Isn't it funny how we tend to put off the things that give us the most joy? Speaking for myself, I am exceptionally creative at avoiding what I love the most (and what pays my bills!): writing songs.
Let me clarify. When I receive an assignment from someone else to "have this done by Thursday", it gets done, & done professionally. But when I am the one giving me the assignment, I don't fare as well. I know deep inside that I am happiest when I'm moving in a direction, rather than aimlessly flailing around. But I have trouble setting goals & gaining momentum on my writing, when so many other tasks are yelling "Do me!" each hour, each day.
So earlier this year I tried an experiment which turned out quite successfully: I declared a one week period to be an official "songwriting marathon", in which I was the only participant. For that duration, songwriting, listening to music, producing in my studio, & keeping whatever odd hours honored my muse, were my top priorities. My approach was celebration, rather than rigidity. I cut way back on "social emailing", changed my phone machine message to indicate there might be a delay in returning calls; & generally considered myself on a mission.
Out of that commitment came major progress on a very strong song, several other viable song ideas, & great satisfaction at my accomplishments. By the end of the week I remember feeling simultaneously "burnt out" & just getting warmed up!
Interestingly, I told my friend songwriter Diane Warren about my big week, & she responded that that's the way she lives all the time!
This might be a tidy, positive little article if the story ended here; but there's more. Buoyed by my previous experience, I recently set for myself another marathon, this time two over weeks in duration. I even emailed several friends "in the business" about my intentions, to keep myself accountable & on track.
But by the 5th day, I was stuck, feeling depressed & guilty. My accountant gave me bad news about taxes. My main synth keyboard needed repair. I had a lingering sore throat. I had not yet sat down with pen, paper & piano, I couldn't seem to get focused, & I felt like calling off my self-imposed tournament for one. Instead, I took a look at the circumstances, and asked what I could learn from this pain.
As a person who used to try to shame myself into working, my first order of business was to be gentle. I gave myself a break. Gosh, it felt great to do a couple of errands! Then I sat down & made a little inventory of gratitudes, to help improve my attitude. And yes, I asked God to help me work through this problem.
First, my fantasy was two trouble free, non-eventful weeks in which to work. Now tell me, when does that ever happen? OK, drop that expectation!
Also, I had assumed that inspiration would once again show up, right on cue, & be my obedient ally. Duh! So, I created some specific "Songwriting Adventures" that didn't require creative brainstorms:
Picking a current hit song & writing down the lyrics & chords;
Reading from a book about songwriting & doing the included exercises (thanks, Jason Blume!);
Watching MTV or VH1 while eating, instead of the news;
Perusing a coffee table collection of famous love letters for ideas;
Listening to a cassette of songs compiled by a friend that he uses to "snap out of it & get to work" (thanks, Jamie Quinn!);
Brisk walking with both a Walkman & mini-recorder (music in my ear, spawning ideas in my head, captured on the fly);
Playing the piano playfully, without trying to write anything;
Going through all my yellow pads laying around the house; culling together my title & lyric ideas, & putting them into a single manilla folder which I labeled "Songs In Progress".
Gradually, I eased myself into writing, & writing related activities; and began to make headway. Yesterday was my last marathon day, & I worked late into the night, mixing the demo on a song I'm very proud of.
Finishing in a blaze of glory? Not exactly, but I regained my sense of consistency & professionalism, & learned some lessons about how to do this better next time.
I also realized that for me, two weeks is perhaps a long time to be intensely committed in this way. I can more easily maintain an overview, & avoid setting myself up for trouble, if I do this in smaller increments.
Q: As someone who has had great success writing solo and writing with a co-writer, can you tell us the pro's and con's to each method, and is one approach generally better than the other?
Thanks for your question. I feel honored to be among the JPMentors! In answering, I'm using P & C for pro & con. You can also take them as "point & counterpoint", or even two songwriters named "Patty & Chuck"!
