My exposure to new songs often comes from my guitar students requesting them for their lessons. And that was how I first heard Adele’s song “Rolling In The Deep” which is off her latest album “21”. Listen to clips and/or purchase here:
I first wanted to understand the phrase “rolling in the deep” so I did some research online to see if that might be an idiom or local expression, perhaps in the UK where Adele is from. What I found was a reference in Rolling Stone from an interview where she describes what she meant by it:
…what do I do?? I see this question often on message boards and blogs all over the web. If you’re one of those out there asking this question, then let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start ;-)).
First of all, you might want to begin with an instrument like a piano or guitar. The majority of songs are written on either of these two instruments, so if you know a few chords, you’re already ahead of the game! Sit down and play around with a few progressions (a series of chords) and see what you can come up with. Don’t worry about writing a WHOLE song, just see if you can find a nice chord progression that pleases your ear, and then try humming something on top of it. Again, don’t worry about where it’s going to go or what it means or if it’s any good! The most important thing is to start the process. The “finessing” comes later. I’ll get back to the music part in a minute.
Some songwriters like to begin by writing down some lyrics. If you decide to start this way and then find yourself sitting there for an hour in front of a blank page, then don’t push it. It’s more handy to keep a pad of paper and a pen with you wherever you go, and/or a digital voice recorder (even smart phones come equipped with audio recording capabilities these days!). That way, when a line or phrase comes to you, you can write it down or record it for use later. However, you might find yourself writing lyrics at your first sitting. It’s REALLY important not to judge what you’re writing too much at the start, so if there is something there, let it flow out of you without editing yourself. The editing comes later!
Another question that comes up all the time is “what should I write about?”. The truth is you have a whole lifetime of experiences to write from, so that’s a good place to get some ideas. I’ve written two articles that relate to songwriting topics, one called the Songwriting Topics Poll and another called Nothing To Write About?, which is a little exercise to help you come up with some ideas.
Ideas are everywhere if you’re looking for them. You might hear a bit of conversation from someone, or read a line in a book that just jumps out at you. You might have had a particularly interesting experience, or just want to express your own view of something. Once you start getting some ideas out, you might start thinking about different parts, like putting in a chorus or a bridge. I’ve got an article called Song Forms And Terms that is a quick study on what these are and what their purpose is. In more in depth articles, I tell you more about the chorus in Don’t Bore Us, Get To The Chorus and the verse in The Verse’s Purpose, and even about The Bridge. Understanding the different parts of a song will help you to shape it and make it work.
If you are trying to create a melody for your song and struggling somewhat, I have an article on The Magic of Melody and another article on Putting Music to Lyrics which might help you if you’ve written lyrics, but don’t know where to do from there. The fact is that there are many, many articles on this site, but just start with the ones I have given you, and later on you might find the need to read some others!
A lot of people find it easy to start a song but not so easy to finish it. This is going to happen from time to time, so don’t worry if you lose steam part way through. Put it away and look at it again later. That is not to say that you can’t “finish” a song in one sitting, that happens too. Maybe you’re just chomping at the bit to write something and it all comes spilling out in one session. It’s exhilarating when this happens, so bask in the glow of your new found creative self! Then walk away from it for awhile and come back to it again. That’s why I put quotations around the word “finish” because there is no such thing as a song coming out perfect the first time. Unless you are Beethoven or some other musical genius (I know, I know…SURE you are :-)), the real work is going to come when you sit down and revisit and revise it.
Why would you bother? Because this, my new songwriting friend, is the mark of a good songwriter! A great painter doesn’t just slop some paint on a canvas and consider it done. There are always little spots that need re-doing, little touch ups that have do be tended to. So once you have complete song, teach yourself early to look for and fix the “bits” that don’t work. And that is for another blog!
I was recently contacted by a songwriter who had himself contacted an online Nashville-based company after he saw an ad for them on a music website. When I checked it out, I saw that this company’s website was pretty straight-forward: “We find songs for…” and then it proceeded to list a whole bunch of big name country artists. So they were either a song publisher or song plugging company. Below the long list of artists, there were three buttons. The first button was supposed to be a FAQ, but the questions represented weren’t anything like “who we are and what we do”. No, instead they included questions like “Do my words need to be perfect when I send them to you?” , “How long should my song be?” and “Do I need to copyright my songs before I send them to you?”. All of their answers to these questions raised red flags for me.
