Mar 30

A couple of years ago I found out rather accidentally that there was to be a “songwriters’ gathering” here in Phoenix. I tried to get a friend of mine to go, but ended up going alone. When I got there, I felt like I opened some door into a different world.

You see, in all my years of writing, I never considered how much power a group of writers getting together to share ideas would have. That’s because in my own little world, I had only been writing from my own head to my own ears.

Now, these events have been going on for years and they’ve got these groups all over the world. I just never knew about them.

I had a weird feeling walking in though. I can only compare it to what it must be like for someone who just discovered what an American Idol tryout was all about.

There were folks from all age groups, cultures, from neon punks that missed out on the 80′s to mullet wearing trailer park cowboys, to lawyers, doctors and of course, semi-professionals. It was seriously cool. (There were big ones, small ones, short ones, tall ones. Black ones, brown ones…..crazy ones.)

Since I had no idea how it was all structured, I literally wandered into room after room in the clubhouse. The first I walked into was a room full of folks who brought their insruments and just lined up to enterain everyone else at the room showing off their new tunes.

This one woman looked like Mimi from the Drew Carey show, and she was playing this country tune that was entertaining as hell. Well, I wasn’t exactly crazy about the tune, but man she really knew how to work that crowd! Another guy about 65 years of age got up and played a song about being a Norwegian, followed by a tune called “Age Assisted Attention Deficit Disorder”. I guess he left an impression, I can’t believe I still remember that title :-)

It was the most eclectic mix of characters, cohorts and cousins I’d ever seen. But they all had one thing in common: they were songwriters. Seriously devoted ones at that.

I left that room and wandered upstairs and that was when magic happened. I walked into a session that was in progress and sat in the back of this small room listening to a guy talk about what makes an unforgetable song. I didn’t know who he was but everyone was holding what appeared to be his book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting.

There I was, in the “Hall of the Mountain King“.

His name was John Braheny. I found out that John was one of the most respected names in the music industry and specifically the songwriting community. With his partner Len Chandler, they formed the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase which coached and critiqued many “later to be successful songwriters” like Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. Warren Zevon, Karla Bonoff, Stephen Bishop and Diane Warren. Diane is credited with being the world’s most successful songwriter. John and Len critiqued over 150 of Diane’s songs when she was only 15.

Wow.

Now when I walked into the room, John looked just like any of the other folks at this gathering. Very accomodating, down to earth, just a seriously cool guy. He was taking apart well known songs and talking about how what made them good, what made them unforgettable.

I’ll be breaking down some of the specific things I learned starting with my next post as I want this one to be more about sharing this epiphany I had.

He talked about his book, but he wasn’t pitching it. What sold me on it (and this was before I knew who this guy was) was this woman in the audience of about 35 people. She stood up and thanked him for helping her, and John told us that she had recently written a couple of songs for film and television. What struck me was that she was holding this dog-eared, yellow stickered, well highlighted copy of his book’ previous edition. I figured that if she was successful and had studied it that voraciously, then I might learn a few things myself.

Yeah, that nailed it for me, I had to get this book.

Later that day, John had folks handing over their music to be critiqued (of course I was unprepared at the time) and he, along with Alan Roy Scott would take a lyric sheet in hand, listen to a cd or tape, then critique each section of a song.

Seeing how they critiqued other people’s songs taught me a few things about my own. Most importantly, it reinforced what I was doing right and showed me how to improve in other areas. I’ll show some of those things in my next post as this one’s way too long as it is.

So, I strongly suggest that you “fire up your Googles” and look for events like this one or find some songwriters associations in your area. Most often, they’re not well publicized. You really never know what you’ll find.

You just might find “you get what you need” ;-)

-V

Mar 28

Tony so aptly stated in his previous comment “I think amateur songwriters spend too much time worrying about the overall meaning of the song and lyrics.” and “Meaning is always in the viewpoint of the listener.” Thanks for the input, Tony, I really appreciate it. (Tony is Tony Butterworth of the world famous Home Made Hit Show which is a wonderful podcast devoted to songwriting an home recording. Be sure to check it out at http://www.homemadehitshow.com)

I decided since you made such a strong point to flesh out the idea of whether it should be mandatory for a song to have meaning or not. Personally, I think it can be equally important to intentionally not have an underlying meaning.

For the moment, let me rephrase the word “meaning” as it brings up issues I’ve had with English Literature teachers always making me guess what some dead writer meant by what he wrote. Let this be the end of it: If the guy’s dead, and he didn’t write down what his intent was, then my opinion about what he meant can’t be wrong! Are you hearing me Mrs Wolfe?

Sorry, I’ve been meaning to tell her off since High School. Oh yeah, back to songwriting. Let’s call it “having a point” instead of a meaning so as to separate “Strawberry Fields Forever” from “Yesterday”. While Strawberry Fields has deep meaning that is open to interpretation, Yesterday is a straight-forward song about a guy longing for the past when life was easier. Both are brilliant works.