Let's look first at the WRITING SOLO situation:
P: MONEY! If your song generates income, & you are the only writer, you obviously get more of the pie! You retain the writer's share & sometimes all or part of the publishing, depending on your circumstances. You also may be able to keep your copyright to the song, which gives you some control over how & when it is used.
C: 100% of nothing is still nothing! Also, are you prepared to SPEND the money & energy to get your song properly demoed & marketed by yourself? Will the song be the best it can be without benefit of a co-writer? Read on!
P: MORE CREATIVE CONTROL. By this I mean that you may have a particular vision for the lyrics, music, & feel of your song. And sometimes there's no one else available, or willing (or weird enough) to see it as you do! In this situation, a co-writer might dilute your point of view, or your style.
Another case where the solo route may be preferable is where the WRITER is also the ARTIST. He/she wishes to take chances artistically; maybe break a few rules & create a piece that skews in a certain unique, provocative direction. For the studio-savvy, this process may include production elements interacting with the writing process (loops, effects, synth programming etc.). In a sense, these "turn ons" can almost function as co-writers!
C: EGO. Each of us has one, but there are times when you need to ask it to wait outside, as it can wrongly influence these decisions. Many of us want to perform our own material. That's great! But adopting the "I'm an artist, I must be freeeeeee!" mentality can lead us to break some of the basic rules of songwriting before we really understand them!
Personally, I was a staff writer. I had the benefit of years of writing for other artists before I had success as an artist myself. I learned about the BIZ, & I learned the CRAFT. And that's why now, years later, while I'm "in between hits" as an artist, I still make my living as a songwriter.
Getting back to creative control: The flip side is, without considerable experience & the judgment that comes with it, the do-it-yourself route can shut you off from valuable help & interaction that may hone your work into a brighter & better finished product.
There is a pervasive disease in our community called "SONGWRITER'S MYOPIA". This means we get so into the minute details of our little jigsaw puzzles that we can miss glaring errors. An example: I recently showed my lyrics of a chorus-in-progress to eight different friends (I thought it was pretty good already) for their reactions. The first seven liked it. Great! Number eight asked me a question about my "story" that pointed up a possible problem with the clarity of one line. So, on a whim, I went back to the first seven & asked them about that specific issue. Turns out every one of them had misunderstood my intended thought! Therefore they liked the chorus for the wrong reasons. Just when we think we know everything, SM strikes again!
Several rewrites later, I am confident that I have fixed the problem. But had I been working with a co-writer, I might never have encountered it. (OK, Alan, so why didn't you co-write the song?) Because it's for me as an artist, for my upcoming CD; and I want to take chances artistically, maybe break a few rules...
So now let's look at CO-WRITING option.
P: As you may have guessed by now, I am a fan co-writing, especially with the right co-writer (more about that below). My co-writer on most of the material for Muppet Babies & National Geographic's Really Wild Animals has been Janis Liebhart. For me, she represents darn near perfection in this regard. She's equally comfortable with lyrics or music (as am I), & we both sing. She really listens to my ideas. She pushes us to keep trying beyond a lyric line that "works OK". Her personality is naturally upbeat & funny. Plus her musical tastes & ideas often made our work more contemporary & groove oriented. Over the years, we have learned how to compliment each other's writing abilities instinctively, so we work very well on tight deadline projects.
So the advantages of co-writing can be: Two (or more) creative heads are better than one. They "fill in" your weak spots & bring out your best (often one writer excels at lyrics, the other at music). Another point of view you hadn't considered. Bouncing ideas back & forth. Additional instrument and/or voice for demos. Sharing expenses. Helping each other with contacts. And finally, IT'S MORE FUN!
C: But all this goes with a CAVEAT: If co-writing is like a marriage, there needs to be a dating period first, to determine if you are a good match! Unless you are at the level where you just name each other a few of your hits, you may have to go through a few frogs to find a prince.
