Songwriter U: Connecting with the Joy

When you have fun writing a song, that fun is injected into the song

Perhaps the most persistence challenge for songwriters in modern times is simply not to get derailed. To stay on track. It’s the challenge of most people these days, as there’s so much that can get in the way. But as songwriters know, the writing of a song is not easily done if there’s too many distractions, or obstacles, which throw you off course. In time of great chaos, to connect with the source of song is especially tough.

But the only way to stay connected is not to let go. To keep going. Music itself, especially if you can play it, is a force which can lift your spirits, and help you focus. Simply playing a guitar or piano is meditative; by playing music and hearing it immediately in the world, you have an instant connection in the real world, and you’re subject to that which you create yourself. That musical loop can focus your creative self, and help you to shed the distractions and worries of life temporarily. 

As many know and have affirmed, the only true way to stay connected to the source is by continuing to do it. By always writing songs, songwriters keep their creative wheels rolling, and their creative muscles flexed, so as not to essentially start over each time.

But you have to keep in mind that this entire enterprise is built on your attitudes. If you come to songwriting with any negativity, it will impact what you do powerfully. Put away all any voices telling you why not to write a song, or why it won’t be good. Approach it with the understanding that there are songs in you, but you need to get out of your own way to let them through. 

Instead, as Lamont Dozier explained, say yes to the song. There are no bad days, he said, when writing songs. There’s good days and learning days. Those days when you don’t get all the way there are days from which you can learn. 

When you do have fun writing a song, that joy is injected into the song. It is not carefree, reckless fun. As Laura Nyro said, to her songwriting is a playground, because there is joy there. But, she said, it’s a serious playground. While having fun, you still seriously shape the song and realize it fully. You hear that spirit of fun in Laura’s songs, always, and in the songs of The Beatles, and Stevie Wonder. That joy of the process is instilled forever into the song. 

Techniques for doing this vary. But any way you can make it fun, and change up your usual approach, can be fruitful. Be playful. Make up games that trigger new songs. And have fun playing these games, essentially taking yourself off the hook, to paraphrase Loudon Wainwright III. By which he means to make no demands on your creative psyche.

“Do not let the critic become bigger than the creator,” said Randy Newman. Instead, enjoy the process while suspending the critical voice that might intercede.

Peter Case told us recently that he tricks himself into writing songs. As do I, and many songwriters, in our own ways. I asked him if he always fell for the trick, and he said no, and had to come up with new ones.

I’ve used the same trick for years, and always fall for it. Because it’s fun. I tell myself it is time to write a song just for the joy of writing, one I’ll never play for anyone else. Soon as that pressure to be brilliant is lifted, the psyche is free, and I find myself skating down songwriting avenues I’d never been on before. At which time I realize this one is not a joke, and then get busy with some serious revision, culling the best of what I’d generated.

Eurythmics founder and co-writer of so many songs, Dave Stewart, is famous for the use of fun in his collaborations. 

“Artists are so used to coming up with songs under pressure,” he said. “But if you remove that pressure and simply have fun, there is no limit to what you can do.” It’s essentially the same process, to silence the critical voice while embracing the joy of songwriting, and it’s been tremendously effective, as he’s collaborated on great songs using this method with a host of legends, including Dylan, Jagger and Nicks.

This also coincides with my favorite songwriter game, TopTune, a Los Angeles show conceived by songwriter-maestro Jonathan Menchin. Six songwriters participate, and are paired into three duos. Each duo chooses a title randomly from a hatful of titles, and then has a half-hour to go away and write a song. Later, each returns and performs their new song, of which one is chosen as the winner. Remarkably, many great songs are written every time. It’s a great game to play yourself as a fun way to unlock that creative door.

Essentially, there’s no time to wait for inspiration before writing a song. You must create your own assignments. Try it.

But do it always in the spirit of fun. This is a game, and one that is fun to play, designed to break you out of familiar habits to reach something truly new.

For example, if you usually write songs to a title, or a lyric, reverse that approach, and write a complete melody first, after which you write a lyric that fits. If you usually write melodies by playing chords, or singing to a track, write a melody on its own, separate from any chords or track.

If you usually write music-first, turn that around. Write an entire lyric and then set it to music.

To embrace Leonard Cohen’s wisdom that the “more specific a song is, the more universal,” one must embrace that which makes one unique. No other songwriter can write your song. To get to that unique song, I often give songwriting students the assignment to write a song about their hometown, using as many concrete details as possible.

Always I’ll remember one young woman confessing that she was unable and unwilling to do this assignment. She was from Warsaw, she said, which represented nothing but “darkness and sorrow” for her. I suggested she write that song. A song about why Warsaw is nothing but darkness.

She reluctantly agreed. The song she performed the next week, to a haunting yet triumphant minor-key melody and jazz groove, was exceptional. Rather than hide from the darkness, she dove directly into its heart and came out with an amazing song she might never had written. Though I didn’t tell the other students, her’s was the best song written by anyone that year.

So reject excuses not to write a new song, and get on your rocking-horse of fun. Try any one of these. And have fun as you see where it leads you. Get out of your own way and your own ego and preconceptions, and embrace that which brought you here in the first place: the joy of song.

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