I agree with Tony in that songwriters can spend too much time worrying about deep meaning. It’s what has caused me to stop writing in the past. I felt that in my case, I was way to critical of my lyrics to finish anything.

Now, if I only wrote about something that was on my mind in a simple and straight forward way, I’d have been able to flesh out the idea and be on to the next song.

I find that writing is a lot like painting. You can have a specific point or subject, like a portrait or still life, or you can paint in the abstract, leaving the meaning up to the viewer. I wrote a line once that I never finished that said “I’m a mental painter, a solitary bird on a wire”…I know, I know, one of these days I’ll use it…

Many times I’ve asked myself whether I’m writing a song for me or someone else. If I’m writing it for me, sometimes I don’t need to have a point, it doesn’t even have to be played well, it might be just a “study” for a future song that will be written for someone else. I’ve personally never had any success writing a lyrical song in the abstract though my mind frequently seems to work that way I’ve been told.

Since I mainly for others to hear, then I try to get my point across. My problem is that many times I want to write but I have no point. No idea to flesh out. That used to drive me nuts, but not I recognize it as an incubation period. My subconscious is working on the next one, it just hasn’t clued me in yet.

If I do have a point though, I try to follow a particular pattern (you don’t necessarily have to do this, it just works for me).

I start with a strong opening line to give something to pique the listener’s interest. Then I try to expand on the idea to cement the scene. From there, I like to go to a pre-chorus as it tends to introduce the chorus which will be “my point”.

The second verse (or third if I needed two in the beginning) should either be a reinforcement of the idea, or a resolution. From there, I can do another pre-chorus or go straight into the chorus again. Lately, I’ve been substituting a bridge rather than a second pre-chorus which seems to work pretty well.

Whether you’ve got a statement to make or an abstract feeling to convey, “the point” of all this is to write, just write.

In my next post I plan on sharing a little about a songwriter’s “gathering” I’ve gone to over the past couple of years where I’ve learned some tricks to getting unstuck. One of them is to write, whether it’s crap or not, and your subconscious will start flowing with ideas.

-V

Mar 26

I love it when I’m driven to write. That unconscionable feeling that doesn’t just get the juices flowing, it gets them spilling all over the page! The problem is well, for me anyway, I’m driving down more than one road at a time. I’m riffing, I’m just writing with no point in sight hoping to make some sense of it at some point.

Usually during this tirade, I may see a flickering of hope. That one simple line that stands out as eloquent in all that ranting: the one I can hang my song on. Usually it the only one that actually makes a point. :-P

The shame is that I get excited about that one line and I strive to reiterate, rephrase or otherwise stretch the idea out to an entire verse. Sometimes it works. More often than not is just gives me stuff to do a rewrite from. Rarely do I manage to keep the thread spinning, weaving another verse, and chorus out of it. Hence, fragmentation occurs. That half-written half thought out “great idea at the time, and if I only had more time I’d finish it” sort of song.

So, not wanting to throw away any good idea that comes along I keep it for future use. I do it because let’s face it, one only has so many good ideas n’est-ce pas? If everyone had an unlimited supply of great lyrics spewing forth not only would bands like Boston have had a second album that didn’t sound just like the first one, but the effect on my CD collection would have been exponential.

So I file it as an unfinished work.

There it sits, like the last two slices of cheese in the crisper, underneath the newly purchased freshly sliced cheese that always gets eaten first. The only difference is that I eventually throw out the old cheese. The “cheese” I wrote eventually becomes “aged cheese” and somehow no longer relevant.

Ok enough food metaphors, I’m getting hungry.

So fragments can build up over time. I’ve got 35 years of crap piled up that I literally have never thrown away. Most of the time if I rifle through it at all it’s only nostalgic and a reinforcement of the fact that I don’t write crap like that any more. Well, most of the time anyway. ;-)

Occasionally though, that pack rat syndrome works. I’ve taken many a half written tune, added a verse or so to fill it in and made it work.

Here’s an example: 50 Percent Sincere

When I wrote the beginning, I was heartbroken over an ex girlfriend canceling a get together after being apart for more than a year. It was a last minute cancelation. So, I wrote the first 2 verses and a chorus then put it away.

Two years later, my good friend Mike Wich and I were looking for new material and I pulled the song out. That was when I added a final verse that had nothing to do with the song. It actually had to do with an argument Mike had with our bass player, Billy.

Yeah, nothing whatsoever to do with the initial intent. So I wrote on the top of the page “at least this one’s 50% sincere”.

That was back in 1981 and I’m amazed that the song still works 27 years later.

So, you might ask, what’s the point of all this?

Fragments: Good. Old Cheese: Bad (most of the time).

