SONGWRITING Q&A continued
...THEM? What is your strongest contribution to the world, musically speaking?
There are incredible resources out there, and I have a list of them in my eBook, too. The first necessity is to get your material on your own website, plus Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, Pinterest, Google+, LinkedIn, Spotify, etc. You can sell them through many of these outlets now.
When's The Right Time To "Put It Out There?"
One of my coaching clients asked:
"How can I put some of my stuff out there to companies, so I can write for others?"
Here's what I wrote back:
"Putting it out there" seems to proceed best from the writer's initiative, once they have superior songs and great recordings of them. Forming relationships is a long-term activity, and it's really the way most things get done. Luckily you're a friendly person with some real talent!
Also, people want to work or co-write with folks who have some "buzz," something that's actively "out there" in the world. Admittedly, this sounds like a "which came first, putting the song out there, or the buzz" situation. But ya gotta start somewhere! Remember, no one really wants to pull someone ELSE up by the bootstraps. They're all looking for someone who can pull THEM up. So your job is to create some buzz, first by having great songs, and secondly by participating actively in the music world.
There's nothing more valuable in this business than having people say positive things behind your back!
When your songs are ready, there are zillions of venues available for putting them out there, and you're wise to get them in good shape before doing so. Many people form first impressions that cling stubbornly afterwards, so it's best to polish your diamonds before presenting them. Then you can truly form mutually rewarding relationships with like-minded souls.
The Distinctions Between a Poet and a Lyricist
Tera asked me this:
I have been writing poetry for a very long time and have had my work published in various literary magazines. I wanted to try something else with my writing, and since I love music and recognize that most songs on the radio rhyme, as do all of my poems, I thought of songwriting. Then I realized it was going to be harder than I'd expected.
What is the difference between a song lyricist and a songwriter? Does the lyricist simply write the words that make up the whole song and the songwriter does the sheet of music with the music notes? Obviously a songwriter could do both, but a lyricist would be better off collaborating with a songwriter for the finished product if they, like me, don't know how to write music notation.
Here's my response:
Your question brings up the distinction between a "pure" lyricist and a songwriter. Actually a lyricist IS a songwriter, but a traditional Pop song isn't complete until it also has music.
A lyricist can create a great career without ever writing a note of music, as long as they form one or more powerful partnerships with composers. So, the question becomes this: how does a lyricist attract talented collaborators?
Unlike a poem, a song is meant to be sung, and that makes all the difference! Since you're already a poet, I would suggest making an in-depth study of hit song lyrics in genres that you enjoy. And I emphasize the words "hit" and "enjoy." There are reasons certain songs become popular, and I suggest paying more attention to those ones and learning their secrets to success.
I also suggest you explore the genres of music you truly enjoy if you're going to commit yourself to this path. There are so many styles, so many niches, and some of them will necessarily hit you harder than others. Honor those emotional responses, and really look closely at the lyrics of those types of songs. How did the writer(s) hook you in? How did they use the various tools at their disposal to keep you interested, touch your emotions, and stimulate your mind, heart and senses? It's no accident when you come out at the end of a 3-minute song transformed. The writers had a purpose, and sometimes they succeed!
A huge aspect of lyrics is their adherence to Song Form. Most popular songs these days are Verse/Chorus songs, but it's valuable to learn about all of the common forms. You can read in depth about the conventions of the Verse/Chorus form in many books, or just listen to songs with a massive, sing-along Chorus. You probably know thousands of them already.
Notice the distinctions between the lead-up and the payoff, the tension and the release, the informational and the emotional. Pay attention to where the melody and the lyric repeat, where they take twists and turns, how simple or complex the patterns are in the various sections, etc. I could go on and on (and I do!). But there is a fine art to writing lyrics, and the more you do it, the more you study, and the more feedback you get, the better your lyrics will become.
By taking classes, participating in songwriting communities, finding mentors and doing a lot of writing, your lyrics will gradually improve and you will begin to attract collaborators. Also, tell EVERYONE you know that you're a lyricist, and just keep doing it. Contact the musicians you already know, and find out if they're also songwriters. There are zillions of composers out there who need great lyricists. You just need to bring something of value to the party. Here's where you can download the article on this subject, "So You Want To Collaborate?"
Keep writing, and I hope this is helpful!
Getting the Most Out of a Collaboration
Gary asked me this question about co-writing:
I've been writing solo for many years, and at this point am turning out good songs consistently — occasionally, better than good. It may take me 3 weeks of rewriting, or longer, before I'm satisfied with every line. I've tried co-writing once or twice, but so far, over the course of a 3-hour meeting, we haven't got much past choosing a title and nailing down a scenario. Lines produced have generally not been "keepers." In one case, I took a co-writer's hook home and came back with a finished song (words & music) all 3 of use were happy with. But how can I get better at writing quickly in the same room with others?
