A lot of folks’ emails are asking if I can tell them whether an idea is good and worth pursuing. Though I’d love to give an answer, I generally believe it’s better to teach a man to fish, than hand him a fish. This is what my mentors did for me and I’m lucky he didn’t give me the answers. Instead, they gave me questions! So, I’d like to share with you some questions I ask myself before spending too much time on an idea:
Does your song idea feel real or clever? Real always trumps intellectual or clever in my book! I like to find a lot of ideas that happen naturally in conversation. Like when I, or the person I’m talking to, says something with conviction. I’ve gotten some of my biggest songs this way. Especially with artist co-writes. Artists are great at expressing themselves. That’s their job! So, I like to take things they say and feel — and then write it!
I can spot the affliction of Write-Up-Itis among songwriters immediately, the moment I see them, because I have battled this dreadful and potentially fatal disease in the past. The symptoms generally start after you write the first song that you think is really commercially viable. A slight fever starts to develop. You get what I call “the bug”. The bug leads to hallucinations. You see yourself driving along in your car when you hear a familiar intro come on the radio. The RADIO. Not the CD player. The real live FM radio! The intro fades into an opening line that you would know anywhere.
You wrote it. A SUPERSTAR is singing it. Luke Bryan, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Kenny Chesney. You pull over and just soak in the moment. Then, the guy behind you starts to honk and you are jolted back to reality. That’s not your song on the radio. It’s another one written by Mrs. X, the hottest writer in town.
What Does Creative Flow Feel Like? 1. You feel completely focused. So much so that you forget your personal needs. You may even forget to eat for hours while you are working! 2. You have a clear vision of what your art should sound or look like while working on it. 3. You are certain the task at hand is attainable. You find that perfect balance of your current skill level and the challenge that is in from of you 4. You feel an energizing power that seems to come from outside of you. Even if you were tired and brain dead before beginning, the work revitalizes you and gives you energy you didn’t know you had. 5. You lose yourself in completely in your work and feel totally at peace.
If you are trying to get a song recorded on a major artist, you are competing with professional writers who write a song almost every day. Those professionals are pumping out more than 200 songs a year in many cases. The sheer volume of material they produce increases their chances of getting a cut exponentially. Why, you might ask? Here is a story to illustrate. Recently, I pitched a song to an A&R person for a big shot artist. She responded that she loved the song, but she thought that it had already been cut. I told her that I had no knowledge of it being recorded.
I had my former publisher (who published the song in question) look into the situation. They discovered that the song was scheduled to be the first single for a rising star artist that had just been signed to a major record deal. Neither I nor my publisher had any idea that the artist in question was planning to cut the song.
I have discovered that there are many reasons people write songs. Sometimes we assume that everyone writing a song must want a major artist to record it. While that is true for many writers, it’s not the real motivation for many others. Based on my “survey” through my fellow writers, here are some of the more popular reasons people write songs:
They feel like they have something to say. Many people write because they have a message they want to share with the world. Sometimes the message is religious or moral. Sometimes it’s an attempt to share something positive with the world. Other times, the writer is promoting an idea or cause they believe in.
They were “inspired” to write. I have had many people tell me that they just “woke up with this song in their head” or that they were “given” a song and didn’t really know where it came from. Sometimes inspiration just strikes, and it seems as if we are simply writing it down as it comes to us.
One ordinary Tuesday, I went to a co-write with really low expectations. My co-writer and I were going to try to finish a song that I wasn’t really in love with. But we had decided we would finish it, so I drove to his house. We started working on the song and when lunch time came, we had not even added one word to the song. So, we decided to take a break and come back to the song after we ate. On the way back from lunch, he asked “Do you like the song we are working on?” I replied, “Not really, but I thought you liked it.” He laughed and said, “I don’t like it – I thought you did!” Beside the fact that we both were happy about our mutual respect (without saying it out loud), for working on a song we didn’t like but we thought the other one likes it and we were rolling in, we were both relieved that we didn’t have to work on a song that we didn’t like any longer. When we got back to his house, we talked about music we loved, and we discovered that we both really like R&B feels. Then the conversation turned to the lack of that kind of feel on modern country radio. At that point, he said “Let’s just write something with an R&B feel that people can make out to.”
Here are 5 things I try to do every day. Doing these 5 things helps me feel like I’m making progress in every area of my songwriting.
Learn something. I’m trying to learn to play harmonica now. Yes, sometimes I work on learning an alternative tuning on the guitar. I want to try to learn something that makes me better each day. This way I’m constantly forcing my brain to be active and don’t go lazy. Brain is just like the muscles on your body. The more you use it, the stronger it will get. Plus, learning all these can be fun and you never know when they come handy.
