Sunday, January 24, 2010

Songwriting Part 2: Write What You Like

(This is a continuation of my notes on songwriting. Click here for Part 1)

At the end of Part 1 of this series, I asked you some questions:
Ask yourself what you care about. What moves you? Motivates you? What's your obsession? That's what you need to be communicating in your music.
This challenge concisely summarizes what it is I want to say today, which is that in addition to writing what you know about, you should write what you like... that is, if you're looking for artistic satisfaction. There are plenty of formulae for writing "popular" songs, and damned if they don't work. Don Kirschner made a career out of figuring out what the public wanted and making it happen, and recent years have seen the charts flooded with with pre-fab phenoms like Britney Spears, the Back Street Boys, N-Sync, etc., etc., etc.

That's not the kind of success I'm talking about (and frankly, you wouldn't be reading this if you were looking for commercial success, because I don't have it). I'm talking about the kind of satisfaction that keeps you doing the same thing for 30 years even though you get nothing monetary in return. That I do have, and I can tell you that it's all about loving what it is you produce. You have to like your own music, and to do that you have to write music you like.

That sounds obvious as hell, but over and over I see people write to a particular style, or a particular structure when It's pretty clear their hearts aren't in it. Even if this is your job they call it playing music for a reason. I don't see that you're taking any chances at all if you write something you like, even if it's bonkers or off the wall. Here's an example:

William Shatner took 30 years of heat for his off-beat spoken-word style introduced in his 1968 album The Transformed Man, which contained such stinkers as Shatner's covers of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". But Shatner was playing to an audience of one... himself, and he stuck with it. As far as I'm concerned, his 2004 album Has Been completely vindicates the style. Rather than containing covers, in this album Shatner teamed up with Ben Folds to create fresh musical arrangements around Shatner's prose-poems. AND IT'S GREAT! I love it, especially tracks like "Ideal Woman", "You'll Have Time", "Familiar Love". and "It Hasn't Happened Yet". His cover of Pulp's "Common People" was a popular and critically acclaimed single (though I like the original tracks better).

I'm going to adapt a mantra I've previously chanted, and say that if you want anyone at all to like what it is you do, then you have to be that person. Other people will like what you like, but if you don't like it there's no guarantee that anyone will. You need to write things that you can put your heart into and be sincere about. That sincerity shows up in your work and people will respond.

William and I have written a lot of songs. Those that I consider complete are the ones that I really like, such as "The Mission" or "Like Norman" or any of the others I've put here or on YouTube. There are others that I just don't like, and I'm not going to mention what they are, except to say that you've never heard them. I don't consider any of them failures... they're just incomplete, because I don't think I've gotten the right handle on them yet. When a song isn't right I know it's pretty much entirely my fault, as I might find myself looking at a lyric I previously set aside as "unworkable" and suddenly have a flash of insight as to how it should be arranged and played. Some examples are "Mary, I Want Her" or "Just in Time". Sometimes that process takes years: the lyrics to "Just In Time" were written in 1989 and I only put acceptable music to it last week.

The end result is that most of the songs that get stuck in my head and I find myself humming idly are songs that I myself wrote. Is that a bad thing? I don't think so. I don't think it's particularly egotistical, either... it's just justification for having written the song in the first place.

The point here is, pick a style you like, topics you like, and write tunes you like. Don't bother to consider whether it's fashionable. Tomorrow's fashions will change anyway, and the only thing that's a certainty is that you'll never get ahead of them by copying other people. So do your own thing. And if your "own thing" is to perform in the style of your favorite established artist, just remember that nobody needs another Elton John... they've already got one. So use your favorite artist's style as a foundation for your own, and put enough of yourself in it that you're not a carbon-copy.

This is continued in Songwriting Part 3: Characterization

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