P: However, you can minimize frustration by using a few guidelines:
1) It's usually better to choose from candidates who are at your "level" or a little ahead of you in experience and/or success. This is admittedly rather nebulous & easily misconstrued; but let's just say you don't want to have to be constantly explaining the process of songwriting while co-writing. On the other hand, you need to have a safe space where you can both be open to new ideas, & make mistakes.
2) On a first meeting, it's probably better to share things each of you have already written alone, learning about each other's style & ability in a supportive atmosphere. That way, if it doesn't work out, you haven't made any commitments to feel awkward about, yet you haven't burned any bridges (no pun intended).
3) Don't make decisions based on physical attraction. Keep your professionalism. What do they bring to the table that compliments your own talent? What are their goals, their plans, their availability?
4) Before beginning to co-write, make sure you have an understanding about the percentages you will share of the finished product (usually equal amounts, regardless if one writer contributes more). Also, in the event that one of you brings in a portion of a song to co-write, & ends up unhappy with the contribution of the other co-writer to that song, the original portion should revert back to the writer who brought it in.
In closing, is one approach to songwriting generally better than the other? While each case is different, I feel that one's growth & opportunities as a writer can be helped immensely by the process of co-writing. The trick is building a relationship with the right partner or partners. As opposed to solo writing, co-writing involves sharing creative control, & sharing possible financial gain; it also involves give-and-take & a modicum of patience & people-skills. But these are not really disadvantages.
I seem to gravitate toward writing alone when the song might be for me as an artist, and co-writing when it's an assignment. But every song I write is helped by my previous experiences in co-writing. Either way you choose, best of luck!
Q: Your songs are filled with originality and even some subject matter risk taking. (i.e., Angie Baby). How do you keep your lyric writing from falling into cliches or well-worn writing traps? Is this through rewrites, or simply good up-front planning?
Thanks for your question & compliment! I am intrigued by the TWISTS in stories, & in life. Whether it's deep & spiritual, as in the parents who conquer hate with love by befriending the jailed killer of their child, or playful & snappy, like the left field punch line in a good joke (I'll spare you any examples), I love the freshness of the unexpected.
In critiquing my lyric drafts (and others'), I have developed a kind of warning light in my brain. It blinks when a lyric is stumbling toward a point that I've already guessed, or when I hear a wimpy "cop out" rhyme. It used to blink whenever I heard imperfect rhymes as well, but I've come to accept their legitimacy when they really nail the thought. It blinks when nothing has made me care about the characters. Mostly it blinks when I start to get BORED!
That's where REWRITING comes in! Like the trapeze artist who tries to make it look effortless, I sometimes spend hours juggling verses, lines, phrases, & individual words; attempting to maximize their impact without making them feel labored.
To put it another way, I like to either tell an unusual story; or if I'm telling a familiar story I strive to tell it in an unusual, stimulating manner.
I started writing "Angie Baby" after being inspired by the Beatles' "Lady Madonna". I wanted to create a normal young woman facing the trials & stresses of modern life & love. But despite several attempts in this direction, my heroine was boring. After a little time to recover from my frustration, I began making this normal character ABNORMAL. And the weirder she became, the more interested I became in the outcome of my own story!
At one point I had indicated by my lyric that she was retarded. I actually took my draft to a psychologist, who offered the insight that the complex interactions I was describing didn't ring true for someone "slow". It was at that point that I decided to skew her (pardon the expression) more toward either crazy or mystical. That was a breakthrough.
As I've said before, I spent about three months on the lyric of "Angie Baby", but when it hit number one, that didn't seem long at all!
I would love you all to think of me as a brilliant songwriter. But again, what often looks like the result of inspiration is largely the result of perspiration! For instance, I tend to write "cleverly". That's not always the best route. What comes harder for me is emotional writing. Sometimes I find it difficult to describe emotions in an emotional way.