The first question was “Do my words need to be perfect when I send them to you?”…any legitimate song publisher or songplugger WANTS A “PERFECT” SONG to pitch. They don’t want to listen through a bunch of mediocre songs…which is why it is so hard to get that publishing deal in the first place. Most song publishers listen to about the first :10 or :15 seconds of a song before they decide to turn it off or not. But what did this company’s website say? “No. All songs start with a good idea and that’s all we need.” Right away, this should tell you that they are taking anything that gets sent their way. Why? I’ll get to that in a minute.
Second question: “How long should my song be?” Now, that’s a rather odd question to put in a FAQ, but nevertheless, they have an answer for that one too! Their answer is: “A commercial song…usually has about 24 lines, but may vary.” This reminds me of an old scam artist/self-proclaimed “hit” writer that I came across a number of years ago on the web. He actually had it calculated down to the number of syllables in a line! If you have this many syllables, your song could be a hit! But all you have to do is check out a bunch of hit songs from anywhere, anytime, to see that numbers of lines and syllables is NOT the most important aspect of being a “hit”, nor is a certain number of them a prerequisite. Another red flag.
Third question: “Do I need to copyright my songs before I send them to you?” Their answer? No. That was the biggest red flag for me. Now, practically speaking, a lot of pro writers do not copyright their songs until they get picked up by an artist. But they know who they’re dealing with, and they already have a name for themselves. They are not you, the first time songwriter trying to get your songs to a publisher. Technically, a copyright ‘exists’ when you finish writing a song. You always put the copyright symbol on anything you send out. And if you are really hot on that song, you register a legal copyright first before sending it anywhere. No question.
Okay, let’s get back to that Nashville company website. Remember I told you that I’d explain why they would take anything that is sent to them? Well, this will tell you. The next button says “Read what songwriters are saying about [us].” I read all of the quotes and every one of them was about the recording of the songwriter’s song. For example: “Thank you for making a great recording of my song. You are special people who make a difference.” None of the quotes had anything to do with getting a song placed, pitching it to artists or getting on the radio, or anything else. All they want is for you to pay them money to record your song.
When the songwriter who contacted me sent me a copy of the contract, my suspicions were confirmed. This was all about paying money to get a song recorded. And not only that, but you get a bonus of $30,000 when you get a number 1 hit! Wow, so now, let me see…somehow getting a recording of your song done by them, which you pay them for, could be a number 1 hit?? How might that happen? That’s the other ‘service’ they provide…they’ll send your song to a bunch of radio stations on a compilation CD! That’s how it will become a hit. It’s just that you have to pay for being on the compilation CD too. Oh well, chump change compared to that $30,000 you’re going to make, right? They’re going to send it out to hundreds of radio stations! But here’s the twist: most radio stations pay absolutely no attention to these compilation CDs. The only CDs they will listen to come from legitimate and big name record labels. I know…I worked at a radio station. The CD your song is on gets filed under “G” for garbage.
The ‘contract’ that was sent to this songwriter was, in fact, a glorified invoice. Please pay us $500+ dollars. Oh, and your song could be a hit.
Don’t feel stupid if this has happened to you or if it does in the future. It has happened to many, many songwriters over the years. Heck, I still get an annual post card from a “big time” producer, gushing about my song (and he always gets the title wrong) and how he can make it a big hit for me down in Nashville. I’ve received a post card every year for about ten years, and that’s not exaggerating. I probably sent the song out there to a few places years ago and that’s how he got my address. I laugh, but then I wonder how many others he does this to every year, and how many of them fall for it just because they really believe in their songs and want it to be true.
These guys are nothing but scam artists pulling at your heartstrings.
If you have any questions about any publishers or song pluggers, send them to me. I am not a lawyer so if you get a big, long contract with a bunch of legalize in it, I won’t be able to decipher it much more than you will. However, if it’s anything like the contract this songwriter sent me to look at, I can tell you right away if it’s a scam or not!
