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.

The Most Beautiful Chords in Songwriting

Hi friends,

I’ve recently made a short series of quick videos that cover two of the most beautiful modes in songwriting: the Mixolydian mode, and Dorian mode, as well as how to use that knowledge to pick out the most beautiful chords, in a chord technique called Modal Borrowing. Here is the series this far. Enjoy!

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?

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!

Lyric Writing Masterclass March 16 2020

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.

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 9.45.43 amIn 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.

Creativity as a physical act

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.”

BonjourThis ‘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

Metaphor in songwriting is alive and well, thanks.

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Many years ago, while living in LA, I heard a Big Shot Industry Dude (cue Beethoven’s 5th…) say:

“Songs shouldn’t have metaphors in them. I can’t think of a good song that has a metaphor.”

To my great relief, and with a giddy sort of rebellious delight, all of us songwriters gathered afterward, as if we all had sticky, sweet metaphors stashed in our pockets the whole time, and murmured things like “What was he talking about?”, or more generously, “Maybe he doesn’t know what a metaphor is…?”

I have come to think that it’s probably the latter. Metaphor, I am happy to report, is alive an well in songwriting, whether we’re talking about popular contemporary writing, or just beautiful writing in any era, any genre. Metaphor can be gently weaved into the fabric of a song, giving it glimmers of certain colors and textures as the song turns in the sun; or a song can be entirely based on one central metaphor, whose imagery completely defines the entire song.

For brainstorming metaphor ideas, I know no better resource than Pat Pattison’s ‘Writing Better Lyrics’ as an introduction, followed up by ‘Songwriting Without Boundaries,’ which contains a few months’ worth of writing exercises to help you generate interesting, fresh, and unique metaphor ideas.

But once you have an interesting metaphor idea, how do you flesh it out into a song lyric?

I’ve been looking at metaphor-based songs for a while now, and it seems to me that there are 3 distinct ways to use metaphors as the basis for a whole song:

  1. Direct Metaphor
  2. Symbolism
  3. Allegory

DIRECT METAPHOR

Right now, I’m going to focus on Direct Metaphor. So what do I mean by Direct Metaphor? A Direct Metaphor is when you clearly say that ‘X is Y’. ‘Love is Rocket Science’, (Rocket Science, Lori McKenna), ‘Love is still a magic act’, (Smoke and Mirrors, Sweet Talk Radio), ‘Belief is a beautiful armor’, (Belief, John Mayer).

Let’s take the first example here, ‘Rocket Science’, by Lori McKenna (and I could honestly talk for hours about the songwriting craft of Lori McKenna—she is amazing. If you want to know an album to ‘study’ the craft of songwriting, listen to ‘Numbered Doors’. Holy moly.) Here are the lyrics to the chorus:

Love is rocket science
What comes up it must come down
In burning pieces on the ground
We watch it fall
Maybe love is rocket science after all

 

The chorus itself starts out with the most direct statement of the central and primary metaphor of the whole song: love is rocket science. The first thing to note is that all the language in the chorus is related to rockets and science; every line here is an extension of that central metaphor. Once we’ve noticed that, we end up seeing it woven through the entire lyric. Here are the first two verses:

They say it ain’t complicated
Any fool can understand
Until the fuse is lit and
It blows up in your hand
It all looks good on paper
Step by step, you follow the plan
In the sky watch the desperate vapor
Til it blows up in your hand
The language in bold here is what Pat Pattison would call language ‘in the key’ of the metaphor. And the rest of the song has the same quality; the verses and bridge all contain language drawn from the palette of rockets, space, and science gone wrong.
But the far more important thing to notice is the very first line of the song, because it is the connection point between the metaphor and what the song is really about: “They say it ain’t complicated”. The point of the song is that love IS complicated, just like rocket science. This is where all the magic of metaphor happens: in the overlapping area between rocket science and love: IT IS COMPLICATED. IT CAN GO TERRIBLY WRONG. And finally…it’s still worth it in the end.
The reason this metaphor song works is because there is enough material in the overlap between the metaphor (rocket science) and the topic (love), and that is the key to a metaphor idea that has enough DNA to be the basis for an entire lyric. Some metaphors do not; they are interesting, descriptive and colorful—”her haircut was a church; she became sombre and restrained under its angles and spires”; “the conversation was a river; it flowed on the surface, but I was drowning in the undercurrent of tension”—but not expansive enough to describe a theme or topic for a whole song.

DESIGNING YOUR OWN DIRECT METAPHOR SONG

1. Pick one of the following themes or topics (or choose one of your own):

LOVE, WAR, LOSING A PARENT, AMBITION, GROWING UP, CLIMATE CHANGE, NOT GETTING WHAT YOU WANT, GETTING OLDER.