So after I have been at a lyric for awhile, I may step back & pretend I've never heard it. I'll read it, or play back a cassette & listen as a semi-interested bystander. Does the telling of the song "story" make me feel anything? Do I care? If the answer is "not much", then I look at places where I can tug at the heart, not just the intellect. Suggestion: A good friend can also offer helpful feedback, just make sure you don't explain the song before sharing it. Unless it's "special material" (theatrical, part of a larger body of work, accompaniment for a video or movie), the lyric should stand on it's own.
By the way, although this is about lyrics; keep in mind that tempo, feel, chord patterns, melody & arrangement are all factors in making the song more emotionally effective.
As to up front planning: I do more of that when the song is a project for hire; meaning someone is paying me/us to create special material that accomplishes certain things: ("We want a 1 1/2 minute up-tempo tune describing animals in the zoo. It will accompany these video clips of the following seven animals doing the following things, which we'll edit to your lyrics"). This may involve sketching out ahead of time how long the chorus can be (if there is to be one), discussing a working title, looking at the video so as to describe the actions better, & playing experimental pieces of music & lyric ideas for the producer as the writing progresses.
But with the songs I write "voluntarily", I leave parts unplanned. I may write out a sketch in prose (this is very helpful), but I try to allow room for accidents. I don't lock in the ending, just in case a wonderful twist comes along & changes everything. Often I'll spend time on one title idea, which leads me to a better title idea, with a couple of extra ideas flying out of my brain at the same time, which I scribble on a separate sheet of paper to come back to. The trick for me is riding this "wave of creative chaos" without stifling it. I can always clean things up later!
I'm sharing these thoughts because I know some of you will see yourselves in my descriptions, or define your strengths & methods as different than mine. Either scenario is fine. I think it's important to learn about your own internal mechanisms as a songwriter. And let's face it, is there anyone more fascinating than you?
Back in 1974, I was trying to write a song loosely based on the character in the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna”. My “heroine” was initially a typical modern woman, dealing with the complexities of juggling family & work. Now when a writer is at the beginning stages of a project, gut-level feelings are sometimes all you have to go on. And my “gut” told me that the character I was creating had a major problem: she was boring!
This frustrating observation led me to explore some “what if?” scenarios. What if the woman in my song was abnormal in some way? My thoughts went back several years to a young next door neighbor girl who seemed “socially retarded”. Very quiet, kept to herself. Although I hardly knew her, I liked to imagine what she thought about. And I also remembered my own childhood: I was sick often as a kid, and being an only child, many of my days were spent in bed with a radio to keep me company.
These thoughts germinated into an imaginary retarded teenage girl named “Angie Baby” (probably named from the Rolling Stones’ song “Angie”), and I began a lyric story describing her situation:
YOU LIVE YOUR LIFE IN THE SONGS YOU HEAR
ON THE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL RADIO
AND WHEN A YOUNG GIRL DOESN’T HAVE ANY FRIENDS
THAT’S A REALLY NICE PLACE TO GO
FOLKS HOPIN’ YOU’D TURN OUT COOL
BUT THEY HAD TO TAKE YOU OUT OF SCHOOL
YOU’RE A LITTLE SLOW YOU KNOW, ANGIE BABY
During this time I was seeing a therapist, & I decided to take my early lyric draft to her for an opinion. She “stumbled” on the word SLOW, explaining that Angie’s reactions later in the song were not those of a retarded person. After recovering from this injury to my inner rhyme (SLOW YOU KNOW), I changed SLOW to TOUCHED. And that’s when Angie started to get crazy & fascinating!
Mentally, she lived in a dream world of lovers inspired by the songs on her radio. Thus she appeared to be completely vulnerable to the prurient interests of her male neighbor. But the chorus leaves her true capabilities up to the imagination of the listener, when it says:
“LIVIN’ IN A WORLD OF MAKE BELIEVE... WELL, MAYBE”
As the lyric progresses, we assume that the evil-minded neighbor will have his way with her. But that’s where the twist comes in: as he enters her world, i.e. her bedroom, it becomes a reality for him as well, with weird & unexpected consequences.
