“You want to be a writer- don’t know how or when? Find a quiet place and a humble pen” – Paul Simon
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”- Steven King
Bruce Springsteen in the brilliant The Defiant Ones: “It was indulgent, but sometimes YOU NEED TO BE INDULGED.”
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When I get confused (which is more than I would like to admit), when I’m working too hard on the business side of music or just focusing on everything negative instead of remembering to be grateful for all the good things, when I’m saying yes to everyone and not leaving a space for myself, when I’m on the phone till my ear is red, when I’m believing the hype that social media is the only key to a career, etc., etc…
I write in my little Moleskine journal, right in the middle of the sheet with NOTHING ELSE on that page:
The songs will save you.
And they will, and they do. Maybe you are not a songwriter, but whatever hobby or creative endeavor, whatever peaceful thing that brings you back to the spinning of your own wheels—sports, working out, playing instruments, helping others—whatever your passion, whatever speaks to you (that doesn’t hurt another), protect that sacred thing and give it some time to flourish every day. Even if just for a few moments. Make it the first thing if you can.
When I can write a little bit in the a.m., even if nothing else good happens that day, even if the schedule is crazy and I’m barely keeping up, if I keep the creative side of my brain active, then I’m OK. Even if that song never gets heard (and don’t get me wrong—I want at least some of ’em heard), I’m OK. And maybe someone won’t hear it or find it or I won’t be able to sing it worth a damn for years (I’m not Pavarotti, as anyone who knows this music knows, thank the heavens for Eon)—but it exists. I got it out, and it always makes me feel better. Always. Doing the work always wins. When you don’t, things get cluttered, and other things begin to lose their luster. You get resentful or selfish, and no one wants to be around that, especially the kind of people you want to be around.
My blessing and my curse is I’m not confined by genre. What lives on the band’s social media, especially YouTube and Spotify, is basically rock/blues/Latin folk—song-based/loud/guitar-driven. But the hundreds of songs I have in the film/TV catalogs are hybrids of many things—sometimes one instrument (and not a guitar), sometimes very soft and 10 minutes long. The more I write, the less I really care about any of the lanes, and thankfully, more and more young people don’t care about genre either—they care about people being authentic. As we dig as writers and human beings and reinvent ourselves and hopefully become better versions of ourselves all the time, we will reach our tribe and be less concerned about what is “mainstream.” I look forward to continuing that process and figuring out ways of incorporating all the styles I love into songs that don’t ever pull away from a feeling or a world. I naturally love big brash heart-on your-sleeve bands, so I tend to write a little “poppy” sometimes anyway—but I LOVE lyrics that can transcend genre. I love a melody that sounds good with the words, even if you can’t understand the words. Great songs don’t even have to be in your language. You can feel when the artist is being true (I find this listening to Caesaria Evoira all the time).
The one thing that works for me is just to remember that the voice and the guitar are ENOUGH. I am very lucky to still have the same classical guitar I first bought for $95 at Jim Starkey Music center in Wichita, Kansas, many moons ago. That thing is a platinum sword against all that is fearful and gone wrong in the world. It is a savior, a comfort, a friend, and a place to fill the well. It always has another secret to tell if I can just settle myself and be patient enough to DO THE WORK.
Working with our current producer, Matt Wallace, was interesting ’cause I sent him 30 to 40 songs, and he picked the songs—but the genre was still wide. It sounds like the same record because it’s pro and clean and very live. Drums, bass, and guitars went down together. My voice was in a little trouble when I recorded it—was getting over a throat thing (rare for me, thankfully)—but the record is real and honest, and we have played the hell out of it live. (There have been times I thought Jesse’s drums would set on fire and Eon would crack the school theaters in half with her high note on “Troublemaker.”)
