We all struggle with writing at times.
But one of the reasons that that is the case is because we don’t know all the great workarounds that some of the best in the business have figured out (even if that means just keep at it). Sometimes, just a nudge in a new direction is all it takes to get back on the right path toward completion and creativity.
Well, you’re in luck!
Here, we ask some successful artists—from Molly Tuttle to Wolf Alice to John Doe, Five for Fighting, and other Grammy Award-nominees and winners—for their techniques, insights, and tips.
“Something that helps me is just sitting down and not trying to write a whole song but just brainstorming titles or ideas, keeping lots of notes on your phone that you can go back to. That’s something I did for my new album Crooked Tree. I decided on some themes that I wanted to write about and I made a list of titles. And a lot of them I ended up writing and some of them ended up on the record!”
“It happens very differently for me each time. Sometimes I might have a horn line, or something, that I might put down on my trombone but it turns into the foundation. I might have a bass player take that over, but in my mind, it started as a melody. I don’t know if it’s a tip, but the way it normally works for me is I try to create an atmosphere, musically, first. And then after I create that atmosphere, sometimes I’ll be in there and be like, ‘Oh, this feels like something we can dance to in a backyard BBQ.’ Or ‘This seems like something you would hear in a stadium.’ I let the sound guide me. So, I try to create an atmosphere and then go off of the feeling that it gives me. And then I’ll think about everything else.”
Buzz Osborne (of Melvins)
“The only way to write songs is to spend a TON of time doing it. A lot of your life will fall by the wayside as a result. That’s how it goes. If you want to do it right you have no choice.”
John Ondrasik (of Five for Fighting)
“Play Live. Your audience will tell you more about your song than any music executive, friend, or family member.”
“My process is kind of like a hot date. The mood must be set: usually a country cabin with no distractions and good lighting. I have to get warmed up—most of my best ideas come after seeing live performances: Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls, Sara Bareilles, or Brandi Carlile. And of course all the toys—rhyming dictionary, pen and paper, guitar and recorder.
“I can always write a song once I have a title written down at the top of my paper. I find that when I focus on the purpose instead of the form, the lyrics and chords will then flow out of me simultaneously and almost write itself.”
John Doe (of X)
“After you think the song is done, wait ’til you can see it with fresh eyes, then edit all the unnecessary words and be sure your connecting articles are the best ones.”
Jessica Dobson (of Deep Sea Diver)
“For songwriters (like me) that can tend to labor extensively over lyrics and details, giving yourself a time limit to write a song is often the best tool. Give yourself two hours, write quickly, and don’t be precious. You might walk away with a finished song, or a fragment that leads you to something else or worst-case scenario, you merely practiced writing songs which is still time well spent.”
Ellie Rowsell (of Wolf Alice)
“Always be curious about everything going on around you and keep your ears open all the time. I could never just wake up and say I’m going to write a song today and go into a room and try it. It’s more that I’m storing up influences from everything, from different words—just everything. So, my tip is just to write things down. When something sparks your interest, write it down quickly because otherwise, you’ll forget it.”
Bonnie Bloomgarden (of Death Valley Girls)
“Everyone can write a song, but not everyone is a songwriter. If you are a songwriter, pay attention to your songwriting process. The biggest and most reassuring thing I realized before we went in to record our last album is that I had been writing that record my whole life. Every single thing I had ever learned or emotion I ever had was available to me to be used—not just what we had written in the month since we started writing this particular record.
“The songs on this record, and every song we have recorded, have been brewing for years. And my only job is to honestly and fully channel them in the studio. Once my body is in the studio, that is actually finally the moment they are fully prepared to be recorded! You can cram or stress out for as long as you want before you record, but honestly, you’ve already been doing the work every day your whole life.
“That might be your process, to freak out, but recognize it as a piece of your puzzle so you know what to expect next time. Once you know what to expect from yourself you won’t feel as bad when you worry. Just reframe and remember that’s just your style. You’ve been preparing for this every time you wait at a stoplight, or you look at the sky. You are preparing. You’re doing great.”
Sade Sanchez (of L.A. Witch)
“I really enjoy playing around with other instruments, especially bass. I just got a few drum machines that have been really fun. It helps me to start with a more simple layer—that way I’m not compromising my guitar parts. Sometimes when I start writing with the guitar, I tend to compensate for the non-existent musical parts which end up potentially threatening what the guitar parts could be.
“Another thing I love to do is play to a loop pedal. I can jam to a riff or bass line, or even a simple drum beat. It especially helps when I’m trying to figure out specific guitar riffs and solos.”
“I think of songwriting as the mix of discipline and mystery. The mystery is catching inspiration wherever it shows up. Have a place to keep phrases and musical melody fragments as they emerge. The discipline is a practice of going to those wells of inspiration and developing them. Was that melody a bassline or a horn line? Was that lyric fragment a chorus or a first verse? The only way to find out is to work it out.
“The other songwriting tip is rest. A long time ago, I discovered that if I take two days off, I write a song. When it comes to creativity, time off from the work can also be the work. In other words, care for yourself and your well-being. That tends the garden too.”
“I’ve come up with the initial ideas for some of my favorite songs by messing around on the guitar passively. I’ll be moving my hands around on the fretboard without thinking, while I’m talking to a friend or watching something on TV, and then all of a sudden I’m caught off guard, and I’ll realize what I’ve been subconsciously playing sounds really sick. If you’re having writer’s block, it can be helpful to remember that sometimes when you let go of control, songs will just come to you.”
Genessa Gariano (of The Regrettes)
“Let your brain relax when you’re writing. I think that’s my biggest thing. If I’m tense and I’m thinking about writing, I tend to not come up with things that are my best. And relaxing—actually, our producer, Jacknife Lee, when we were working on something, I was really in my head, I was having a funny day, and he said something to me. He said something along the lines of ‘A confident idea will always win over a less confident idea.’ Or something like that.
“Like in anything, if you go at it with confidence, it’s always going to win over something that’s less confident. So, I think letting go. And just being sure of yourself. Just do it, make it, whatever it is—write a bad song and get that bad song out so then you can write a good song later. I think that’s the best thing, just keep going. And write all of the bad songs you possibly can, all of the bad licks, everything, let it all out. Because one day that bad song is going to be a good song.”
Josh Klinghoffer (of Pluralone)
“Finding new ways to write, and sing about the world I see is my coming face-to-face with infinity.”
Photo of Molly Tuttle by Samantha Muljat / Sacks & Co.