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I Wish I Wrote That: “Signed, Sober You” by HARDY

I love it when a song just levels me with sheer craft. Like… it’s so good, it makes me mad. But it also makes me smile. And I can’t decide whether I want to pick up a guitar or throw in the towel once and for all. Yes, when that happens you know you’ve stumbled across a winner. And HARDY’s “Signed, Sober You” is one such tune:

There are a million things to love about this tune but let me just share a few thoughts on why it’s such a fine piece of songwriting.

1. We’re in the scene from line one

Third shot down, I’m in trouble

I love this opening line. “Third shot down, I’m in trouble”. Bang! Right away, we’re thrust into a bar scene with our hero. You don’t need to be watching the video to see the flickering neon beer signs, sense the pool table off in the corner, and practically feel the chunky wooden bar underneath your forearms. From the first six words we’re sucked into the world of this character. It’s instant drama—and we want to know what happens next.

2. A healthy dose of suspense

Stumble through the front door, gone as it gets

Flip the kitchen light on, there it it

On the fridge, just my luck

“Read this if you’re drunk”

Something is unfolding. We know that much. But what exactly is this all about? The details are coming slow and steady but we still don’t quite have the full picture. Even as the note on the fridge appears, we don’t know who it’s from. And if you’re like me, you might assume it’s from the lover who recently left him. But like me, you’d be wrong.

3. An original idea, expressed simply

Don’t think about it, mister

Don’t even touch your phone

I know you think you miss her

But I promise you, you don’t

There’s healing in the lonely

Sit back, kick off your boots

And you’ll thank me in the morning

Like you always do

Signed, sober you

Arrgggghhhhhhh!! So. So. So. Good. Now we finally understand what this song is all about. I love the plain-speak, “Don’t think about it mister, don’t even touch your phone.” It’s a great example of how you to don’t need big words to convey big ideas. As Mark Twain put it, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”

4. Playing with language

There’s healing in the lonely

I particularly love this line in the chorus. What an original expression. He transforms the word “lonely” from an adjective into a noun—if not a proper noun: The Lonely, capital L, right? A lesser writer might have said, “There’s healing in feeling lonely,” or “There’s healing in the lonely times.” But as writers we’re free to bend, twist, push, and break the language. Whatever it takes to get the message across.

5. Making every word count

P.S., there’s pizza in the freezer, Dumb and Dumber on the TV

It’s so stupid, that’s what you’d be

To go diggin’ through her Instagram

If you’re thinkin’ ’bout that, read this again

Pizza, freezer, Dumb and Dumber, TV—the details continue to paint the picture. We’re back at our hero’s apartment. Look at how Hardy uses the word “diggin’”. He could have said “lookin’” or “checkin’ out.” But he found a far more visceral word, far more active and emotionally charged. It perfectly reflects the desperation of the narrator.

6. Zooming in, zooming out

Yeah, well remember last time that you hit her up

You heard some other guy, how much does that suck?

That set you back a month, yeah, trust me, old friend

You don’t wanna go down that road again

In movie-making, an actor’s performance will feel very different when it’s shot close and tight, versus far and wide. We have the same perspective tools available to us in writing. Thus far, we’ve been zoomed in on the details of a single night. Here in the bridge Hardy zooms out to give us the bird’s eye view to help us better understand what’s at stake for our character.

7. A twist at the end

Don’t think about it, mister

Don’t even touch your phone

I know you wanna kiss her

But I promise you, you don’t

It’s always a nice stroke of craft to give the listener a little something extra at the end of a song. Hardy swaps “miss” for “kiss” here, just to put a cherry on top.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. Well done compadre!

Hope you enjoyed this breakdown and if you’d like to book an online songwriting lesson, grab a freebie right here.

In Songwriting, One Word is All it Takes

It never fails to fascinate me how one word can unlock an entire song.

I was in the gym the other day and “Speechless” by Dan + Shay was playing. It was the first time I’d heard it, and it was instantly memorable. With that one word they did what so many of us songwriters are trying to do—find a way to express something universal in a fresh way. “Speechless” is just another love song. But it’s love as seen through a very particular lens. That lens is the concept, and the concept is the word.

Not only does the song revolve around one specific word, but that word revolves around one specific moment. No one is speechless for any length of time. It happens in a split second that leaves you slack-jawed. Drawing on a specific emotionally-charged moment like that gives your writing clarity and vigor. Without that focus, you often end up in the land of platitudes and generalities.

