Songwriter U: Learning From Your Mistakes

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” -Albert Einstein

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“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”
James Joyce

The only way to learn, especially about a subject as nebulous as songwriting, is by making mistakes. You can’t learn to do something right without doing it wrong, and learning from the wrongness.  Making mistakes in your art is proof, as it’s been said, that you’re trying. No artist wants to make the same painting, or write the same song, over and over. But to create something new – especially in the face of all that already is – takes courage. Even if it doesn’t lead anywhere great, it is worth the attempt.

As George Bernard Shaw said,  “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, who could be quite funny, also endorsed the value of mistakes, but with a wise twist. “Learn from the mistakes of others,” she said. “You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

When it comes to songwriting, though, it seems you have to make all the mistakes yourself. At least I did. Almost every lesson learned in my songwriting life, which includes the writing, recording and performing of songs –  is one gained by making a mistake. Because songs are an audio experience, it becomes extremely obvious when listening to notice any glaring mistakes. What Simon called “the irritants.” (“Any irritants you hear,” he said “should be removed.”

The mistake becomes quickly indisputable. It is absolute, and for that reason, somewhat brutal, when realizing just how bad something sounds, and how far from the goal it is.

My first understanding of this in terms of recording was decades ago when I started recording some of my new songs. Building a track, I recorded vocal, guitar and cello (I did the first two, the great cellist Tomas Ulrich played cello) all at once, with the intention of overdubbing the other instruments – bass, drums, keys – also harmony vocals – on top of track.

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I had never recorded anything with drums before then. The only recording I’d ever done was acoustic guitar and voices, cello or bass, maybe a sax.

But this was in the old analog days, when we had no click track and nothing to set the rhythm. Playing guitar and singing at the same time, my time was not perfect. It sped up a little and then a little more. But that was the track I made, before the drummer came in to overdub his part.

He had a tougher time playing the drums on this track than I expected, because of the time shifting. He did his best and played admirably, but the rhythm was not solid. It wasn’t, as they say,  “in the pocket,” at all. It wasn’t even near the pocket.

I learned then that if the drums are not good – not in time, even – nothing you do is going to make it sound good. The concept of getting a good drum track and overdubbing onto it was something I didn’t know. Though I learned. I learned by doing it exactly wrong, I could hear with painful clarity how wrong that was. Had I never made that mistake, I never would have understood that as well.

The best way for me to record with drums, unless I cut a whole song live, which is different, is to lay down the tracks with me on guitar and voice and bass and drums. As long as the vocal is isolated (not bleeding onto the drum tracks), it can be a scratch vocal – meaning one that is there as a guide for the drums and other instruments  — to be replaced later.

I found this is best because I can get the drum track I want, and finesse that through many takes, until we got the great one that can serve as the foundation for the entire recording. By having the drummer play with the vocal – lyrics, melody – in his headphones, he can be playing to the full arc and feel of the song itself.

Sometimes a scratch vocal can be great, and can be used. Most of the time, though, I would replace it, and sing the new one to a fuller track. But all of this is an education based on doing it wrong first.

There are countless examples. Almost everything I learned about recording, as well as writing songs and the business itself, came from doing the wrong thing first. But I understood that without making those mistakes, I would never have learned. That being an artist means being willing to make mistakes, and being open to knowing they were mistakes, but not beating myself up for it.

When I put together my first band, one that became The Ghosters, I would ask anyone I met to be in it. Back then my priority was not if someone was great, but if someone was available. And also free. I didn’t pay people to be in my band, or do rehearsals. Back then I felt that if they were okay doing it for free, that has to be better- right?

No, not right. These are fundamental, obvious lessons in many ways, and maybe more obvious now than ever. Back then the world had yet to go digital, and easily accessing information like this was not possible.

The thing that kept me from understanding why getting pro musicians makes a major difference if the aim is to sound good was that I’d never played with a real band before. I did not know what the feel and sound of great drums were. To me, if there was a bass drum, snare, cymbals, sticks – and all those things were used – that was drums. Gradations of talent didn’t seem to register then.

