Finding Your Private Brill Building

A guitar student of mine recently decided he wanted to get into songwriting for the first time.  Having dabbled in it just a little bit, his first questions had to do with where to start.  I have long since forgotten exactly what my process was (I was only 12!), but I do remember what caused me to sit down and write.  I couldn’t really play very many chords, meaning I couldn’t play the songs I wanted to, so instead I decided to make up my own.  It came naturally in that I didn’t spend too much time worrying about how it was coming out.  I hadn’t yet developed an “inner critic” or a sense of having to get “somewhere” in terms of a finished product.

Brill Building
The Brill Building in New York

And that is a really important point to remember.  If you’re reading this article and you’re only just starting out, try not to read or think too much!  You don’t write by reading about writing, you write by writing.  It might take you a minute to get your head around that line, but essentially if you start loading your brain up on HOW to write, you may actually impede the process.

So I’m not going to tell you how to write in this article, I’m going to give you some ideas to get you in the mood to write.  If you’re 14 years old, outside of school and homework and maybe some chores around the house, you’ve got lots of time to fiddle around with writing.  If you’re 42, you probably don’t.  Many songwriters will express the idea of only writing when the inspiration hits them (yes, and I’ve said that too!), however, it’s not always practical to jump out of your chair at work or out of bed in the middle of the night when inspiration hits and start writing.  But you can write it down and work on it later.

So an important tool is one where you can keep your ideas in tact until you are ready to work with them.  If you have a smart phone, you can use the handy voice recorder or notepad to do just that.  If you don’t, just a small memo pad or a micro-cassette or mp3 recorder will do the trick.  Carry any of those tools around with you and it doesn’t matter where you are, once you have a minute you can take note.

And yes, inspiration can hit at any moment and not always convenient ones.  You may find that when you’re not working on songs, you’re subconsciously thinking about songs, and this seems to trigger the mind (or wherever you think it comes from) to work in the background while you are doing other things.    In fact, I’ve heard of many people who get ideas while they are driving or gardening, or even when they’re trying to solve problems at work.

Otherwise, it can help to set aside a time to do nothing but write.  Most people need a quiet place to do this, away from any distractions like TV’s or computers or phones.  I remember hearing about a guy named Doug Bennett who used to front a local band called Doug and the Slugs.  When it was time to come up with tunes for the next record, he used to get a hotel room and a bottle of hard liquor and spend a weekend doing nothing but drinking and writing.  I don’t necessarily advise the bottle of booze :-), but if you have a place you can get away to, that’s good too.

Artists and bands will often take a period of time out to do nothing but write for their next recording.  Most of us who have day jobs can’t quite afford to do that, but if you could, where would you go to do it?  Other performers tend to write when they’re on the road because there are a lot of boring hours spent in hotel rooms or in buses in between gigs, but also because being away from family and loved ones drives that emotional charge to write.  How many songs that you know are about different places, cities, and being apart from someone?   If you are trying to write and having trouble, take a drive or a bike ride somewhere and then stop and sit down and just be in that place for awhile.  Hopefully you’ll have your hook book or your smart phone with you if something hits.

A lot of writers like to spend the same time of day working at it, the idea being that your creativity has a time and place to bring itself out.  Paul Simon used to go to his “office” in the Brill Building in New York, and spend the day working on his songs, just as if it were an every day job.  If you can, get up and hour earlier in the morning and spend some time just writing out your stream of consciousness.  Or do it at night when you have time to sit down and let the day go on a piece of paper.   This helps with articulating thoughts and feelings in pen and ink (or on your laptop) and quite often little phrases or ideas will spring from that.  Even if you don’t write, just sit there and be patient.  Eventually something will work its way through.

Most of these suggestions are from a lyrical stand point, although you might find yourself with a melody in your head and end up humming it into your mp3 player or whatever recording device you have.  But getting some music happening, whether it’s a chord progression on your guitar or a melody on your piano, takes the same kind of mixture of discipline and patience.   Sit with your instrument and “noodle”.  If nothing is coming, then put your instrument away and try humming.  Close your eyes and lay your head back and hum, without any thought to what it is or if it is any good.  You might also try a new instrument, something you haven’t played before.  If you’re handy with all things audio, you might find a drum loop or other type of audio loop (just do a Google search for “free loops” and you’ll find all kinds of them!) and see if it inspires anything.  You don’t have to keep that as part of the song in the end, but you might!  Sometimes hearing different rhythms or sounds can get the creative juices flowing.

Many songwriters find inspiration in reading or in listening to music, but if you’re just starting out you might want to stay away from those sources at first so that you don’t just repeat what you’re reading or hearing.  Later on when you’ve developed your own songwriting “voice”, you can use these methods more effectively.

I’m sure many of you have your own ideas as to how to begin the process of writing songs, so please feel free to share them here!

IJ

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One thoughtful comment

  1. For me, I’ve lately done most of my songwriting in February. The reason has to do with the songwriting challenge February Album Writing Month (FAWM). The challenge is to write 14 “songs” (fairly loosely defined but you’re challenging yourself really) in 28 days. Somehow participating in an online community with other folks who are working toward the same goal improves my motivation. Also, it happens to be a month where there tends to be fewer outside distractions if you’re in the Northern latitudes. See the FAqs if you’re curious.

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