Friday, March 21, 2014

Strategies of Song Writing (Part 1)

I recently had coffee with a friend who works as an independent film writer and producer. During our conversation, we shared about some of the projects we’re working on and discussed the creative processes we each go through as we develop a new film or song.

It’s always interesting to me to hear how other creative people think, as everyone has his/her own way of doing things. As an example, my friend mentioned that he is often most creative after a long day on the golf course. I told him that I’m sometimes inspired by a great sermon, a life challenge, or an eye-opening interaction with a friend or family member. I then went on to explain that as a young father, I’ve had to learn to write on demand as free time comes infrequently and in short doses. I typically write late at night or while our almost two year old son, Joshua, is napping. I even occasionally record song ideas while I am driving to work in the mornings.

Recently, I’ve been trying to focus much of my creative energy on writing new songs. To date, I’ve written four new tunes, and I believe more ideas are on their way. I always enjoy the process of songwriting. However, the journey is often filled with challenges.

Selecting a Song
One of the first songs I ever wrote was a rap called “Prehistoric Skater.” The song was about a caveman who liked to skateboard. I wrote the song in eighth grade, and it debuted in 1991 on my first cassette album called “Initial Cut.” I didn’t have much life experience at the time so many of my songs were birthed through sheer imagination. If I needed a song, I would just make something up.

I'm now more particular when selecting song topics. To begin, I try to write about subjects I am passionate about. If a topic turns me into an emotional mess and/or gets my blood boiling, I mark it as an idea worth exploring. Next, I begin fleshing out the song using a rough outline. I categorize thoughts and potential lines into song sections. Some thoughts may fit better in the first verse while others may work better in the chorus, second verse or bridge. I usually try to identify a single line or set of lines that sum up the entire message I’m trying to communicate. I then attempt to create the chorus of the song while singing and playing chords on the piano. Sometimes, I already know the title of the song and try to build the chorus around the name of the song. Other times, I decide on a title after I have created the chorus.

If I can’t come up with a compelling chorus, I usually scrap the song altogether or put it on the backburner and start working on another song. If I find that I don’t have enough content to write a complete song, I either toss the song out or work some of the song ideas into part of another song. There have also been times when I’ve written something that needs to be toned down as the ideas expressed are too harsh, too direct or too controversial. At times, I’ve softened the emphasis of the message by rewording questionable lines and/or moving them from the chorus to a verse or bridge of the same song or another song.

Sitting With a Song
I am by no means a patient person. I can’t stand traffic, I get anxious when someone doesn’t return my email within twenty-four hours, and I don’t like waiting for song ideas. There have been times when I’ve written 95% of a song within a couple hours, only to then wait for days or months for the remaining 5%. The lyrics might sound perfect with the exception of one line or even one word. Through the years, I’ve learned not to rush the creative process (unless I’m up against a hard deadline). I’ve often found that stepping away from a song actually helps in the creative process. It’s usually more beneficial to get some good sleep compared to staying up all night in attempt to nail down that one missing line. The anticipation is uncomfortable, but a good song is worth the wait.

Structuring a Song
I am a creature of habit. I usually get Ravioli Di Portobello when we go to the Olive Garden and I often wear blue, grey or black. Sometimes, I just do things a certain way because I’ve always done them that way. The same goes for song writing. Often, I start melodies on the same beat or I place the bridge right after the second chorus. I continue to learn the importance of breaking my own creative habits.

Predictability can be uninteresting, but too much fluctuation can leave the listener longing for something familiar. A song that changes key, tempo and time signature every measure may be a bit overwhelming, but occasional and tasteful variation can bring freshness to otherwise boring music. A forward-thinking musician should avoid the coast of autopilot. He/she should always be aware of his/her surroundings and his/her creative go-tos. Breaking one’s habits takes knowing one’s habits.

Synchronizing Songs
Most of my albums have begun with a single compelling song. This one song usually inspires me to write more songs. After two to three songs, I usually start to see connecting themes between the songs, and from there on out, I try to further separate songs through specific themes, all the way attempting to draw parallels between song ideas. For me, it’s a creative connect-the-dots where the picture is an over-arching lesson God is trying to teach me and the dots (songs) are specific areas in which I’m learning those lessons.

Up Next… “Spiritualizing Songs – Is it necessary for the Christian musician to write songs with spiritual principles?