Radical approaches to songwriting

There are a myriad of ways to write songs. I was inspired this week listening to the chants of radicals in the London protests. ‘You say cutback. We say fight back’ and ‘Revolution, revolution’. Simple songwriting with a radical message.

Another approach is more formal. You can be a member of the ‘Australian Songwriters Association‘ or ‘Songwriting Society of Australia‘ or ‘Songwriters Across Australia‘ or ‘Australian Songwriters Official National Group‘ or ‘Songwriters, Composers and Lyricists Association’ (South Australia) or ‘Tamworth Songwriters Association‘ for a nominal fee. Up until last week you could have gone along to the ‘Australian Songwriters Conference‘ but 2011 has been cancelled because of not being able to get funding.

These associations and conferences out of my league. I joined APRA last year and was paid $5.40 after spending about twenty hours trying to get my songs recognised by their admin. What are your experiences with Songwriting Associations? Do you find them valuable? Today I’m writing about a radical approach to songwriting that makes sitting with friends and sharing personal songs the equivalent of singing in the shower.

Most people I know started writing songs by copying their favourite musician. I got it in my head that I could play along with a song called ‘Given to fly‘ by Pearl Jam. Then I tried writing like Jeff Buckley (after 4:30 the video is really good). After learning that Buckley as scared as I was of performing I went searching for songs.

Inspiration (hidden under mossy stones by the gentle stream that flows in your head and heart)

What inspires me for songs is whatever is real. If I’m at dinner with my family or talking with a friend. Maybe sitting on the steps of town hall waiting for a bus, it just has to move my head or my heart. I don’t have to work to write songs like this but I have to work to finish them. The song I am writing about was inspired by a close friend who has been in and out of hospital.

The inspiration came simply after having tea with her. She left and the song came pouring out.  A radical love song because it is on the boundary of what love is. In half an hour I had a bunch of lyrics and the guitar part. After two and a half hours I had knocked out a song that felt rounded. The next part of the process for me takes the courageous plunge.

Work (if you like steps to help you in songwriting check out this book by Naomi Wolf who also wrote The Beauty Myth)

First, I record it on my phone and then listen back to it critically, preferably after a sleep. I will listen and record over and over making slight variations. This is not always a rewarding process. It is very important because it cuts the excess from your song and leaves the shiny, bright core. Excess might be simply an extra ‘the’ or it might be that the chorus is actually the verse. Maybe you find that a word sticks out uncomfortably and this is connected to your emotional state at the moment.

At this stage in writing I might even try playing the song on a different instrument like a piano or guitar. Just singing it a lot while walking can help. Writing it down lets the words look up at you from the page in a new way.

Second, share with people. This could mean busking or write it out on paper and giving it to friends you run into. I used to upload it to a website and get feedback from around random passers. It was fun but I didn’t find this very valuable to hone my writing skills because they didn’t have a real concern for that. I like the songwriting collective better than other spaces because the feedback is more genuine. There is a music group at Jura Books on Parramatta Rd or you could set one up with your friends.

Normally, the third step is performance. Get it out to the world! Such a relief to feel free of this thing you’ve kept secret for so long. Try to avoid sharing your intimates at the noisy bar on the corner where the footy will be playing behind your head. Then the song is finished yes? Maybe.

The radical step I have found most important to finishing a song is performing it to people you love who you expect could be challenged by it. It could be playing a satirical religious song to the devout or funny environmentalist song to the convener of the australian student environment network (who vehemently hated it). With the song for my friend, i had to make her my audience. For months after writing the core of the song I was avoiding seeing her because part of me was afraid to give her the song and it to hurt her. With prodding from bandmates who knew the song wasn’t finished I made arrangements to meet with her at a cafe.

When she walked in I hastily gave her my song. If you do it too slowly there is always the strong risk of backing out if you’re as cowardly about songs as I am. The fear and reluctance comes from knowing that what you will say has the potential to hurt people you love. Never forget that art can bridge the spaces between people, especially where there is a lot of confusion. It is likely that the listener will appreciate that you’ve spent time and energy and want to share the creation with them. It can also be very divisive. Be gentle. Better that they hear it now than on the radio.

In the end my friend was moved. She told me how she felt and we talked about it briefly. She gave me a couple of tips on the song. A wave of relief washed over me. I rushed home and quickly finished it with more recording, listening, recording, listening. Next step is to record it at Pirate Studios next week and share it with the world by August, 2011.

Some like Naomi Wolfs Dad will say the process to perfect songs or art never ends it just continues to develop. Some like Clinical Psychologist Ellen Langer say that the art is in its mindful creation. I wonder about these things. Good luck with your songwriting – and fundamentally be free with it.

Your in curious exploration,

Weary H.

2 Responses to “Radical approaches to songwriting”

  1. Can’t wait for you to post the recording of the song Weary… then we can all hear what you are talking about : )

    Thanks for your thoughts – songwriting is so difficult, and your approach I think is quite different to mine. It’s really helpful to understand the way other people write. I will try to think about the way I do it and write it down also.

  2. It’s good to read about the process of songwriting. I like your process of refinement, and you are wise in recognising the potential make or break power of giving someone a song. I’m glad your friend liked your song and also gave some feedback. I suppose a song, like a speech – puts you, your ideas and perspectives – right out there, so you want to make sure- if it’s political – it’s not ambiguous.

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