Here's what I wrote back:
I'm glad to hear you're writing successfully alone. Three weeks to create a "better than good" song is impressive. A great song doesn't really occur in time as much as it does in quality of inspiration, and it sounds like you've been able able to tap into your own deep well.
Sometimes it's taken me years to discover the perfect form for an idea, a title, or a line. But if the spark is strong it will keep popping up over and over until it's fully expressed.
Collaborator-wise, it appears you're not quite "clicking" with these particular co-writers (yet). Spending 3 hours and not coming up with much of anything sounds like a bad date, as does contributing 90% of the "keeper" material in a song.
There's a mysterious, invisible force that takes over during a successful co-write, during which all space and time disappear. You have to sort of "wake up" out of the trance at the end in order to rejoin the rest of humanity. If that's not happening with these folks, you might want to seek out some other writers.
You can't craft, contrive or construct a good song. It has to emerge organically from something real and true. Of course, skilled writers can make anything sound decent, and they can touch all the bases regarding song form, rhyme, meter, hooks, chords and melody lines. But without the heart, soul or spirit present, there's no deeper purpose to the exercise, and the song will die a death, usually sooner rather than later.
I suggest you make a list of your strong suits and weak suits, and go about finding collaborators who supplement your weaknesses. For example, I'm much better with lyrics and melodies than I am with chord progressions, arrangements, rhythms and engineering. So I seek out people who play guitar or piano/keyboards better than I do, or create cool tracks, beats or vibes that I never could have come up with. Then we go into that magical trance together. Even long-distance! In the past several weeks I've written 3 songs with people in Sweden, and haven't even spoken to or met any of them. But they're all strong where I'm weak, and vice versa.
Someone in the collaboration has to be brave enough to toss their ideas into the ring first. I am detached enough from the outcome to willingly do this, by bringing a title, a Verse and Chorus, or a full lyric to most writing sessions. If my co-writers aren't glomming onto it excitedly within seconds, the idea gets put away for later (or never).
Then it's their turn!
Admittedly, ya gotta kiss a lotta frogs to find your prince (or princess). I've written with probably hundreds of people over the last 30 years, including one who I've written with for over 20 years. With some collaborators, one song was one song too many. And believe me, some of them had written massive hits! There was no logical reason why we couldn't work well together. It's just that the magic was missing. As my friend Shelly and I used to say, "It's an energy thing."
Where Can I Go To Meet Other Songwriters?
I'm constantly being asked this question by up-and-coming writers. Here's one great spot!
It gets awfully lonely writing songs in a vacuum. Most of us need to interact regularly with our colleagues to escape the inertia of The Computer or The Couch. Luckily, for 18 years now, the Songwriters' Circle has been showcasing some of New York's greatest talents, and lately they've been actively expanding the opportunities and resources available to songwriters far and wide. Check the website out here.
The live version of the Circle showcases features an intimate "songwriters in the round" format, with up to 6 songwriters playing several tunes for a highly attentive and appreciative audience. Here's an excerpt from the website:
For over 18 years, Singer/Songwriter Tina Shafer has been producing and directing the Songwriters' Circle, producing bi-monthly shows at the legendary Bitter End club, in New York City's West Village. Showcasing artists such as Norah Jones, Jesse Harris, Lisa Loeb, Vanessa Carlton, Gavin DeGraw and Chris Barron, the Circle quickly became one of the most popular music events in the city, attracting not only the best up and coming songwriting talent from around the world but also top music industry executives looking to discover "the next big thing."
I've performed at the Circle (back the day!) and attended it dozens of times over the years, and always walk out inspired by the writers. I've also met many folks there that I later ended up collaborating with or hiring to perform on my material.
Plus, there's nothing like a roomful of hard-core songwriters to get your adrenaline pumping! In fact, the other night I literally ran out of business cards by the end of the event, which spilled out onto the sidewalk outside the Bitter End afterwards.
The Songwriter's Circle is expanding to Philly and other cities, and sponsors a contest with $15,000 in prizes. Yowzah!
So for those of you pining away for the company of like-minded souls, find a way to get to the nearest Songwriter's Circle. You can start by visiting the site to learn more details, listen to the "cream of the crop," or submit your material for consideration for a future showcase. Don't just sit there... participate!
What If There's No Such Thing As Writer's Block?!
I was asked to contribute some thoughts to a Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) session on the subject of Writer's Block.
