Keith Munslow and I drove down to New York last week to be on the radio with Mindy Thomas (well, okay, she was in Washington, and we were in New York). On the way we talked about songwriting and made a list of things we’ve learned over the years. It’s not complete at all, and in no particular order, but here are a few.
1. Do it any way you can – like my mom used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat”, and I’ll use any approach that might work. Someone speaks a line that sounds good, or has a deeper significance, and that might be what the song is built on. My song “I Wanna Play” came from an insistent third grader who wanted in on the playground game. Or not a spoken line, but an idea you want to talk about or story you want to tell. Or a melodic line – some little bit of melody you find yourself humming. Or just a rhythm track. Paul Simon said that with “Graceland” he approached songwriting in a completely different way than he ever had, using rhythms instead of melody or chord progressions. I figure a good songwriter has all those tricks in his/her bag.
2. Carry a notebook, because you’ll forget.
3.For Pete’s sake, don’t edit yourself before you’ve started. Tell the little voice in you that says you’re an idiot to go away while working on the song. Yes, your idea is a stupid one. So what? The heart of creativity is about wandering around in a non-juried space where you’re allowed to make connections or leaps of logic that don’t apparently make sense. If your critical mind is hanging around when you start, you’ll never get started. Tell it to shut up.
4. Create more than you think you’ll need – you can edit later. I usually write seven or eight verses of a song, then come back to three or four, sometimes combining. I read somewhere Dylan would write way too many verses, because he couldn’t help himself. So volume counts. And then….
5. Editing does have a place, and like they say, you’ll have to kill your babies. I often have a verse or phrase that I absolutely love, but it doesn’t fit in with the song. If I keep it it’s just an indulgence.
6.A lot of creative work gets done when you’re doing something else – approaching something obliquely often opens up a new avenue (again, the small minded internal critic isn’t paying attention). My friend Jon Campbell, a great songwriter, says he keeps the radio off in his car and makes up a lot of songs while he’s driving. He figures out the chords later. Folding laundry. Walking the dog. And of course, the shower, where I am often a genius, if I can remember what I was thinking when I get out.
7. The rhythm of a line is at least as important as any rhyming going on. When I work with songwriters, I often find them struggling with the line scanning – and it HAS to scan well, so it can sing well. Alliteration helps with making a good line to sing, too. So don’t ignore the awkward phrase that’s hard to get out of your mouth – you’ve got to fix it.
8. Stand on someone else’s shoulders. All songwriters refer back to other songs and songwriters in their work. Like Woody Guthrie said, “He stole from me, I stole from everyone.” And Elvis Costello, one of our best, regularly cops styles, hooks, and rhythms from other people’s songs. So try on someone else’s hat. I went to see Ray Davies last month in Chicago, and I was very struck by his chameleon-like abilities as a songwriter – this is a Stones song, this is a Beatles song, this song borrows from Brian Wilson, this is a disco song. Of course, they’re all his songs. One of my better moments as a songwriter was taking a lando rhythm from Afro-Peruvian music and wedding it to a chord progression from Marshall Crenshaw. The lyrics made it a list song, something I learned from Gershwin and Porter – “Everything is Music” is mine, but I used everything I had.
Just a bunch of ideas – what are yours?