a full track of music with melody but no lyrics.

 

One of my successful recordings was written using this method. I wrote a track and then added my own melody on top of the track. The lyricist then simply wrote the words to my melody and the song was completed. many famous tin pan alley songwriters wrote songs using this method. I have found that it works particularly well with ballads.  As a keyboard player I have been able to suggest melody ideas to the lyricist that are unique and unusual. This can lead to interesting places that may not have been thought of had the lyricist come up with a melody to a track

 

4. Writing based on a song title.

 

Often an event can happen in ones life or in the world that can inspire a song or story. Sometimes a persons name will do. When writing to a title, I often suggest to my students that they write a short prose story based on that title. That story then forms a data base of information that will feed the resulting song.

 

5. Writing based on a story concept

 

A much utilized song writing exercise used by a number of teachers is to write a prose story first. A common approach is to write a story based on a first love. In writing prose stories, we try to add as much detail as possible to give our own unique take to the story. I have found this to be a great starting point for songs. It is something like writing a small play or movies. in fact I believe songs are very similar to little plays or movies.

 

6. Writing based on a beat or drum loop.

 

In hip hop and rap, beats predominate. Again a simple starting point would be to go through the volumes of beats that are available and jam some words along with the beats. i find that it doesn’t matter at first if the words make sense or not. Ultimately as a a result of constant repetition a line will come through that makes sense and defines the meaning of the beat. A song lyric can then unfold based on a starting line.

 

7. Writing using a musical instrument that is not your primary instrument of writing. If you are a keyboard player try a guitar, or vice versa.

 

I am a good keyboard player. On guitar, I know three chords. However some years ago I produced and wrote an entire rock album written exclusively with my limited knowledge of guitar. This created a simplicity and rock feel that I could never have achieved had I used my normal writing instrument.

 

Song writing collaboration is a great way to extend ones vocabulary in writing songs. That vocabulary can be extended with different genre’s, styles age differences, geographical location and different specialization and skills.

 

 

Rod Stewart leads the list of popular music icons who have recorded Capek compositions. Others include Bonnie Raitt, Cher, Diana Ross, Joe Cocker, Toto, Chicago, Olivia Newton John, Little River Band, Heart, Manhattan Transfer, Isaac Hayes and Amanda Marshall. John Capek’s most performed award winning songs include : “Rhythm of My Heart”, ”This”, ”Soul on Soul” and “Carmelia”.  Capek’s most performed productions include Dan Hill’s Billboard hit duet with Vonda Sheppard, “Can’t We Try” as well as work with Ken Tobias, Gene McLellan, Good Brothers and Downchild. As a keyboard player, John has recorded with Diana Ross, Olivia Newton John, Ian Thomas, Marc Jordan, Dan Hill, Kermit, The Chipmunks, The Simpsons and countless other international performers. John’s songs are heard in the feature films, “A Perfect Storm”, “Cocktail”, “Blown Away” and many others. For more information go to www.johncapek.com

For more information on the 19th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to:http://www.songwriting.net

 

Songwriting Tip: Rhyming

  
  
  
  

Songwriting Tip: Rhyming

by Harriet Schock

 Harriet Schock, hit songwriter

When it comes to rhyming, the opinions are varied. I grew up on the music my parents introduced me to. Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter…I bet we had every album Ella Fitzgerald ever did featuring the great songwriters of the American songbook. In these songs, craft was obvious but never got in the way. The lines were sung the way one would speak, the rhymes were perfect. “Perfect rhymes” is not a value judgment—it’s a technical term. “Look and book,” “letter and better.” Not “look and pull,” “letter and her.”

 

Yes, years have passed, but still in musical theatre writing, the standard of the perfect rhyme is still upheld for the most part. I do remember hearing some wildly imperfect rhymes in some modern Broadway shows, which probably means that the rules are getting more lax. But I would not advise using near rhymes in a show any more than I would advise a person to be obscure in a lyric just because he can point to a hit song that wasn’t clear. There are many reasons why something becomes a hit or goes to Broadway, for that matter. I don’t think it’s a good idea to emulate the weaknesses of the genre you’re studying.

 

I recently met an interesting songwriter who was in a rock and roll band by day and came home and listened to Sondheim at night. He was in a band called “Christopher Cross.” Warner Brothers decided to give the lead singer/composer the name of the band but the writer I’m talking about – Rob Meurer - helped create the band with Christopher and currently writes lyrics to Christopher’s melodies. Rob also writes musical shows which are getting a lot of attention. You should simply Google him and read his lyrics. He’s got all the edge of today as well as the craft that is in danger of disappearing.

 

Why shouldn’t rhyming craft disappear, you might ask? Well, craft helps deliver emotional impact. In a song where you’re attempting to have an effect on people, if you decide that “run” and “up” rhyme because they both have the same vowel sound, you may never understand why you just didn’t connect with the listener quite enough. I know it’s becoming fashionable in pop not to rhyme at all for fear of its sounding too “legit,” “old school,” “commercial,” whatever. The problem is the music may be setting up a rhyme with a repeated rhythmic sequence in the melody. If the lyric doesn’t rhyme, it just leaves us feeling...less. And you don’t want your listeners to feel less, do you? They’re depending on songwriters to help them feel more.

 

Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit for Helen Reddy, "Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady" plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored three other Jaglom films starred in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s current film, “The M Word,” features Harriet’s song “Bein’ a Girl,” performed on camera at the end of the film.  Harriet is in the process of writing the songs for “Last of the Bad Girls,” a musical with book by Diane Ladd. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. In 2007, Los Angeles Women In Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and she teaches a popular online course by private email. For her performance schedule, list of credits and samples of her work or information on her book (Becoming Remarkable, for Songwriters and Those Who Love Songs), her songwriting classes and consultation, go to: www.harrietschock.com.

