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Lessons that still ring true

In 2008, I had the unbelievably good fortune to spend a whole week with John Mayer, talking about songs, and finally being in the studio with him. I blogged in detail about it on an old website, but the things I learned still come up almost daily. I was recently asked about it, so I thought I would post it again here. Enjoy!

OCTOBER 2008

This week, I’m one of a group of ten singer-songwriters who are lucky enough to spend a few intensive evenings with John Mayer. I wanted to write a few thoughts, reactions, and anecdotes from the sessions, as a way for me to process the experience and information, as well as sharing the experience with other people. I know I’m in a position that about 4000 other people in the immediate vicinity would sell limbs to be in, so I thought I’d share a bit of it as faithfully as I can. Obviously the things I remember most are the things that resonate with me currently. A few of his stories and points I will obviously be paraphrasing, and they might already be infused with my own perspective. Hopefully my friends and colleagues who are also in the room can chip in some of their memories and insights.

Firstly, John Mayer is cool.
Cool in the best, nerdiest way, which is to say that he was totally present with us in the room. There was nowhere else that his mind was other than completely focused on us and our songs. He had also spent the day checking out our Myspace pages, googling us, listening to our music, and seeing what we were up to.

Habits of success.
I think this was the first symptom of a habit that is most likely one shared by successful people: being prepared, doing your research, and knowing your audience – whatever it is. Throughout the evening, it was obvious that this permeates his 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 that’s bad?’

His Berklee backstory.
He talked a little about his experience studying music at Berklee. Initially he arrived in the Fall of ’97 as a guitar player, wanting to be ‘the best guitar player’. In the break between Fall and Spring that year, he did some serious thinking about exactly he wanted as a musician – what did he need to SAY and DO as a musician, above everything else? Maybe unsurprisingly, it was not wanting to be a guitar wanker (my paraphrasing there). He recalled having a very distinct and transformative realization that he literally referred to as an ‘epiphany’: that he essentially wanted to be ‘listenable’. He wanted as many people as possible to listen to his music. He then spent the Spring semester not so much in the classroom, but rather in his dorm room, writing songs and recording them. At which point the rest is history (somewhat). He had got what he needed out of that experience, and then left to pursue it.

On studying music
He was incredibly positive and affirming about being knowledgeable about the technicalities of music – at the same time as being obviously very intuitive and knowing how and when to ‘turn it off’. The point of study is to develop instincts that become like muscle memory. But that it is brilliant to be able to ‘reverse engineer’ songs; ie, being able to identify the ‘DNA’ of songs so that when you hear something you like, knowing how to do it yourself.

On a technical point though, he also encouraged caution about doing things musically just because you can, now that you know about it. Musical ‘events’ in a song should serve a purpose and function. If they don’t, then sometimes you risk doing things that come off as being showy, and alienate listeners. Ultimately, the majority of people don’t know what that chord is, they just know how they feel when they hear it. So if it is a musical moment in the song, save it for when you are actually making a point!

John Mayer as ‘critic’.
Which brings me to another point. I was feeling a combination of trepidation and curiosity about how he would fare in the role of ‘critic’ of other people’s songs. Part of me wondered whether people who do something at such a level of proficiency just have an innate intuition about it, but not necessarily the diagnostic capacities that make for a good teacher.

The answer in this case was pretty clear. His experience gives him a pretty powerful insight into other people’s writing, and he was able to see into the anatomy of our songs with the expertise of a surgeon. He approached each not from any formulaic idea of songs, but first understood what was the character of each artist and song, and worked from there. Rather than going into laborious detail about that, I thought I’d write a few of the main points that I learned that I related to my own writing:

– The chorus is the most important part of your song. If it has no chorus, then there has to be some main idea, main image, that should have neon lights around it that lets a listener know that it is the bit they should walk away singing in their head.

– A song title is your best friend. It will define the chorus or hook, and is the point of the whole song. The title is the gold nugget you’re looking for at the first available moment. You can even work backwards: if you’ve got a great title, and you find a way to sing it that feels good, then you’ve got a chorus. Once you’ve got a chorus, you’ve almost got a song. Also, a song’s title should make you want to listen to that song. If someone picked up your CD in a shop and looked at the back, would they want to hear the songs?

– Phonetics. The way a song feels in your mouth should be natural. It shouldn’t require aural aerobics to get the words out. Some of the best songs are great because of how good it is to just hear the sounds of the words – and how satisfying it is to sing along. The extension of this is that ideally the way to write a song is doing music, melody, and lyrics as an entwined process, so that you’re not ultimately twisting one to comply with the other.