Or take another single-word-titled love song, “Crazy” by Willie Nelson. One word, one concept. And not a terribly unusual word either. Both “Speechless” and “Crazy” are ordinary, everyday words. But in a good writer’s hands they take on extraordinary meaning.

Sometimes my songwriting students get hung up, thinking they can’t use words that have already been used. Get over that. Gnarls Barkley did when he wrote his own version of a song called “Crazy”. I’m sure there were plenty of naysayers telling him he should steer clear of that word. But once it was released, none of us seemed to mind as we all belted it out for about a year straight—while along the way it topped the Billboard charts, won a Grammy, and eventually ended up on Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Songs of all Time list.

Then there’s the question of how you sing that one word. Think about how Mick Jagger sings the word “Satisfaction.” Sat-is-fac-tion. It comes out of his mouth all choppy, both frustrated and orgasmic at once. The fractured delivery adds to the meaning.

Going back to the two versions of  “Crazy,” the same holds true.  Willie just about sighs that word, doesn’t he? You can almost hear him shrugging, shaking his head, as the melody lilts from high to low, low to high. Gnarls did the exact opposite. His “Crazy” was exasperated, bursting with energy, top of his range, a total unleashing of pent-up energy.

Same word, different feeling.

There are nearly 200,000 words in the English dictionary. Open it up, pick one, and turn it into a song. Or, the next time a particular word catches your ear in conversation, jot it down and see where you can take it. If all else fails, you can simply write your own version of “Crazy”.

If you want some guidance along the way, or you’d like learn more about the craft of songwriting in general, book a free trial songwriting lesson with me today.

How tall is your song?

So you’ve written a song. Now, how do you play it?

To me, the answer often comes down to understanding the nature of your song. In other words, its character.

How tall or short is it? What does it like to wear? Is it weepy or joyous? Does it bark at you, or sing you to sleep? Does it sit you on its knee to tell you a story, or seduce you into doing things you’d never dream of doing?

Once we’ve written a song (and often during the writing process) we’re getting to know this song. And certainly once the song is written—the raw structure, the chords, the lyrics—it becomes a matter of presentation. This can include anything from the key you’re in, to the style, to the tempo, to the feel.

If you’re like Bob Dylan, you might choose to vary these elements from night to night — depending on how you’re seeing things. This is artistry. This is seizing the mercury of life and transmuting it into the physical realm in order to marvel at it, share it with others, give us a glimpse of the impossible. To help us better know the unknown. That’s what songwriting is, that’s what performing is, that’s what this whole thing is about.

I remember one student who had written a great song called “Break Something,” about a man who had come unhinged under the mad pressures of life. The concept was fantastic, the lyrics brilliant… but the delivery was lacking something. He was playing it in sort of a folksy strum. It was laid back and placid—whereas the actual content of the song was the complete opposite.

Together we wondered, how could we use style to reveal more of the song’s natural character? Well, if I’m in the land of Folk and I need to add more wildness, I take a step to rock n roll. And if from rock n roll I still want to add even more menace, danger, and out-and-out unpredictability, I go to rockabilly.

And that’s what we did. We reimagined “Break Something” from a back porch strummer into a a hot-rodding, slicked back, swaggering, loose cannon of a rockabilly song.

Off came the 2nd fret capo and we found ourselves not in the bright and sunny strum of D-G-A, but in the open-chorded mayhem of E-A-B. Gone was the laid back tempo and we ratcheted things up to, well, a break-neck pace. Out went the plaintive vocal delivery and in came a growl and a hiss and a bite that infused every line with danger. Do you see what I mean? We’re demonstrating the content of the song in the style in which we execute it.

Every song has a character to it. Discover it—and use every tool in your arsenal to reveal it to your audience.

The Gnarliest Mic

Yesterday I was helping a student prepare for an upcoming performance. On the stage where we were rehearsing there were 4 or 5 different mics in stands she could sing through. They were all nice, clean brand new mics in good condition.

All but one, that is—an old SM57 that was all dented up, sort of grimey, and looked like it had seen better days.

“Which mic should I use?” she asked me.

The way I look at it, much of being a good performer is about defying expectations. That’s how you keep your audience on their toes. And it’s also how you keep things fun and interesting for yourself.

I pointed to the gnarly mic. “How about that one,” I said.

“This one?” she asked, puzzled. “It’s all beat up and destroyed.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s the one that probably sounds best,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because people keep using it,” I replied.

