Why write it as a song?

It’s a question I ask of myself all the time. Why write this idea as a song, and not as a poem? A short story? A blog post? An angry rant to a neighbour? 

What function does a song serve that draws me to it as the vehicle for an idea?

One answer is that a song has the capacity, like no other thing, to make us feel thought. Songs translate ideas into emotion. We get the beauty and nuance and narrative of words, with the unspeakable colours of music. Nothing else does it quite like that.

And what draws people to song? There are obviously lots of reasons, ways, places and purposes for listening to songs (Dan Levitan’s ‘The World in Six Songs’ is a nice anthropological working on the social and biological function of song throughout human history), but I recently had another inkling about the strange addiction to writing and listening to songs, while reading Matthew Dicks’ ‘Storyworthy’. Dicks starts by outlining what he means by storytelling when he does it and teaches others to do it. One of the core principles is this: write only your story, never anyone else’s. It sounds obvious, but the idea is that even when you want to tell a story about someone or something other than you, it only connects with an audience (which is to say, they will only be moved, changed, transformed by it), if it is told from your perspective; how that story happened to you; how it changed you. As Dicks puts it:

People would rather hear the story about what happened to you last night than about what happened to Pete, even if Pete’s story is better than your own

Dicks distinguishes this type of storytelling from fables and fiction, that both have a different (and important) function; but there is nothing that cracks our own hearts into a shape capable of bending and changing like a true story told by the person who experienced it. 

This is also what songs are at their best. 

I am, admittedly, a fan of fiction in songwriting. I like bending the truth—often so out of shape that I end up singing from the perspectives of infanticidal primary school teachers and self-sabotaging scientists awash in delusions of grandeur. I love Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Gillian Welch (songwriters who revel in persona-driven stories). I love feeling that there can be truth, honesty, and discovery that can only be reached by searching beyond our own autobiographies. 

But it is undeniable that we as listeners crave the “immediacy and grit and inherent vulnerability in hearing the story of someone standing before you” (to quote Dicks again). So it is with story; so it is with song.

I’m only a third of the way through Storyworthy, and loving every page. There will be a lot in here that I will borrow and translate into my songwriting classes. 

This is Your Brain on Metaphor

When I teach lyric writing, the first concept I introduce in any class is the power and impact of sense-based language. I usually start with a sort of psychological magic trick: I read a list of words, then ask people to recall as many as they can. Without mentioning this to the class, I have deliberately made half the words concrete and sense-based—koala, tomato, thunder—and the other half are abstract or conceptual—task, idea, sound, for example. 

Here is the magic part: without fail, the vast majority of people (about 90%) recall more of the sense-based words. 

How is this possible? Why isn’t it more random? Why don’t we see, over a large sample, that it’s more like 50%? I randomise the words; I make sure the words are not more complex in one category versus the other…the magic (and science) here is that there is something special about sense-based language. Our brains wrap themselves differently around it. In the field of psychology, this has a name: “The Concreteness Effect”. People’s memories (and here we’re talking at a population level) stick like glue to things we can attach our senses to. 

As lyric writers, we are tasked with creating mansions in the mind of a listener with very limited real estate, so anything in language that comes pre-loaded with emotion, impact, and connection is gold.

Here’s a dirty little secret though. I have, for years, been a bit tripped up by the logic of this. Just saying “cinnamon” is not the same thing as actually smelling cinnamon…a word is a concept, even if it’s describing a sensory thing…isn’t it? Why should we expect that sensory language isn’t actually just another kind of concept? Why believe (even in spite of the hundreds of mini-experiments I’ve run, yielding the same result, and even all the experiments done by psychologists) that sensory language should have a different emotional impact than any kind of language?

Well! I am very thrilled that science has once again come to the party, gotten tipsy, had a snog with art, and the two are now dirty dancing, showing us how one moves the other. 