– A song is 3 things: lyrics, melody (which includes harmony), and pulse (or rhythm). If all three of those are strong, then your song has the potential to be a hit.

– Oats and marshmallows. There are words and images that convey detail, emotion, and power (the ‘marshmallows’ in the cereal box). Then there are others, that we’ve all heard a million times, that are blunt and dry (the ‘oats’). People like the marshmallows. Find and use ways to say things that are evocative and personal.

– Be patient and cautious with melody. Once you open your mouth and start singing an idea, it’s very hard to ever sing anything else over a rhythm part you’ve laid down. Take a few extra moments to just listen to any music you’ve written before committing to a melody.

– Listening from a distance. Listen to songs you’ve written as if they just came onto the radio – as if you hadn’t written it. Is it something you’d want to keep listening to?

– Leaving a trail of treats. Songs are essentially a series of ‘events’, whether that event is lyrical, or it’s drums coming in or dropping out at key moments, or it’s vocal harmonies, or it’s the subtle way you change the chorus at the end, or it’s the way the melody lifts in verse 2. These ‘event’s are like a trail of treats for a listener throughout a song. And you don’t have to deliver the treats all at once at the front end, but pick key moments for them.

– Thanks for listening. John mentioned a technique that he uses to keep people listening til the very end, which is essentially to always do something slightly different at the end of a song that a listener wouldn’t have expected. It gives them a reason to keep listening to the end, and also a reason to listen to the whole song again.

Final notes…
One very awesome thing about being in an intimate session with someone I know at an intellectual level has success that has brought him fame and celebrity and all that extra stuff, is being aware that he is just a dude, doing his thing, doing it really well, and has made some good decisions. At a sort of ‘dharmic’ level (if you’ll let me go there for a moment), I appreciate the spirit of someone who inspires people to broaden their own imagination about themselves and their possibilities. He genuinely made us feel like there is an achievable bridge that links what we’re doing now to the vast world of possibility in music. That’s cool, in my books.

————–

We recorded my tune, produced by John Mayer himself, last Thursday. It was one of the smoothest, hassle-free, to the point, snag-less recordings I’ve ever done. It was a testament to the process that this whole experience was meant to demonstrate: that if you have a good song, and a concept for production, then you can produce something beautiful without much complication.

(Also having the head of the songwriting department at Berklee write a full string quartet arrangement overnight, and then having the Boston String Quartet play on your recording helps a little).

John was great as a producer, by the way. My song, of the three that were recorded by three different songwriters, required the least technical detail or instruction or tweaking, being the most acoustic. But that was also very much part of good production, and being a good producer. As a producer, the stuff that John wanted to maintain was the subtle way my voice cracks, the hesitation in certain parts that is so much what the song is about in essence. The concept from the beginning was that the tune should be organic and acoustic, played without a click track, the time pushing and pulling with the lyric and the feeling of the song. With the string quartet, the idea was that they would have to play with the feeling of the song rather than playing to a click.

One of the most important technical things I learnt from him was that when you are recording a song, you need to maintain the melody in its purest, ‘dumbest’ form. The point of a record, other than being beautiful and listenable (and of course, and expression of your musical identity), is to communicate clearly, and from that clarity also generate familiarity for listeners. There is a temptation (that I was subconsciously caving into) to vary and embellish the melody and delivery of a song, particularly after having sung it 4 or 5 times. John noticed, and when I sung just the melody in its simplest form, the song truly started to sound like a record rather than the ‘late night acoustic lounge’ version.

The whole experience, as well as watching him produce two other completely different tracks, was exceptional. As a producer, as well as a musician — and most importantly, as a person, he is direct, on the level, inclusive, open-minded, humble, smart as hell, generous, sensitive, and hilarious. Even when he played and sang on two tracks, he was never gratuitous. He was gracious enough to actually lend his guitar and voice for these tracks, but made sure everything he did was in the service of the song, and not just sort of a ‘Ladies and gentlemen — John Mayer!’ kind of moment.

All twelve of us went into this not totally knowing what to expect, and not knowing who he was as a person. I think we pretty unanimously think the world of him, which says a lot about a person. He was a true demonstration that success and fame don’t give you license to be a dickhead. And when it comes down to it, it’s pretty simple and logical. As John put it himself, when you’ve worked with the full spectrum of talented people, and you see the effect of people who are selfish and mean, as opposed to those who are talented, generous and kind, there is no reason to not be that way. Amen.

