WRAP-UP: 9 LESSONS IN SONGWRITING (AND PROBABLY LIFE)

This year's February Album Writing Month (FAWM) took me to new places. Things that happened: I let the music inform the music for once and then let the logic of the lyric inform how it develop. This meant I had to listen more and differently. I wasn't channeling a place in myself so much as interacting with something that was emerging outside of my skin. I was the one to make the choices ultimately, but the song, itself, was usually already there. It felt more like being a sculptor than a transcriber. I'm still trying to figure out what went down.

Did I make anything great? Probably not.

But what I've created has left me more humble and in awe of the process. I learned something new and that hasn't happened for me with songwriting for a long time.

Let me start my saying that I came to my 13th year of February Album Writing Month with my original 2011 intention: free therapy. If you have never experienced the profound gloom of Pittsbugh in late winter, consider yourself lucky. I have the temperament for the Appalachian hills in February like I have the temperament for listening to people talk about audio engineering. Both feel like a cage. After last year's wandering out west, returning to these older hills and grey skies felt heavy.

FAWM rolled around and I was not my usual super fan self gearing up for the big game. I was showing up like someone lost in the wilderness and in need of water and shelter.

Now that it's concluded, I was considering doing a play-by-play wrap-up for each song but quickly decided that was way too self-indulgent for first draft sketches. So, I humbly submit a list of things I've learned this year about writing - and probably life - along with some audio and video samples of the songs.  My hope is that it will be of use to other writers or at the very least mark my process and possible direction for future published work. 

One disclaimer for the audio and video samples is this: I'm neither an expert musician nor an audio/video engineer. I don't apologize for this because I don't care to be either, but I thought it was worth mentioning so you can have the right expectation. These are first draft sketches and can be listened to as such. I am aware there are great reasons to not publish unpolished, unfinished work, but again, I don't care about that kind of thing. Process is where I like to live. 

9 Lessons in Songwriting (and Probably Life)

ONE | Establish your reason for doing something and be brutally honest that it lines up with your present, actual reality.

For me, acknowledging this year's intent was straight-up therapy allowed me to completely ignore thoughts of recording, publishing, audience, industry standards, peers, etc. I was free to reference myself alone and go wherever or however that showed up. Ironically - or maybe by design - doing this opened up doors for better listening to the material and for easier permission to do the bits that I like the most. And shouldn't that be everywhere in life?

TWO | Writing without rules is a good warm-up, especially if you've been away from the practice for awhile.

My song was a sloppy ruffled wave of a ditty, disturbing an otherwise serene lake. The lyric showed up on February 1, 2 a.m., during one of my groggy why-did-I-just-wake-up episodes. No lyric structure and no real rhyme, just a bunch of words about what's going on. I set it to a formless, long circular arc of chords until it fell into a tightly repetitious mantra and canon that became the last half of the song. This is a song structure I've never employed before. This helped set the tone to be present for every song coming after, because you never know where it will lead.

THREE | Dig into your tools and palette without getting distracted .

This was probably my biggest learning this year. My palette is limited: I play keys and I sing. My tool box is an old Yamaha, a Hype Mic, and Garageband. That's it. How can I make all this do more without getting lost? In my 2nd song, Night Drive, I started with a piano lead but early on switched it to synth as a pragmatic utility (I don't play any string instruments and guitar samples in Garageband are trash). 

This happy accident / utility opened up the song to entirely new territory and the synth sound design is now the song's feature. In other words, digging further into options that have integrity for me made the song work. AND likewise, avoiding the frustration of trying to mix, adjust or otherwise finagle any strings-in-a-box, or expecting piano sound to be more than what it is, kept me in a creative flow state. 

Another example was using my voice to build the parts. Singing is simply the quickest way for me to sketch and build an arrangement and it's a double-edged sword as I could layer harmonies forever for the fun of it. I found myself leaning in this year and also learning how to reign it in. In the process, I recognized just how signature my background vocal arrangements are and how important it is to not discard them as an arrangement feature if and when I take the song into the studio. 

So the lesson here is knowing what are your tools and palette and how can you work with them to expand what these can do without drowning? I think we do this intuitively in life, but sometimes it's useful to take the time to name this and consciously work with it to find out how it can serve the bigger picture.

FOUR | Listen to the music (AKA the environment) for the entire meaning.

Let the music tell you what the topic is for the song, the way the melody could go, how the harmonies can support, everything. Trust it will tell you what you need to know. 

FIVE | If you notice an edit you'd like to make, save it for later so you can keep creating but also don't wait too long 

A few days to one week is a good length of time for your second draft to clean up all the messes and things sticking out. For this reason I do all my instruments as MIDI. Given my level of musicianship, it's easier to fix timing or stray notes in the software than fussing over performance, especially before I'm fully committed to an approach. 

I recommend doing clean up and 2nd draft edits while the conditions of the original session are fresh, the original inspiration is close, your voice is the same, air/temp is similar, you're digging a particular sound, etc. This created initial closure (and for me, nervous system regulation) and every return encounter with the song idea will be starting from a place of foundational completeness. You will be able to correctly see and hear what is made and if more needs to be done. 

