To most of us, songwriting can seem like a fragile art. There are times when ideas surge and the unforgiving force of a song is relentless. But once that tide ebbs, we’re left with nothing but a mind filled with panic. In these troubling times, I too have searched the internet for answers. My efforts usually lead me to blogs that give the same useless responses:
Blog: “Don’t tell what’s going on, show it.”
Me: “Yeah, I know that.”
Blog: “Try writing away from your instrument.”
Me: “Yeah, everyone has suggested that. I get it.”
Blog: “Writing is fun! Find the fun in writing!”
Me: “Well, I can’t because your blog is pissing me off too much.”
These responses don’t have any weight! We want weight! We’re writer’s, we’re artists, our whole life is in search of weight. Weight in words, in music, in emotion. Where’s the weight?!?
In his masterful Hearts and Bones, Paul Simon describes the journey of a divorce in such heavy metaphor as:
“mountain passes slipping into stone”
There’s the weight. So heavy you can hardly handle it. So heavy that you heart slams to the floor once those words hit you.
So how do we get there? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. Songwriting has no right or wrong formula, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here and tell you otherwise.
However, being a songwriter for most of my life, I do feel confident enough to hand out a few pointers for you to try. Pointers that have all, without a doubt, helped me.
So I encourage you to dive in and see where they take you. You might find that you’ll get your weight giving abilities back.
1) Being a songwriter is the same as being an instrumentalist – start working like one.
What do musicians do? They work on their technique, they transcribe other music, they work on their improvisation. How does that crossover to songwriting?
Technique: Analyze other music
It’s always a worthy reminder that you can’t write what you don’t already know.
Try analyzing the following:
- Chord progressions from your favorite songs.
- Melody from the masters. Is the melody moving or is it stagnate? Does it land on chord tones or tensions? If it’s stagnating, why is it still interesting?
- Rhythm. How fast are the chords moving?
- Lyrics. Why are they moving you? What are they doing and how are they doing it? How are the words stressed? If you don’t know about stressing words, you should! Go buy A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver.
Transcribing: Learn other songs that inspire you
By learning lines and melodies, instrumentalists learn to increase their vocabulary, giving them the ability to play on demand in any situation.
The same goes for writing, you can’t write what you don’t already know. Learn songs and memorize them, and really learn them like they’re your own. Make them part of who you are.
Jim Campilongo, one of the greats of the modern guitar world says
“A musician is only as good as how many songs she/he knows”
…the same goes for writing.
Improvisational work: Free write for 5 – 10 minutes a day
- Free writing
- Object writing
- Observation writing
Get improvisational writing going on a daily basis to remind your brain that you are a writer. That way you start thinking like a writer and start seeing everyday things as a writer.
2) Are you reading enough?
If the answer is ‘yes’ and you’re still blocked, are you reading good writing? Daily reading from the best authors and poets is a great way to fill your subconscious with ideas.
3) When all else fails… steal.
Here’s an idea that has worked for me (and John Lennon) before. I’m sure most of you know the song Because by The Beatles was inspired by John Lennon asking Yoko to play Beethoven’s masterpiece Moonlight Sonata backward.
Or get creative with your stealing. Try stealing one idea from one song, another from another song, and another idea from another song. You might be surprised at what you get.
It’s no secret that most writers run from writing as much as they can. We do it because it’s hard, it’s scary, and it’s a vulnerable place to be in. However…
…writing is a muscle, and the more you run from it, the weaker it gets.
If you’re blocked, write anyway. Try and work through it. Write a terrible song. Or write a 30-second song, something that seems more manageable. Grow your writing muscle. The stronger the muscle, the more weight you can pass on to your listener. And that’s what it’s all about people …weight.