SPECIFICITY #2: Getting Specific About Images

A while ago I started an article about SPECIFICITY in lyric writing (see post: Specificity #1: Getting Specific About Ideas). The main conclusion of that article was to pick a central idea for your section, and make sure all the images and language are working towards supporting that main idea.

Another aspect of ‘getting specific’ with lyrics is the specificity of the images that you present. That’s what I’d like to have a look at right now!

SPECIFICITY #2: Getting Specific About Images

THE PROBLEM:

  • Your images are too broad, vague, or generic.
  • The images do not fully use your totally unique perspective of the world.

THE SOLUTION

  • Use Sense Writing to describe the scenario.
  • Sift through your Sense Writing for unique images or word combos.
  • Use a Worksheet to find interesting word and rhyme pairings.

Let’s use another dummy lyric to work with:

EXAMPLE:

[Verse 1]

The party was loud when

You walked into the room

I caught a glimpse of you

And thought ‘you’ll be mine soon’

Okay, so the lyric presents a decent opening idea, presenting the scenario, but in a very ho-hum kind of a way. It could use some spicing up. This is where I (and many many many songwriters) use Sense Writing to delve into our senses and uncover unique and compelling ways and words to describe a common or universal experience (see Post: Juicy Details for a description of Sense Writing).

DO IT NOW: Spend 5 minutes sense writing on ‘party’.

Here is my writing…

Party… Slumped on the distended belly of a couch in the corner, bored. The satisfying pop of opening wine bottles followed by the gulp gulp gulp of filling glasses, the woody snap of beer bottles being hammered onto the table. Cigarette smoke mingled with the high pitched female laughter bubbling sneaking through the opening in the sliding doors. I am sitting sipping on a beer that somehow becoming more watery, more bitter and lemony as I reach the bottom. Accidentally moving my lips to the memory of conversations I’ve had at parties before, possibly letting out a stifled laugh, the people in my field of vision, who swim in and out of being characters in a movie that I am watching from the couch, to being secret agent spies with hidden personal worlds of mystery and ambiguity, and sneaking layers of depth caked in a crust of party-induced silliness. And then you enter the room, and it feels like the decibels descend and there is a warm hum in my eardrum, and it seems like you are taller than everybody else, that there is a spotlight somewhere above you melting light into your immediate orbit. I am looking at you trying to use eyeballs as magnets, sure that if you look at me that particles will connect and you will feel the energy like a string of fate, like a tightrope strung up between us…


Now I am going to ‘mine’ my sense writing for words, images, and phrases that I like.

belly of a couch in the corner (bored in a rhyme)

the woody snap of beer bottles being hammered onto the table

moving my lips to the memory of conversations I’ve had at parties before

being characters in a movie that I am watching from the couch

layers of depth caked in a crust of party-induced silliness

the decibels descend

warm hum in my eardrum

spotlight somewhere above you melting light

eyeballs as magnets

tightrope strung up between us


Let’s see if I can use what I have here to write a new verse:

I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations

….

At this point, I am looking for my final line of this verse. I am going to create a Worksheet for two rhyme options: scene, and conversation.

What is a Worksheet? A worksheet is basically a list of possible rhymes for key words in your lyric. It is not ALL the available rhymes, but rather rhymes that are evocative, or related to the idea or image you are playing with. Here we go:

Scene: screen, sheen, clean, Al Green, pristine, routine, Codeine, beguine, marine, machine, slot machine, obscene, magazine, tambourine, trampoline, nicotine, quarantine, seem, scheme, redeem…

Conversation: narration, creation, fixation, vibration, dilation, inflation, location, relocation, rotation (heavy-rotation), relation, flirtation, affectation, speculation, decoration, mediation, celebration, revelation, patron, saying, staying, playing, shaken, taken, takin’…

Now I am going to use some of these to see if I can come up with a satisfying line.

I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations

Removed from the hum of the celebration

……………………..

I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations

Falling into my usual routine

……………………..

I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations

Stuck in the rounds of mental quarantine

I could write another 20 of these, but I kind of like the last one, and more than that, any of these three is a drastic improvement on the original. It is much more evocative of the environment, and the narrator’s state of mind and mood, and sets it up nicely to develop the story from there.

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

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.