In the meantime, be careful out there.
PS…I occasionally receive emails from so-called song pluggers or people who want to collaborate and who claim they have written hits for certain artists, etc. I usually research them first to see if they are legitimate by simply searching for their names in the ASCAP and BMI databases (or check with the PRO from whatever country they reside in). If I can’t find their names registered anywhere, I’ll simply reply to their email and ask them what name they register their songs under. If they are legitimate, they’ll tell you, if they don’t answer back, you’ve learned that either they are scammers or that they are not willing to share their info, which makes them highly suspicious. As I always say, arm yourself with knowledge! ~ IJ
I know…who cares what my favourite all time songs are? Well, to tell you the truth, I saw somebody else do a similar list so I decided why not me? The interesting thing about going through my lists and lists of songs was in realizing how each one represented a different time in my life, but they also reflect how my tastes changed. As a songwriter, you realize the value of writing something that will stick with your listeners, and I decided to evaluate each one for that special something that made me shiver.
The first in my list had to be the very first song I fell in love with, “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe. Go ahead, laugh :-). Dizzy became a huge hit for Tommy in 1969, so that means I was 12 years old when I first heard it. It so happened that I picked up a guitar for the first time at the same age, and I was exposed to this new and crazy thing called radio around about then too! You can listen to the song first, if you like, and then I’ll tell you what that special something was in this song for me:
The chorus modulating in the second line was the little musical bit that was, at that time, magic to my ears. And the idea of being dizzy with infatuation was also pretty appealing. What can I say? I was 12.
The next song is probably on a lot of songwriter’s lists simply because it was written by songwriting guru Jimmy Webb. Glen Campbell had a hit with “Witchita Lineman” in 1968, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear it until later than that. Other artists have also covered this song, including one of my favourites, James Taylor. When I saw JT live here in Victoria a couple of years back, I nearly fell off my chair when he performed this song! Here is Glen Campbell’s version:
There are a gazillion things I love about this song. The Glen Campbell version was pretty 60’s-sounding with its string section prominently coming in at the beginning and throughout the recording. And of course, there was Glen’s little guitar riff at the beginning, and his solo half way through mirroring the melody is just magic. His voice was beautiful and plaintive, perfect for the subject of this song. An interesting thing about this song is that it has no chorus, but a repeated phrase or refrain “and the Witchita Lineman is still on the line.” The chord changes are gorgeous and unpredictable, especially in the 3rd line of the verses when, having come from a Gm7 in the previous, it changes to Dm7, Am7 and then comes back to a G major. That’s the part that gives me shivers.
Listening again to James Taylor’s version gives it a whole new feel. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of James, and his voice, again, is just perfect for this song.
And speaking of James…
I have to add a James Taylor song, and there are so many obvious ones, so rather than being predictable I’m going to introduce you to a song from his 1997 album called “Hourglass“. James’ brother Alex died in 1993 and this song is really about him. I read an interview with James about this song, and he said that he decided to change the character to a female “Alice” and give his personal connection to it a little distance. Here is “Enough To Be On Your Way“:
Here’s the first verse:
The sun shines on this funeral
The same as on a birth
The way it shines on everything
That happens here on earth
It rolls across the western sky
And back into the sea
And spends the day’s last rays
Upon this fucked up family
So long old gal
The 2nd to last line made me laugh out loud when I first heard it. Don’t we all have f***ed up families? The song itself is a kind of sentimental send off to a real character by the name of Alice.
The last time I saw Alice
She was leaving Santa Fe
With a bunch of round-eyed Buddhists
In a killer Chevrolet
Said they turned her out of Texas
Yeah she burned `em down back home
Now she`s wild with expectation
On the edge of the unknown
Nobody can write like James Taylor, and this whole song gave me shivers, but the chorus does it especially:
Oh it`s enough to be on your way
It`s enough just to cover ground
It`s enough to be moving on
Home, build it behind your eyes
Carry it in your heart
Safe among your own
The kicker is the phrase “so long old gal” . I want this song played at MY funeral!
