Every time I sit down to write music, something comes out. And, at the risk of seeming like a braggart, much of it is stuff I am proud of.
Many of you may be tempted to stop reading right there. That isn’t your experience, so how could someone who has never experienced a writing block help those who have? Well, I can’t promise this will turn you into one of Tin Pan Alley’s prolific songwriters, but perhaps I could give you an alternative method which may lend results.
Many people, when addressing this issue, compare it to assembling a jigsaw puzzle. They describe the process of fitting together the song sections, harmony and melody and so forth until the pieces complete a beautiful portrait. This metaphor is quite lacking, in my opinion. Songs don’t typically come wrapped in a box, just waiting for you to solve, revealing a preconceived composition.
Instead, a more accurate comparison would be to that of a junkyard artist.
STEP 1: Find some junk.
You see, you first have to acquisition the junk you start with. Maybe you have a vague overarching vision, or maybe you don’t. Either way, you still need to take that trip to the dump and find some good bones to get started with. This is where I believe I excel. The reason is, I’m just looking for ANYTHING of use. A nice chord progression (I love those!), a clever word combination, a killer guitar riff, a catchy melody, a theme or topic that can be further mined, – just something somewhere I may potentially be able to use. Maybe it’s a verse, a chorus, a bridge, I literally don’t care. Sometimes, I just find a guitar or synth patch that is inspiring, and let it lead me. The point is, you are dumpster diving, and nothing should be beneath you.
I rarely attempt to complete a song all at once. Perhaps not having that pressure on me helps the ideas to flow. Just look for anything useful. Once it gets out, we move onto step 2.
STEP 2: Catalog the junk.
It doesn’t matter how great that cool song idea you had last week was if you can not remember it today. And, please, spare me the, “If it was a great song, you would never forget it,” routine. For example, while you might possibly be able to recite to me the complete lyrics, melody, and chord progression from your current favorite song, you probably couldn’t have done it a few weeks after hearing it for the first and only time. You can’t even always remember where you put your keys or TV remote. Stuff gets lost. Stuff gets forgotten. Deal with it.
I have a simple method. Write crap down. Record it. Get it digitized into a folder on your computer. Make two sub folders, one with written notes, one with scratch recordings. If there are any unique musical pieces, make sure they get recorded, as well. Possibly transcribed, if you think it is necessary. Make sure it gets backed up to the cloud.
It is at this point where something wonderful happens. You have to name it something. I once considered this a curse, as I often do not know where the little nugget I had just mined is headed. Nevertheless, there is the Windows machine with its incessant blinking cursor just waiting for you to decide.
So, since you have to name it something, you have to ask yourself, what does this little piece of art bring to mind? What feelings or memories does it provoke? It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. And, you can change it later, should you wish. Again, there is no pressure or judgment here. Being relentlessly critical comes much later, if at all.
Here’s the catch. You have to do this often. Schedule time for it. Don’t dread it. Don’t limit yourself by thinking you can only write about what you know, or have personally experienced. An exciting life may make for a great movie, but a ‘boring’ life is often more enjoyable to live. Just because you’re a housewife doesn’t mean you can only write about changing diapers and making bottles, for example. (Don’t get me wrong, that could be a hit!) You can write about anything. You are permitted to create entire worlds out of thin air, just like a novelist. Working as a producer within self-made limitations can be very freeing and helpful. As a writer, though, these seem to only hinder. Get rid of them. Start things you have no idea how to finish, it’s okay.
Step 3: Revisit Your Library
At least a few times per month, play through your scratch recordings library on your computer. Refer to the written/digitized notes as you do. Don’t feel any compunction to do anything with it, you owe it nothing. Just let it soak in.
If I had to chart out percentage-wise how often I worked on Step 1, versus Step 3, it would probably be about an 80/20 split. Usually, when I sit down to write, it is to visit the ‘junkyard’ for pieces of interest like I described in Step 1. The other 20% usually happens when I get something in my head throughout the day from my library. When something that ‘soaked in’ starts growing. It is usually at this point that I pull a song out and start working on it some more. Again, I don’t put any requirements on myself to finish it, or complete a certain amount before quitting. Maybe this technique works for you to do the laundry, wash the dishes, or to exercise. What this never does for me, is prod my consciousness into a greater state of creativity.
Many times, these individual pieces will fit together in surprising ways to form a single song. Don’t be afraid to transpose the musical key of the segments around to facilitate this idea. Even though one junkyard find may have been a verse about war, and the next was a chorus about being a bus driver, it doesn’t mean they can’t work together! I never force these “marriages,” but they often occur.
I suggest a tortoise and hare approach to any creative effort. If you consistently do a fair amount everyday, your catalog and idea library will grow much faster than you could possibly adequately produce it. Perhaps you could farm out your songs to other talented performers, or group them into themed album releases. Whatever you decide to do, at this point, you are now a functioning songwriter. Congratulations! It happened. Go do something amazing with your abilities!
A Songwriter Is Like A Junkyard Artist
- No one is going to tell you when you are done.
- Lots of people won’t “get it.”
- You have to put in the time to find what you build with.
- You need to store what you find until you are ready to assemble.
- You aren’t required to have a complete vision to start.
- The skills needed to assemble are improved with practice.
- It doesn’t have to make sense to be good.
- You’re making art, that’s good enough.
Pre-order your copy of Gregory’s new CD, Almost Alive, on iTunes.