 

For more information on USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

Songwriter Story: The Life & Struggles of a Pro Songwriter

  
  
  
  

STORIES FROM THE TRENCHES, LETTERS HOME FROM THE WARS. THE LIFE AND STRUGGLES OF A PRO SONGWRITER.

 by John Capek

John Capek, songwriter

It was the early nineties. Arriving in Los Angeles with Australian and Canadian hit song credits under my belt, I thought it would be a breeze to get into the scene. A year later and my life savings gone I couldn't get arrested as a songwriter, keyboard player or producer.

Somehow, I fell into the "B list" session scene as a keyboard player for songwriters who needed their songs demoed. I was a pretty good keyboard player, the pay was poor, but the work was consistent and the songwriters liked my playing.

David Gresham (a former business partner with Mutt Lang) was making annual trips to Los Angeles from South Africa promoting artists and writers from his label in Jo-berg. He needed some demos done and someone recommended me. I worked on his stuff and we became friends.

Some years later, after I had graduated into the "A - list" LA studio musician scene, David called me from South Africa quite excited about an artist he had signed. He asked me if I would try to work with him. A few weeks later, his new artist, Byron Duplessis arrived at my studio in North Hollywood.

Imagine Terence Trent Darby, Prince, Michael Jackson and Lenny Kravitz in a male model's physique with talent and a voice beyond anything that I had heard before. That was Byron.

We immediately fell into writing and recording a song and "LOVE HAS THE POWER" was born.

Without notice, Byron left, and I didn't hear back from him again for some months.

"LOVE HAS THE POWER" was pitched to all the labels. The response was great. But we consistently heard the same comment, "We can't sign an artist based on only one song"..

David called me again from South Africa asking what could be done. I had an idea. If I worked with Byron in LA, he would be just like any other R&B act. However if I went to South Africa to work with him, we might be able to come up with something interesting and unique. The idea was to combine contemporary pop with Byron's African roots.

So, I packed my bags and went off on safari. I was right. The music that we made was great and different. Back in LA, the labels jumped at it. We had record companies in a bidding war for Byron. I thought that I had it made.

One day, our combined demo/masters were being played in the offices of Columbia Records in New York, Coincidentally, the band, TOTO was next door wondering what they were going to do about a lead singer for their next recording and tour. Someone made the connection. In an instant I lost my artist.

Byron Duplessis became Jean-Michel Byron and the new lead singer for TOTO.

Almost immediately, They put a "best of" album together. "LOVE HAS THE POWER" made it to that album and is forever cast in stone, (or vinyl or whatever CDs are made of), on the TOTO album, "PAST TO PRESENT". These were the best musicians in the world at that time playing my song. There is a live Youtube performance of my song from one of the TOTO shows in Paris at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NyY5EBuHHiA

I was deeply disappointed with the loss of Byron as my songwriting partner and production client. I felt that he and our songs could have been "bigger than Jesus", to quote John Lennon. But, I did get some compensation in getting a TOTO cut.

I had a strong feeling that Byron had been badly miscast as a member of TOTO and this feeling turned out to be a truth with some unfortunate results for both Byron and the band. His amazing talent is still yet to be fully expressed.

After that, there was a certain lack of creative and artistic fulfillment for me. The music in South Africa had affected me so profoundly that I had to find my way back there and make more music - at any cost.

David Gresham and I stayed in touch, bemoaning our loss and plotted to find some way to recoup. As a result, I returned to the 'veldt' with David's help and set to recording my own album. Paul Simon's, "Graceland" had just come out. To me it was a revelation and an epiphany albeit a little too smooth for my taste. I wanted to get down to the root of the matter.

INDABA, my album, was recorded in Johannesburg exactly at the time that Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I have had the profound experience of being in South Africa during "the time off starvation", which is what apartheid was sometimes called, as well as afterwards when the system collapsed. Freedom reigned.

INDABA was a musical photograph of that moment in time.

One of the songs on INDABA ultimately created its own challenges, creatively. geographically, financially, legally, digitally and business-wise and with Joe Cocker... and much more.

I'll get into that with my next installment as well as more discussion about songwriting, its craft and its art.

 

 

John Capek has achieved international acclaim as a composer, songwriter, keyboard player, producer, arranger and scorer for feature films and television.

 

Rod Stewart leads the list of popular music icons who have recorded Capek compositions. Others include Bonnie Raitt, Cher, Diana Ross, Joe Cocker, Toto, Chicago, Olivia Newton John, Little River Band, Heart, Manhattan Transfer, Isaac Hayes and Amanda Marshall. John Capek’s most performed award winning songs include : “Rhythm of My Heart”, ”This”, ”Soul on Soul” and “Carmelia”.  Capek’s most performed productions include Dan Hill’s Billboard hit duet with Vonda Sheppard, “Can’t We Try” as well as work with Ken Tobias, Gene McLellan, Good Brothers and Downchild. As a keyboard player, John has recorded with Diana Ross, Olivia Newton John, Ian Thomas, Marc Jordan, Dan Hill, Kermit, The Chipmunks, The Simpsons and countless other international performers. John’s songs are heard in the feature films, “A Perfect Storm”, “Cocktail”, “Blown Away” and many others. For more information go to www.johncapek.com

 


For more information on the 19th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to:http://www.songwriting.net


Songwriting tip: Preparing yourself for a recording session

  
  
  
  

 

Preparing yourself for a recording session and beyond or: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail!

 

By Stefan Held

Stefan Held, producer, audio engineer, musician

 

 

People tend to think that the recording process is all about the music. Unfortunately, in today’s industry, having a great song—even a brilliant song—is only one small step in a very long process. The reality is that it doesn't matter if you just started thinking about the first song you want to record or if you have 12 songs mapped out all the way to four-part harmonies in the chorus.

 

I’ve worked with thousands of musicians and helped guide them through every step of the process. The biggest piece of advice I can give is this: take a step back and DON’T jump right into the recording process.