Without quoting the lyric further here, let me say that in my mind, as the writer, I knew exactly what happened to this horny little pervert! Angie, it turns out, had more power than he or the listener expected; she literally shrank him down into her radio, where he remained as her slave whenever she desired him to come out.
But interestingly, those details did not seem to translate clearly to some listeners. And the lack of clarity led to wild & creative speculation on the part of the public. The song was compared to Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe” (something was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge, but we don’t know what). And when “Angie Baby” was a hit in Australia, I got an unexpected 3 a.m. phone call from a disc jockey there, saying he had figured out the riddle of what Angie Baby did with the boy. Sleepy but wanting to be polite, I asked, “OK, what?” Triumphantly he answered, “She turned him into a disc jockey!” Actually, I wish I’d thought of that!
I would also like to claim that I intended to create “the ultimate Women’s Lib song”, as it was called. But I was only being influenced by the times (including, of course “I Am Woman”), and savoring the triumph of David over Goliath, the insane over the sane, & taking my audience on an dramatic ride. I was not consciously making a political statement, although I’m pleased in retrospect that my heroine was seen as “empowered”.
Certainly the song’s success was helped immensely by Helen Reddy’s public persona, and by her singing style, which gave the performance the feel of a subtle “in joke” being shared with a few elite friends.
One of my happiest stories about the song came in the form of a grateful letter from a mental hospital counselor in Hawaii. Seems she had a traumatized patient named Angie, who had been unable to talk for some period of time. She decided to play the 45 rpm single of Angie Baby, daily, for this unfortunate girl, to see if it might somehow help. The counselor wrote that this girl began making dramatic progress, and if memory serves me, was ultimately released.
As a songwriter, if one percent of your product is successful, you are considered a success. I am so thankful that I followed my bliss & have been able to survive & prosper. Helen Reddy’s single was Billboard #1 for two weeks, & eventually sold approximately two million copies.
And whatever you might say about Angie Baby, she’s not boring!
SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT MY LIFE, & MAYBE YOURS?
Well, I guess I'm my favorite subject. As an only child, I learned to keep myself occupied, making up games, listening to music, talking to myself. My mother doted on me, & worried about me, and over-protected me. So learning that other people are ALSO centers of the universe was a challenge, but a joy as well. To see the world through the eyes of another, however briefly, makes sense of the madness, sadness, gladness.
Some people believe that on the "other side", we are all one; that this earthly life is an illusion of separateness. From that perspective, so much of what we do here on earth, from the physical to the spiritual, from love to war, can be seen as our souls attempting to rejoin one another.
But our lot, our brief human condition, asks that each of us make the most of one mind, heart, & body.
So where is all this heavy thought leading? Damned if I know. In my life I've wasted some time, surpassed some of my dreams, stumbled & flown, & come to see life as very precious.
Did I always know I would be a songwriter? No way. I played other people's music in nightclubs for years, got burned out & discouraged, felt I was going in circles, had no confidence in my writing ability, was basically a pretty frustrated person.
But I had an opportunity to collect unemployment when the group I was playing in broke up. And that bought me some quiet time. I started writing songs just because it was challenging & frustrating & satisfying... hard to explain. I just loved doing it. I had no idea that it would become a career, I only knew that I HAD TO TRY, or I couldn't live with myself.
One day I would listen to what I had just written & it would sound better than anything on the radio. The next day the same material would sound like crap. I had no yardstick to judge by. And I was afraid to take my material to anyone for a long time; until finally it kind of happened by accident.
I connected with a music publisher who believed in me. I already had the INSPIRATION to write, but he taught me the CRAFT. The result was that artists & producers started showing interest in the demos of my songs.