Every time I start looking at a new collection of songs, I have two opposing forces. One is whatever set of songs I’m working on that is NEW (which I’m always way too excited about because I get bored with old material so fast). The other is the songs that might work great live, even if they aren’t my best lyrics. There are songs that just sound great to sing even if the lyrics on the page aren’t exactly Shakespeare. I see this in many of my favorite artists. Of course, in a perfect world, you want songs with melodies and lyrics that can drop down and do push-ups and stand on their own forever. But you can’t put yourself under this pressure every time. I always swing for the fences, but you will win some and lose some, and you just gotta keep showing up.
The songs will save you.
The good ones you remember. You can sing the hook pretty quick even if you haven’t heard it in years. There’s at least one line in there that stabs you (my friends Carter Hulsey and Terry Quiett both do this very well). The title is decent and grabs you. You can go a lot of places just from a good title alone.
Some songs are haunted. You have tried to crack them and get at their center too many times, and they just laugh at you and fade if you don’t wrangle them to the ground quick enough. They challenge and taunt you a bit. The moment you flip the notebook and see them—”OH, HI, you again? Gonna move this bridge one more time? Think it’s gonna make a difference, you dumb-dumb? Gonna try to just fly in another song’s chorus? Good luck. It don’t work like that.”
Jesse and I worked on a song called “Sound of a Gun” once a year for years and could never make it work. Jesse fell in love with one of the demos, and he was right, but I could never live with the arrangement. I know if I can leave it alone long enough and get some more knowledge under my belt, the riddle of that song will reveal itself one of these days.
I’ll close with a story a club owner once told me that has been very helpful over the years. A cat named Aubrey at a bar named Two Frogs in Ardmore, Oklahoma, told me that an artist came through one time (might have been Joe Bonnamassa) and Aubrey asked him, Will you play THIS HIT and THIS HIT? And will you play THIS? (All us artists get sick of playing the few songs that we might be lucky enough most of the crowd knows. I used to do this in Wichita with a song called “Cathedrals.” I WAS LUCKY ANYONE ASKED FOR IT AND I SHOULD HAVE PLAYED IT EVERY TIME. :-))
The artist said he was like a jeweler coming to town with a little velvet pouch full of their most requested songs. They put the best ones out on the table and say, “These are my jewels. This is the best I have. Of course I’m gonna show it to you.”
Put the songs people want in the damn setlist. If you don’t like it, don’t put it out. This is not rocket science. We aren’t jukeboxes and it’s our setlist and we should ALWAYS be taking risks and trying new things, but as my friend Wade says, GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT. 🙂
I used to fight it all the time, trying to prove something to myself. There was probably something self-destructive there as there usually is when you are arguing with your own success.
Sting once said, “My job is to make ‘Roxanne’ sound like it’s the first time I’ve sung it every night for the rest of my life.”
If we have written a song good enough, it should have steel cables running through it. It can bend and not break. It can be twisted up and made into something else to give YOU and the AUDIENCE what they want. As my hero Glen Hansard of The Frames/The Swell Season once said, timeless songs are like old furniture—steady and strong and ready to move through three generations.
I think the only way to bulletproof your career, especially today where the music business is like a satellite flying through the air with pieces breaking off of it all the time (thanks, BM), is to write timeless songs. Get better. Again—do the work and stop worrying about the result so much. As Stephen King says in the brilliant On Writing (I’m paraphrasing), You can’t aim a story like a bullet. By the time you are chasing something, it’s already gone when you get there anyway.
So, I challenge you songwriters/creatives in general to write every day, share your work (I’m bad about this), and just enjoy the process. If you set out to write a hit, you are already had—you are working from ego. But you can sit down and just try to tap into the biggest world you can. Something YOU know is true will be true for someone else. After the idea gets going, don’t smash it up, trying to be all things to all people. The production can make it more palatable, and that’s a fun thing, but the seed of the song is sacred and shouldn’t be hammered into shape trying to guess the marketplace. The marketplace wants truth more than ever, and I am finally, finally learning to trust that.
The songs will save you.
Thanks for joining me for these rants. See you next Weds and hit me up at all social media @goodingmusic.
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