 

There are many things to consider: figuring out how to fund raise enough money for the entire project; choosing the right song(s); deciding when to start a social media/marketing campaign; hiring or not hiring a producer; using your band or going solo; finding a studio; figuring out your style (i.e. does my hair look good??), etc. etc. Everyone will give you lots of advice. But, in my experience, here are the seven most important things to think about:

 

Fund raising

 

Okay, so you’re not a trust fund kid nor are you in line to inherit a small fortune from your Great Aunt Millie. Welcome to the club! Now, what are your options?

 

Think of this entire project as an investment in your music career. And by entire project, I mean everything: social media marketing, advertising campaigns, the recording process, album duplication, video production, album release show(s), merchandise production, the upcoming tour... And what about the next album?

 

We are constantly making choices about how we spend our money. Why pay thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars on college tuition? Simple. It’s an investment in your future. Why buy a car? It’s an investment that helps get you to work, to school, to gigs and therefore, it’s an investment in your future. Why spend all that money on a suit for that job interview? Another investment in your future. Get the picture?

 

If you are serious about music and want to make it your profession, then you need to start thinking of yourself as a business and music as your product. Start a company (like an LLC). Go to your local bank and ask for a small business loan. That’s what I did when I started my music production & marketing company –StevenHeroProductions, LLC.

 

Most studios, producers, marketing companies, etc offer payment plans and they all accept credit cards- it might be time to get those airline miles!

 

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ask family members, friends, long lost relatives for a contribution as well. But help them feel like they’re investing in something as well—call it a pre-order of the album or merchandise.

 

If the investment is high enough, offer them perks like a lifetime backstage pass or a private house concert for them and 50 of their closest friends. If the investment is smaller, offer other incentives like a signed album. I know this sounds like a Kickstarter campaign- and that’s basically exactly what it is.

 

I have seen amazingly successful online fundraising campaigns and some that crashed and burned. The basic issue: if you have 500 followers you can not expect everyone to pitch in $100 to raise the 50K you want to. You need massive amounts of real fans to achieve that, which brings me to my next topic:

 

 

 

Marketing

 

Most artists record first and market afterwards…if at all. Big mistake!

 

Unless you have a following as big as Beyonce, I strongly encourage you to start a solid social media and marketing campaign BEFORE writing the first words to your first single. Why? If you wait to market until after the single/album/demo is finished, you are wasting money on this recording. Or, if you think that you’ll simply release your new music to your existing fan base without trying to attract new followers, you are (once again) wasting money on this recording.

 

Releasing a song or an album without generating substantial buzz and without creating a strong following is useless. It’s wishful thinking. It’s akin to putting your song(s) on iTunes and hoping fans, who have no idea who you are, what you’ve done, will mysteriously find your new album and buy your tracks. But i digress.

 

Start a campaign to gain more REAL fans. Figure out if your social media campaign is in place? Branding? Are the sites synced up? Do the links work? (I know this sounds like a no-brainer- but I see this mistake literally every day). Is your content engaging? Are you interacting with your followers on a personal basis?

 

You’re probably thinking, but wait, this has nothing to do with music. But unfortunately, a huge fan base is essential to becoming a full-time musician. If you don’t sell downloads/albums/merchandise and your shows are not packed, you will never make a return on your investment--- ever!

 

What to do?

 

Start creating a team around you. Hire an intern, who you pay with a small stipend and the promise of letters of recommendation after the project is compete. Have that person spend hours every day looking for great content. Have that person interact with your fans, go to shows, meet people, etc. I hope i don't have to explain that organic followers (while important) are a slow way to go and will not bring the desired results besides close friends and family who will buy your record anyway. Don't get me wrong, a strong, solid foundation is great- just don't leave it at that.

 

You can also hire a professional company with a proven track record. Some companies offer quite reasonable rates. (Again, a lot of companies offer payment plans and all professional ones accept credit cards.)

 

Another reason to start your campaign early is to get behind the scenes video footage of you rehearsing with the band, struggling through writing sessions, fighting with band members, meeting with producers, crying and cursing out the music business and all of the over fun stages of the process. This is content gold. Fans want to be part of the entire process. The more they feel involved, the more of a “super fan” they will potentially become. These are the fans every artists loves! They buy your products, they run your fan clubs, they spread the word and they attend every show.

 

To demo or not to demo...

 

Okay, so now you started your campaign, what next? Demo or no demo…well, that depends. As a producer I always love to hear a rough version of a song. It's a great way to see if it’s in the right key for the artist, if the arrangement works or the bridge is too long or even in the right spot? How about the song’s tempo?

 

I can hear the potential of a song through a basic demo with your voice and guitar or piano accompaniment. I can get a sense of a song’s promise and its problem spots.

 

Garageband is also a great (and free) way to lay down your ideas. Did I mention it's free???

 

A word of warning: use these demos for pre-production BUT do not send them to major labels, publishers or anyone else who regularly receives tons of high quality submissions every day. If your song does not sound amazing and if it fails to grab them on every level from composition, to performance, to production, they will not listen past the first 20 seconds. The hard lesson in this business is that there is a lot of great music out there. They don’t need to spend time looking for "potential" and making "suggestions" as to how you can improve your song(s).

 

If you are lucky enough to get that song into the right hands, be sure it will TOTALLY BLOW THEM AWAY!

 

Enough said.

 

Next question:

 

Producer or not?

 

Guess what? Making demos on your laptop or recording your band's rehearsal does not necessarily make you a producer. There are professionals who have devoted their lives to producing music. They can be a tremendous asset. They provide a set of experienced ears and give you someone to call on when the studio decides not to tune the piano or provide the promised mics for your session. Besides, with a producer’s assistance, it most likely won’t even come to that. A good producer knows which studios sound great, which engineers are amazing and what studio musician show up ready to rock!

