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Approaching The Craft Of Songwriting

Songwritin'

…I first posted this on another blog back in March, but I’m consolidating these various presences online so here is another look:

In a conscious endeavour to write more songs and poems, and in general become more creative, I queried my musician/songwriter friends on Facebook. I asked what methods or practices are or have been bringing results with regard to creating songs. The results were not necessarily groundbreaking, but this was not an expectation at the outset. Songwriting and musical composition are not new trades. Rather, I wanted to see and in fact did find a varied range between very disciplined crafting, and delightfully captured happenstance. Not to mention all of these contributors are contemporaries, compatriates, and folks I admire. It was a delight to receive everyone’s thoughts and perspectives!

Discipline.

I recall reading Ernest Hemingway describe his daily discipline: getting up with the sun to write, review, and revise every morning. “There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” Sometimes self-impositions are necessary, writes Detroit’s Andy Maitland: “recently, I’ve found that I write best when I give myself a deadline. 9 of the 14 songs on my last album were written the week before I started recording.” Jeremy Parson of Pennsylvania adds: “Like Andy, I like a short deadline. I don’t write a lot of songs, but my favorites tend to be the ones I knock out in a session or two.” Kerouac was a proponent of “first thought, best thought,” and that works great for some.

Independent artist Matthew Kinnunen of Newmarket, Ontario goes through “a process of distillation,” where “every so often I go through a stack of old notebooks and boxes of loose papers, amalgamating, striking phrases or snatches of lyrics onto a large page.” It eventually “becomes easier to see patterns and how perspectives shift over time… Often I then home in on a currently relevant recurring theme, and hone that alongside the music that has been recently accompanying that theme.” This process is one of care and attention to detail, akin to Hemingway’s discipline. Not everyone can create their art in such a steady environment. Mathias Kom, lead songwriter and voice of The Burning Hell says “The sad truth for most of us is that the best songs seem to come from out of nowhere, so in my opinion the only really good strategy is to try and create the conditions that allow this to happen.”

Perambulation.

IMG_1356“Lately, all of the songs I’ve been writing have been happening when I’m walking around, in a car, or in some way moving forward.” So says Nick Ferrio, bassist for The Burning Hell, Baby Eagle and The Proud Mothers, and lead man to His Feelings. Here’s the key to his advice: “I’ve been jotting the ideas down by singing them into the voice memo function on my iPhone as I walk around (much to the bewilderment of passers by),” and is echoed by Mark Fossen, currently residing in Ottawa, Ontario who is “recording ideas (sung and played) as they come. Random words are good. Usually by the time you listen back, at least one of the words you spewed out inspires a potentially good idea that you can build from.”

Says Philip Quade of Cooper Collective: “I write most of my lyrics outside of the studio/away from my guitar – my best ones anyways. The best ideas often spring when you aren’t looking for them.” Ottawa’s Jack Pine and The Fire lead man Gareth Auden-Hole is of a similar mind, adding a “+1 for walking around. I used to go for walks w/ a pad n paper… a tune, rhythm, idea, or loose structure in mind… sit on the curb once I had a verse or line in my head. That said, I hate writing lyrics.” Evidently the act of creation is not without mixed emotions. To give of yourself into a song that will eventually (hopefully, but not always) reach the ears, minds and hearts of an audience is cathartic, profound, simple and yes, even silly.

Don’t Push, Pull?

IMG_7794“I talk at walls and call them names. Sometimes I mistake my own echo for the voice of a wall and then I get angry.” So says Erik Nilsen, frontman, well no, make that the only man currently representing Erik Nilsen & The Relics of Windsor, Ontario. “Those songs rock a little harder and are prone to having more lyrics like ‘yeah’ in them and if they don’t someone else gets a tattoo.” Somewhere in there is some truth, oblique description aside. When it’s just yourself in the creative universe of your music, even describing the process can be a creative act. Further evidence from Adam D’Andrea, Toronto-based multi-instrumentalist, Registered Massage Therapist and rock balancer: “random words to guitar melodies. or just utilize a grab bag of cliches.. ‘because, baby there is always another side of the coin!’ Now everybody make animal sounds.”

Ok now I’m confused. But perhaps since writing music and lyrics are akin to pulling form out of ether, we are allowed to get lost in ourselves. Mathias adds: “Sometimes for me this means ‘working at it’: spending hours and hours just playing and singing – my own songs, other songs, or just total nonsense – but not really ‘trying’ too hard, just playing. Other times I find that the best thing is doing something completely different, like working a shitty job, going to school, hanging out with friends, and totally forgetting about writing songs altogether.” So, don’t write songs to write songs? “Take a break, listen to your favourite albums, forget about writing and let your inspirations talk to you. It can be a great way to sort out how to put sections together, to get ideas and to sort out where to start with those licks you are having trouble spitting out.” Phil Quade has a good point there.

Get Into Your Element.

Are you penning a narrative ode, a loving slant, an oblique excommunication or none of the above? Perhaps your songs are less heady and more body as Mike Duguay, bandleader/side/backing musician in more bands than I’ve probably seen live, states “I usually just wait for some seemingly nice young woman to rip my heart out of my chest, and then I just give ‘er.” And from Seattleite Andy Leight, simply “I hear prostitutes can inspire creativity….” From Uruguay’s Marcelo Saret: “Just say what you feel bro! Sometimes it´s what people need to know, and some others it´s just energy that you need to release, the rest is just music!” Inspiration from the work of others is prevalent too, as pointed out by Toronto’s Greydyn Wolfcow: “I just steal ideas and poses from better songwriters and people that I think are cooler than me.” Interesting perspectives, proving it takes all kinds.

And so…

Let’s return to our desk, curb, quiet corner, or wherever, because it’s time to “go back and listen to see if it’s any good and anything I can work on at a later time,” says Nick. “Also, never ever throw anything away until you are absolutely sure it’s garbage. I’ve often found that a song that sounds terrible or cheesy at the time might resurface and be awesome months or years later,” adds Mathias. This echoes Matthew’s approach of pouring over previous writings. Jeremy counters “If I work on a song too long, I start over thinking it and don’t finish. Plus, it’s easier to improve words/phrasing/etc. of a finished song rather than trying to fit everything perfectly as I’m writing it.”

I’ve noticed there is nothing set about songwriting. Some do by action, captured by recording, some craft in private, seeking a simple resonance. “I like to write songs on my acoustic where my voice and guitar interweave. They way I sing has to somehow resonate with the guitar, and then my guitar resonates back. Then my voice resonates back to the guitar, they are interdependent.” So says Luke Michielsen, currently creating music in and around Kitchener, Ontario.

TASCAM Portastudio 424 Mk II

From my own experience and the above evidence, great art arrives and is born through both intense effort and little to no effort. Definitely setting up the conditions to create will facilitate an easier outpouring. Sometimes that manifests as carrying a pen and notebook in your pocket or bag when you’re out in the world, or having any number of portable recording devices at hand. It could also come about from having a clear and clean space on your desk or table or home to be open to the muses. I’ve also noticed that for some, the urge to be creative is disconnected from the technical side of capturing your ideas. So perhaps if you have the space, have all equipment out and ready to be used at a moment’s inspired call.

No matter what, no matter how, no matter why, the only thing left is to simply do. It’s not good enough to know you can write or play or create because you have done so in the past. Practice is the action side of knowledge, the segue to experience, the way through and out. It is calling you. Are you ready for inspiration?

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