In Fiona Murphy’s gorgeous book, ‘The Shape of Sound”, she talks about a piece of research that,

“demonstrated how words can rub and burn just as much as they can soothe. Test subjects lying in an MRI machine were read metaphorical and literal descriptions—the operation went smoothly (the operation went successfully), his manners are coarse (his manners are rude), she is a bit edgy (she is a bit nervous)…The results were conclusive: textured metaphors caused the brain to react as if it were being touched.”

Our brains aren’t just processing these words as language—mere concepts, solely representations of the thing; the brain actually responds as if that sense is being activated!

The power and complexity of language never ceases to astonish me. There is magic in there too. To quote, perhaps, the leading authority on words and magic:

Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.

Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2)

120 Sense Writing Prompts

If you’re already familiar with Sense Writing (aka Object Writing), feel free to skip ahead to the prompts below. If Sense Writing is new to you, here’s a little primer.

What is Sense Writing?

Sense Writing is a timed 10-minute writing exercise, in which you take a prompt, and use that prompt as a gateway into whatever association arises for you based on the prompt. It is like free-writing, in the sense that you write continuously for 10 minutes, without editing yourself, and without ‘writing lyrics’. So no rhyme, no rhythm. Just sentences. The difference between Sense Writing and free writing is that in Sense Writing, you stay focused on using the senses to describe the scene, situation, or moment that arises in response to the prompt.

Sense Writing is based on lyric writing teacher Pat Pattison’s ‘Object Writing’. You can explore it in more detail here.

Why Sense Writing?

Sense Writing is the single most useful writing exercise that I have ever come across in my life as a songwriter. I use it on days when I have no idea what to write about. I use it when I’m in the middle of a song, and I’m looking for lyrics to furnish a particular idea. Sense Writing has the beauty of being a tool you can always default to when looking for ideas, as well as being a tool that strengthens your ability to convert ideas into specific, sensory imagery. And, it only takes 10 minutes or less.

Prompts

Starting with objects is a good strategy, as it keeps you grounded in the physical world. As you progress, dip into the prompts in other categories, understanding that the goal is ALWAYS to use the prompt as a springboard into a specific scene, situation, or moment, and to use vivid, descriptive sense-bound language to explore that moment in writing.

Enjoy!

OBJECTS:

COFFEE CUP, OLD T-SHIRT, FIRE PIT, MILKSHAKE, WALLET, PAINTING, MARBLE, SANDWICH, ANKLE, CABINET, BITUMEN, SUMMER RAIN, DUCT TAPE, FUTON, MOON, WEED, SKETCH, FINGERNAIL, TICKET, TOOTH

PEOPLE:

FARMER, DANCER, OLYMPIC BOXER, GRANDFATHER, SURGEON, TEACHER, FIRST LOVE, QUEEN, RETIREE, MIDDLE CHILD, MAGICIAN, CLEANER, PATIENT, LIBRARIAN, ACTOR, WAITER, ROCK CLIMBER, NEIGHBOUR, LAST PERSON TO LEAVE, BULLY

PLACES:

MALL, COUCH, KITCHEN, CLASSROOM, ALLEYWAY, TRAIN STATION, AIRPORT, GRANDMA'S HOUSE, UNDER THE BED, SUPERMARKET, GRAVEYARD, HOTEL, TUNNEL, HOSPITAL, FRONT PORCH, CAMPSITE, CANYON, OUTER SPACE, FRONTLINE

TIMES/EVENTS:

WEDDING, FUNERAL, 7TH BIRTHDAY PARTY, GRADUATION, FIRST KISS, NEW YEAR'S EVE, 3A.M., AUTUMN, SCHOOL BELL, LUNCH BREAK, CONCERT, MOVING OUT, FIRST DAY, SUNRISE, FAMILY HOLIDAY, SWIMMING, MIDNIGHT, SAYING SORRY, PROTEST, WILDFIRE

EMOTIONS:

DELIGHT, BOREDOM, HUMILITY, NOSTALGIA, ENVY, DEFENSIVENESS, CONFUSION, UNCERTAINTY, CONTENT, SCHADENFREUDE, LOVE, RELIEF, SURPRISE, IMPATIENCE, DENIAL, ANXIETY, ANTICIPATION, NERVOUSNESS, REMORSE, SATISFACTION

CONCEPTS:

STUCK, CONNECTION, IMPRESSION, RESPONSE, CHEMISTRY, AFFAIR, COLD, CELEBRATION, FORGIVENESS, GROWING OLDER, ELECTION, TRADITION, PRIORITY, DEPARTURE, ECONOMY, OPINION, COUNTRY, NEWS, REPUTATION, OPPORTUNITY

Can you learn to be obsessed?