 

How to find the perfect producer?

 

Do your research, use the internet, find out what this person did for the last few years and not what they did 25 years ago!

 

Meet them in person and ask them questions. If a producer/engineer/studio owner, does not answer each and every question you have or if their answers don’t make sense - RUN!  

 

So, long story short, a great producer will most likely not only save you money by helping you making the right decisions in the first place (Yes, you heard that right- i said saving money!) but the finished product will sound highly professional and will make you stand out.

 

Now, you have raised the funds, have a solid social media strategy in place and hired the right producer- what’s next?

 

Pre-production.

 

What's that?

 

Pre-production means: sitting down with the producer and going over every song in great detail. No need to rent a $500/hr studio for that. Just meet at his/her place or a basic rehearsal studio (most producers have a studio of their own to work from)!

 

By the time you actually head into the recording studio, there should be no question about the key, the tempo, the arrangement, or any of the other basic details. It goes without saying, once the red light goes on, things may change a little. But before walking into the studio, make sure you’ve answered all of the basic questions.

 

midi or live instruments?

 

This depends a lot on your style of music- many times, it will be a combination of both. But if it’s done right, the results will be amazing and will save you some serious $$$.

 

If you want primarily live instruments, there are a couple of options:

 

Either use a full band to record live in the studio or, lay down vocal and guitar or piano scratch tracks first and then overdub one instrument at a time.

 

What you ultimately decide depends on a number of factors: Style of music? Do you have a super tight band that has a ton of studio experience? Is your pitch dead on? Are you comfortable with everyone recording at the same time? Does the guitar player deliver an amazing solo every time? Are the drummer and bassist super tight and locked in rhythmically? etc If so, a "live" recording might be the answer. Most of the larger studios have a handful of isolation booths, so you can still fix some things during overdubbing sessions.

 

If you are a solo artist and not sure what to do in terms of instrumentation, I highly recommend FIRST tracking you--and your instrument--to a click track (unless you are a hundred percent sure you do not want to add any other instruments, especially rhythmic ones afterwards) and adding layers one by one. That way the chances of overproduction are limited since you don’t pile everything on at first and then have to peel off what you don’t like later.

 

Again, every producer works differently, so make sure to pick one who works in a way that you feel comfortable with.

 

And, FINALLY!

 

The Recording

 

It’s finally time to lay down some magic!

 

If you’ve done all the work, the recording is not only going to be fun and exciting—it’s going to be quick and economical! Make sure your instrument(s) are in great shape, you have new strings/batteries, your voice is warmed up, and you are rested and ready.

 

If you followed my advice so far, you are not only on your way to amazing sounding tracks but you’ve also established a strong following with fans who are eagerly awaiting your upcoming release.

 

Next steps: planning mixing/mastering sessions, album duplication, online distribution, album release show(s), video shoot(s), booking a tour, getting your music licensed, interviews and tons more.

 

I wish you all the best on your journey and hope to hear your music soon!

 

 

 

Stefan Held is the owner of StevenHeroProductions, LLC, a music production & marketing company based in New York City. He has done music productions for MTV, MTV2, BRAVO, TLC, NBC, FOX, Discovery, VH1, Sundance, Travel channel, etc. And he has worked for USA Songwriting Competition Top Winner & Billboard Top 10 Hit Artist Ari Gold, American Idol’s Diana DeGarmo and Tony Award winner Melba Moore, etc. www.StevenHeroProductions.com

 

For more information on the 19th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, please go to: http://www.songwriting.net

 

Songwriting Tip: The Demo Is Dead

  
  
  
  

THE DEMO IS DEAD

by John Capek 
Demo Tape for songwriters
Why I don't do demos.

Arif Mardin, Mutt Lange,Trevor Horn, Berry Gordy, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson,
George Martin and Quincy Jones are gentlemen who have shared a common philosophy regarding recording contemporary popular music.

That philosophy is - a respect for spontaneity however, not making it their deity.
More than being record producers, these guys have been consummate ARRANGERS and editors of recorded music.

Much of the iconic recorded music that we recognize as our score to the twentieth and twenty-first century has been recorded, ARRANGED edited and 'produced' by this group of musical royalty.

In researching the content of anthemic hit records that stand the test of time, I have found one common factor. That factor, for me has been an epiphany, a revelation and a secret unfolded.

Consider the bass line of the Beatles song "Lady Madonna". That line is never sung, is not part of the melody, has no specific connection to the lyric and would not appear on a lead sheet. Yet without that bass line, the song is unrecognizable in its familiar context.

British courts recently awarded a partial ownership of the song "Whiter Shade of Pale" to the keyboard player who came up with the intro to that recording.

Similarly, consider Michael Jackson's "Beat It" without the bass figure or just about any Motown hit song such as Marvin Gaye's "Grapevine" without the intro figure or the Beach Boy's "Good Vibrations" without its signature instrumental line.

Who is the decider on how, when and where these musical hooks get incorporated into the records that have become our anthems? Who decided that the flute part in "Men at Work's" "Land Down Under" should become such a recognizable and controversial signature?

What does it take to make these records our mileposts, our familiar touchstones and our connections?

Some of Mutt Lange's albums have taken a year to make and millions of dollars in budget. Is the secret about time and money?

George Martin, Arif Mardin and Quincy Jones had rigorous formal training in composition, harmony and orchestral arranging. Brian Wilson and Phil Spector were focused "out of this world" visionary geniuses who invented sonic and harmonic atmospheres probably never to be replicated by anyone else.

We now land in the second decade of the twenty-first century with the recorded music industry decimated and its economic base essentially collapsed. Positions in social media can be bought and paid for, attendance at live shows is financially beyond the reach of most fans and records have become fleeting sound clips that have no lasting social, cultural or economic value. I love the 'wrecking ball', it's...........spherical.