We would have rehearsals regularly, sometimes several times a week. I wrote all the songs, sang and played guitar, with keyboards, bass and drums. Later on we had a sax player, too. But in this first incarnation, I’d bring in new songs I was excited about. Yet when I taught them to the band, and we started playing them, I’d get close to what I wanted, but never all the way there.

I knew it had to do with the drums. It didn’t have the feel I wanted, now was I at all sure how to fix it. I presumed the problem was my fault, that I wasn’t expressing my ideas to the drummer well enough. Keep in mind I wasn’t writing Zappa songs, with shifting rhythms of great complexity. My songs were fairly simple in the folk/rock realm.

Our drummer at the same was even younger than me, and I was just 22 then. He was a nice kid, but definitely felt like a kid. He did like my songs, more than I expected. But anytime I would suggest a feel for one of them, he’d say that it was a bad idea, that we’d done it before, and that this song required something else. I didn’t think he was wrong, as I knew it didn’t feel good. But I felt incapable of articulating what was wrong, or what I wanted changed.

All of this became crystal clear for me by going into a recording studio to begin recording what was to be our first album. It was an eight-track studio, which was small even then – as this was the days of 24-track already. Yet having eight tracks to me was exciting, and did not feel restrictive at all.

Once we set up and started to track our first song, which was called “Understanding,”  – a cosmic title in retrospect – as there was much understanding to be done – the truth became evident. I went into the control room to listen after we did a few live takes of the song. It didn’t sound great. It had that distinctly jumbled, flimsy rhythm I knew well from rehearsals.

Before I had a chance to tell the engineer that it sounded like that because of me, he gave me some advice. “You know,” he said, “you should get a real drummer. It will make all the difference.”

A real drummer? This guy was real, wasn’t he? After all, he had – as mentioned – drums! A whole set. And also sticks. What else does he need?

That is when I learned. He needs talent. Artistry. And diligence to play and work and play and to improve as a drummer. He needs a solid rhythmic core. He needs to be a time-keeper, in terms of maintaining a solid tempo, and not speeding up or slowing down. But he also needs to be a sensitive, creative musician who can hear a song and intuit the best drum part, which should be adjusted to the lyric, the tone, and the structure of the song.

But I had yet to learn that lesson completely. That happened when the engineer – who also owned the studio and became a lifelong pal – asked if I would consider bringing in a real drummer. He had several to recommend. It would cost some money, as the guy was a pro. But, as my new friend told me, “Trust me, this is worth it. If you want this album to sound good.”

It actually didn’t cost much to bring him in for a few hours, and just try it out. I sensed my friend was right, but I was not entirely convinced until we tried it. We did one of the songs which never sounded right to me. It was in 4/4 time – mid-tempo, rocker  – normal verse-chorus structure – nothing tricky. Up to now, every time we played this song, it sounded almost okay, but not quite. And not great.

This drummer, whose name was Tony and had a beautiful set of wooden Gretsch drums, had a whole different personality than my usually dour drummer, who always was discontent and worse. Grouchy. Surly.  Tony was full of joy. He laughed a lot, joked, and brought a lot of joy. Which in itself was a great change. He also played super loud. I had yet to learn that drums played like this – with a whole lot of power – sound best when recorded. The volume of the drums can be easily adjusted in the mix, but that strong attack sounds so much better on the snare, the toms, the whole thing.

Soon as I heard his drumming with my song – and then songs, as he played on the whole album – I was sold forever on good drummers. I remember thinking how dumb it was of me not to figure it out on my own. But I didn’t.

From this recording revelation I went right to my next big mistake. In the mix, so thrilled at the sound and solidity of the drum track, I mixed it with drums way up in the mix. Too far up. Too loud. Way too loud. At the time I wanted to ensure the drums wouldn’t be buried in the mix, and went overboard. And I mixed the drums too loud. For most of the album, it’s okay though not great. But on one song – a fairly delicate ballad, almost, they are way too loud. I hear it now and wonder, “What was I thinking?”