Here are some ways you can work smarter. If you work harder AND smarter than most people, you can be a force to be reckoned with. Working smart is pretty easy. Check these tips out:
Write great ideas. The better your foundation, the better your song. A great idea puts you way ahead from the very beginning. When I started writing, I worked on ideas 2 days a week and wrote an expansion of those ideas for 3 days a week. That paid off. I got the reputation for always having great ideas. It got me into co-writes I didn’t deserve to be in. And I wrote better songs because I had solid ideas. Someone recently said to me “You spend a lot of time talking about writing great ideas but most of the songs on the chart aren’t great ideas.” I pulled out the chart and showed them that half of the top ten songs had really creative ideas.
Map out an outline of the song as soon as you decide on a hook. Knowing where you are going helps you avoid saying too much before you get to the 2nd verse. Second verses are not that difficult if you have planned out your whole song’s structure and you already know what you are going to say in advance, and you avoid saying those things earlier in the song. A map will help you do that.
Say ONE thing in each verse that supports your hook. Don’t try to say 5 different things in one verse. Say one thing at the time and elaborate on it to develop it well. If you communicate one clear message, you’ve done your job.
I believe that to be successful as a songwriter, you have to be very versatile. I have had songs recorded by a very wide variety of artists. But, the area in which I have had the most success is writing my life. When I have written the experiences that have shaped and melded me, I have had success. In my former life, I was a youth “wise guy”. So, I saw the good, bad and ugly of street life. Those experiences creep into my writing often. There is a spiritual thread that runs through much of my writing. In many ways, I process and “work through” that time in my life through my writing. I am a very passionate person, so that part of me runs through my music as well. I believe that your unique life experiences give you the BEST shot at crafting a song that stands out. Nobody has lived YOUR life. So, write it. Don’t try to shine it up or make it sound better than it has been. Just write it. Be raw and real.
Songwriting is all about connection. Whether you write for yourself, or you are writing for commercial purposes, the goal is still the same. It’s all about connection. Even people who aren’t trying to get their songs recorded are generally interested in playing their songs for people and moving those people with their music. I don’t know anyone who truly writes ONLY for themselves. So, if you write songs and only play them for yourself in your home, this article may not be for you. But, if you EVER play your music for other people, I’m talking to you.
One of the worst feelings as a writer is playing your song for someone and seeing that glassy stare that says, “this isn’t doing anything for me”. When I’m playing my songs for people, I love to see a smile break out on their face, a tear roll down their cheek, or their foot tapping.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked “How in the world do you come up with a new song every day?” Here’s the short answer on how I pull that off.
Ideas. I have a database that includes over 600 titles. I can always find something interesting there to write. It saves time, so I rarely sit around for an extended time trying to figure out what to write. I come in prepared and that makes getting started easier.
Map. As soon as we choose an idea to pursue, we map out where we want to go with the idea. We try to come up with every angle we can think of and then choose the best, more interesting one to chase. Then, we map out what we are going to say in each separate part of the song. Coming up with a one sentence summary of each verse, the chorus and the bridge (if needed) makes writing the song easy. This is sometimes the most time-consuming part of the process. The map serves as our outline as we write and keeps us focused.
For centuries tales of Monster Dragons have been told in folklore, art, and in the last century, motion pictures. As kids, we believe Dragons are REAL! They seem like giant fire spitting creatures with bulging eyes — unbeatable. But as we grow older, we realize they aren’t real. Monster Dragons are made up, and they lose their magical power of us.
When I turned 15, dreaming of pursuing a career of songwriting and rapping, I moved to out of my family house and rented a little apartment upstairs of Tehran’s one of most famous studios, The Pop Studio. After a few years, I found myself fortunate to be programming tracks in that recording studio and making a good living doing demos and recordings of OTHER PEOPLE’S music. I told myself I’d get to my own music one day.
What kind of song are you looking for? Hopefully, they will answer with something more than just “a hit”, but unfortunately that’s the most common answer I get from the artists. Their response to this question can tell you a lot about the song you should write if they are willing to share. Best case scenario is when they say something like “I need an up-tempo song like blah blah that talks about blah blah”. If they give you a precise answer, then you have a much better chance of writing specifically what they need.
Are there any slots on your album that you haven’t filled yet? Sometimes, I ask this question and discover that they have 8 ballads that they love and 10 up tempos, but really nothing in the mid-tempo range. That kind of info is GOLD. I don’t want to be in the pile with 8 other ballads or 10 other up tempos. I want to be in the pile with little or no competition.
Be the kind of co-writer you hope to find. If you are organized and professional, then you will be more likely to attract that kind of person. If you listen more than you talk, you will find co-writers who listen to YOU. The more respect you give the more you will receive.
Be open to lots of different things. People who are willing to try new things get more opportunities. I am on a writing retreat with an artist that I just found out about the day before the event. I was a last-minute call because someone dropped out and they knew that I would be open to being a last minute replacement.
