Giving and receiving meaningful feedback on your creative work is probably the single most important thing to actually developing your practice and seeing your work improve.
Psychologist Anders Ericsson, who famously inspired the idea of the ’10 thousand hours rule’ for developing expert performance level at anything, cites ‘meaningful, specific, and detailed feedback’ as one of the most critical aspects to moving beyond the plateau that most people stop at in their creative practice.
In that spirit, the Songwriting Workshop that I teach at the Sydney Conservatorium Open Academy is centred around the combination of weekly projects that fine-tune specific aspects of the songwriting process, with detailed and personal feedback on song projects throughout the term. The next term starts October 14. You can find more information here, and here:
Hope to see you there!
A new term of my Songwriting 1 course at the Sydney Conservatorium Open Academy kicks of on October 17! Get your creative juices flowing, and join me there!!
The most effective way I write songs is to immerse myself in songwriters. I like to remind myself of the songwriters who will always, without question, ignite something in me. Here is my list.
These writers don’t just write great songs; they are GREAT SONGWRITERS. Drenching myself in the structures, forms, and developments of lyrics and music of these songwriters will always set up my songwriting practice.
I will often then cross-pollinate this listening by immersing myself in a style or genre that I am either interested in or inspired by.
Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.
At the beginning of this year, I joined the gym. Again. I was more optimistic about it this time, since both of my kids were now in daycare a few days a week, so I had a bit more time.
At the same time, I was actively working on songwriting projects with and for other artists and bands. Most are in genres that are not my natural comfort zone, so I decided to listen to playlists of music in those genres while working out.
And I had the most astounding experience:
All of my best and most creative ideas came to me while working out at the gym. There is a magical alchemy in the combination of listening to music, thinking about songwriting, and having oxygen pumping through my brain. There is also something going on with doing bilateral physical action that seems to connect and synthesize cognitive processes in a way that I don’t ever experience when I sit down at my desk, trying very diligently to “be creative.”
This ‘surprise’ really shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. Tom Waits is often visited by ideas while driving—or rolling around near the garbage (listen at 40:00); the shower is good too. John Mayer once told a group of us at Berklee that he would get up and take a walk at the moment when he felt a surge of a great idea coming to him.
So the idea of it isn’t a surprise, but the very real experience of it is. And it has made all the difference for me in keeping me motivated to exercise. As a time-poor person (aren’t we all…), I have not been great at making time for exercise. But now, when I go to the gym, I’m not constantly trying to dissuade myself due to lack of time; but (usually) keen to go and get my best creative work done for the day.
photo credit: Fresh on the Net
Many years ago, while living in LA, I heard a Big Shot Industry Dude (cue Beethoven’s 5th…) say:
“Songs shouldn’t have metaphors in them. I can’t think of a good song that has a metaphor.”
To my great relief, and with a giddy sort of rebellious delight, all of us songwriters gathered afterward, as if we all had sticky, sweet metaphors stashed in our pockets the whole time, and murmured things like “What was he talking about?”, or more generously, “Maybe he doesn’t know what a metaphor is…?”
I have come to think that it’s probably the latter. Metaphor, I am happy to report, is alive an well in songwriting, whether we’re talking about popular contemporary writing, or just beautiful writing in any era, any genre. Metaphor can be gently weaved into the fabric of a song, giving it glimmers of certain colors and textures as the song turns in the sun; or a song can be entirely based on one central metaphor, whose imagery completely defines the entire song.
For brainstorming metaphor ideas, I know no better resource than Pat Pattison’s ‘Writing Better Lyrics’ as an introduction, followed up by ‘Songwriting Without Boundaries,’ which contains a few months’ worth of writing exercises to help you generate interesting, fresh, and unique metaphor ideas.
But once you have an interesting metaphor idea, how do you flesh it out into a song lyric?
I’ve been looking at metaphor-based songs for a while now, and it seems to me that there are 3 distinct ways to use metaphors as the basis for a whole song:
- Direct Metaphor
Right now, I’m going to focus on Direct Metaphor. So what do I mean by Direct Metaphor? A Direct Metaphor is when you clearly say that ‘X is Y’. ‘Love is Rocket Science’, (Rocket Science, Lori McKenna), ‘Love is still a magic act’, (Smoke and Mirrors, Sweet Talk Radio), ‘Belief is a beautiful armor’, (Belief, John Mayer).
Let’s take the first example here, ‘Rocket Science’, by Lori McKenna (and I could honestly talk for hours about the songwriting craft of Lori McKenna—she is amazing. If you want to know an album to ‘study’ the craft of songwriting, listen to ‘Numbered Doors’. Holy moly.) Here are the lyrics to the chorus:
What comes up it must come down
In burning pieces on the ground
We watch it fall
Maybe love is rocket science after all
The chorus itself starts out with the most direct statement of the central and primary metaphor of the whole song: love is rocket science. The first thing to note is that all the language in the chorus is related to rockets and science; every line here is an extension of that central metaphor. Once we’ve noticed that, we end up seeing it woven through the entire lyric. Here are the first two verses:
Any fool can understand
Until the fuse is lit and
It blows up in your hand
Step by step, you follow the plan
In the sky watch the desperate vapor
Til it blows up in your hand
DESIGNING YOUR OWN DIRECT METAPHOR SONG
1. Pick one of the following themes or topics (or choose one of your own):
2. From the following list of nouns, try a number of ‘X is Y’ combinations.
3. Taking your one metaphor, spend 5 minutes generating at least 5 different ‘connection points’, or ‘linking qualities’. That is: what are 5 different ways that your metaphor connects to your topic?
4. Create a word palette for the metaphor.
crashing, rips, undercurrent, tidal wave, dumped, drowning, thrashing….
5. Spend 10 minutes exploring your topic (growing up) using language in the key of the metaphor.
6. Build a Chorus idea, using an ‘X is Y’ statement.
Ever breaking rank at all
For something someone yelled real loud one time?
Like punching underwater
You never can hit who you’re trying for
For the war that’s raging on inside
Note that these are mostly verse lyrics, but the idea can be applied to verses or choruses.
I will also write another post soon that gives a lot more detail about writing great Choruses, as well as what makes chorus lyrics and ideas different to verses. Speaking of verses…