2. From the following list of nouns, try a number of ‘X is Y’ combinations.

SATELLITE, GARDEN, LANGUAGE, OCEAN, SEIGE, ARMY, MASTERPIECE, CIRCUS, CHURCH, POET, PRISON CELL, TYRANT, KNEE, SPAGHETTI WESTERN, CANYON, FARMER, VIRUS, VACCINE, TRAFFIC JAM, INSTRUCTION MANUAL.
For example:
Love is a traffic jam. Growing up is a spaghetti western. Climate change is a language.
Already your metaphor brain is buzzing with possibilities and ideas.

3. Taking your one metaphor, spend 5 minutes generating at least 5 different ‘connection points’, or ‘linking qualities’. That is: what are 5 different ways that your metaphor connects to your topic?

For example: Growing old is a church.
1. It is dark, empty, moldy, lonely…
2. It is bright, full of friends, and sacred…
3. It forces you to examine the life you have lived…
4. It becomes a mere recitation of habit…
5. It has a complex architecture…
A good metaphor song will have ONE MAIN connection point. There may be other related ways that you explore the connection, but they should be related to each other. So I wouldn’t be trying, in the same song, to say that growing old is both ‘dark and lonely’ as well as ‘bright and sacred’. I would pick one—the positive or the negative—and focus on that for this one song.
And then write another song that does the other one (!).

4. Create a word palette for the metaphor.

Pro tip: you can use the ‘related words’ filter in Rhymezone.com. Or even better, get yourself a Roget’s International Thesaurus (it is one of my go-to reference books!).
For example:
Church: heaven, gates, communion, waifer, church, cathedral, spires, gothic, priest, nun, god, gods, myth, prayer, bible, sabbath, holy, chapel, parish, worship, monk, confession, pews, vows, evangelize, preach, baptize, condemn, ordain, reform, convert, revelation…
Pro tip: What you decide your ‘connection point’ is can help you to filter the language of the metaphor. For example, if I were using ‘ocean’ as a metaphor, with the connection point of it being ‘open, wide, adventurous’, then I might end up with words like:
Horizon, tides, sailing, swimming, treading, lapping, splashing, breeze, open sea, navigate…
But if my connection point is the idea of it being ‘terrifying and unpredictable’, then I might prefer language that paints with that color:

crashing, rips, undercurrent, tidal wave, dumped, drowning, thrashing….

5. Spend 10 minutes exploring your topic (growing up) using language in the key of the metaphor.

Try to explore the nooks and crannies of your topic by being specific, situational and personal. You are on the lookout for unusual and unexpected ways that connect your metaphor and your topic, so go exploring!
For example:
Growing old is a church—as my grandmother grew into her last years, her body became a complex architecture of illness; its sharp edges thrusting through her veins and cells; her mind became a dusty hallway that echoed with ghosts…etc. But the building is not the belief. Her body was sick, but she was more than just the creaking doors and echoing halls. The knowledge, wisdom, and experience of her life had been transmitted out to us, her family, and I can still recite the lessons learned, like passages from a sacred text…etc

6. Build a Chorus idea, using an ‘X is Y’ statement. 

It may turn out that your ‘X is Y’ metaphor statement is not your first, primary metaphor that you started with, but something more interesting that emerged in Step 5. For example, my chorus might be built on this ‘X is Y’ idea (or in this case ‘X is NOT Y’):
She is more than creaking doors
Her life is louder than these empty halls…
A great example of this is Belief, by John Mayer. The primary metaphor of the song is something like “belief is a war,” but we never hear that statement. What we do hear are the secondary, or related, metaphors that use language ‘in the key’ of war:
Is there anyone who really recalls
Ever breaking rank at all
For something someone yelled real loud one time?
and…
Belief is a beautiful armor
But makes for the heaviest sword
Like punching underwater
You never can hit who you’re trying for
and…
[belief is] the chemical weapon
For the war that’s raging on inside

Note that these are mostly verse lyrics, but the idea can be applied to verses or choruses.

I will also write another post soon that gives a lot more detail about writing great Choruses, as well as what makes chorus lyrics and ideas different to verses. Speaking of verses…

7. Build Verse ideas.

Use your favorite ideas and imagery to construct your verses. Just remember: The key to great Direct Metaphor songs is that the metaphor is clear. We know what the metaphor is, and we know what the topic is too. Metaphor isn’t an excuse to be vague. It’s a way to be even more specific and clear about how you want to explain how something feels. So make sure that you are still being clear about what the situation is, what you’re actually talking about, and how you feel about it.
Enjoy 🙂