Just as achieving success took awhile, the writing of each song takes time. "Angie Baby" for example: I started writing that song in the genre of Paul McCartney's "Lady Madonna". But the heroine of my early drafts was boring. So I started making her a little weird, then very weird; I even tried retarded. Finally she emerged as either crazy, or possessed of magic powers, or both (your choice)! Writing "Angie Baby" took me over three months (see “The Story of Angie Baby”, below.
This brings me to an important lesson I've learned: the joy of creating is in the process, not just in the result. If you love the process of what you do, it is its own reward; and anything else is just icing on the cake of life!
It's the trip, not the destination.
And when I say this, I say it to myself as well; for often, at the outset of a song project, my recalcitrant mind expects me to skip all the hard work, the experimenting & rewriting, and simply write the final draft right away!
This year I intend to create another CD as a recording artist. It may not end up on a big record label, or with a giant publisher, like 30 years ago; I'm doing it for me & people who like what I do. I still write (and co-write) some extraordinary songs, and I’m talking to friends who can help me along the way. Of course I hope my work gets exposure, and becomes number one on all the charts. Certainly that's one measure of success. But if none of that happens, I'll still be satisfied that I've followed my dream.
Since I have told my inner computer (my brain) that we're going to be working on this together, it has obediently started spitting out little gems of song ideas, concepts to write about, album titles, & ideas for marketing the finished product. Sometimes I can't seem to turn it off!
Making a commitment is very powerful. It seems as if the universe smiles & cooperates with you. Sometimes it sends you a signal to change direction; but, however it manifests, there is great force in a decision. Even if your decision is just to start trying different artistic experiments. Soon you are confused on a higher level!
One of my long-time friends is one of the top songwriters in the country, Diane Warren (Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me", LeAnne Rimes' & Trisha Yearwood's "How Do I Live", Toni Braxton's "Unbreak My Heart" & many more). You'll find her mentioned several times in this web site. Many times she has called me up to play a work in progress over the phone & ask my opinion, which of course makes me proud!
What keeps her on top, over the years, seems to be that her motivation is not just to have a hit song; but to write a really good song. Also, its interesting that some of her biggest commercial successes have not been what she considers her best work. And I can also tell you that, while many people remember her songs that "make it", she writes her share of mediocre material‚ ideas that never see the light of day, as well. Her life is largely about her writing, which she pursues with an obsession at the expense of everything else. So with this immense talent, firing buckshot, she's bound to hit something!
My mother (see the eulogy), depressed after stopping her teaching career of 35 years, joined a senior writing class in her late 80's. The little group gave themselves the assignment to write a one-page story or article for mutual sharing each week. I watched with great pride as this experience dramatically improved her outlook on life, helping her feel worthwhile & valuable. At 91, she was still going strong, with a large catalog of stories, memories, & insights about life which will live on virtually forever.
And I guess that ties in with my own aspirations as well. While there are always a few who would ask, "Do you write, or do you work for a living?", I feel extremely proud & fortunate to prosper while doing what I love. The process of songwriting is often a spiritual experience, as God's creativity seems to wash over me. When my work reaches others, a few, or a million, I am blessed again in the connection I feel. And knowing that my creations will outlive me is a great comfort indeed.
Since I don't have kids of my own, the opportunity to write & sing positive uplifting songs for the children of others has been another Godsend. I mean, I noticed that kids loved "Undercover Angel"; but it was not written for them, & some adults distorted the meaning. Now I've gotten to say to open little minds, "The Future Is Counting On You" (Muppet Babies), & sing about preserving rain forests (National Geographic's Really Wild Animals). More recently, I have hooked up with a wonderful organization called “Songs Of Love”, which gives me the opportunity to craft personalized songs for children with life-threatening illnesses.
Songwriter Pamela Phillips Oland once told me, "Happiness is a decision". Life is hard, & it's always changing, but if we expect that challenges & surprises are often just around the corner, then the worst of times are endurable, & the best of times are seen in their true light: a heavenly gift!