Ah but what to write?
If you have the luxury of not being a nine-to-five Nashville songwriter (Whew! wipe your forehead, that was close!) have some more ice tea! A song idea will come along sooner or later. As a songwriter you are faced with not only a blank page but also a blank musical staff.
Maybe you want to get back at an old love who did you wrong, or how about some loving lyrics for the new love doing you right? Ok, which one do you know the most about? The old love? You should be able to dig up a wealth of material: adjectives, metaphors, etc. that is based in fact. The new love is filled with mystery. That can lead to a wealth of dreamy, sappy sweet things to write.
Oops did I change your mind? The main thing is to create a pile of related words, images, musical ideas, phrases, things you heard somebody say, a television program, the label on a bottle of beer, some of which will come in handy when writing the words and music. Keep these within easy reach. Maybe label a page “Old Love Licks,” kind of a double meaning I guess, but heck it’s a starting place for the song title. Keep a notebook or a recording device around so that you can quickly record any idea, no matter what it is or where you are.
How long does it take to write a song?
You may write a song in a half an hour or a couple of verses could be written and ten years later you get a great idea for the final verse. The Nashville songwriter is under a contract to complete songs and brainstorming abounds. Other writers could be called in if the song looks promising. That’s a real job. If you want your song completed without delay try setting a deadline for yourself. Maybe you can dig deep creatively and finish the song by the deadline. If you don’t have that brilliant opening verse put any of those words or phrases you have in the pile and try to make sense of them and put to rhyme. The problem of the “blank canvas” is cleared when you start putting things on the paper and start formulating an idea or a rhyme scheme.
Once you start writing lyrics it is important to think in terms of many drafts. Don’t get stuck on the first thing you write; continue to refine it but also keep the earlier drafts as you may end up going back and liking those better. Ask honest opinions from other musicians, songwriters, or anyone you think can recognize a good song when they hear it. In the old television show American Bandstand, teens on the program were asked to rate a new song. One of the favorite responses was “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” This is a good way to rate your own song. If it’s got a good beat or rhythm in the lyrics, if it makes you tap your feet or want to dance, you’re on your way.
Music is another problem. There are some songwriters that are not good at coming up with a melody. They form partnerships with someone who thinks musically, i.e., “Here are my lyrics. Come up with the melody.” If you can conjure up music on the fly that fits your lyrics remember not to get tied to one melody. As with lyrics, you should have musical drafts. Try varying the melody as an up-tempo or slow song, bluesy or bluegrassy style; maybe a waltz would be nice. Try changing a chord here and there to inspire changes in the melody or the actual mood of the song.
There is an art to songwriting but it is also a craft, one that you will get better at through practice and study. Take a look at the structure of some of your favorite songs and try to figure out what is so good about them. I will talk about other aspects of songwriting in future articles but I hope this gives you a starting point.
About Doug Mathewson:
As a musician Doug’s first instrument was drums. He participated in high school marching band, school band and in the orchestra he played tympani. He had a Dixieland band in junior high and a modern jazz group in high school playing with the soon to be great jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock. Around age 18 he started singing and playing the guitar. He had grown up listening to big band and country particularly on many trips to his mother’s family in Arkansas and Texas. He has had several country bands where he did the lead singing and rhythm guitar. In 2006 he took up the dobro playing leads for the first time. In 2009 he added mandolin. Songwriting became pre-eminent in the ’60s and remains a favorite form of expression.