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.

 

 

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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

Songs I Love: ‘One Way Ticket’ by Busbee

My friend showed me Busbee’s album last night, and I listened to it on repeat while driving from San Diego back to LA. There are a lot of songs from this beautiful album that are both poetry and extraordinary songwriting craft. I couldn’t help myself but keep coming back to this one though.

As far as songwriting elements go, the 2 things that really stand out to me are the simplicity and beauty of the chorus/hook. He’s picked something that is an image, something evocative and personal, and used a phrase that implies so much more story than is being openly shared. To say, “he’s got a one-way ticket this time” begs so many other questions: what did he have last time? How many times has he gone away and come back? What’s different this time? What’s gonna happen?

I LOVE phrases that imply stories, and spark the imagination. My partner’s forthcoming illustrated novel is called ‘Back Already?’, which I love for the same reasons.

I also love the way the story develops. The first verse is about the character – a boy/guy who needs to find some freedom and get away from the ‘shackles’ of his mum. A classic independence story. So he’s got a one-way ticket this time.

Then the next verse is about the girl he’s presumably leaving behind. It adds a new and emotional dimension to the whole song. It’s about HIM to start with, and then it’s about THEM.

Beautiful song. Busbee is an artist, and also a really active songwriter, with cuts by Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts, and Timbaland, to name a few. It’s refreshing and inspiring to me to hear the kind of craft that goes into uber-commercial writing being applied to a personal songwriting, and reinforces the idea that some songwriting techniques work across genres. It’s all connected.

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.

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.