songwriting

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.

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!

Happy Birthday To You

In songwriting, the key is everything.

Cos either it starts with a riff, or better yet, it starts with something you hear in your head.

And then you’re singing it. You’re singing it to yourself and you hear it and it’s taking shape and it’s sort of like a little miracle forming right before you’re very eyes.

You get used to this, you start to get better at the dance. There it is, forming right in front of you and you are seducing it with your powers.

And slowly but surely you bring it to its knees and lay it down on the bed and have your way with it.

That’s when you pick up the guitar.

Don’t be a fool and try to start ham-fisting that guitar.

No, keep listening to the song and FIND it on the guitar. FIND the key.

It’s kind of funny that it’s called a key, because it really is one. FIND the key. Unlock the song.

Then the glorious click of the latch and Pandora’s box is opened and the colors flood out and the soak you in truisms. The song says the thing it wants to say, the thing you wanted to say but couldn’t.

Now it’s here for you to summon whenever you fancy it.

Happy Birthday To You.

SNEAK PEAK: New Artwork for forthcoming collection, Strange vol. 2

Dear friend and quality music enthusiast,

It’s been about a year since I put out Strange vol 1, and since then I’ve collected another batch of home recordings and little demos to share with you.

Some were made with a 4-track cassette recorder, others were played and sung directly into an iPhone.

I am intrigued by this raw and unfiltered approach. These tracks are more like field recordings, capturing an artist in the wild. There’s no studio polish, no producer to interfere, and no second guessing on behalf of the performer. It is what it is, they are what they are… and they are for you.

I’ll post the collection next week for download, but for now you can explore Strange vol 1 and enjoy another mad, brilliant illustration from my friend AstroMonkey.

Yrs,

Paul

P.S. As always, if you’d like to receive updates like these sent directly to your inbox on a weekly-ish basis, sign up for my newsletter here.

strange vol 2 artwork

How Would I Hold You? A Question and a Song

How would I hold you… if the sky was falling down?

This is what I asked myself in bed with my wife one night.

That’s often how songs begin for me. With a line that just appears. Over the years, you train yourself to notice them. Little things people say or phrases that cross your mind.

OK, here goes.

P.S. After you listen to the full song below, listen to me croak out the initial seeds of the idea.

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