There is so much advice out there for writers about the importance of habit and ritual in your creative practice. But lately, I have become—frankly—a little suspect of it.

The insistence on habit as the conduit of creative output is embodied by the American painter Chuck Close, who famously said, “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

John Cleese gave an extraordinary lecture in the 90s, talking about the vital importance of carving out 90 minutes for creative work. Don’t leave the chair after 30 minutes. The first 30 minutes are basically the opening credits. Nothing happens. Nothing is meant to happen. All the action comes after 30 minutes. The key message here was that creativity is not a special talent, but a discipline.

But I often wonder if this ‘advice’ isn’t really advice at all. It’s more of an observation of what highly productive, creative people tend to do. By framing it as advice, it assumes a causal direction: that if I sit everyday and apply myself to my creative practice, that something will happen. It’s prescriptive. 

But there is a line between what is prescriptive and what is descriptive, and I think the two often get confused. Someone can describe what they did to get where they got, and then offer that as some kind of prescriptive method for others, even though it would never work if you weren’t that person, with their passion, their motivation, their invisible networks and threads of connection to others who move their careers along.

I think it’s important to add in a detail here. As Austin Kleon puts it, persistence is much easier “when there’s obsession behind it. (And likewise, discipline is much easier when it’s fueled by desire.)” It’s not habit that drives creative work; it’s obsession. The chain of causation begins with that drive, that motivation, not with the habit itself. The habit is an outcropping of the obsession; it’s a necessary extension of it. It’s a vehicle to cultivate and harvest that obsession, but there has to be obsession at the root. 

The question then becomes: can you learn obsession? Can you practice it? Is passion a feature of disposition, or like so many things, is there a range in which we each individually fall by genetics and circumstance, and our effortful acts of will can only move us around within those limits?

Wintering

It always feels as though the seasons do not change gradually, but instead, that the sun takes a sudden jerk around its solar orbit, turns a sharp corner, and within a week the days are shorter by 3 hours, the evenings are cold, and the shadows are long and languid throughout the day.

My relationship to winter is one of conflict. I have a fantasy ‘winter’ in my head, in which the forced introversion equates to productivity. It’s a vision of me writing more, reading more deeply, making more connections, steeping in creativity, its output rising and curling in a scarf of steam out of my mind.

The reality is always one of fatigue, bodily heaviness, and a motivation for nothing more than thick socks, soup, and a fireplace (it doesn’t matter that it’s fake. It’s warm.).

I heard a beautiful interview recently on my favourite podcast, On Being, with English author Katherine May who has written a book called ‘Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times’, and it has changed my feeling—or at least, my expectations, for this coming winter.

May weaves together, with gentle meandering threads, an exploration of wintering cultures and creatures, and uses them as a metaphor for the cycles of human energy. These times of personal ‘wintering’, she says, are:

…gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on.

Wintering, for those creatures and cultures who literally cycle through its doors, is not a retreat from life, but a retreat into it. Summertime is a season of preparation, not relaxation. Embracing that energy is an acknowledgement of reality. Being inside—physically, figuratively—is an essential part of the creative cycle.

Quick side note: DID YOU KNOW that honeybees dislocate their wing muscles from their wings in the depths of winter, so that they can use these muscles to rapidly vibrate their bodies to reach temperatures of up to 45°C!? The 'heater bees' cluster together, and if you were to stick your hand into the centre of a hive in the middle of a northern winter, it would be around 35°C/95°F! The never-ending strangeness and marvel of bees...end side note.

