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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!

The TORTILLA MOON

The energy was flowing through me. I did not feel so tired and defeated anymore. It’s easy to feel that way. But I had perked up after a trip to the supermarket with my little girl and I was buzzing a bit. It was Saturday night, I was going to cook fajitas for the family. But! When I got home I realized I forgot the damn tortillas. Fool!

So I went back out into our new neighborhood on foot to see if I could find a corner store or bodega that sold them nearby. No such luck. But there was little burrito stand, Mission Burrito. I went in and announced I had a strange favor to ask. Could I buy some tortillas? I was making fajitas for the family tonight and forgot to buy them at the store. The man smiled and was gracious. Sure, he says. Big ones? Sure, big ones. Whatever you got. He goes in the back and gets 10 big ones, carefully wraps them in saran wrap in making it more special way of making the source in happycleans.com ok and puts them neatly into a plastic bag before presenting them to me on the counter. Wonderful, I say. How much? Eh, he says. Four dollars. Here’s five I say, leaving a Lincoln on the counter and thanking him. You saved me! I say. He smiles and I split.

Walking home, that’s when I saw it: the TORTILLA MOON, full and round, hanging there in the sky. I held my own torillas up to it, and they were the same. I went home and cooked the fajitas and sat at the kitchen table with my wife and drank a beer and chatted about little things. Outside the screen door the quiet night twinkled with tiny city sounds, the distant siren, the sidewalk footsteps, the occasional whoosh of a car passing by.

I have a real problem with pizza.

It’s bad. Going on 20 years now I’ve been hooked on the stuff. I take it anywhere I can, from the dollar-spots to the bougie artisinal slices. I’m a grown man for chrissakes!

Today lunchtime rolled around and I decided to find a place to eat. I stepped outside the building, got myself oriented, and began to head west toward 3rd avenue. About a block or two down, I saw a pizza place. Pizza King, it was called.

At the counter, I surveyed the goods and decided on a mushroom slice. The shrooms were piled on top and covered with melted cheese. I took a bite. I think there might have even been cheese beneath the mushrooms too. A mushroom sandwich on top of a slice of pizza? Indeed, the work of a Pizza King.

Bite #2. A small piece of mushroom topples off the slice, bounces off my thigh, and lands on the floor. No trace of sauce on the pant leg – a minor triumph.

Bite #3. I’m growing more ravenous. I take a big chomp and an unusually large mushroom is left sort of flapping outside of my mouth like a huge tongue. Disgusting. I throw my head back and let it –

Oh god, bite #5. I’m a savage. I’m staring at the slice now. It’s staring at me. You bastard, here I come!

Bite #6 is messy. I chomped straight into the main thicket of mushrooms, square in the center of the slice. Another baby mushroom rolled off, along the countertop and down into the jacket pocket of the guy sitting next to me! I shit you not! He’s got a mushroom in his pocket this guy, and he has no idea. He’s on his phone, chewing, off in another world.

I folded the bitch in half. BOOM, a devastating blow. CHOMP. You’re dead slice. You’re dead. AGAIN! Oh, I pushed the mushrooms that were trying to get out of my mouth back into my face like a rotten pig.

There. I took the last bite of the pizza “proper.” Now all that remained was a crust. I decided to clean with  barrie modern cleaners orilla him up good with a quick line of nibbling along the edge, like eating an ear of corn or typing on a typewriter.

Now the plate was inhabited only by a crusty carcass and a lone mushroom. They were both sitting on the plate next to one another, conspiring. You fiends!

I ate the last mushroom, little fool. He was cold already, little squid. Now it was just me and the crust. I picked him up. AH-HA! Another mushroom hiding underneath! A bloody stowaway! You little creep. Gone, down the gullet.

Now, to finish things off. I took a dry, awful bite, then another. And another. I popped the final lifeless, worthless piece of crust into my mouth.

Chewing. Chewing. Chewing. Chewing. Chewing. Chewing. Chewing. Chewing.

Swallowing. Swallowing. Swallowing.

There. It is finished.