Monthly Archives: November 2007

Songwriting is not work

I went to a 2-hour songwriting workshop today at Swallow Hill in Denver, given by songwriter Tom Kimmel. My personal takeaway was, stop using the term “work” when thinking about songwriting. I will no longer say, “I’m going to *work* on a song now”. Work–ugh! Who wants to work? That’s no fun. A song is not a *chore*; something to get done; something to cross off the todo list. From now on I’m going to say, “I’m going to *play* with this song”. I’m going to “have some fun”. On the surface it sounds like just different terminology for the same thing, but behind the terminology is a completely different attitude. When it comes to chores, I procrastinate. No problem with procrastination when it comes to fun. But more importantly, “work” and “play” use different parts of the brain. “Work” uses the logical, editor part of the brain, and “play” uses the creative, imaginative side. I think the reason I’ve been having trouble getting songs done is that I need to be in the creative mode more than the logical mode.

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The Solution to Writer’s Block: write crap, have fun

I emailed a songwriter friend of mine, Kathy, and asked how she’s doing. She replied:

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I’m Ok. Pretty tired. I need to schedule some more shows. I have been lazy. I also tried to write a song today. i am really haviing a hard time with my inner critic. i just don’t like what I am writing and haven’t got much inspiriation.
I am starting to feel like I won’t write another song.

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I replied:

There’s tricks you can do to overcome that, you know. :) The main thing is, take the pressure off, banish the critic; bound and gag her and lock her in the closet. Then let the playful, creative side of you just have fun, with no expectations.
Do something weird. Write an acapella song. Put the capo in a weird place. Start with a chord you NEVER start a song with. Try a song in DADGAD. Write a really stupid, corny song. Nobody will ever have to hear this stuff. Write a song that’s so personal and depressing and suicidal that you would die of embarassment if anyone were to ever hear it. Invent a character and write a short story about the character. Write a poem. Write two poems. Just have fun. No expectations of any of this becoming a song. Consider it practice; exercises.

That’s my advice, for what it’s worth. :)

-Rob

*****

Then I wrote her again:

Kathy,

After sending you my advice, I remembered this. Following my own advice, I was sitting out on my front porch in the late afternoon/early evening, not long after Song School, and said I’m gonna try something goofy. I’ll go through my notebook of observations, pick a phrase, and just start writing from it. About a year ago I would walk around my neighborhood with a mini-cassette recorder and just make random observations. One of those was “a window with no curtains”. So I wrote that down on the tablet, and just started writing, with no idea where I was going to go. Here’s what happened:

The Window with no Curtains
by Rob Roper 1st draft Sept 5, 2007

This window had no curtains
And the light was always on
You could see the furniture in the living room
an antique sofa
antique chair
coffee table
end tables
oil painting over the sofa

But I never saw anyone in that living room
You wondered if anyone even lived there?
They must always be in a back room– a den, a “family room”
This must be the “formal” living room
For show– not for human habitation
Seems like a waste
Like a museum
But a museum that no one ever visits

But still, they have to clean it
Dust the shelves
Clean the furniture
Sweep and mop the floor
Funny how a room without life still gets dirty

I want to break in when they go on vacation
invite a bunch of teenagers over
Buy ’em some cheap beer and cheap wine
Tell ’em to have a party
Get drunk, dance, have sex, vomit on the floor
Wreck the place
and least then it would have been lived in.

No, that’s mean.
I should have empathy for these people.
I bet they’re lonely.
I bet they have no fun.
I bet they’re sad.
I should show up one night with a bunch of friends.
Knock on the door, invite ourselves in.
Bring some good beer, good wine, good whiskey.
We’ll show ’em how to party
and be happy.
We’ll use that room.
We’ll dance and drink (but we won’t vomit)
Get out the guitars and sing songs til 4 in the morning.

Of course it would never happen.
But now, when I walk past that house
And look in the window with no curtains
and the light on
and the undisturbed furniture
with nobody in it
I smile.

That will probably amount to nothing, but it gets the creative juices flowing, and it was fun!

-Rob

*****

Kathy wrote back:

thanks Rob! I will give it a try. I like the poem. It is good visualization. Kind of like a kid story, but with booze and vomiting.

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I wrote:

Yes, go write something stupid like that! It might get you going! This should be fun, not work.

-Rob

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Kathy wrote back a couple days later:

I never used the word stupid!! But I did write somethng that was just talking and not trying to be artistic. It felt better and now I want to write some more.

Thanks

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I replied:

Yes! and stupid is ok, if it gets you writing again!