My all time favourite Steely Dan song is Deacon Blues. All of their songs all have a sophisticated jazz style of music married with irreverent lyrics, but the lyrics in Deacon Blues somehow seem more personal. Maybe I’m wrong…who knows what Donald Fagen was thinking when he wrote it…I’m sure I don’t! For me personally, this is a perfect example of how I stamped my own meaning on a song lyric. Somewhere between the music and lyrics, I found something of myself, even though I know it has nothing at all to do with me. And that is the “shiver” quality that I get from Deacon Blues:
I can throw a CD (or iPod) full of Steely Dan songs in the car and drive for hours.
I have to include a Joni Mitchell song and again, there are so many to choose from. “Court and Spark” was the first album of Joni’s that I purchased and I loved every track on it. And what I ended up picking here was a song of hers that was released commercially, “Help Me“. Joni was one of those rare writers who could put poetry to music and make it work wonderfully. There’s a simplicity to these lyrics, however:
I think I’m falling
In love again
When I get that crazy feeling
I know I’m in trouble again
I’m in trouble
‘Cause you’re a rambler and a gambler
And a sweet talking ladies man
And you love your lovin’
But not like you love your freedom
Of course, Joni’s guitar playing was something else again. Being a guitar player myself, I was fascinated to learn that she hated the “F” chord (I always tell my students that “F” has its name for a reason!), and that’s one reason why she started using open tunings. Opening tunings are more common now, but she made an art of them and at one point she had 50+ different tunings.
“Help Me” was a perfect falling in love song for me…I understood every second of it:
Again, I think I was most attracted to her chord progressions. “Help Me” modulates from one key to another effortlessly and naturally and just kind of floats musically. Once I figure out what tuning she used, I’ll tell you what the keys are :-).
“Hello Goodbye” is a Beatles song I’ve always loved. It’s that one line especially where the bass descends…”hello, hello, I don’t know why you say goodbye I say hello” and then it repeats. The lyrics are just a play on opposites but work perfectly with the idea of a difficult or troubled relationship. “You say yes, I say no, you say why and I say I don’t know”. Perfect.
I can’t imagine that any band or musician will ever be as big or as influential as the Beatles, not because there aren’t any other great bands, but because of the timing. The Beatles simply hit the right note at the right time and it’s not possible to do that in the same way again. For those of you who don’t know this song (I can’t imagine you don’t!), here is “Hello, Goodbye”:
A songwriter I very much respect is Mary Chapin Carpenter. At a music conference years ago, I heard John Braheny use Mary’s song “This Shirt” as an exemplary example of object songwriting and I couldn’t agree more. However, one of my all time favourite MCC songs is called “Come On, Come On“. If you’ve never heard it, here is a live performance of it:
I truly can’t decide if it’s Mary Chapin Carpenter’s delivery that packs the real punch or the song itself.
Some people remember the first time
Some can’t forget the last
Some just select what they want to from the past
It’s a song that you danced to in high school
It’s a moon you tried to bring down
On a four-in-the-morning drive through the streets of town
Mary came out with this gem smack in the middle of my songwriting frenzy in the 90’s. I couldn’t aspire to anyone more intelligent and insightful. The whole song was moving for me, but so was the idea that somebody could come up with a song so beautiful. I wish I wrote that! She has also collaborated with the next songwriter I’ve got on my list.
I discovered Shawn Colvin in the 1990’s after a friend of mine suggested that, vocally, I sounded a lot like Shawn. So I bought her CD “Fat City” out of curiosity and ended up falling in love with her music. Again, her guitar playing and performance was a big sell for me since that’s what I was out there doing a lot of at the time. In 1998 she had a breakthrough hit with “Sunny Came Home“. I love the acoustic guitar and mandolin in this song…in fact,the whole production is fabulous:
The chord progressions are just wonderful in “Sunny”, the bass line on the guitar keeps changing, first down and up and then down again in the verses. Shawn and a few other songwriters started this very percussive way of strumming that I tried to emulate a few times in subsequent songwriting. The melody in the chorus of Sunny Came Home is beautiful and stands out…Shawn has a fabulous voice, much more versatile and controlled than mine ever could be. She has written some great songs on her own, and has also collaborated a lot in her songwriting career, which I’m sure has stretched her beyond her own songwriting boundaries, and which is something I never did enough of.
