Susan Cattaneo is a Boston-based singer-songwriter releasing her fourth album Haunted Heart January 21st (buy it here). Her music has been played on country and Americana radio in over 30 countries, and she recently was a regional finalist for the New Mountain Stage contest. In addition to her performing career, Susan has been teaching Songwriting at the Berklee College of Music for 15 years.
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My grandfather was a very cool renaissance man. He was a doctor, a professional athlete, and a poet. He definitely had both his right and left brain firing on all fronts. And one of his favorite things to say was:
Begin and let the mind grow heated.
Begin and the work will be completed.
Creativity comes when you have a well-heated mind. So, how to we get the mind heated so we’re percolating with creativity?
There’s no fast trick to becoming a better songwriter. To be a better writer, you have to write. That’s all. Every day. Diligently.
Imagine you’re an athlete who wants to train for a marathon. It’s not possible to put on your sneakers and just run 26 miles. You have to train to get there. Songwriting isn’t any different. You have to do some form of daily writing that can help your flabby creative muscles get in shape.
There are many different approaches to daily writing. You can journal, write from a diary or do a form of sense bound writing. At Berklee, we call it object writing but I’ve also heard it called destination writing. The key is to get in a routine that makes writing a daily priority like brushing your teeth or drinking coffee.
Here are some guidelines to help you with that process!
WHERE DO YOU WRITE?
A few years ago, I used to try and write in the kitchen while my 2 and 4 year olds were eating breakfast. Needless to say, between the flying Cheerios and the split milk, I wasn’t getting a lot done. Some places in your house are more condusive to the creative process. I found that if I write in the kitchen, I end up housekeeping instead. I learned that I needed to actually carve out a place (in our livingroom) where I won’t be disturbed and where I can think clearly.
WHEN DO YOU WRITE?
I recommend that you write in the morning. Every morning. It wakes you up so you’re engaged creatively with the world around you, and it gets your ear ready to listen for hooks or phrases that you can use in a song.
WHAT DO YOU WRITE ON?
I have songwriting friends that use journals and others that use computers. What ever you choose as the place where you put your songs, make sure that there’s some way to organize your thoughts. For example, I have a friend who has a specific journal for hooks. This way, when he goes to a co-write, he can just pull out the hook book and see what he comes up with.
BEWARE OF THE VELVEETA SYNDROME
Ever write something and stop mid-write because you think it’s too “cheesy?” I call this the Velveeta Syndrome. And it’s terrible on your self-confidence and leads to thoughts of changing careers and giving up.
Allow yourself to write the bad stuff. No one is going to read these daily writings so don’t worry if some days, you feel like you aren’t writing wonderfully. Remember these writing opportunities are a chance to warm up creatively so that you can get to the good stuff that’s underneath all the cheese.
WHAT KIND OF WRITING DO YOU DO?
If you’re the kind of writer who’s more confessional in their songs, I would recommend journaling or diary writing. The Artist’s Way Morning Pages Journal by Julia Cameron is a wonderful book that uses this style of writing.
One of the most useful tools I learned when I was a student at Berklee is the concept of Object Writing. (Thank you, wonderful mentor, colleague and friend, Pat Pattison!) Object writing is when you take an object and describe it using your five senses:taste, touch, smell, feel, hearing plus your organic sense (what is your body doing, lungs, heart, muscles, etc.) and your kinesthetic sense which deals with your sense of movement, equilibrium and balance.
The key with object writing is to use the object to springboard you to a place (that you then describe using your senses). You’re not expected to rhyme or even use full sentences. People in general tend to rely on their sense of sight more than anything else when describing a scene. The key with this kind of writing is to get in touch with the other senses.
In these daily writings, it’s important to start using the lyric tools of simile and metaphor. If I want to say, the smoke rises from the chimney, it might be nice to use a simile to support that image. The smoke rises from the chimney like what?
Like a genie coming out of a bottle
Like a cobra rising from a wicker basket
Or let’s try making metaphorical language to transform smoke into something special:
Find a cool verb:
Smoke creeps from the chimney
Find a cool adjective:
The bitter smoke shouts from the chimney
Find a cool noun
The smoke is a funnel cloud swirling out of the chimney
Similes and metaphors help us “see” what you’re describing. And details in a song can mean the difference between engaging your listeners or boring them.
10 MINUTES AND YOU’RE FINISHED!
Object writing should be done first thing in the morning and for only 10 minutes. Set an alarm and when you’re 10 minutes are up, stop.
In the beginning, these 10 minutes are going to feel like 10 years. What usually happens is you get an idea around 8 minutes in. But when that buzzer goes off, it’s important that you stop. Why? By stopping in mid-creative thought, you’ll be longing to get back to that idea ALL DAY. The sleepy songwriter in you will be wide awake. All your senses will be on high alert for all the wonderful creative ideas that might come your way.
As you get more proficient at this kind of writing, the creative spark will happen earlier and earlier. To the point where you’ll be diving in the moment the clock goes off. Experienced object writers are able to get real song ideas out of their object writes. It’s a great tool and I totally recommend doing it!
Okay, it’s your turn now. See what you come up with. The key is to be diligent. The more you write, the better you write. The more you look for ideas, the more ideas will come to you. Heat your mind and the rest will follow!
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Get a free download of Susan Cattaneo’s “Done Better” below. “Done Better’ is a song about betrayal and forgiveness,” says Cattaneo. “It’s close to the heart for me, and I literally wrote the whole thing in about an hour. I love the fact that the first part of the song is just piano and vocals. Having that pared down sound really conveyed the vulnerability that I feel when I sing it.”