*****

Actually, I can’t take full credit for this advice. I stole it from Peter Himmelman. At his workshop at the Rocky Mountain Song School in 2004, a young girl said she had made an album, but was now suffering from writer’s block. Peter told her, “write crap”. He said it’s important to keep writing, even if it’s not serious. It doesn’t have to be recorded, nobody has to see it. But it keeps you in practice. And you never know, while trying to write crap you might accidently write something good. I never forgot that.

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The Importance of Detail in Songwriting

A new music discovery for me is a songwriter named Kevin Quain. Last summer, at the Irish Festival in Littleton, Colorado, I heard a great band called The Town Pants. They played a song called “Mr. Valentine’s Dead”, which I thought was great. I bought their cd with the song, and, upon reading the cd booklet, saw that it was written by somebody named Kevin Quain. I googled him, found his website, made friends with him on myspace, and bought his 3 cd’s. Turns out this isn’t the only good song he’s written, he has a lot of great songs. But I want to use “Mr. Valentine’s Dead” as an example of how the use of detail really helps a song. Here’s the lyrics:

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Mr. Valentine’s Dead
by Kevin Quain

Mr. Valentine’s dead, and he’s drinking Manhattans
singing a coal miner’s tune
in his daddy’s tuxedo, and Fred Astaire shoes
he’s the best looking corpse in the room.

Mr. Valentine’s dead, and the angels are waiting
down at the end of the bar
Well they’re drinking martinis, and laughing at nothing
smoking Havana cigars

Chorus:
Have you ever seen dead men dancing so lightly?
Did you ever hear corpses who sing?
Mr. Valentine’s dead, and the angels will take him
but not ’til he’s finished his drink.

Mr. Valentine’s dead, but it won’t slow him down
He’s determined to stay on his feet
And he bangs on the table, and orders a round
and pays with the gold in his teeth

Mr. Valentine’s dead, and he’s singing in Spanish
wearing a rose in his hair
Now the angels are howling, and drinking tequila
shooting their guns in the air

(Chorus)

Mr. Valentine’s dead, but he still loves a party
He’s always the last one to leave
And he hangs down his head, and cries like a baby
when the band’s playing “Goodnight, Irene”

Mr. Valentine’s dead, but he’s never looked better
Tell the priest we won’t need him tonight
Tell his mom to stop crying, and the band to keep playing
’cause the angels are too drunk to fly

(Chorus)

*****

Notice the detail. First of all, the guy has a name–Mr. Valentine. He’s not having a drink; he’s “drinking Manhattans”. He’s not just singing any old song, he’s singing “a coal miner’s tune”. And so forth. To drive home the point, let’s subtract all the details, and replace them with generic lines that essentially mean the same thing, and see how it affects the song:

Mr. Valentine’s Dead – Rob Roper’s butchered version with detail removed

A man is dead, and he’s having a drink
singing an old folk song
in an old suit, and old dancing shoes
he’s the best looking corpse in the room.

The man is dead, and the angels are waiting
down at the end of the bar
Well they’re having drinks, and laughing at nothing
smoking expensive cigars

Chorus:
Have you ever seen dead men dancing so lightly?
Did you ever hear corpses who sing?
The guy is dead, and the angels will take him
but not ’til he’s finished his drink.

The man is dead, but it won’t slow him down
He’s determined to stay on his feet
And he bangs on the table, and orders a round
and then he pays for it

The man is dead, and he’s singing a song
acting silly
Now the angels are howling, and having drinks
acting reckless

(Chorus)

The guy is dead, but he still loves a party
He’s always the last one to leave
And he hangs down his head, and cries like a baby
when the band’s playing his favorite song

The man is dead, but he’s never looked better
Tell the priest we won’t need him tonight
Tell his mom to stop crying, and the band to keep playing
’cause the angels are too drunk to fly

(Chorus)

*****

It’s still a pretty good song; there’s still the humor of a dead guy who’s still behaving as if he’s alive, and the funny stuff about the angels. But not as good. Don’t you miss the “Fred Astaire shoes” and things like that?

For many songwriters–including me when I started out– the second, butchered version is closer to what we write, at least on the first draft. I’ve learned to run my songs through a “detail filter”, and if there’s no detail, to add some. For example, instead of saying, “I was walking down the street”, say “I was walking down Maple Street”. Instead of saying, “It was morning”, say “It was seven in the morning” and so forth. Instead of saying, “an old man”, say “Mr. Valentine”. It’s more interesting, don’t you think?

-Rob

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