The Songwriter’s Survival Guide
by Joe Hoten
Song writing is one hair-tearingly frustrating, jump-out-of-your-seatingly exciting and air-punchingly rewarding pastime. That's quite a lot to experience from one activity, so if you're ready for that kind of roller coaster ride – one with plenty of loop-the-loops and vertical drops – then here are a few things to watch out for when you're penning your next number 1.
Staring at a blank page can be like being lost on an Antarctic plain – nowhere to go, and no hope in sight. But, while being able to do absolutely anything can seem daunting, you've got to try and see the opportunity in it. Don't get carried away being overwhelmed by all the greatest songs ever written glaring down at you. Everybody goes through a little self-doubt now and then, but all it does is arrest your development. You can end up thinking your way into inaction. Just pick up your guitar and play. Or pick up your pen and write. Do, or do not. Once you've started messing around with a riff, a melody, even a single chord, the wheels will begin to turn, and you'll find yourself inching towards your goal.
Try not to discount anything before you've even done it. This is an easy trap to fall into, but it always comes down to this: you can't improve upon nothing. If you accept that a masterpiece isn't just going to drop out of your head onto your piece of paper, you'll find it a lot easier to rack up a respectable amount of 'OK' ideas that you can then hone and polish. A great idea can stem from anything – lyrics can inspire certain movements within your melody, or a particular chord could make you feel something that surprises you. Whatever it is that sparks that initial interest, run with it as far as you can.
Finding the Right Words
The music is a huge part of the emotionality of your song, but it’s up to your lyrics to convey your message literally. Keep them artful, rhythmical and true to your own character. People can spot a faker a mile off – say what you mean, and mean what you say, and everything else will follow.
Also, as tempting as it may be to flip things on their heads, beware of such tropes as writing depressing lyrics to happy music. It's completely possible to pull off, but equally possible to fluff up. That sort of thing is rarely so black and white as to simply swap out your majors for minors – you'd be going for more of an ironic melancholy that may best be saved for later. For the first few songs, pick the themes and vocabulary that do suit your music, just so you become accustomed to the effects such pairings can have. Learn how to roll before you reinvent the wheel.
The Great Plagiarism
All too often songwriters clap their hands together with glee as the final pieces of their puzzle fall into place… only to realise that the picture they’ve put together is strangely familiar. And that’s because they’ve unwittingly re-written somebody else’s song. This can be pretty soul-crushing to double check, but it's definitely worth it in the long run. No self-respecting creative mind would be at ease knowing it'd just regurgitated someone else's work, so you're probably going to have to carry on listening to as broad a range of music as you can manage. Sure, you'll notice trends reappearing across genres, and by all means use them for your own ends – but take heed of how they make you feel. If you notice a bunch of songs that sound the same and you find it a little tedious, it's time for you to buck that particular trend.
The Finished Product?
Is it really possible to know when your song's truly complete? Perhaps not when there always seems to be something else to think about. Is your melody hummable? Is the structure interesting? Does your verse flow nicely enough into your chorus? Is your word choice clear enough for your meaning? These are the questions that can keep you up at night. It's difficult not to become obsessive about every tiny little detail, second and third guessing every decision you've made, but at some point you're just going to have to throw your hands up and say 'that's enough!' When practically every note and every syllable could be different, sometimes you just have to go with your heart. After all, that's whereabouts your song's going to be felt when your fans hear it.
Now the writing phase is complete, congratulations are in order! Well done. And now for the bad news. You should probably prepare to want to change everything all over again, because now other people are going to hear your song.
Live It and Love It
The first thing to do is make sure you've learned your song inside out. This brings with it its own obstacles. Some say practice makes perfect, some say familiarity breeds contempt. In the context of learning songs, you need to find the happy middle ground. Learn it well enough so that it becomes second nature, as you'll be a lot more comfortable in front of an audience, and will hopefully develop a few muscle memories. But don't bore yourself to the edge of sanity either – we don't want a passionless recital from a robot who's fried their own circuits.
It’s great to try to test yourself – the comfort zone is where your creativity curls up and dies. By all means throw in a new technique you’ve been studying, go crazy with syncopation, make your rhymes and references as unusual as you like – just make sure you can pull it off. That’s what you wanted, after all. It certainly would suck if you vaingloriously flew straight at the sun only to have your wings melted off as you plummet into the sea of failure. Reading off your tablet doesn’t show the same degree of dedication as rattling off lines committed to memory, and fluffing up your carefully written solo probably won't win anybody over either. Prove to everyone you're serious about this – you're already been through the writing rigmarole, so you owe it to your creation. Let it live! Play it live! Well!
Rewrite the Wrongs
Once you've played your song a few times – and especially once you've written a few more – it's natural to start rethinking it. This is not necessarily a drawback. In a few rare cases, a song is just born immaculate – in which case, don't slap God in the face and change it! But as you learn more and more about music, you probably will start to think of choices you didn't make with your song back then as missed opportunities.
Revising your own work is a right and a necessity. Don’t get ahead of yourself and try to skip this stage – only once you have something to improve upon will you be able to see what needs to be improved. There’s nothing worse than rushing a song and allowing your fans and bandmates to get know a version of it you’re not satisfied with, then visibly tiring of it then making changes they may not take kindly to. This should by no means stop you road testing your song, because, especially if this takes place before trusted friends and peers, you may get the essential feedback you need to make the leap from good to brilliant. But you've got to play this hand carefully, and swiftly too – there must be a cut-off point between showcasing the idea and the big reveal where you actually decide definitively that it's as good as it's going to get. You can always move onto a new song, after all.
So there's a few little potholes you might encounter on your road to success. While a couple of them might slow you down, they're unlikely to stop you in your tracks. Don't be afraid of falling into traps such as these – if anything, trigger them for yourself. Do accidentally-on-purpose rip someone off, do write unfittingly upbeat music for your hard-hitting couplets, do stretch yourself musically and risk tripping over yourself in public. Like anything, it's a learning curve, and you'll probably learn best by doing it. Make mistakes, break some eggs, and realise none of these things are really going to hurt you, or mean that you're any less of a songwriter. In all likelihood, you'll be all the stronger for it.
Written by Joe Hoten, from Bands For Hire https://www.bandsforhire.net
Information on the USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net