Most importantly, if you listen to imperfect things (to you) for too long it can start turning into what I call the Leaking Faucet Syndrome, when you just ignore a problem and inertia kicks in. Resist acclimating to less when it's not appropriate. This is how things fall apart. 

SIX | If you are stuck for words to fill the form you have created, ask yourself if you really need words or if there is another way to solve the gap.

In my 4th song, Before You Go, I discovered this was absolutely not lazy writing or a cop out, but rather a relaxed way to create a musical moment. The theme had been stated in the song by this point and I logically couldn't write more without introducing a new verbal thought, which I didn't want to do. Instead I added a musical thought and was happy to discover this variety makes the song more satisfying. So, what started as a frustration where I couldn't think of what else to say turned into a few bars of and open-hearted moment (hopefully!) with trombone and french horn. It's one of my favorite parts of the song and another happy accident from this year – one I'll remember to consider in future writing.

SEVEN | Take risks. Admit it, you know what this means for you. :)

Be more direct if it terrifies you. Finish the portion of the song where you have a clear vision even if you get butterflies that you won't have it in you to finish the rest. Publish something if you are worried about feedback (hello, low grade video reels!). Don't stop the flow in the moment because you are suspicious there is a road block in some distant future. Branch out to say things you don't understand if it feels right. Chances are when you listen back you will notice you have written something that will teach you. In rare circumstances, it will even be something you can live into. There are all kinds of ways you can risk a little. Call it play because that's what it is! It's how we get better.

EIGHT | Write for the music. 

Music isn't there as an administrative assistant to words; it's there to be in union. I've been on this quest for years, trying to find ways to marry words with music better. This year finally felt like a breakthrough. Three songs, in particular, helped me understand this more: Night Drive, Brightest Star, and Saturdays

My edge is always this: lyric-writing isn't my strong suit and so creating fully fleshed out music in advance of any lyric or theme idea feels a bit like leaning out over the ledge of a high bridge – one strong gust and I'm toast. These three songs invited me to lean way over the railing and I hung out there and didn't back down and I'm still in awe these songs are completed. 

For Night Drive the synth switch 100% made the lyric possible. I saw cinematic landscapes after dark, a conversations with ghosts and ancient inner constellations. 

For Brightest Star I was debating vandalizing a poem I'd written to fit the rubato art-song type structure I'd set up. I had my knife over the page and everything. Fortunately, I had coffee with a writer friend who had advised absolutely not. Write new lyrics for the music! I ended up stealing one phrase from the poem as the starting point and allowed the background vocals to be the sole arrangement tool.

After finishing my 5th song I really felt like I had finished my collection for the month. Therefore, I do not know what possessed me to go for the 6th song on the typical last night of the month of February, and I especially don't know why in the world I would have set up music for a song that needed a gazillion words. How did I know it needed a lot of lyrics, you may ask? Because it told me so. 

The way I sketch out lyrics is to do a sort of speaking in tongues thing where I vocalize vowel sounds and almost-words to help me know what feels right. God bless my little ambitious heart, I had identified an insane (for me) melodic structure for this one and only one single line had emerged from the jumble, “I tried on another life,” but I didn't know where that was supposed to lead.

Meanwhile, I kept having a nagging feeling the song was about ‘the weekend’ and I was drawing blanks about where to head with that as well. I was totally stalled out.

After dinner on the gift day of February 29, I muted my holy spirit vocals and asked a musician friend to take a listen to the music and tell me what it sounded like. He listened and within 1 minute he turned it off and said, “It sounds like Saturday.” I nearly peed my pants. I really couldn't believe he heard ‘the weekend’ in the music just like I had. By some miracle of fate or the music, I finished a lyric (see lyric video at the end of this journal entry). 

There is a part of this song that is the culmination of everything I was working with and learning this year. It also had one additional thing that makes it one of my favorite song moments of the month: the song has a musical lift which I'm not sure I've ever done before and honestly couldn't replicate in future writing to save my soul. It is another one of those happy accidents so I can't count it as a lesson learned. Yet. 

NINE | There is an element of fortune-telling in songwriting, and by this I mainly mean the lyrics. Be interested in casting spells that bring about the world in which you'd want to spent time.

Songs, once created, will weave their way deeply into your life and consciousness if you are a recording or performing artist. You and your audience will hear it over and over. What spell are you casting? Be consciously in agreement with the spell you are casting. 


Overall, this was a vulnerable, trust-filled songwriting month for me. I allowed myself to ground myself into my select palette of voice and keyboard and still found ways to take risks. I wrote for myself and to myself – pep talks, soft rants, reverence and resolution - and realized there is contentment not far under the restless surface. I'm ok.

After sharing my lessons from the year, it may seem surprising to also confess that I'm not as enthralled by the songwriting process as I once was. This year taught me that very clearly. Paradoxically, it also taught me that songwriting is intrinsic to my wellbeing. I guess we all have our thing. I have no need to rush towards writing but I also cannot walk away. 

To close out this journal entry, below is my attempt at a lyric video for the complete first draft of Saturdays. The image is a doodle sketch I made. A sketch with a sketch. Sketchy.

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