What does it take to create an anthemic, iconic lasting piece of recorded music that has similar qualities to those great works created by Quincy, Arif, Phil and Brian?

We don't have the time, we don't have the resources and we certainly don't have the budgets. The chances of coming up with a timeless 'anthemic hit'  even in the most ideal circumstance, based on an assembly of the greatest studio musicians with the best engineers in the most aesthetic environment recording our demo in a limited time/budget scenario, is I believe an absolute zero.

There is an answer and I believe that I have access to that answer, can and have fulfilled that answer and am in business to supply that answer.

I don't do demos.

As a songwriter, I write the "record" not just the song. There is a reason that Diana Ross, Chicago, Olivia Newton John and Bonnie Raitt have picked up my recorded song demo/masters and made them a part of their albums. There is a reason that musicians as great as Toto have cloned my demo/masters and recorded my bass lines note for note.

My mode is to prioritize the concept of arrangement without incurring the extraordinary budgets and unlimited time for 'trial and error' experimentation that the greats have had.

I am a consummate pop music arranger who spent years working as a double scale studio musician in Los Angeles, in demand precisely for my ability to compose, design and conceive of those musical signatures and hooks that define a record and give it that lasting iconic quality.

Today, this ARRANGING process occurs in my own studio, in my own time, utilizing my encyclopedic musical vocabulary. This process does not incur the added expense of outside musicians, outside studios, arrangers engineers or added personnel.

Once an ARRANGEMENT is designed, agreed upon and is in place, then a project can be taken to a formal studio where live musicians replicate the parts that I have designed and the rest of a recording is completed, mixed and mastered.

Often parts that have been recorded in my pre-production ARRANGING process do not change and are retained as part of the master resulting in additional time and cost saving.


It takes me about 100 hours per song. Some examples of the results can be heard on the 'Songs' page of www.johncapek.com

As a keyboard player, arranger, producer and songwriter, I am likely to be heard on about one hundred million recordings, one of which is playing on some public media somewhere at any instant in time.

I am occasionally available to turn your concept into a hit record within realistic budgets. Contact me for an evaluation and an estimate.

John Capek has achieved international acclaim as a composer, songwriter, keyboard player, producer, arranger and scorer for feature films and television.
Rod Stewart leads the list of popular music icons who have recorded Capek compositions. Others include Bonnie Raitt, Cher, Diana Ross, Joe Cocker, Toto, Chicago, Olivia Newton John, Little River Band, Heart, Manhattan Transfer, Isaac Hayes and Amanda Marshall. John Capek’s most performed award winning songs include : “Rhythm of My Heart”, ”This”, ”Soul on Soul” and “Carmelia”.  Capek’s most performed productions include Dan Hill’s Billboard hit duet with Vonda Sheppard, “Can’t We Try” as well as work with Ken Tobias, Gene McLellan, Good Brothers and Downchild. As a keyboard player, John has recorded with Diana Ross, Olivia Newton John, Ian Thomas, Marc Jordan, Dan Hill, Kermit, The Chipmunks, The Simpsons and countless other international performers. John’s songs are heard in the feature films, “A Perfect Storm”, “Cocktail”, “Blown Away” and many others. For more information go to www.johncapek.com

For more information on the 19th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

2014 Songwriters Showcase @ Bluebird Cafe

  
  
  
  

USA Songwriting Competition presented a Songwriters Showcase on May 8, 2014 at the famous Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, TN. It was a sold-out packed show. Liz Miller hosted the showcase with the following songwriters, see pictures and videos below:

Johnny Bulford (First Prize Winner, 18th Annual USA Songwriting Competition)
Daisy Mallory (Finalist)
Lauren Lucas (Honorable Mention Winner)
Natalie Howard (Finalist)
Kayliann Lowe (Finalist)

Songwriters Showcase at Bluebird Cafe

From bottom left to right are Daisy Mallory,Lauren Lucas,Johnny Bulford, Natalie Howard.
From back left to right are Kayliann Lowe & Liz Miller

 

 

 Johnny Bulford, singing his #1 hit song "A Woman Like You" (recorded by Lee Brice)

 

 

 Lauren Lucas, performing "Just Haven't Found Him Yet":

 

 

 Natalie Howard, performing "Hit The Hay":

 

For more information on the 19th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

 

 

Songwriting Tip: The Rhythm of the Melody

  
  
  
  

The Rhythm of the Melody—more important than ever for “top line” writers

By Harriet Schock 

 Harriet Schock, Hit Songwriter

In my book, Becoming Remarkable for Songwriters and Those who Love Songs, I have a chapter devoted to the rhythm of the melody. It’s often overlooked by the beginning songwriter who pays lots of attention to the shape of the melody, the chords under the melody and whether the melody proceeds in steps or leaps. But the rhythm of the melody is equally important, and these days with “top line” writers, it’s vital.

“Top line” writers, as they’re often called, are writers who write melody or lyrics-- or melody andlyrics—over a track provided by the track writer, who’s often the producer, the DJ, whoever is providing it. I won’t get into the disputes that often come up over ownership and who wrote what. The subject I’m tackling is how hard it is to write a melody over a chord progression that never changes. Of course, some tracks have different chords in different sections of the song but many of them have the same chord progression in the verses as in the choruses, etc. So if you’re not paying attention to the rhythm of the melody, you can have trouble getting the melody over the verses to sound different from the chorus melody. Often, the melody that the top line writer comes up with has such rhythmic variation and melody shape, you don’t even notice the chords are the same. And, of course, the track builds. But in traditional songwriting, one of the goals is to have as much difference as possible between the verse and the chorus. And with the same chords, it can really be a challenge.

