To be, or not to be a songwriter transcript
Hello and welcome everyone again, to a new episode of Songwriting Tips and Tricks. My name is Kieper, and I am really excited to talk to you again today. Thank you so much for the reviews and messages you send to me in the last weeks. If you like the show so far, please consider sharing it with friends that could benefit from it and leave a review on whatever platform you are using.
In the last episode, we’ve been talking about songwriting while at home during the corona pandemic and a possible lockdown. This time, however, I want to focus more on what a songwriter, in fact, is. Are we modern-day poets? Are we, full-fledged musicians or are we authors? Playwrights to some degree perhaps? What do the lines that we write really mean in context?
Maybe some of you ask themselves what art they are producing. And to be honest, I ask this question most of the time. I mean from a literature point of view, we are developing plots, we are searching for rhymes and words and maybe even look for the meter. On the other hand, as musicians, we try to make the lyrics fit the melody and meter of the music that was composed by us or others, or we are trying to find a suitable melody to words we have written. So what really is a songwriter?
One could argue that songwriters are modern-day poets. But this definition is somewhat limited. Because as songwriters, we do what feels right to us, and fits the music. We do not count the meter rigidly or know about iambs, dactyls or anything else. Another thing is that most of us write about day-to-day life. This sure is something to write about, yet it means that a lot of other issues are not being touched by songs. Many songwriters, think about marketing too early and write what might attract an audience. But that is not art, is it? I mean, you could be paid to write a song about something, but the most powerful songs are those that are inspired by things that happen to you or you observe. These songs also cover things that were not in the spotlight or only had little media coverage.
So if you are an aspiring songwriter, what would you chose to do? Would you like to write songs that are empowering people and have topics and viewpoints that no one else uses, or would you like to be someone creating standard pop songs that will be lost over the centuries, decades, or years? Because it is not those that do things like the rest that stand out, but those that dare to do something different. Perhaps when you are writing your next song, try to write about something else except love. Maybe you are familiar with Emily Dickinson, who was a famous American poet from the 19th century. Her poems got published only after her death, so she never got any credit for it in her life. She wrote about her experiences, and often time her thoughts on death and the life that follows. As a woman, she was not allowed to neither vote nor did she had access to a proper education. She was not religious or spiritual in any way. And despite all this, she kept writing and kept around 2000 poems hidden in a chest in her room. She wrote about everything that inspired her, not thinking about how to market it or how to put it on Spotify. Now you might argue, alright, there was no Spotify or anything like it at that time. You’re right, and to make it worse, as a woman, it was appreciated to publish anything or have a perspective on things. But poetry was her life, so she kept writing but to save the reputation of the family, she never published anything herself.
I would call this dedication to art. If you want to have an insight into some poetry of this great poet, head over to Tumblr and search the blog to this podcast, as this month is the month of Dickinson on Songwriting Tips & Tricks.
So songwriters are poets in a way, as we write poems in a way. But as I mentioned before, we need to find original topics to write about or incorporate to stand out and not just be one more songwriter. The most natural approach is to read poetry. Really do it every day. Ranging from ancient greek or roman poetry to modern-days there is tons of poetry or writings from philosophers that might ignite a spark of some sort and get you off that beaten track. Be the one songwriter in a room at open mic nights, that has read the most poetry and consequently has songs that carry something more. You will know how poetry works and how to build tension. Don’t let the music do that, it hardly ever will do the trick on its own.
Are we authors? Well, in a way yes, as songwriters try to write a coherent story with different protagonists, and various narrative approaches. If you need more insight on this, listen to the episode “Wait, who’s talking’ to hear more about narrative situations. But most beginner songwriters do not think about structuring their songs beforehand. They just start writing. Which is good of course, as we need to start somewhere. But have a look at famous songs, there is a clear structure in the plot. I am not talking about the verse, chorus or bridge, but about the introduction, central part, and the closure. It bears a close resemblance to novels sometimes. But we do not have 500 pages to get to the end, instead just 3 ½ minutes until the end, or a minute to get to the chorus. So it is essential to know what to say when. People will need to understand immediately what the story is about and what to expect, even if the theme is new to them. Still, it is essential to surprise them at any part of the song. Structure your plot before and while you are writing. Try using a mindmap or a storyboard to help you structure. Try to know that character in detail, how she moves, how she looks, what sound her snore has and so forth. Try to find inspiration in people around you. Maybe let her say a phrase that your co-worker in your sideline in a fast-food restaurant says or have hair like a person on the train. Basing story upon facts from reality is a potent mechanism to make a story relatable. You could as well chose traits of characters from your favourite film or tv-series to adapt in your songs.
Are we playwrights? Well, that is a tough question, in combination with the previous question, I would say to some degree we are, but only while writing the song. We direct when a character is to appear and what it does. Adding the music, this is a lot more relevant. We need to know, at what point what part of the story is suited best, if the music does fit at all. You might as well want to put your favourite book or film into a song. Then it is crucial to strip it down to the key-concepts to make it fit the time frame. And when I say time-frame, this is a part that authors are less concerned with. We know that we have limited time to tell our story and we know when a change in the music happens and how it sounds. So perhaps think of yourself not as a playwright but as a songwright, as you are focussed on auditive input rather than visual input. The song is our stage, and we need to know what has to happen when, why and how.
So turning over to music. Are we musicians? Well, yes, of course. This is what got us started on songwriting in the first place, wasn’t it? But think about your music education, have you been taught traditionally, or did you learn most of the stuff yourself? If you know how to play your instrument, do you play other instruments as well? Do you know music theory by heart or do you need to google all the times? Did you play in a band or know about arrangement through YouTube or other sources? How solid is your music background really? This is a question that bugs me most of the time. I taught myself how to play the guitar, and I have been singing my whole life, but I always doubt my musicianship. I’m binge-watching music theory fundamentals and teach myself other instruments to close these blank spaces that a traditional education would not have left perhaps. I even bought a midi drum set to work on micro timing with apps like melodics and co. Yes, we are musicians, but at what stage of our musical journey we are is in our own hands. It is essential to learn new things every day. If you don’t, you will get frustrated. So consider taking half an hour each day to learn music theory, listen to intervals, learn fancy chords and songs that use it. Listen to new music even. Dare to make your own set of rules and break it again. This is how you grow, both in music and in writing.
So next time, when you are writing a song, use a random song and try to use the chord progression or time signature, combine songs and styles, take as much input from other as you can. Because this way, your music will always be different, but still yours. Your music will be instantly more exciting and attract audiences as it incorporates a lot of genres and styles.
So now let us talk about something, I am raving about. Painting pictures with words really is in the domain of poets, but try to imagine for a second that you were an artist and you have a blank canvas in front of you. Where would you start? What colour would you use? And in the end, what picture do you see in front of your inner eye? What should this picture invoke in the mind of an audience? Pictures might tell more than a thousand words, but the right or wrong words in context could meet or destroy expectations. Try to describe as vividly as possible, shed light on detail that was previously hidden. Dare to be the Picasso that paints melting clock. Try to be irrational in the creation and later judge what you’ve done. Dare to take bold turns. The song is yours, and if you do not want to share it with anybody, put it in a box like Dickinson did.
So much on what we as songwriters are. Do you have another comparison or idea, that could touch the work of songwriters? Don’t bother sending any feedback or opinion you have via Facebook, Instagram, WordPress or Tumblr. I’ll gladly reply and perhaps talk about this in the next episode.
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Thank you again for tuning in once more and staying tuned on Songwriting Tips & Tricks.