Saturday, April 22, 2023

How am I going to write just one song?

In my late 20s and 30s, I got pretty prolific as a songwriter. Lately I’ve had an unbelievably empty tank.

So it seemed like a good idea to finally pick up my copy of Jeff Tweedy’s How to Write One Song. I especially like chapter three, titled “Obstacles.” He starts off alluding to dreams, which, if written down soon after waking up, or even in the middle of the night, could provide source material. That made me think of a guy I recently played tennis (who also unfortunately made it into my subsequent dreams) who was way in over his head and in the totally wrong session based on his skill level. His tennis etiquette was the most horrible thing about him, so I started thinking about what kind of music would fit a song about tennis etiquette. For me, that always seems to be the tricky part for me; the words usually come easy.

Tweedy (the leader of one of my favorite bands Wilco) focuses on finding something in the day that isn’t totally necessary. For me, did I have to watch 90 minutes of the Beatles documentary Get Back? Tweedy recommends that replacing even three minutes of that time (the amount of time of a typical pop song) with banging on a guitar and screaming my head off (there, I’ve written a song) is acceptable and will make me feel better than watching three minutes of that movie.

Some of his good advice is that, once you start writing, if you are a little uncomfortable with and embarrassed by the words as you sing them, you are on the right track. Maybe that’s why so many people find that writing a song is difficult, because it is a little bit of a soul searching process, I’ve always found.

It's crucial to get into some kind of habit of writing songs, so make sure to write for 15 or 30 minutes every day, perhaps recording ideas or writing lyrics on a phone. Tweedy even records sounds, like birds chirping, that he would want to hear again and could be turned into something musical.

Try practicing harder guitar parts or progressions late at night while you’re still learning them, then wake up in the morning and play them again. You’ll often find them to be much easier to play in the morning.

Staying in good health is important. At the very least, “If you want to write a song, go for a walk.” I do try to capture snippets of song ideas I get while walking the dog, but I could still stand to do it more often.

It’s definitely ok to fail in writing songs, but the one thing that’s important to try to achieve - in order to achieve success - is finding the truth, or some truth, within the songwriting. Good comedy finds it. These truths can be often invisible in day-to-day activities but found when searching deeper, while sitting and thinking and turning that thinking into words on the page.

Pretend writing a song is just like when you were a kid and you sat on the floor drawing with crayons. You would be proud of your work when done because it was yours and so would your mom and she would hang it on the refrigerator even if it actually wasn't very good. It should work that same way for writing songs as an adult.

When Tweety begins writing about the ultimate question of "the lyrics or the music first," I came up with the idea to figure out what I want to write a song about and then jot down a list of words that would fit in well with a song about that subject. From there I can start working on the words and the music and the lyrics will stay on point towards telling the story I want to tell.

Tweedy will often “steal words from books.” If he has a melody in his head, he’ll grab any old book, open to a random page, and just start scanning for interesting words like catastrophe and hummingbird. He’ll then highlight those and other words before stringing an interesting story of his own out of those words.

He’s also not a big fan of overusing adjectives, prefers what I would call a more Hemingwayian directness in descriptions, such as “I was scared of the big guy behind the counter” or “I was drunk during the day.”

I love Tweedy’s idea of using our conversations (we do them all the time!) as inspiration for songs. I just gave a presentation to my work colleagues. Why not turn that into a song? Even better is his idea to have someone you can speak with at ease ask you about how your life is going. Record it or transcribe what you’ve said afterwards.

Don’t be yourself! I love this bit of advice. When Tweedy was having a bit of a crisis in trying to sing from his own perspective - or, as Woody Guthrie said, “write what you know” - back in the days of his band Uncle Tupelo, he realized most of the kids books he was reading were told from an animal or some other perspective. That allowed him to actually open up and be more emotional in his lyrics. What might the clock on the wall be thinking? Or a vacuum cleaner? Or Chaka Khan?

Experiment with things that are going to start with you not knowing what will happen. For instance, if you’re tired of putting your fingers in the same places, try messing with the tuning of your guitar so that you can get to some weird, distorted places you wouldn’t have thought about. It’s often easy from there to transpose the weird thing you’ve written back into something that is regularly tuned.

Steal! It would be ridiculous not to. Obviously give credit if credit is due, otherwise reappropriate chord progressions, use samples because they can be so cool, and insert your words into other people's created melodies.

For recording song ideas, Tweedy offers some very good tips, especially in light of how digital recording (unlike jamboxes and other methods of old) can be very unforgiving and often make people ultra conscious of how they may or may not like the sounds coming out of themselves. Record in the bathroom, where reverb works nicely and naturally on voices and guitars. Place your phone or microphone at the right spot between guitar and vocals and have it far enough from vocals that the room atmosphere will cushion some of the digital vocals. This one won’t be hard for me: try to focus on the song rather than all the effects and digital tech tricks you can play with.

Calling it writer’s “block” is giving the term too much weight and should be thought of more like a roadblock, hurdle, or challenge. You can try different tricks to get past or around block, such as playing the chords of a verse backwards to see if it works better, putting a great chorus first instead of in the middle, and making sure your best lyric is always the first line in the song. 

But at some point you have to just finish the song without giving up because giving up becomes a habit you don’t want to have.

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