Here's what I wrote:
My suspicion about so-called "Writer's Block" is that it actually should be called "Fear of Writing Badly." The moment you're willing to write something, anything, just to get the pen, the musical instrument or the voice moving, then voila! Your block is miraculously gone.
The problem is that we can become so harshly judgemental about what we write that it seems preferable not to write at all, thus sparing ourselves the embarrassment of writing really bad material. In response to that I say, "dare to suck!" (Pardon my vernacular.) Try writing about the fact that you have nothing interesting to write about — at least it'll get the juices flowing.
Let's say you have no real drama going on at the moment, i.e. "song fodder." On the surface, your day-to-day existence lacks the obvious peaks and valleys of romantic turmoil, life-or-death situations, and compelling stories to tell. Now what?
My advice is to delve deeper into your own experience. Make a list of the people, places and things you're truly passionate about right now. Family? Politics? A disastrous relationship from high school that you never really sorted out? We all have unique riches to share, but we tend to discount their universal appeal. My experience is that if you tell the truth about your life, it will resonate with others. Just don't edit yourself while you blurt it all out. That's like driving with one foot on the brakes.
The other cure I recommend for foot-dragging is deadlines. Commit yourself to participating in a class, an open mic, a collaboration... whatever gets you out of your head and back into the actual process. Find supportive colleagues you can bounce your thoughts off of, interview someone with a great story to tell, or just have a low-pressure jam session with other writers.
By taking personal responsibility, you remove the victim mentality of Writer's Block and can free yourself to actually reveal who you are in your writing.
And look at it this way: for every 10 songs you write, at least one of them is bound to be a gem!
Living It VS. Writing It
Here's a question from Raymond Paul:
"I have heard from actors and writers that in order to portray or craft really well, having the experience of living it is of utmost importance. Based on say the last 50 years of songwriting one would of had to do one hell of a lot of drinking, fighting, loving and losing in order to bring forth a hit song during those times. Personally I disagree with that postulate. What's your opinion?
I have had minor success this year in that I have had an honorable mention and a runner up for 2 songs I entered in the Song of the Year Contest. Small, I know, but gratifying just the same."
And my response:
Great question! I don't know about the drinking and fighting, but I would argue that the loving is essential if you want to write great songs. See, it's my opinion that every song is a love song, if you take the larger view of what love is.
For me, love is passionate intensity. You have to really feel, sense, and experience something — anything — in order to write its truth. And since the flip side of love is loss, you can't really have one without the other. The glue that holds all of us together is our shared experience of love and loss, and songs are one way we let each other know we're not alone.
Personally, my best songs have all sprung from a nugget of pure love, whether it's love of friend, family, earth, humanity... or the romantic love most associated with pop songs. Even the more politically or socially conscious songs I've attempted have come from a deep caring about where this planet is headed. Sometimes it's lighter: you just want to express your love for dancing, drinking or fighting!
When you're not living the wild life, it's easy to feel intimidated by those who top the charts by taking that path. But I'm sure you've travelled your own unique path, and have had many experiences that are song-worthy. By digging courageously into your heart of hearts, you'll uncover many truths that could be the seeds of hits, if you craft them well. For every "I'm the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised" there's a song like "I Hope You Dance." Honor your truth, polish your skills, and great songs will emerge if you keep on doing it.
Obviously you're doing something right if you keep coming so close to the mark in these contests! Keep putting it out there, listening to the feedback, and moving forward.
Mass Appeal Vs. Soul Inspiration
"What do you do with songs you are 'inspired' to write, yet don't think or 'know' the industry or masses would appreciate?"
Here's my reply:
I write lots of songs that aren't very commercially obvious. Usually in the rush of inspiration I'm convinced they've got "hit" written all over them, and it's only with a few weeks or months of perspective that I can see that they're more "soul songs" than "mass appeal." It's just the nature of art. Some ideas burning to be expressed, and you can't stand in the way. It's best to let it flow, as often as possible. And soon the more commercially viable ones will emerge. Try not to judge them while you're creating them. It jams up the spigot.
If your goal is to write for the industry, then by all means listen to what's on the charts, buy the songs or albums in the genres that appeal to you, attend the shows, meet the people... basically strive to do all the things that hit writers do and learn from their successes. And know that even the huge hit writers out there also create songs that are off the beaten track.
Great songs come from a nugget of truth that exists in you. Your own slant on the world is what will provide the seed for your best songs. If you dig down and really experience your life and your mind and your heart to the fullest, and put those experiences into song form over and over, you'll access the universal humanity inside yourself, and eventually express it in ways that others can relate to.