Even though the 70’s were sometimes written off because of disco, I liked a lot of the songs that came out during that time. I was not a KC and the Sunshine Band fan, and there was plenty of music that I thought was fluff, but I did enjoy quite a bit of it, including the next song by the Commodores called “Brick House“. Why, I like it so much that my daughter has it as the ringtone on her cell when I call her :-). What is it about this song?
It’s just sexy. And funky. The odd thing about “Brick House” is that the verses have only one chord. Everything is about the lyrics and the funk, no fancy chord progressions involved. In fact, even the chorus is limited in terms of chords. But it doesn’t get boring, does it? So what does that teach you?
Okay, my last choice is a reflection of the love and respect I have found for jazz, especially earlier jazz. I didn’t appreciate it at all until I was an adult, but I can’t for the life of me tell you why. I’m thinking that Woody Allen‘s movies are probably what brought me to jazz. He used to have jazz or dixie music in a lot of his movies. It’s not that I didn’t hear it or know of it before then, it’s just that I was too caught up in acoustic and singer/songwriter and old pop music to hear anything else. I am amazed that my 22-year-old daughter has already developed a taste for it.
When I listen to Louis Armstrong singing “A Kiss To Build A Dream On“, it just makes me swoon. It’s romantic, it’s happy, it’s simple and it’s not simple at all. I picked this song as a kind of representative of what I have learned to appreciate in my middle-aged years.
There is SO MUCH music out there and I know I’m missing about 99% of it these days. I plan to make a concerted effort to LISTEN MORE and hopefully find some gems out there that I never would have heard otherwise.
I’m also realizing that 10 songs is only the tip of the iceberg. Stay tuned for the next 10 :-). You can purchase some of the albums here:
In another article called Songwriting Topics I went through a myriad of things you can do to inspire yourself in terms of what to write about (what? you don’t have anything to write about? :-)), and most of them were the obvious such as using your own life experiences or those of others.
But what if you are bone dry in terms of ideas? Where else can you get them?
I’ll focus on a few places on the web that might help you get some ideas. In fact, you might learn to get really creative about being creative! The web is an excellent way to get ideas if you know how to use it and what’s out there.
Interestingly enough, as I’m writing this blog I’m looking at something called Zemanta. Zemanta is essentially a media and article/information gallery that you can use as a plugin in Firefox or in a WordPress blog like I have. You can try it out on the demo page on their website. Type anything in the text box and Zemanta will come up with images, articles, links and tags relating to whatever you’ve typed. It’s a pretty clever little tool.
Which brings me to another idea. Pictures can be really inspirational sometimes, especially photographs. If you go to a website like Photography.com, you can browse through hundreds of stock photos; pick a subject like flowers or landscapes and see what you can come up with. I often peruse a website called BOOOOOOOM! which has photography, but also art and sometimes even videos, all in blog form. It’s a very cool site to look through even if you’re not looking for something to write about :-).
Okay, but what if you’re looking for musical inspiration? Aside from listening to other songs, where else can you get some musical ideas?
A few months back I found a really neat little site called Jam Studio where you can literally create a whole music bed right on the site. It leads you through entering some chords and picking some instruments, including drums, bass, guitar and piano and even a “feel” or genre like country or rock. Then voila! You can create a whole song in any key and come up with all kinds of ideas! Try it out.
And last, but not least, I wrote an article for the Muse’s Muse awhile back where I featured an NPR series called “Project Song“. The whole idea is that an artist or band is given a set of photos and words to choose from, and is given two days in a studio to come up with a song representing them. It is a very interesting premise and on the Project Song website you can watch a video showing how songwriterNellie McKay came up with her song “Cavendish” using the tools at hand.
You might do the same for yourself…take a random photo from one of the websites I recommended and go to a dictionary and pick out a word or two and see what you can come up with!
In fact, I’m thinking of coming up with a songwriting challenge to do exactly that. Keep your eye on this blog in the coming weeks…!