As I said in the chapter of my book mentioned earlier:

It’s an interesting exercise to spend a week listening only to rhythm of melody. Whenever the radio is on, or a CD, home in on that one facet. See where the melody starts in relation to the count of “one.” See if it’s relatively on the beat or on an “and” or an “oh” as in “3-oh-and-uh”—in other words, syncopated. See if the verse differs from the chorus in this regard. Never mind the shape of the melody or its interaction with the chords right now, we’re just listening for the rhythm of the notes that are sung.

I used to have a friend who would tap out rhythms on my arm and see if I could guess the melody. Sometimes, it would be so distinctive, I could. Try tapping out the melody to “As Time Goes By,” on someone’s arm and see if he/she can guess it. Or “America” from West Side Story. If your friends give up, hum it for them without words and they’ll hit their heads like someone in a V-8 commercial. The truth is, in both of these old songs, the rhythm is very distinctive. But it’s also true of most songs that the rhythm of the melody is as important to its personality as facial features are to a person’s appearance. It just seems to be the part of melody that gets discussed the least.”

 

The rhythm of the melody has always been important but today for the top line writer, an analogy comes to mind. If an artist is told he can only paint vertically on the canvas—no horizontal lines---he’d better have a complete palette of colors at his disposal. With the same chords over and over, for it not to sound like Chinese water torture, he’d better be well versed in the rhythmic variations to the melody.

Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit for Helen Reddy, "Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady" plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored two other Jaglom films and starred in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s current release is “The M Word” for which Harriet wrote the featured song.  Harriet has written the songs for “Last of the Bad Girls,” a musical with book by Diane Ladd. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. Her catalogue musical, “Split” for which she wrote book and songs is currently in production. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and through a popular online course by private email. In 2007, Los Angeles Women In Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. For her performance schedule, list of credits and samples of her work or information on he rbook (Becoming Remarkable, for Songwriters and Those Who Love Songs), her songwriting classes and consultation, go to: www.harrietschock.com

For more information on the 19th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

Tools For The Songwriter: Capture And Craft

  
  
  
  

Tools For The Songwriter: Capture And Craft

By Sven-Erik Seahom

 

 

Recording Songwriter

 

Grab those ideas and turn them into great songs with the right tools

 

“A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true.”—Bob Dylan

A song comes to us with a blend of three complementary ingredients: lyrics, melody and harmonic structure (chords). Each of these essentials supports the others, so while the lyrics may often directly refer to a particular feeling or emotion, the melody can actually help to emphasize or even embody that sensation. The chords contextualize things further by defining and establishing major and minor key relationships—the exact same melody can be made to sound either happy or sad, depending on which notes surround and support it.

It all sounds very complicated, and it certainly can be, but the act of songwriting can also be fundamentally broken down into two simple phases: Capture and craft.

Tools at the ready—anywhere, anytime

The first stage begins with allowing all of your ideas and inspirations to flow freely, encouraging them to come into being without judgment or expectation. Each new line or musical phrase may suggest another and then another, until you’ve filled the room with all of these wonderful ‘butterflies’ of invention and creativity. Along the way, you may employ a wide variety of ‘nets’ to gently capture them.

Songs are often like long-lost friends who show up unannounced while you’re in the middle of something else. You’re always very excited to see them, but the timing can be a bit of an issue. The key word here is readiness—having the tools you need at hand when you’re struck by the lightning of creativity. Have a note pad at the ready, and pencils or markers, highlighters—the quicker you write down a good idea, the more likely you are to keep it and to build on it. I usually write on an acoustic guitar. If that’s what you do, too, make sure yours is in tune, with good strings, ready to inspire you.

You won’t always have your best ideas come to you while you’re conveniently sitting at your desk. To capture a musical idea, anywhere, anytime, carry with you a pocket-sized digital recorder. Don’t neglect to check the batteries, the memory card, or the internal memory, so that you can dictate a lyric or hum a melody whenever inspiration comes to you.

If you have a smart phone, load it up with apps to record, apps to take notes... Songwriting is a guerrilla operation—one must be patient, but prepared to act quickly. Having even the most rudimentary record of this moment can make the difference between that tiny creative encouragement becoming the best song you ever wrote, or just another one that got away.

I knew a songwriter several years ago who received a Nikon digital camera as a gift. This particular model included audio recording capabilities. He carried it with him everywhere. To my knowledge, I don’t think he ever took a single picture with it. But it was filled with song ideas, arrangement snippets, found sounds, lyrics and poems…little audio finger-paintings, if you will. The artist finds a way!

The muse comes calling

Sometimes, there’s a nibble. A chord change or a musical vibe might catch my attention or take over. I fall under its spell and delve deeper into it, playing it over and over in an endless loop. I begin singing along and exploring the varying sonorous textures that are suggested by the union of my musical sense and my subconscious mind.

At this point, I try to sing the most beautiful and unique melody I can uncover. Even though I don’t know what all of the chords will be yet, I’m singing over what is there, because the very melody that I’m singing could suggest what the next move is.

Let’s start out, for example, by playing a simple C chord for a measure, followed by an E minor chord for another measure. After a while, you might begin singing a G “Ooooh” over the C chord and rising to a B over the E minor. Return to the G over the C chord, falling to an E over the E minor... Back and forth: “Ooooh, ooooh. Ooooh, ooooh...”

Eventually, a melodic turn may be in conflict with what you’re currently playing, suggesting a new chord. Let’s say you want to hear a G note, followed by a note of G# and then an A. That’s probably not going to work over the present chords, so you search through a variety of combinations until you arrive at the solution that sounds best to you. In this case, it might be a C chord, followed by an E7 and then an A minor. Suddenly, you’re in a whole new place. By simply following our melody, you’ve wandered off the beaten path and are now finding your way instinctively.

Getting acquainted

So, where can you go next? Continue playing through the progression, still singing along, all the way up to that creative ‘cliff’ where you had left off. This hypnotic, cyclical approach places the song “under your hands”; you become more comfortable playing and singing these inspirations, allowing your mind to roam. This often gives the next solution a better chance to present itself.

