The Best Method for Writing a Good Song

From a recent interview with John Mayer:

“Whenever I want to write a big song, I can’t. And by “big” I mean spatially…the glacially large space inside the heart, that’s when I get writers block…trying to write a song to fill the entire galaxy. But if I write a song about the size of a glass of water, and I do it right, I notice a week later that it’s got the universe in it. I’d rather have the universe inside a glass of water, rather than try to make a glass of water fit in the universe.”

You can see the whole interview here (I’ve tagged it at the point where Mayer is talking about detail in songwriting.

This idea radiates into other forms of storytelling, which are really all connected—all trying to convey something that is simultaneously personal, drawn from the details of one’s own life, but also with a universal connection that creates communication, not just catharsis.

This idea was reiterated to me when I went poking around Matthew Dicks’ YouTube channel. Matt is a master storyteller—52-time Moth StorySLAM winner, and 7-time GrandSLAM champion. He made a lo-fi (and highly excellent) video outlining a storytelling game he plays in workshops and classrooms, called “3-2-1”. When explaining why he uses random concrete nouns as prompts, rather than something massive and emotional like “struggle” (or we could sub that for equally glacial concepts, like “loneliness” or “climate change”), Dicks says:

“It’s hard to tell a story if someone asks you, ‘Could you tell a story about a time when you struggled’. That is hard for a lot of people, including me, because ‘a time when you struggled’ is a very broad concept. There’s many, many times in our lives when we struggle. And so pick out the right story—to pick out any story—is really challenging. The odd thing is, the more specific the lens that you’re forced to look at your life through, the more likely you are to find a story.”

(My emphasis added)

You can see Matt’s whole video on his storytelling exercise here:

Matt was also kind enough to share with me the website he uses to generate the random nouns in this video, which is HERE (and on perusing it for a minute, it has other amazing filters that will generate other random lists for you, like cliches, emotions, ‘speech-verb’).

For a songwriter-specific writing exercise that will help you forever tap into the details, check out Object Writing in this video (I’ve tagged it right at Object Writing):

Pair this with 120 Sense Writing Prompts.

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.

Ryan Adams: Let Your Ego Come Out to Play

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.

Adams says:

“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.

 

 

Driving Around the Road Cones: Two Easy Strategies for Moving Beyond the First Verse

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.

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The Secrets of Successful Collaboration

Reposting here a short article I wrote for ASCAP a while ago, with some thoughts and musings about successful collaborations, and some of the transformations that can happen in the process…

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SECRETS OF SUCCESSFUL COLLABORATIONS

Creative collaboration is very much like dating. I can’t think of any other experience that comes close to the strange alchemy that either happens, or doesn’t. Everyone has that person in their life, someone you really admired and were absolutely sure if they just returned the admiration that you would dance, heel-clicking, off into the horizon…only to discover that your dream came half-true. You DID get close to that person, and found out that they only brush their teeth twice a week. Or yell at their mother. Or give you dirty looks when you eat meat. The idea of what you think your partnership will be doesn’t turn out to have the right chemistry even though you were sure it would. Well, creative collaboration is very similar, and also similar in the way that you get better at predicting success, knowing what to look for, being totally fine when it doesn’t work out, and counting your lucky stars when it does.

The article continues here: ASCAP

The Whole Brain Process

In 1968, a psychologist called Roger W. Sperry published his groundbreaking study that showed that the two hemispheres of the human brain – the left and the right – process information in very distinct ways. Since then, there has been a lot of research and interest in left-brain and right-brain theories, and how this relates to creativity.

One thing is for sure – songwriting is a Whole Brain process. It requires you to access your ‘right brain’ mode of cognition, when you are gathering ideas, making connections, being inspired, finding out what the deeper meaning of your work is, or even letting your subconscious figure out the right word, image or line.

It also requires you to access the ‘left brain’ mode, when you putting your ideas into a structure, making decisions about rhyme scheme and meter, cutting out lines, switching verses, rewriting melodies, testing out different points of view, checking for consistency in your tenses, and cutting out all the times you use the words ‘just’ or ‘really’ in your song!

Most of us relate to one part of the process more than the other. We might be ‘right-brain’ dominant, and find it really easy to get inspired, to have lists of beautiful images, to spill something heartfelt onto the page. Or we might be more ‘left-brain’ oriented – deciding on a song form early on, setting the meter or melody early and challenging ourselves to find word combinations that sit within that structure, choosing and interesting, challenging, and unusual rhyme scheme from the start.

Either way, at some point, we need to engage with all of it, and that is what ‘songwriting is’ – it is inspiration and imagination within a structure and a pattern.

For more reading about left-brain and right-brain cognition in the creative process, I recommend these books:

  • ‘Songwriting and the Creative Process’, by Steve Gillette (Chapter 7)
  • Sheila Davis has written about these topics in ‘Successful Lyric Writing’ and ‘The Songwriter’s Idea Book’.
  • ‘Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain’, Betty Edwards.