An Indie Rebel Offers 13 or so Songwriting Suggestions

My Good Woman Thinks She's Got a No Good Man

I have been asked to write about my songwriting process.  Below are some of the things I consider as I an writing.  There are thirteen suggestions.  Take them or leave them.  For whatever it’s worth, it’s how I work.  They might or might not work for you.  Also for the record, the first song I wrote was in 1958 when I was 15.  It was one of those hummy things that never quite went away, and I still have it and sing it.  I began writing in earnest in the early ’70s.  I’m not as prolific as some who consistently write one or two songs a day, but I’ve got 180 registered with BMI, and 250 waiting for me to have the time to send them out.  so here’s how I do it.

I pay attention.  Life goes on around us all the time.  Sometimes a good song comes from some everyday connection to something else.  I once had a conversation with a friend who was dumping some stuff into a dumpster, and wrote a song about meeting Jesus rifling through a dumpster looking for old tri tips and hotdog buns.  My strong feelings find ways into songs that define that feeling in a way that is not pedantic, boring, or cliche-istic (I made that one up).

I got mad at the stupidity and avarice of my elected officials, which became “Don’t be mean, don’t be mean to your constituency…”  A woman sitting in a bar looking hopeful, becomes “She looked like a hottie, and just a little naughty, and just a little down at the heel…”  Two kids revving up their hot rod engines becomes, “Joe in the Deuce, and me in the Chevrolet.”  A friend mistreats his wife, becomes, “My good woman thinks she’s got a no good man.”

I listen up.  I try to eavesdrop as much as possible.  Other people’s thought fragments are great fodder for my songs.  Bars, cafès, sidewalks: all these are great places to farm songs.  Good songs come from everywhere, so I never let my ears rest.  Looking around is good, too.  I have developed a way of observing that sees things worth sharing.  I find a way to tell it in a song.  I rhyme it up, and often it works just fine.

I read, books, newspapers, poetry with a thought towards a song.  I read Small Town by Laurence Block and came up with, “He liked ‘em hot, and she liked ‘em caught, and tied to the posts of her bed.”  I read ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s western novels, as research for my western-style genre I call, “Horse Punk.”  “Ridin’ on a hoss like your soul is lost, Hell-bent for leather and damn the cost…”

Lying is good, too.  I never allow the truth to hold me to a mediocre song.   I embellish, embellish, embellish, and then I embroider a little.  If something happens to me that is embarrassing, or someone did or said something that was hurtful or harmful or just plain mean, and I didn’t have a comeback for it for days, then, I fantasize how I would have liked it to turn out and tell it my way in a song.  I’M THE HERO, I GET TO BE BAD, AND I KICK SOME RIGHTEOUS ASS!

I keep writing/recording stuff handy.  Note pads, recording devices, scraps of paper, pencils: never leave home without something I can write on or record into.  I have found that I can’t always trust my mind to remember that last great idea or wowie-zowie melody-line.  I need references and reminders.

I keep writing bad songs until something good shows up.  It’s called “brainstorming,” and it has a good rule—just let the ideas come and don’t judge any of them until they are all out there, then critique.  I’ll get a theme for the song:  about a breakup of a relationship, how badly someone treats someone else, a joke.  I make the theme either believable, “It’s only a word like lonely that can say just how I feel…”; or such an obviously outrageous lie that it sticks, “My wife left me, and you‘re lookin’ better that the chick I’m kissin’ now.”   I might paint a picture with words, “Placer County farmlands, oaken hills of gold; blue, blue the sky, yellow hot California sun…”

Nothing is too precious.  When I edit, I try to be brutally honest.  I don’t settle for half a good song and half a bad song.  If I have written a couple strong lines, I make the rest of the lines as strong as the first.  I try not to be in a hurry.  I have learned to wait out the process until the song is as good as it is going to get, and if I think it is good enough, I put it against other successful songs in my genre and see how they match up.

I ask myself if this is a story I want to hear a second time?  I try to be sure what I have written is actually story material.  It’s OK to come in on the middle of a situation as long as I have clues to the beginning in the song itself.  The story must not only make sense, but must grab attention.  I don’t like being bored with a dumb, stupid story, so I think bigger than life, and try to have some pity on my listeners.  Also, I believe if I think small no one will actually care about what I am saying.  Boring true shit is for a shrink.  In songs, I want excitement!

I try and write a good hook!  There’s a lot of talk about hooks, but I believe that while a song needs some sort of repeatable line or recurring word/melody-set that hooks the listener, THE SONG NEEDS TO BE ITS OWN HOOK!!!

I try out different rhyme patterns and really weird chord progressions.  The term is “prosody,” which roughly means how the words and thoughts match with the corresponding melody as they are sung together.  If they don’t work together the song is sunk.

I am not going to say much about “bridges.”  Except that I’m not sure that they are as needed as some of the experts claim.  I put them in when I feel the need, or if I have a third verse I don’t know what to do with, but I believe there is nothing wrong with a straight-on verse/chorus/verse/chorus format, so most of my songs don’t have bridges.  Hell, some don’t even have a chorus!

I hum it a couple of times and play it over and over again, and work the melody and words like potter’s clay.  I ask myself, Does it stick in my head?  Does it make me feel anything when I sing it?  Just because I wrote it doesn’t make it any good.  Not every thought, story, idea, thing I get, is worth telling anyone about.  Too many times I have gone to song writing events and had to listen to whiny, insipid, pointless material that with a little work could have been interesting and valuable and worth my time.

I try not to listen  to self-proclaimed experts and opinionated jerks like me.  Some actually know something, but it’s my song for cryin; out loud!  I have read a lot of books, and I have gone to song writing workshops and seminars.  I have submitted songs to so-called “Music Industry Professionals.”  What is clear to me is that no one has ever walked in the shoes I walk in, or on the path I have walked.  I have had songs that drove my audiences wild, panned as bad, and songs I later dumped because I couldn’t get an audience to listen, that were lauded as better than sliced white bread.  I have also had absolutely right-on-the-spot critiques that have made an almost song a song.  In the end only I am the judge of my song.  However, if my audience walks out, I have a clue.  I perform my songs, just me and my guitar, at open mics to get audience feedback.  It’s really important to get a feel for how a song is going to be heard.  I figure that if I can sell the song to an audience with no band, then it will work really well with 45-90.

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2 thoughts on “An Indie Rebel Offers 13 or so Songwriting Suggestions

  1. Hilary, you are a blogging machine, and a well tuned one, I might add. After reading several of them, and learning a little about how you think and come up with ideas, which you then put into action, especially this latest one, something has occured to me, which scares me to death. You and I have a lot in common, as far as our music is concerned. Should I seek help now, or just wait and see how things turn out?

  2. Hi Jerry, I’d wait. As Chuck Berry said, “It goes to show you never can tell.” I’m not sure what it is we may have in common, but for whatever it is, I offer my condolences. I have committed to writing a blog every Monday, and that’s what I am trying to do. Sometimes it is a little harder to do than other times, especially when I am playing. Also, if my writing does indeed make too much sense to you, I would advise seeking help with that. On a serious note, thank you for reading, and commenting, it means a lot to me, but you should know that it also encourages me–now, that’s scary! H

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