It's important to honor those moments of inspiration move your, speak to you, and then let those less obvious songs emerge fully. Who knows, you might really tap into something that blows the world away. Think of your favorite songs. I'm sure most of them arose from a blinding flash of inspiration!
I was at a writing session once, and my collaborator wanted to play a song he'd just completed. His lyricist, who used to be one of my students back in 1990, wrote a lyric about her Mom, who's older and in poor health. When I heard the song I could feel the tears forming in my eyes, as could our 3rd collaborator in the room. It was a very personal song, but also universal. I bet something will happen with it, because it's so true, and it fit well in the country genre.
Giving Thanks (Even If You Haven't Had a Hit Yet)
I was chatting with a songwriting friend who has never had a "hit" before, and gave her a few words of advice, to wit:
Gratitude is the Attitude
So many of us (myself included) fall prey to the feeling that the Result, i.e. recognition, hits, Grammies, gold records, etc., is more important than the Process, i.e. writing, recording, performing, and creating relationships with colleagues.
The problem is, the amount of time spent luxuriating in the Result is pretty miniscule compared to the amount of time engaged in the Process of getting to that moment. It can take years, even decades, to achieve "success" in music, or any serious field of endeavor for that matter. So the name of the game is to actively enjoy being immersed in, and thankful for, each moment that you get to do the thing you love. In other words, make the process into the result!
Besides, the view from the top looks a whole lot better if you enjoy the trek up the mountain. To make this less hypothetical, I'll give an example. I just spent 5 studio sessions working on a song with a new producer and singer. They were such cool people, and incredibly talented. At the final mix, I felt like I was bonded to them so strongly, and I'd really miss them. We had a sweet goodbye, all smiles, and walked out with slammin' mixes in our hands.
Now, what will ever happen with that particular song? Maybe someday I'll walk down a red carpet to receive an award for it, or maybe it will end up gathering dust on a few select shelves. At least I know I really enjoyed the process of getting to know these people and making our vision for the song a reality. Fun was had, and strong partnerships were formed. What could be better? (Okay a hit single would also be great.)
In other words, "Be here now and the hits might come then!"
The Significance of "Stuff" in Your Songs
Here's the question I have: What are some good ways to portray objects or items as though they have a personality? For example, this old car, this old house, this pair of pants, or these keys. Thanks for sharing your expertise.
Here's my response:
Very interesting question! It gives me an idea for a workshop exercise in Personification: take an inanimate object and imbue it with personality. Love it!
A great example of this technique is Mary Chapin Carpenter's "This Shirt." Check it out here:
(As a side note, Chapin — as she was known then — and I went to school together in 11th and 12th grades, and I remember those lame high school dances she refers to!) At any rate, her song perfectly illustrates the power of personification.
Notice how over the course of the lyric the shirt gains meaning, reflecting the emotional reality of the "speaker." She wore her heart on its sleeve, used it as a pillow and a blanket, and lent it to a lover who hurt her. Finally it serves as a "grand old relic," gently reminding her of her rich past.
An object on its own doesn't have much impact, but the lyricist can add the significance with each association. You mentioned keys, for example. By themselves, they're only bits of metal. But the keys in our pockets have the power to allow entry: in a song they provide a metaphorical opportunity to demonstrate intimacy, or the lack thereof. Perhaps this particular bit of personification has become a cliché, but look around your life right now. What objects embody your true emotional state? That's where the great lyrics arise from: a deep awareness of your personal truth.
Is there something you can see from where you sit right now that sums up what you're going through? A dusty photograph of an old friend, an invitation you've tossed aside, a withered houseplant, a tangled bedsheet? Listen for the stories each object is telling you, and don't be afraid to reveal yourself in letting those stories unfold. This intimate sharing of self-knowledge is what draws us closer together as humans. It's why we want to listen to our favorite songs over and over.
Pretty soon you'll be walking around seeing meaning in significance in every corner of your world, and your writing just might blossom!
You Got the Feedback... Now What!?
Gary emailed this question:
"I've just written (and rewritten) a song which was recently critiqued by a SongU.com instructor with an amazing track record — I really respect this person's opinions. Anyway, he repeatedly said that the melody/progression was very strong. He also said he liked the lyrics, and found nothing to criticize, but he obviously thought the melody was the song's real strength, and I agree.
The song is a soft-rock sort of song, a genre that isn't hot these days, though I tried it with a mellow Latin groove and it worked very well that way too. I do not have a collaborator. Might it make sense to bring in a lyricist collaborator? If so, what should I consider, and can you suggest how to proceed?"
