Once in a while a post comes along that kicks your butt like a Bruce Lee/Jet Li tag team. Bill Renfrew’s post Who’s Ready To Work?, the spinning roundhouse kick to my overblown metaphors, crystallized my thoughts here.
No matter how rational a being you are there is one big fat lie that almost every songwriter believes despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s this
Songs are things that just happen to songwriters.
Sure we can read books on songwriting, attend seminars and analyse the classics but deep down we believe that if that song doesn’t want to be written there’s nothing we can do about it. To paraphrase Tom Waits, we all like music but we’re not 100% sure that music likes us.
The crazy thing is we don’t act like this when it comes to mastering our instrument. The very same instrument we keep poking and prodding while we’re waiting for the muse to turn up. We know that if we don’t put the time in our playing will never improve. We know that progress won’t always be instantly obvious but improvement inevitably follows practice like harvest follows sowing. And we know that emulating the licks and patterns of the masters will train our stubborn minds and fingers. And yet we disregard all of that when it’s time to compose. Why? To get religious for a moment, we believe in free will when it comes to learning an instrument but when it comes to writing songs everything’s predestined. Only YOU can make you a good guitarist but you can’t write a great song unless you are sovereignly chosen to do so by a higher power.
Let’s be honest. Though this kind of ‘inspirational fatalism’ doesn’t make sense it does seem to be backed up by our failure to make songwriting work. Songs may not just happen but it sure seems like it. Why?
We don’t practice enough
Here’s Bill Renfrew : What I can’t figure out is why I, a rational, realistic human being, thought my songs should be getting airplay when I probably hadn’t spent more than about 125 to 150 hours writing all the songs I’d ever written in my life. People, I spent more time than that in the first month learning to play guitar. But with my songwriting I didn’t think it should be all that much work. You figure out a lick on the guitar and you write something about your girlfriend, right? Isn’t that all there is to it?
Practicing songwriting is tough because there is no such activity as writing a song. It’s cluster of many intertwined activities. Like a car assembly line or a game of football. Footballers don’t spend all their time playing matches. They practice shooting, passing, heck! – even running. So why not zone in on a particular songwriting skill we are weak in and practice that? Maybe you struggle finishing a song. Finish a whole bunch. The object isn’t making a great song, but dragging a few over the finish line by writing that 3rd verse or bridge. Maybe it’s lyrics. Demoing. Chord progressions. Whatever. Make doing that your goal. Once you’ve written 10 choruses the 11th one is bound to be better.
There is no finish line
Bill again: We know you can’t measure songwriting like you can measure a sprinter’s time, or a high jumper’s highest jump, or a linebacker’s tackles per game. Even a guitar player can be ranked in regard to certain things such as speed and licks (“Dude, he can play Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’ note for note!”). What are you going to say about a song? “Dude he rewrote ‘Wind Beneath my Wings’ in ten minutes and it sounds exactly the same!”
We’re trying to write a great song. How great is great? Does every note, every line, every section have to be great for a song to be great? When do you know that it’s the best it can be? Never. What they say in the movie business applies here too. Films (and songs) aren’t finished, they’re released. Many great songwriters would have happily spent another week/month/decade tinkering with that song you rightly deem as a classic, but they had to let it go due to some completely arbitrary deadline – an album release date, a tour, Bob Dylan booking out the studio, the drummer getting arrested…Other than just sucking it up and scratching a deadline on the calendar, here’s two things that might help
Stop pursuing the goal of writing a great song. Pursue the goal of becoming a great songwriter. Every song you complete will almost infallibly make you a better songwriter. (If you keep learning the craft as you go). And great songwriters seem to write great songs.
Don’t compare any song against it’s perfect imaginary self. Compare it against your other songs. Like this: write 10 songs. Then pick the best 4 or 5. Though it’s almost impossible to assess whether any one song is the best it can be, it’s easy to compare it to your others. As well as being able to see your progress, you’ll also begin to see your weaknesses, strengths and cliches.
The longer you go, the worse you get
We’ve all seen the phenomenon of a band that started well and went downhill. That first album was ground breaking but then…MEH! The artist’s first 10 songs were awesome but songs 50-100 are drivel. What happened? Aren’t we supposed to get better the more we do something? The reality is those first 10 songs probably weren’t the first, but the best of the first 20, or 30 or 40. So far so good. But then the band went on tour and spend the next 3 years of their lives sleeping on buses, playing world of warcraft, and cranking out those same 10 songs night after night. Then they headed back to the studio and tried to turn the rusted up songwriting tap back on to fill up the bathtub of albumness…you get the point. It’s not so easy. The moral of the story. Keep writing. It’s not so much a case of “If I don’t spend regular time writing I won’t produce many songs”. It’s more like “I’m in training to be a great songwriter, and every day I don’t train will make me rusty”. So try not to take any year long breaks.
Do you have a fatalistic approach to writing songs? What are you going to do to get in training?