When I was starting to write songs about a decade ago Rosanne Cash contributed to a blog about songwriting that I enjoyed. She was on CBC’s Q today talking about writing her latest album so I thought I could pass along the knowledge I’ve accumulated in my years of writing. So if you want to learn about song writing or just want some insight into my current batch of songs here you go.
1. Write the feeling not the facts. I understand when something big happens and singer want to write a song about it; parent dies, child is born, you get dumped, etc. The things is, those songs all suck. Oooh my mom was nice and now she’s dead, oooh having a kid gave me some feelings like I want to take care of them and stuff, oh oh oh getting dumped sucked again this time. How unique, just be a Creed cover band why don’t cha. Taking a new song of mine now as counter example; After The War. I have not been shipped off to war leaving friends and fiance behind. No surprise there. But listen to the song it’s got pretty raw emotion. I’d just quit my last band and it wasn’t clear at first if it was amicable or not. So I came home drunk late, Simone was already asleep and I sat up in the livingroom and started writing the song. The underlying emotion of the song is trying to assure someone that things will be okay when there’s no way of knowing that. The war metaphor grew out of the feeling of saying good bye to friends and hoping I’d see them again.
2. Let the story take you where it wants to go. Don’t stay attached to your starting point. Pride Of My Hometown (aka the one about the boxer) started over a year before it was played live and then recorded. I wanted to write a song about kid swearing not to turn out like his criminal father then circumstances force it on him and they wind up in jail together. I worked that angle and it didn’t have any emotional resonance and I couldn’t keep it to three verses. It was frustrating but I’d just strum the chords, sing the opening, and improv lyrics. When I sang the line “I don’t care if you grow up to be nothing just don’t be nothing like me” it felt like Jenga in reverse – a mess of blocks that’s all the sudden a perfect tower. It’s a powerful song, I’ve seen people cry during it, everybody tells me it’s their favourite new song, I have to give my subconscious the credit because it’s not the song I set out to write.
3. Write big songs and little songs. Pride Of My Hometown is a big little song, it’s a big life and death story but the stripped down guitar makes it small and intimate. War Of Whiskey is a big little song, the lyrics aren’t intricate, the structure is simple and short, but when those drums kick in suddenly it’s big, and when those gang vocals come in the chorus it’s fucking huge, that song’s a two minute powerhouse. If you go back to the Richmond Road album there’s a song called Go Ahead. Chorus Verse Chorus done. I remember loading a Nine Inch Nails album in my iTunes the day I got it and sensing disappointment when all the songs were between 3:30 and 4:45. If you only have one idea of what a good song is (whether that’s long, short, fast, story telling, funny, danceable, whatever) then you’re only going to write one song. Sometimes you’ll write it better and sometimes you won’t but people will stop caring. Take inspiration from everywhere and don’t worry what you or your band’s ‘sound’ is, just write the songs. But that brings me to my last point:
4. Let things fall away. A song means a lot to you, you wrote it for your dying mother, and the audience are just being dicks? It’s probably a shit song, let it go. Leave it on a tape and when you’re super famous someone will find it and proclaim it genius but until then stop ruining open mic nights with it and write some better tunes. I often get to work on an idea and halfway through realize the song is nothing special, I finish it anyway so it’s not taking up space in my mind then shelf it. Even if a song is really good but you’ve been playing it for two years, let it go, if you don’t have better songs by now try harder. Unless you are super famous then play us the classics not just the weak new albums, c’mon.
The new songs I’m writing now I’m challenging myself to be more direct. I could get comfortable telling stories and comfort is death to an artist. What makes me uncomfortable is being straightforward, talking about myself, writing angry songs and trying to sing them after the anger has subsided.
So there’s half a tip, keep challenging yourself ’cause when you’re comfortable it’s because you’re being lazy.