Your question goes to the heart of an issue we've all come across: how to respond to feedback on our material. Since your critique came from a well-respected source, that already gives it more credence and requires fewer "grains of salt" than usual.
What you have here is a case of mixed feedback: a passionate "yes" on the music, and "nothing to criticize" on the lyric. In addition, you feel that the genre is less commercial than other choices you might make. My songwriting teacher used to say, "If 10 people say it's a horse, you might as well saddle it up and ride it on outta here!"
In keeping with that thought, have others given you similar feedback when you've played it at gigs, showcases, songwriting organizations, or for friends or family? If so, it might be a horse!
It may be a "close-but-no-cigar song," and with some work you might be able to make it truly great. It's almost impossible to take a mediocre song and make it fantastic, but it sounds like you're more than halfway there already!
Your instincts, which are telling you to find a collaborator and shift the genre, both seem like good moves. Whatever you do, don't let the lyricist hear the earlier version! It's so easy to get stuck that way. Just play the melody with a guitar or keyboard, or do "la la la's" with a good singer. And of course, make sure you love the lyricist's work first.
And genre-wise, go for the most commercially viable style that's in keeping with the "soul" of the music. Let the spark of inspiration that initially drove you to write the song shine through all the way.
It must be a thrill to get such a positive review of your song from a great writer. I encourage you to do whatever it takes to send this one over the top!
Do Collaborators Need to Make It Legal?
Annie asks, "When is it time to sign a collaboration agreement?"
Here are my thoughts on the subject:
Interesting question! I've rarely signed a collaboration agreement, and then only because a writer's publisher demanded it of every co-writer, for instance. Another time I signed such an agreement was when a split was uneven (40%, 40%, 20%), which was agreed-to up front.
For me, a co-writing session is an act of pure trust, and I expect everyone involved to act accordingly. I only write with people I know or have been referred to, or who have given me some other reason to make this leap of faith. It's a gut feeling, and it's rarely wrong.
According to what I've read, collaborations are split evenly among writers unless otherwise specified, and that's the issue that usually causes trouble. Other conflicts
might arise when one partner adds something that the other doesn't like, like a lyric on top of a pre-existing track or melody. In that case, the 2 parties can "take back" their contributions easily enough, because they were created separately. If people's communication skills are good, this can be relatively painless.
If the writers create something jointly, as opposed to separately, the work is legally considered as one piece, and can't be broken up without some further agreement between the parties. This is when the trust becomes essential, as do the communication skills!
I found a good article on the subject here.
Personally, when I'm psyched to co-write a song with someone, I don't want to get tangled up in legalities. Perhaps I'm too casual about all this, but whipping out the agreement would feel like signing a pre-nup before even going on the first date! After hundreds of collaborations, the trust thing has served me well, but others have not been so lucky.
But if you like to be airtight legally, or have doubts about someone in particular, by all means have a simple agreement available before you work together.
Here's one from the late, great John Braheny's site here.
John is much-missed, and I love his book, "The Craft and Business of Songwriting."
Best of luck with it, and co-write up a storm!
Does a 3/4 Time Signature Spell Commercial Doom?
John asks an interesting question:
"I was told when I pitched a song written in 3/4 time, 'You can't place a song in 3/4 time; recast it in 4/4 or 2/4.'
3/4 time is alluring and evocative — just consider The Tennessee Waltz. Do you agree with this advice? If so, why?"
Here's what I had to say on the subject:
Cool question! In my opinion, there is some truth to the idea that 3/4 isn't as "commercially viable" as 4/4, otherwise known as "common time." Why is that? Well, it's called "common time" for a reason. It's everywhere we go! That rhythm, either 4/4 or 2/4, is in our heartbeat, our breathing, our head-bop and our walk. Not to mention that it's the time signature of about 90% of our popular music.
The problem with 3/4 is that it gets wearing after a few minutes. Most albums and radio stations feature very few songs with this type of rhythm, and they tend to spread them out. I recently recorded a demo in 3/4, and the drum programmer had a real struggle finding cool drum patterns for it! On the other hand, there are zillions of classic patterns, grooves, loops, styles and tempos that work with 4/4 or 2/4.
Of course, amazing songs have been written in 3/4 and 6/8: "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman," "Breakaway," "Amazing Grace," "Lucy in the Sky" (the verses, anyway)... hmmm, I'm running out! They are exceptional exceptions to the rule.
You might try a re-write if you're convinced your song will benefit from the change. But then again, if your song is absolutely begging for 3/4, and we've all written a few that were, I say go for it. Just don't be surprised if that limits its appeal for some folks.
As Shakespeare (almost) said, "To thine own song be true!"