Along the way, certain words or images may concurrently begin emerging from seemingly nowhere, giving further shape and focus to your otherwise rudimentary utterances. Vowels are significant: As you sing along, you can try moving from “Ooooh” to “Aaaay” or “Eeee”, for example. Listening to the sonorous quality of these and other vowel shapes can further suggest lyrical snippets or additional melodic ideas... the point is to keep walking down that musical trail and see what else is there to be discovered.

Stopping time

If you’re lucky, you may arrive at a big “Eureka!” moment, or you may just run out of steam... In either case, this is the place to whip out that smart phone and record what you do have so far. Got lyrics? Write those down too! Just a chord and a rhythm? Fine. Hit Record. A bunch of stuff in your DAW? Hit Save and render a rough mix. Like a page with a folded corner, your process can be frozen in place until your next opportunity to return to it.

Neil Young, only one among many artists who feel that way, has long embraced the notion that most of his songs be not only born from but completed in this initial flurry of activity. It obviously doesn’t always happen that way, but his stated intent is that within that early burst of inspiration lies something very special that’s also quite fragile. You can find a great interview online, wherein Young discusses this concept in the writing of his song “Like A Hurricane”.

Singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman once said that as soon as a song idea began to take shape, his goal was to then finish the song before his wife came home, so he could show it to her. In the book Written In My Soul (a collection of interviews with many great songwriters, which I very highly recommend: www.amazon.com/Written-My-Soul-Conversations-Songwriters/dp/0809246503) Himmelman’s father-in-law Bob Dylan says, “All you know is that it’s a mood piece, and you try to hold onto the mood and finish. Or not even finish, but just get it to a place where you can let it go.”

Modern technology affords us the unprecedented ability to pick up right where we left off, to effectively bookmark these works in progress, to subsequently develop them into something even better, stronger and more lasting.

Get it in writing

Now comes the crafting of the song, a stricter yet still passionate process. At this point I fire up my word processor—I use Microsoft Word. Aside from the spell checker, I use its Thesaurus. The internet is full of thesaurus websites and dictionaries of synonyms—pick one and  type in ‘ubiquitous’. Word will throw the following alternatives back at you:  “ever-present”, “everywhere” and “omnipresent”. It may seem a paltry selection, but I’ll bet it’s a lot easier to rhyme with “everywhere”....

These sorts of synonymic options are the writer’s key accomplice. They can help us to think “outside the box”, by offering unexpected twists in our flow. One fantastic program that helps this process along in a very “musician-oriented” way is MasterWriter (masterwriter.com), which offers a huge selection of writing and reference tools with songs in mind. Check it out if you find working in Word to be a creativity-killer...

Let’s say, for example, that upon revisiting the notepads and audio memos, you take up where you left off, playing through the chords and singing the same wordless melody. Only this time, you start to sing the words “Where were you?” sort of unconsciously, in an almost meditative way. You come to a place where you want to say “You’re Everywhere”, but you don’t want to use such an obvious, almost lackluster word. You look up “everywhere” and the word “ubiquitously” is among the many choices offered. Chuckle at first, but then you hear the word “Ubiquitous” with a melody in your head: D#, D#, F#, G.

After a little more time exploring these new options, you come up with at least the start of a song structure, so go into your word processor, set it to a 20 point font size and make a chord chart for what you have so far, doing your best to line up the chords over the correct syllables, etc.:

 

C            Em

Where were you?

C            Em

Where were you?

C            E7      Am        B7

Everywhere weren’t you?

C                                    B7

Ubiquitous              

C                                    B7

Ubiquitous

You follow that with a quick recording into your phone, and you title both the .doc file and the memo ‘Ubiquitous 02’. Every time you come to what you feel is a point of accomplishment (the melody forms, the structure gels, or a bridge appears), you will continue to leave these sorts of signposts for yourself along the way, so that you can track your progress, or back up if you hit a dead end.

Charting your course

If you’re looking for a dedicated chord chart maker, one that lets you edit chord patterns and do key transposing, the program Song Sheet 5 (from dsbsoft.com) offers a few features that could make their way into your creative process. Within the chord editor, for instance, there is a “preview” function that plays the currently selected chord. If you’re looking for the next chord in your song, you can click and audition chords you suspect might be right, or just see what arrives from clicking through different chords at random. Or try variations on the chords you have and see if they bring any new ideas forward.

Sometimes we just can’t get our hands to play the music in our heads. Perhaps we habitually go to all-too-familiar chord shapes, or just aren’t strong enough on our instrument to accurately realize the music we envision.

Band-in-a-Box (pgmusic.com) is an excellent aid in this more compositionally-oriented method. Band-in-a-Box lifts the chord chart approach up to a whole new level, by not just previewing chords, but performing them from start to finish, complete with drums, bass, guitar, piano, strings and more, in a variety of styles. Type in your chords and away you go, free to experiment with tempo, key, and style. There’s even an automatic melody generator provided, to further provoke your own creativity from unexpected musical places!

A few years ago, I produced an album for singer/comedian Happy Ron, called Terribly Happy (www.cdbaby.com/cd/happyron). He had composed, arranged and demoed the whole record, complete with chord charts, lyric sheets and audio CDs, entirely within the Band-In-A-Box environment. This degree of organization is invaluable in the studio and could be immensely helpful to your songwriting as well.

Now, some or most of these tools are available inside many DAWs, including notation editing; there are also notation-specific programs that you might find inspiring, some of which contain composer-friendly additions like built-in sound libraries and audio recorders. Some famous examples are Sibelius (avid.com), Finale (makemusic.com), and Notion and Progression (notionmusic.com). I won’t say more about them because they’re not products I have experience with, but I’ve worked with a lot of artists who have drawn great inspiration from them, and I expect you’ll see more mention of them in upcoming issues of Recording. I will discuss my DAW of choice below, in the context of a different sort of compositional flow.

