Getting Fruitful Feedback – (Eagle Rock Songwriters Retreat this weekend!)

One the most important things in the journey of a songwriter is being part of a community who can give you helpful feedback. Your friends, parents and audience will always be more than willing to tell you how much they love your songs (aka how much they just love you), and sometimes how much they don’t. Alas, while this feedback can be a joyous validation or an ego-rattling slap, it rarely helps your songs actually improve. There is hope! Other songwriters with the experience and vocabulary of songwriting are often the best community to tell you a) what works and why, and b) what could use development and why. The WHY part is so important, and requires more than just “I wasn’t feeling it there”.

I encourage you to seek out opportunities to be with other songwriters, whether it’s local organizations, regional camps or workshops, or annual conferences. Berklee College of Music has a wonderful online school (berkleemusic.com).

In the spirit of this community, I am hosting the first Eagle Rock Songwriters Retreat this coming Sunday, in east Los Angeles. If you are in the area and would like to come along, follow this link: kcsongstudio.com/workshops/spring-workshop-sign-up

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Paul Simon on Listening to the Critics

I don’t think it’s very good for a serious songwriter to pay attention to what critics say. It’s just too hard. And it’s not informative. They don’t know what they’re talking about. And can’t know what they’re talking about, by definition. Unless you write songs and make records, you just really can’t know what it’s about. A critic is not capable of distinguishing between a safe move that is executed, and an interesting mistake. An interesting mistake is by far the more valuable.

From ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’, by Paul Zollo.

Song Starter: De-Tune Your Guitar

If you write on the guitar, try tuning the strings into an unfamiliar tuning. You will start hearing sounds you like rather than sounds that you might think are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I find doing this helpful, particularly when I start to get frustrated about doing the same thing over and over on the guitar, or too caught up in music theory. It gets me back into my creative right brain. If you play the piano, try picking up another instrument!

Specificity #1: Getting Specific About Ideas

Whether you are reading songwriting books, watching videos, going to workshops, in school, or paying close attention to excellent songwriters, you will eventually hear the same message again and again: MAKE YOUR LYRICS SPECIFIC.

This can be frustrating and confusing. At some point, you will write a song that you think is specific, only to be given feedback that it is ‘not detailed enough’. You might then right a song that is loaded with details, and told that it ‘isn’t universal enough’.

What’s going on? Part of what is going on is that there are DIFFERENT TYPES OF SPECIFICITY. The next few Insight Posts will take them one at a time. Today, let’s look at…

1. SPECIFICITY OF IDEAS

THE PROBLEM:

  • Your song is about many different ideas, or;
  • You are attempting to write ‘THE’ song about ‘regret’ (for example), that includes every sentiment or idea you have ever had about regret (or love, or travel, or growing old….).

THE SOLUTION:

  • Make a decision about the CENTRAL IDEA of your song. Decide what your song is about.
  • If your song is about ‘love’, which aspect of love is it about? Don’t make it about the full gambit or trajectory of winning to losing love. Pick one moment or aspect, and hone in all your ideas to bring that one CENTRAL IDEA into the spotlight.

Let’s use some pretend lyrics to put this into action.

EXAMPLE:

[Chorus]

Love is a drug that’ll hook you in

Love is a thief that will rob you blind

Love is book in a foreign language

With a meaning that’s hard to find

Here we have an interesting series of images and ideas, that are all somewhat ‘specific’. All the ideas are centered around the elusive nature of love, SO WHAT’S WRONG HERE? There are 3 (or even 4) separate ideas that are each competing for attention, without fully committing to one of them. Is it the addiction that you are focusing on? Is it the self-deception? Or is it the mystery? These are three separate songs! Once you decide which ONE you are writing about, you can focus into the details around the one specific aspect you are writing about.

[Revision]

Love is a thief that sneaks into your house

Steals your heart and robs you blind

Leaves you wondering what you even had in the start

Love is a thief in the night

NOW the idea is more specific because it is focused on ONE central idea.

TO DO: Take a look at a song you have written that you feel could use some revising. Have a look at your chorus (if it has one), and analyze how many different ideas are present in the chorus alone. See if you can revise it to focus on one, and make any other necessary revisions to your other sections.

Popular Themes in Songs for Film and TV

Songwriting is much like script writing in a lot of ways. Movies and TV shows always have a different set of characters, situations, tone and ambiance…but the reason that we watch them are for the developments and changes in characters, and most importantly for the relationships. A lot of the relationships involve chemistry, infatuation, coming together, growing apart, fear of loss, letting go, nostalgia….

Songs are very much the same thing – taking common and universal experiences and emotions, and using a unique and interesting set of characters, scenarios and timbre to express them. Luckily, the Film and TV market desperately needs music and songs to accompany the visual scenarios. At the Taxi Road Rally in November 2010, Robin Frederick, author of ‘Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film and TV’, enumerated some of the common themes for which Music Supervisors are constantly on the prowl:

Themes:

–       love relationships (all kinds; romantic relationships and all the stages involved in those; family love; friendship love)

–       becoming and individual (coming of age)

–       uncertainty

–       fear of letting go

–       discovery

–       conflict (frustration, anger, hurt, rebelliousness, helplessness)

–       good times and celebrations (joy, comfort, giving, sharing)

–       rebellion

–       isolation (nobody knows who I am)

Try using any one of these as a starting point for a song. Use the tools of Sense Writing to spend 10 minutes using one of these themes as your launch pad, and see what images, sounds, smells, tastes and visceral descriptions are conjured.

Listen to What People are Listening to

In 2008, I had a extraordinary experience of spending a week with John Mayer, working on tunes and at the end of the week taking a song into the studio and having Mayer produce it. I made a point of absorbing as much as I could during that week. It was visceral and obvious that Mayer has certain habits that contribute to his success.
The first habit I noticed is most likely one shared by many successful people: being prepared, doing your research, and knowing your audience – whatever it is. It was obvious that this permeates Mayer’s whole mode of existing. He has an incredibly broad vocabulary on popular music over the past 40 years. He referenced artists, bands and songs, could play most of what he was referencing, and was obviously literate in it, not in an academic way, but in the way of someone who has a ‘sticky curiosity’ – a genuine interest that is aggressive and passionate. He makes it his business to know EVERYDAY what is in the Top 20 – not to imitate by any means, but to know what the trends are. To know what people are listening to, no matter what you think of it. Ultimately you’ll have your tastes and preferences, whatever they are, but a good exercise as a musician and songwriter is to listen to everything (especially the popular stuff) and think to yourself: ‘What is one thing that is good about this? What’s one thing I would do differently? Why do people like this?’

No one is ever going to force you to write ‘Top 40’ music, but having an active curiosity about what people like and why they like it can help bridge the gap between your own authentic voice, and effectively communicating what you have to say to a listening audience.