At least twice a week I get an email seeking advice on how to overcome writer’s block. For many songwriters the worst part of the whole writing experience is just getting started. Those times when we sit down to write, and nothing comes out. We feel like we have nothing to say. Well here are 5 techniques I’ve used to permanently eliminate writers block and free up creativity.
Most of us tend to gravitate toward the same kinds of things when we write. We write grooves and we make it the way it feels that we like it to feel. And we tend to write topics we like as well. But there is one thing to remember, what we want isn’t necessarily what it is supposed to be. When we are writing music to be released, basically we are making a craft for a market. We can’t just say “this is what I like, and people must like it”. Use these exercises to stretch your writing boundaries.
Write a one sentence summary of your song. Let’s say my hook is “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right”. My statement of purpose would be “I must be doing something right because I don’t deserve a woman as amazing as you.” When you write the song, be sure that EVERY line in the song supports that one idea. This helps especially if you tend to wander with your lyrics. Make sure you are writing about ONE thing.
Map your song before you start. If you determine what you want to say in each verse and the chorus BEFORE you start writing, it makes the writing part much easier. In “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right”, the map would look like this:
When I got my first songwriting deal, my publisher and our other songwriter, would write 2-3 times a day. Every day. The volume of out put from our office was crazy. We were cranking out between 30 and 45 songs per week between the three of us. I had nothing to compare it to, so I didn’t think much of it. I thought every writer in town was working that hard and writing that many songs. As time went by, I discovered that most writers were NOT writing that much. I asked the other writers from our team why they wrote so much. They told me that they wrote a lot because they wanted to increase their chances of getting a cut AND because they wanted to have songs to pitch to every artist. And, they believed that writing more improved your writing exponentially.
I was talking to someone recently about their songwriting goals. He expressed frustration over their lack of success in achieving any of them. So, I asked for more details. He laid out a list of goals that would be ambitious even for a seasoned pro. In fact, I had only achieved one of his goals. His list read something like this:
I have to agree 10,000 percent with this quote. I have often read, mostly in interviews with recording artist, things like “I only write when I’m inspired”. I believe this is a myth that some writers and recording artists perpetuate that great songs simply fall from the heavens and only a few chosen ones, like them, are given these gifts. But the real truth is that songwriting is no different than any other skills in life. The more we do it, the more we exercise the muscle, the better we get at creating. Songwriting to me is not really that much of “talent” it’s more of “hard work”. What you need to become a great writer is to practice constantly. The more we play with words and notes, looking at all the possible meanings and emotions, the deeper we understand the possibilities.
Pitching your songs. It means playing songs for publishers, artists or record label people in hopes of getting them to record or help you get a song recorded and it is one of the most important steps of being in the music industry as a writer – otherwise your songs without being pitched basically means nothing – yet, pitching is one of the areas where songwriters make the most mistakes. And, those mistakes can be costly. Sometimes the cost can be losing all your credibility as a writer while maybe your songs are actually pretty good, but you’ve already ruined your reputation by making these simple mistakes. You don’t get too many chances to make a good impression before you are put on the “burned bridge” list. Here are some of the important dos and don’ts to remember when you pitch songs.
Writing songs with artists is a completely different game. Writing songs with artists is a completely different game than writing songs FOR artists (which we already talked about) or simply writing with another writer to try and craft the best song possible. When you write with an artist in the room, the goal is to help that artist find their voice. In order to do that, you have to ask a lot of questions. When I’m writing with an artist, I am doing everything in my power to find out what they want to say. In an easy artist co-write, the artist KNOWS what they want to say, and you just help them write it. In an artist write I had with Sam Veil (Singaporean artist), he walked in and said “I need a big stadium song. I have this chorus started and here’s the title.” Most of them aren’t that easy. Many times, an artist just walks in and says “I need a hit”. That’s not much to go on.
Writing songs for artists is a guessing game. When I’m shooting for a particular artist as I write, I’m trying to guess what that artist wants to say. Not only that, I’m trying to guess what they haven’t already said so that I can help them say something new. I look at it this way. If I just started dating someone, and valentine’s day rolls around, it’s hard to know what they might like. But, if I’ve been married 10 years to the same person, I’ve got a pretty good idea what kinds of gifts they would appreciate. The key is history and knowledge of the other person. How do I get that kind of knowledge about artists? It’s not as hard as you think!
When I’m teaching or mentoring someone, I often get asked what I mean when I talk about the “craft” of songwriting. I think of songwriting as a trade that has been passed down through the years much like a silversmith, a painter, or a sculptor would do. Most songwriters I know were mentored by a more experienced writer whether it was in a formal setting or informally through simply co-writing together. So, when I speak of the “craft” of songwriting, I am talking about those things that have been passed down through the generations from songwriter to songwriter. I thought I would share with you the essential elements of the craft that my mentors have shared with me. These elements hold true whether you are trying to write commercially, or you just want your songs to be enjoyed and understood by your friends and family.