Bait & Switch

Band-in-a-Box can also be used to play an existing song, over which you can audition an endless variety of original lyrics and melodies, in a kind of karaoke songwriting approach. Sometimes, we just need to sort of trick ourselves into doing something different, to help break ourselves out of old habits that may have begun bringing diminishing returns. For instance, lyricists can also benefit from the tactic of “hanging it on another song’s structure.”

There is a legend (which may or may not be true) regarding the pop songwriting duo of Chris Difford & Glenn Tilbrook of the band Squeeze. Difford was the lyricist and Tilbrook wrote the music. Allegedly, Difford wanted to try a new approach, just to shake things up a bit. He first compiled the lyrics from a bunch of his favorite Motown songs. Then, he completely rewrote each one, still adhering to the meter and syllable counts of the originals, and subsequently turned them all over to the composer, without letting him in on it. The resulting album was their biggest seller, one many fans cite as one of the best in their catalog.

Another approach: Gimme a beat

Hip-Hop songs require a different method from those illustrated in our previous examples, because in Hip Hop the words almost always come after the music. So first off, you’re going to need a beat.

In this instance, a beat doesn’t just mean a drum loop. The term includes all of the loops, the samples, the chords and the bass, as well as the all important Hook, which is also referred to within other genres as the Chorus. With so many elements involved in the song’s construction, a writer can go from inspired to overwhelmed in a hurry.

There are a lot of DAWs out there that all do an amazing job, but when it comes to simplifying the process so that you can be free to create, I’ve found for my own purposes that PreSonus’s Studio One (presonus.com/
studioone) offers a great workflow.

Studio One’s intuitive, tempo-sync based environment keeps all of your loops, MIDI, audio and effects in sync with the song’s meter, saving lots of setup and ‘tweaking’ time.  Its easy ‘drag and drop’ interface almost seems to fade into the background as you create and discover. Loops can be performed and edited with incredible ease and speed, then quickly exported by simply dragging them to the browser. Studio One is not unique in this capability—nowadays most DAWs offer such tools. But it’s the one I’m most familiar with.

Whichever DAW you’re using, gather a palette of loops and other sounds, and you can begin building a structural framework. Start by a laying down 4 minutes of a two- measure drum loop. Adjust the tempo until you’re “feelin’ it”. Words may already begin tumbling out of you from this humble start. If so, let ‘em flow! The rhythms, accents and other forms of cadence that spill forth can influence every aspect of the arrangement that supports your lyric.

Since you’re already in a recording environment, there’s no better time to get those rhymes down than in the heat of the moment, so reach for a mic. Choose a decent one that suits your voice, in case you end up with keeper tracks.

As before, just lay down what comes out. A great exercise is to loop 16 bars and record numerous passes. Maybe each ‘take’ brings you closer to what you want, or you can try out a bunch of stuff and go back through and edit it later.

Grab that Ubiquitous chorus we were working on earlier and follow your verses with it for 12 measures. Using E minor as your key, you can begin building the rest of your ‘beat’ by adding bass, keys and other instrumental loops, or perform them via MIDI on one of the virtual instruments in your DAW.

Much like a sculptor, chiseling away in an effort to reveal the image that lies underneath, you can add and subtract these elements in an endless number of combinations. Structurally, you can shuffle song sections, re-order lyric lines and verses, add breakdowns and bridges, try out intros, etc. In this way, the studio becomes your willing accomplice, rather than one more adversary you need to contend with.

Inspiring sounds

Now that you’re ready to flesh out your song and take it to the next level, you might want to look for realistic sounds that can inspire you. Guitarists can get that big-stage sound for styles like Rock, Punk, Metal, etc. from amp modeling plug-ins; your DAW probably came with a few already, and many more are out there. Even the free Apple GarageBand (apple.com/mac/garageband) has sounds that are perfectly suitable for commercial releases. Plus, you can get some of the hugest, gnarliest tones imaginable, riffing and wailing to your heart’s delight... without your neighbors ever knowing.

Guitar slingers with iOS mobile devices are also presented with some great writing options, via guitar interfaces like the Sonoma Wire Works GuitarJack (sonomawireworks.com) or the Apogee JAM (apogeedigital.com). These new interfaces connect via the dock connector on your iPhone or iPad, rather than older products that go through the headset minijack and frankly don’t sound very good.

Once you’re connected, you can open a multi-effect processor app like Positive Grid’s JamUp Pro and BIAS (positive
grid.com) and get to rockin’! In addition to being able to play through its faithful recreations of many different amps and effects, you can also dial in your own tones, and when inspiration strikes, you can capture it with the built-in 8-track recorder and export your audio via email or file sharing. This could even be imported back into the hook of your hip-hop production, bringing you full circle!

Getting there in the end

Don’t beat yourself up on days when none of these tools work for you. There are times when creativity is calling a time-out. My mother is a painter. She once told me, “Sometimes you paint, sometimes you clean your brushes.” So when it’s not happening, go for a walk, do house chores, tidy up your studio and your computer’s desktop, back up some hard drives, play Scrabble (it will give you ideas for lyrics!)—even though you won’t be actually writing a song, you’ll still be working at it, just on a different level.

Over time you’ll go back to each almost-finished song, listening with fresh ears, tweaking a detail here and there, until you know it’s ready to meet its audience. When an audience trusts a song, they can begin to believe that it has a place in their own lives. They will let down their guard and allow you the chance to get inside their hearts. To move them. This is the sacred covenant that makes our efforts as songwriters worthwhile. This is the importance of capture and craft.

 (Reprinted with permission by Recording Magazine

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer, singer and songwriter. His latest release is Seaholm Mackintosh’s Monarchs. Check out his website at www.kaspro.com.

For more information on the 19th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

 

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