This, of course, has so many tethers into the realm of creative process. The main idea that has struck me from this beautiful book is to stop expecting the creative process to march along in a linear fashion. That NOT producing work is not a failure, it is merely part of a cycle.

I feel like I am old enough at this point (a ripened 37) to have experienced this. I have had enough creative winterings that surely enough thaw that I trust that cycle to happen; I trust that I will come back round to a sense of energy in my writing and creative work and teaching. And yet, those winterings still come with a tinge of panic.

This winter, I plan to embrace my socks, soup, and fake fire with a gusto that you might not even see, because a giant scarf will be covering my face.

Hubris and Humility in Writing Pop Songs


I am totally tickled to have co-written a song, ‘Fruit’, that has just been released by Australian pop artist, Sayah. Working with Sayah was alchemy – seeing an idea come to life is a special kind of magic. The song was produced and co-written by Taka Perry, who is a wizard space genius. Seeing him work is like watching Peni Parker control her robot spider.



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It is such a joy to hear it out in the world.

It’s also a song that has taught me a great humility as a songwriter, that I am still grappling with. The idea for this song came out fast, for me. The lyrics to the chorus came out in one little crack of inspiration; I set them to melody in about 20 minutes, and then wrote the first verse in another 30 or 40 minutes, all the building blocks clicking together. 

The ‘easiness’ of this is totally misleading—and it has startled me that it’s a trick of my own devising that I fell into. Because this one felt ‘easy’, it filled me with a sort of hubris; that I could basically pump out a bunch of songs like this on any given day. But it turns out that I have tried, and it hasn’t happened quite like that.

I was relieved to hear John Mayer talk about this in a zoomy interview thing that I stumbled on in a recent youtube rabbit hole. 

They key moment here that resonated for me was this:

“Once you’re done writing an A+ song, you once again know nothing about it. You once again know nothing about writing. At the beginning of every song, you don’t know anything. You’re a baby. You’re an infant.”

I’ve heard him talk about that specifically with the song Gravity—that after writing Gravity, he expected to be able to write another Gravity…but couldn’t. The glittering hubris of a good song is so quickly turned into humility. 

It’s a lesson I learn, and need to learn, again and again. There is (I hope) knowledge and experience that accumulates over time and practice, but there is also this deep humility and gentleness that needs to hold their hands. Without the humility to accept that a song cannot be replicated even when it felt easy, there is a rough bump against the expectations that we mount for ourselves, and the inevitable feeling of failure when we can’t meet them. 

I’m working on embracing the open sense of unknowing before the songs I’m currently working on. I’m practicing being gentle when they steer off in unexpected directions. I’m trying to bring my craft onboard without letting it steer, and also being open to having written one banging pop song, and being open to whatever comes out next. 


You can hear the here! Language warning, friends.

Can you really teach someone to write better songs?

I so often get asked whether it’s really possible to teach someone how to write a song. There still seems to be a mysterious veil of magic and witchcraft about it, that is very fuelled by interviews with songwriters talking about channeling the muse.

It turns out that songwriting is really like anything else. You can name the parts and elements, see how people have used them in the past, and use that vocabulary to understand how songwriters are currently using and innovating on those elements, as well as possibilities for other innovations. The same is true in visual art, design, creative writing…and there appears to be no cultural attachment to the idea of the muse—or pure inspiration—as the singular route for successful creation in those domains. And yet, somehow (sigh), it persists in the realm of songwriting.

I thought I’d offer a glimpse into the inside of the songwriting classroom. This is an exercise I posted for my Songwriting Workshop group at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Open Academy recently. We had a lengthy discussion about the importance of reflecting a lyric’s natural syllabic stress pattern in the melody. Melody—like language—has strong and weak beats, and if we don’t match the pattern between lyric and melody, whacky (and generally yuck) things start to happen. At best, you get Katy Perry’s unCONdiTIONallY. At worst, you start to erode the intelligibility, and therefore emotional resonance of your song. Lyrics become wallpaper. And in my experience, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy in the life of the songwriter: if you believe lyrics are mere wallpaper, you will write lyrics that end up as wallpaper. But as soon as you believe that people might listen to and care about lyrics, you suddenly start writing lyrics that people listen to and care about. Part of this is making sure they can be understood, and that they are conveyed with the full force of expression and emotion, which in English, is conveyed by patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables.