She laughed. Who knows? That funky mic has the life and spirit of a probably thousand or more shows, artists, and songs in it. Maybe she could tap into that power.

Think of it like an old beat up pair of jeans. They somehow contain the life you’ve lived. Your experiences, your attitudes, your soul are embodied in every rip, hole, and dangling wisp of thread.

I saw a twinkle of recognition in her eyes. She picked the gnarly mic and delivered a blistering performance. We were both smiling afterwards.

Train yourself to see the beauty in the other choice. The less obvious choice. Everyone would go for one of the nice mics. And everyone would look the same. Sound the same. It’s the safe choice. And great art is never safe.

Trust yourself

When Paul McCartney was writing “Hey Jude,” he played it in half-finished form for John Lennon. When he got to the line, “The movement you need is on your shoulder,” he leaned over to John and mouthed, “I’ll change that bit.”

“You won’t, you know,” said John. John felt those were some of the best lyrics in the song.

As writers, singers, creative people, so often we’re quick to point out what’s wrong with our own work.

We see with painful clarity where it fails, why it fails, and how short it falls of our standards.

It’s true, that if we want to get good, we have to push ourselves. That process involves a lot of study, practice, and honest reflection. We have to learn to see where we’re weak, and work to improve those areas. It’s part of the challenge, and the joy, of developing your craft.

But sometimes, what we need is the opposite.

Rather than learning to see what’s wrong with our work, we need to learn to see what’s right about it.

That’s what John saw that Paul didn’t.

The line stayed in the song. “Hey Jude” was released in 1968 and went on to become one of the most famous songs of all time. It broke numerous chart records, sold millions of copies, and was The Beatles’ longest running number one single in the United States.

By all means, learn to develop yourself. But learn to trust yourself too.

Checklist: 6 Pillars of Good Songwriting

So much of songwriting is problem-solving. As you write, you need to get in the habit of knocking on your tune from every angle to make sure it’s as sturdy as possible. Here are a few things you can check to make sure your song is as good as it can be.

1. Concept: Is the song’s concept clear and singular? Is it summed up in a compelling way in the song’s chorus or tagline? Is it fresh? Memorable? Does it ring true?

2. Lyrics: Do all the lyrics ladder up to the song’s concept? Do they feel honest? Build tension? Tell a story, or create a mood? Are they sufficiently surprising, or are there cliches that can be eliminated? Are there opportunities to show, rather than tell?

3. Melody: Does the melody sing well with the lyrics? Does it roll off the tongue naturally? Is it sufficiently varied enough between the verse/chorus/bridge to keep the listener engaged? Is it hooky enough to be remembered after a single listen?

4. Chords/Key: Do the chords support the melody as well as they could? Are there any riffs or rhythmic accents we could make it more musical? Is everything harmonically congruent, or are there moments where it feels like we’re *leaving the song*? Is it being sung in a key that flatters the singer’s voice?

5. Style: Does the style of the music reflect the content of the lyrics? Are there ways the execution of the song (voicings, vocal range, tempo, genre) could better suit message the song is trying to put across?

6. Concision: Are we getting the job done with as few parts / chords / words as possible? Are we keeping the listener on the hook as the song moves along? Are there any places where the *less is more* rule of thumb could be applied?

So there you have it. These are 6 pillars that have served me well and I hope they’ll do the same for you. Oh, and don’t forget–you’re an artist. So don’t be dogmatic. Remember that you can violate any one or all six of these pillars and still write a great song. Happy writing!

What Do the Numbers Mean In Music?

You’re sitting around a campfire at a party. Sooner or later the guitars come out. You grab one.

“What should we play,” you ask? Somebody names a tune. “Cool,” you say. “I don’t know that one, but what are the chord changes?” Another person tells you it’s in the key of E and starts rattling off a bunch of numbers. “Got it,” you say, nodding your head. Next thing you know, you’re making sweet, sweet music together under the moonlight.

How can people who’ve never met before play a song together, right on the spot, with zero rehearsal? Even if one of them has never even heard that song before? And what do the numbers mean?

Guitarist Melanie Faye has a great, simple explanation right here:

Twenty Very Entertaining Minutes on How to String Up a Guitar with Joe Walsh of the Eagles

A friend shared this video with me recently and it’s a real winner. Who would have thought that watching someone string a guitar for 20 minutes could be so riveting? Joe teaches with the zest and gusto of a feisty Italian grandmother passing down a family recipe (I know, I have one). Sit back, relax, and enjoy!

On Writing Lyrics: Would you say it to a friend that way?