But every link in this chain of mistakes represented a new and important lesson. And once a lesson was learned, I did not repeat the same mistake. Not in music, anyway.

As soon as Tony started playing with us, I knew. Before four entire measures passed, I understood. Even then I felt somewhat foolish, because it’s so obvious – but that was the first moment I ever realized, as I was telling myself in my head, “Oh! That is why getting a great drummer matters!”

The moment he started playing, everything locked in, and we were solid and soulful at the same time. And it felt great. Beyond great. It was monumental.

On this one, he was playing a fairly simple, straight-ahead backbeat rhythm. But it was perfect. It felt great. It felt like suddenly I was driving a brand new Cadillac after years of piloting a beat-up Gremlin. Who knew driving could feel like this? I had no idea.

Suddenly,  I was driving the same exact route I’d been driving all year. Yet for the first time, it felt great.

It occurred to then that much of this music-making process could be easier than I understood, yet in my mind I was making it all seem more problematic and hopeless than it was. I tried so hard before that to determine why I couldn’t get what I wanted.

But what I needed was a great drummer. When you have that, it makes recording – and live performance – so much easier.

It led me to understand that if one plays only with exceptional, creative, confident musicians, that the music will be shaped by that exceptional creative confidence. Because the truth is that I did know the kind of drums I had in mind; I knew the tempo and the basic feel of it. When I would communicate this to our drummer, he’d say, “Naw…. We’ve done that before.” Instead of working with me to create the drum track, trusting that as the lead singer and songwriter I have a clear vision of this thing, he’d put up resistance.

When he’d say something had been done before, I’d say, “Well, that is all it needs though. The drums don’t have to be different on this one.”

He’d always look at me with palpable disrespect when I’d explain, the unspoken message being, “Dude, I’ve tried to steer you clear of  the usual, boring, bar band stuff. Your songs deserve better.”

This double-edged criticism always confused me. That he liked my songs meant a whole lot, because not many in this town had yet heard any. He was very into them. So for that reason, of course, I not only trusted him, I liked him. I respected his judgment.

But what he was missing was greatness. Which comes only from both talent and effort. Whereas Tony, who has played on many great and famous records, was a dream drummer – and ideal musician for a songwriter – in that anytime I would give him a suggestion about the kind of beat I wanted, he’d understand and then improve on it.

Invariably he’d say, “Yeah I can do that.” Or I could use that same pattern, but maybe do this…” And then he’d play something way better, something really great. It did everything needed, yet took it to a whole other drum level, holding that pattern down while bringing a soulful depth to it.

Ever since then, I have delighted in playing with great musicians and great drummers. The great John Molo – who played in Bruce Hornsby’s band and with other greats – played on my song “Clown Jam at The Moose Lodge” on my most recent album, Universal Cure.

Molo is not only an exceptional player, his sound on drums is uniquely his, with warmth, soul and clarity. Again, I had a fairly clear idea of the beat I wanted for this, which was funky and jazzy and not straight-ahead rock. He immediately got the feel, and suggested an option. And I’d say, “Yes! Do that! Please do that. ” Each of which was absolutely glorious. Instead of feeling, “Well, I don’t know, that doesn’t seem to fit that well, but who maybe I’m wrong,” I’d feel that happy rush of absolute rightness.

But had I never played with sub-standard drummers, I’d never have realized how important greatness can be.

I’ve also learned everything I know about songwriting in the same way. By making mistakes, and then gradually realizing why they were mistakes, and what not to do. There are countless examples of those as well, and also lessons learned about the industry, the business of being a performing songwriter, that I have gained gradually, sometimes painfully, over the years. Those I will save for the next article.

Till then, remind yourself not to be too harsh on yourself about about musical mistakes you’ve made. It is the best way to learn, by knowing what not to do. As Lou Reed said, he didn’t know how to write songs. But he know what not to do. So the process became not doing the things that are in your way. Learn about yourself, and don’t fall into the same potholes, or as David Bowie put it, stop crashing in the same car. Time has come to move on to the next mistakes. And beyond.

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