Go back and look at your half finished work. There are gems in there you’ve forgotten about. ;-)

Mar 24

Any of you that have written a few tunes will attest to this. My wife tells me from time to time that I don’t have to analyze every song. Sometimes a song is just a song. Ah yes, I remember those days when I heard music like everyone else. In some ways it’s a skill you can’t get back. Sort of like when you can watch a magic trick and be amazed by it. Once you know how a few tricks are done you sort of look at magic differently. You look at the performance, you look at the slight of hand, the misdirection, etc. You’ve lost that youthful innocence in a way.

With music, when I listen to a new song, especially one that I know I’m going to like because I’ve established in my mind that I like the artist, I hear the intro, the changes, the build up or pre chorus, the chorus which I like to call the payoff, then I listen for the repeats. How many verses after the first chorus before the next chorus? Is there a bridge? What comes next? Finally, I listen for the outro. Did it resolve? Did I feel like I wasn’t missing anything?

It’s a shame sometimes. I guess a song can be just a song.

After I’ve heard the tune a few times, I’m starting to hear the lyrics (unless I’ve already done that in my first few listens, in which case I could be onto the music at this point). I find myself not just hearing them, but hearing how they were phrased. How do the syllables flow into one another? How was the lyric laid over the music? Was it written like a story not focused on rhyming, or was it just another freaking Hallmark Card? :-&

It’s this tearing apart of song that turns me on. Call it musical forensics, because to me it’s the science of songwriting. I know, I know, it’s an art not a science, but in every art there is a scientific component that makes it all work. It ain’t all just magic kiddies. ;-)

I can probably guess where I get this from. When I was first starting to play guitar my friend Adam Phillipidis suggested that I try my hand at writing. Well not knowing the first thing about it, I decided to learn song formatting by taking songs I liked, then rewriting lyrics to them. Not like Weird Al Yancovic or Allan Sherman before him..(that’s right Weird Al, I got your number dude) ;-) What I did was write my own lyrics to a song I already knew. Then I’d shelve the lyrics for a while, months sometimes, so that when I pulled them out to try and fit chords over them, I’d have completely forgotten what the initial song was. This way I wouldn’t fall into plagiarizing anyone.

So, if you don’t realize you tear songs apart too, pay attention to the next new tune you sit down with. See if you don’t do it too. Oh yeah, one more thing to leave you with: If you find you didn’t do it before and now you find yourself doing it and music is no longer magic, well… sorry kid. We all gotta grow up sometimes.

Mar 22

Blogs are like opinions. Everyone’s got one. This blog will mainly be about mine, though others will be present from time to time.

I’ve been an amateur songwriter for about 35 years now and over that period of time a lot has changed and a lot remains the same. Technology has changed, what people enjoy about music in general, still remains. People want something they can enjoy. In my years of writing, the are songs I still enjoy, and many ones I don’t. The rule of ten applies here: Out of every ten songs, there are three you love, there are three you don’t, three you could take or leave and there’s always one you wish you never wrote. (How many blog or forum postings have you made that you wish no longer existed in the permanent record of the internet?) Yeah, I think you get the drift…

My intent with this blog is to talk about songwriting the way I do it. It’s not necessarily the best way or the worst, it’s just my way. I’ll share things I’ve learned to do and I’ll caution you on things that bug me that others do. Mainly they bug me because I used to do them too.

I’ll share the other side of writing that most folks who don’t write, don’t realize goes on. Call it the “third hand”. It’s the part that the song writes itself. In the process of writing and playing, there’s always a time to play it all out, record it and see what it sounds like as if you were hearing it for the first time. That’s when it starts to talk to you. You’ll hear what it wants, like a bridge or a new verse, it’ll literally scream at you till the only thing you hear in the tune is what you don’t like about it. Kind of like when you like an actress you see a lot and then someone points out that one of her eyes are higher up than the other one. Great. Now that’s ALL you can see. Thanks. Thanks a lot.

It’s this third hand that allows you to edit that gives the song it’s life. I like to think that it’s the time when a song develops it’s own personality, like when a child refuses to wear what you want him or her to wear and she puts on what SHE wants to wear. Yeah, that’s when the magic starts. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s the time when you can realize that the songs either needs a complete re-write, or just plain needs to stop being written for the sake of humanity. :-)

When I was a getting started, I used to record using 2 cassette recorders. I’d record on the first one, and then I’d play it while recording a second track onto the other one. Sort of my only way to do overdubbing in those days. I remember when I had to redo it several times because the doorbell or the phone would ring, or someone’s dog would bark, or my mother would yell at me to come downstairs, etc. Yeah, those were the days. These days I’m far more advanced technologically than I used to be because frankly, I can be.

To be fair, even after 35 years of writing songs, I still consider myself a novice. Maybe not to some folks, but I always know where I want to be as a writer, and I’m never satisfied that’s I’ve gotten there yet. There’s always room to grow.

So I’ll be sharing some of the things we did in the past, and some of the setups now that I use. There’s some software that’s available today that’s pretty powerful and either free or really inexpensive so virtually anyone can get started as a writer/performer in their own virtual record label.

Tune up your guitar, we’ll be jamming again soon.