Guest Post: The Essentials of Songwriting

+ I’ll be back on Friday with a recap of the month, but for today, I’m so excited! We have our next guest post from the brilliant and super creative Andy Miller. He lives for music: listening to it, watching it, writing it, performing it. Andy is currently in multiple bands and has been rockin' the entire time I’ve known him. Today he’s giving us some insight into the world of being a rockstar:

I like to tell people that it's easy to write a song—it's just hard to write a good song. You have to master the basics of songwriting before you learn what makes a song good. If you read enough music interviews, you often find examples of instant genius—Stephen Malkmus once advised that you should stick with the first draft of a song, and Frank Black (and countless others) have written fully developed classics in ten minutes. There's something to be said for being in touch with the muses, turning down the volume of your conscious mind, and opening up to new ideas. But that's not quite what this post is about.

Here are some recommendations I have made to friends who are new to songwriting, or at least intimidated and pessimistic about it. While I'm at best a struggling Essentialist in most aspects of my life, I think that these easy tips to simplify the creative process could apply to a variety of fields.


1. Borrow what’s already there. If we're discussing popular music (rock, for example), there is an easy, common structure to most of the music in that genre. Some loyal stylists seek to replicate bands in the past; other musicians try to innovate and find new ground. Either way, you are not creating in a vacuum—use this to your advantage!

There are lots of processes that can work, but this simple one can be compared to cooking—taking a recipe you like, adding something to make it better, and taking out what you don't need. Another shorthand for this approach: Recycle Reuse Reduce!
+ Learn the basic chords to a song, any song.
+ Play the chords, but ignore the rest of the original song and put your own twist on it. Put a different drum beat behind the chords. Or start singing gibberish over it until you find your own melody or flow or catchy phrase. Rhythm and melody are the defining aspects of modern pop. With one idea (and it need not be a very good one), you are on the first step of your own path.
+ Once you've figured out a couple ideas (for example, a beat and part of a melody), you can start removing what isn't yours (though I won't tell anybody if you keep what you've borrowed).
+ Edit away. In my experience with writing, a first draft does not have to have much quality at all. You are simply assembling raw materials to be carved away, colored, or recast like a statue. It's editing and revision that make the work fit your voice and your aesthetic and political values—that make it “you.”

2. Limit your choices. Here I'm thinking specifically about “gear”. I'm not the only musician who will tell you that when I have a lot of instruments in the room, I tend not to play any of them. If you've got too many instruments, too many microphones, too many gadgets or pedals, you're giving yourself too many decisions that have nothing to do with the core of your creation. Save that stuff for after you've written the song, demo'd it, lived with it a while. If you know you're going to play your song with a band, then your collaborators can bring their own crayons to color in your lines. Stick to the musical essentials, and if you need to branch out or find your voice, then later you can cover your own song in the new style that excites you the most.

3. Embrace accidents. If the blues became known in part for guitarists playing the “wrong” notes, and Beck found fame in part through the art of the throwaway, then you, too, can learn to see what's wrong as the “new right”. Accidents fit with #1 and 2 above because they limit the stress of choices—accidents are in a sense choices that fortune has made for you. Once you live in them a while, you might grow to love them or hate them. This is one of the lovely things about current recording technology—you can save your “mistakes” and record another version.

4. Don’t replay, but revisit. If you keep plugging away at your revisions, you might get yourself stuck in a perfectionist loop. Creativity is a magnet for these tendencies in our most ambitious selves. But sometimes a song is not going to make the cut, no matter how many revisions you do. Set a time limit on how much you spend on a song in a day or in a week, or limit how many tracks and takes you can record on your demo. If you're running into a wall with your current song or project, there's nothing wrong with putting it away for now. Don't hold onto a song out of stubbornness or promise. Like a relationship, sometimes the timing or circumstances just aren't right to make it work; sometimes the best thing to do is remember what was great about it (like one lyrical phrase, or the guitar line in a chorus) and move on.

5. Focus on one audience. Whether or not you think most artists are self-absorbed, it's true that a popular conception of the Great Artist is someone who creates work for (A) the world, (B) history, or (C) him/herself. These three are each *terrible* audiences. They each encourage your own perfectionism—you can't know what the world or history truly wants, and if you're like me you will never live up to your own standards of "greatness" unless you have something concrete to compare it to.

Once you stop talking to your biggest critic (yourself), you can start talking to someone else, like the people you love and the listeners you want to reach. Maybe you have a good friend who loves Minor Threat, and you say, “I'm going to write a Minor Threat song for her”. Constrain your choices by highlighting the qualities she'd (and you'd) be looking for. If you have a hint of originality, your personality will shine through even in such a genre exercise.

+ Ignore the rules. I realize this seems to contradict much of what I've written above—maybe it falls under “Embrace Accidents”. But I am so easily and often reminded of the immortal words of David Fair, guitarist of Half-Japanese. To quote just a portion of his beautiful essay: “Even if you took a few years and learned all the chords you’d still have a limited number of options. If you ignore the chords your options are infinite and you can master guitar playing in one day.” This is a wonderful thought to help take the intimidation out of songwriting or any creative pursuit. While I do recommend limiting your creative choices as you start your songwriting practice, once you build some confidence and get out of your rut you can use rule-breaking, like accidents, as the signature from the pen of your influences, experiences, and unconscious. Perhaps once you've fully developed your own signature, you can throw out the rest of the rulebook.

++ So cool Andy, thank you!! And you can write a Minor Threat song for me any day. ;)

* First photo by Steven Anderson, second unknown.