It’s hard to open yourself up sometimes in songwriting. We don’t want to look foolish. Or give away too much. Because of this mindset, we often obscure our lyrics. We try to “poeticize” them. Or substitute in fancy words or convoluted metaphors.

But in most cases, the only person impressed by complicated writing is the person holding the pen. Everyone else is left scratching their heads. Or worse, tuning out completely.

And that’s not why we write songs, is it? We write them to connect with others.

Which leads me to the title of my post. It’s a question I often ask myself, and I also ask the artists and songwriting students I co-write with. If they’re tossing out lyrics that seem overly forced, intellectualized, or cautious I’ll ask:

Would you say it to a friend that way? 

Invariably, they say no. And from there, we begin rephrasing whatever feeling they’re trying to express, or point they’re trying to make, in a way that anyone could understand. Over a pint at the bar. Or a chat on the phone. Or a story at the water cooler.

I heard a song that did this brilliantly recently called “I Found Someone,” sung by Blake Shelton and written by Rhett Atkins and Ben Hayslip. Here are the opening lines:

I picked up the phone

She said hey it’s me

I know it feels like forever since I’ve heard your voice

But I guess that’s how it had to be

Shakespeare, it ain’t. But great songwriting, it most surely is. Listen to the whole thing below. It’s a masterclass in craft. The words are simple. But the message is profound:

Here’s another example of lyrics so simple, a child could understand them. And yet, they express a truth so enormous, the whole of humanity has yet to wrap its head around it.

Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us.

Above us only sky

You may recognize them, they’re the opening lines of “Imagine” by John Lennon:

Would John have said it that way to a friend? I’d like to think so. And we could do worse than John Lennon for inspiration as songwriters.

I’ll leave you with this thought from the great poet and author Charles Bukowski:

“Genius might be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.”

Bear that in mind when you write. Make the THING  profound. And the WAY simple. Say it how you’d say it to a friend. Because after all, that’s what your audience is.

 

On Writing Lyrics: Turn on the Focus, then Turn on the Faucet

People often talk about how writing lyrics is the hardest part of songwriting. And I tend to agree. It’s so hard that we often psych ourselves out before we even write a single line.

It goes something like this:

We sit with a blank sheet of paper in front of us, a guitar in hand, and we start looking for that first line… and looking hard. We want it to be perfect. We want it to be brilliant. We want it to kick off the song with a bang, just like all of our favorite songs.

What happens next? Often, nothing comes. Or what does come isn’t really all that great. So we start to panic, and we try harder. And harder. And the harder we try to write, the more difficult it becomes, like squeezing blood from a stone. Each line seems more forced than the last. It reminds me of a great quote:

 “The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and results come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, or combining relaxation with activity”. —Aldous Huxley.

The fact is, that amazing first line is in you. It’s right there beneath the surface, hiding in your sub-conscious. But when you grasp too desperately at it, you scare it off. It’s like a panther in the jungle. He’s got to be stealthy or he’s going hungry. The same holds true for writing. You need to sneak up on lyrics if they’re going to be any good. How to do it? The trick to luring out great lyrics is two fold:

  1. Turn on the Focus. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and just start blurting out lyrics that hit the sweet spot right away. But I’ve found that an important first step is to get clear on what you’re trying to say first. Then you can worry about how to say it. So if you’ve just had a spat with your girlfriend, get your mind fixed on that. Or if you want to tell a story from your past, get your mind really plugged into those memories. Or if you’ve got a title you’re working with, find a way to connect with it on a personal level. Once you’ve focused your mind on that what, you’re ready to…
  2. Turn on the Faucet. This is the fun part. Remember when you were sitting with that blank sheet of paper taunting you, as you thrashed about trying to write a great line? Forget all that. You’re not going for greatness, you’re just going for words, phrases, blurtings, anything. Just start saying whatever comes to mind. Start singing about the topic as if you were talking to a friend. Or begin by confessing how something made you feel. If it’s a story, just plainly state the first thing that happened. Don’t overthink it, just start letting words fall out. Eventually you will strike something that rings true — and will take even YOU by surprise. That’s when you know you’ve discovered a key into the song, and you’re off to the races.

This takes practice obviously. But make no mistake, it is a skill that can be learned and developed. As John Mayer puts it in the video below, you’re Ouiji Boarding:

As is so often the case with creativity we’ve got to break through the super critical, logical, and overly analytical to access the realm of creativity and imagination. That’s where the good stuff is hiding. Happy writing!