So this Songwriting Assignment first sets out to take a lyric, and set it melody, taking care to set the lyric to a melody that retains that natural pattern.

Secondly, the task here then hones in on 3 melodic tools for creating contrast between sections, ensuring that when you move to the Chorus, it will be felt emotionally.

Without further ado…

You can grab a lyric to work with by heading over to the YouTube channel here—it’s posted in the description under the video. And yes, please subscribe to the channel!

Songwriters on songwriting

I’ve been baffled lately that there aren’t more songwriters in the world who write about writing. Luckily, there are centuries worth of novelists, essayists, and other author types who have written so lucidly and honestly about the craft of writing, its messiness, its need for discipline. (Some of my favourites are On Writing by Stephen King, Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman, and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.)

There is, of course, the classic ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’, which I dip into a few times a year, and has given me almost a decade of interesting insights. With that said, it also reveals the ways in which songwriters are much more oblivious to their craft than their counterparts in prose or poetry. There are so many references to being a ‘channel to the muse’ that it makes my muse want to shrivel up and take up chain-smoking.

With all of that said, there have a been two delightful books that came out in 2020 that are, I hope, forging a more honest and fertile ground for other songwriters to share the details of their practice.

One is ‘How to Write One Song’, by Jeff Tweedy (which I discovered reading Austin Kleon’s blog, one of my faves).

I loved, and tried, his ‘word ladder’ exercise, which reminds me a lot of Pat Pattison’s metaphor collision exercises. The exercise basically involves having a column of nouns that are drawn from one area/field/room, and another column of verbs that are drawn from something totally unrelated. What I like about Tweedy’s version is the sense of freedom and experimentation in how to simply mix and match, with a loose brain:

“…take a pencil and draw lines to connect nouns and verbs that don’t normallyw ork together. I like to use this exercise not so much to generate a set of lyrics but to remind myself how much fun I can have with words when I’m not concerning myself with meaning or judging my poetic abilities.”

My go at the word ladder!

The exercises are fun, creative, and specific. But the real gems in here are the stellar insights into the creative process:

“One of the reasons I advocate so strongly for maintaining some creative pursuits in life is my belief that not knowing exactly how something like a finished song comes together creates an incredible magical feeling that always leaves me satisfied and full of wonder. There’s really no exact way to do it—it’s not like putting together IKEA furniture. It’s just about getting started on the right path.”

What I love about the book is that Tweedy is all about the wonder, but also about the nitty gritty of HOW you go about putting yourself on that path. I’m so glad he wrote it.

The other book that came out this year is Anais Mitchell’s ‘Working On a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown’, but more about that later…!

Sonnet – Zen and the Pizza Delivery Guy

I teach a poetry class for Berklee Online. The course culminates in the writing of a sonnet. I’ve always loved the sonnet form. That tight little couplet at the end is like a bow on a birthday present.

In the week before the end of the class, just as lockdown was easing in Sydney around June 2020, I went with my family to a local pizza restaurant. As we waited at the table for our pizza to arrive (well, to be honest, it was only me waiting. My kids had taken an interest in the bathroom…), a delivery guy came into the restaurant to collect an order. I wrote this for him.

As dough began to bubble on its pyre,

Fior di latte melted languidly.

The waiter pointed out the oven’s fire,

And my two delighted children begged to see

The bathroom one more time. There’s no accounting

For the tastes of youth. From the open doors,

With music pulsing through the restaurant, in

arrived a delivery man; a pause.

He then began to dance with shuffling feet,

hands and fingers that twirled, sparkled and skipped.

My kids returned: “What are you smiling about?”

I could have said, “Delight, my dears, is wrapped

Inside surprise”—so wise, so clear, and true!

Instead, I said, “Oh, nothing. How’s the loo?”

Me, June 2020, pizza restaurant in Newtown, Sydney.