Can songwriting actually be taught? Can your lyrics actually improve, or are you just born Bob Dylan?
Author Ann Patchett beautifully writes: “Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?” Great writers know that while we must always “leave room for the acts of the spirit” (as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it), that there are a set of tools, techniques, strategies, methods and ways of understanding language that can systematically improve how we express whatever we want to express.
In my lyric-writing life, there are a handful of very simply and incredibly effective techniques, that once learned, made my songwriting drastically improve. Within a few years of using them, I could count John Mayer and Pat Pattison as two of my mentors, and was on the Songwriting faculty at the Berklee College of Music. It has been my life mission since learning these to pass them on to others. I hope you’ll join me on Monday as I go deeply into the first of these transformative principles of great lyric writing.
Lyric Writing Masterclass—Monday March 16 6pm (Sydney AEDT)
Sign up here.
More info here.
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.
When I do this ‘stealing like a songwriter,’ I always keep in mind the most important lesson I took from reading Austin Kleon‘s (absolutely refined gem of a book) “Steal Like an Artist“:
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
I love this video of Ryan Adams revealing his daily songwriting method, that he calls ‘Stacks’. It basically involves taking one reference book (like the Roget’s International Thesaurus) on one side, and another random book—a novel perhaps—on the other side. Open each to a random page. Scan the page of the novel until a line or image catches your attention, then use it to create a version of that image. Go to your second book. Scan the page until you find a word or image that pops out at you…keep going, and fill in the blanks.
“Inside of me is some piece of information that is relevant. It’s relevant because I’m alive and because there’s electricity in my brain and I’ve seen things all day. But maybe they have’t become this beacon for me yet of something ideal. But if I scan information I’ll find what that is…like Madlibs, the ego will always come out to play if you can get the Id to tell it to…I just created this thing for myself based on this information that I chose that’s already relevant to me because instantly it reminds of someone…; and it will force me to fill in the blanks.”
It’s a beautiful approach that trusts in your own experience to join the dots.
Almost all songwriters I know experience a type of road block in the process of writing songs. Paradoxically, this block seems to happen when you have a really good idea that you are particularly excited about. Put your hand up if you’ve ever written a verse and a chorus…and can’t seem to write a second verse! (Okay – hands down.) You labor for the next hour, week, month, but everything that comes out feels like you are simply dressing up the same idea in different clothes. Or worse – you are taking off the ball gown and putting on the jeans.
Thanks to ASCAP for once again publishing this article I wrote on two easy strategies for moving beyond the first verse. You can read the article in its entirety at the ASCAP We Create Music Blog.
I’m very chuffed to have had this article published on the ASCAP Blog, ‘We Create Music’. Click on the image to access the article.
EAGLE ROCK SONGWRITERS RETREAT – OCTOBER 8 2011
Former Berklee Songwriting faculty Keppie Coutts presents the Eagle Rock Fall Songwriters Retreat on Sunday, October 8!
Fall Retreat will involve a series of creative exercises and time-proven writing techniques in the morning, equipping you with processes to bring your unique perspective and voice to the page. The afternoon will consist of song listening and feedback, giving you insight into the tools, techniques and strategies used by professional songwriters to generate ideas, develop, revise, edit, and fine-tune their songs. Fall Retreat will be a small and focused group, building strong connections, community, empowering participants to develop their creative processes and write the best songs possible!
In order to keep the retreat focused, the group is limited to 10 people, on a first come first served basis. REGISTER TODAY to secure your spot, by visiting www.kcsongstudio.com or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
$80 Early Bird Discount (signed up by September 15)
$100 (after September 15)
$90 (Member Affiliations – West Coast Songwriters, Berklee Alum, previous attendees)