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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Songwriting, It's A Lifestyle

I guess more than anything, this blog is a lifestyle blog.  It’s about songwriting, which is something I like to do.  It’s a part of my lifestyle.  It’s one of the many things I do fairly consistently in my free time.  Once in a while, I blog about it here.  I just sort of share my experiences for no apparent reason.  I’m not good enough or expert enough or experienced enough or credentialed enough to write a column for American Songwriter magazine, for example.  This blog is not meant to be educational necessarily.  I don’t know why anyone would read it, really.  I don’t specifically provide instruction to people who aspire to write songs.  As a recording artist, I don’t share my experiences on the road during a tour like touring musicians would, because I’m not a touring musician.  So, it’s not aimed at my fans either.  Maybe by the end of this post, I’ll figure out why this might be of interest to anyone.

More than anything, what is notable about me being a songwriter is that I am self-taught in all aspects of the craft.  I suppose if you’re someone who has already figured out how to write songs yourself, you might be interested in the struggles I share, as a sort of misery-loves-company type of thing.  Like many a blogger out there, I tend to rant and rave about the frustrations I experience related to writing and recording songs.  Actually, I love the writing and recording part, but it’s the “getting an audience” part that has been difficult for me.  I’m not someone who will ever aspire to be a performing songwriter who plays gigs and gets fans from playing live shows.  I hold out hope that I can gain an audience just by having an online presence, and that eventually, recommendation will increase my fan base and music sales.  I’m not big on promotion, advertising, or marketing myself, so herein lies a dilemma that is at the core of what I blog about most – the desire to be heard by more people, combined with a passion only for the creative part of the craft.

It used to be that record companies sunk tons of money into an artist they signed to get them publicity, and that this was the only way the famous bands we all know and love became famous in the first place.  Technology has made it possible for musicians to be self-contained, self-employed professionals who can gain large audiences without record companies.  Although there are some overnight successes and those who have the right idea go viral at the right time, the majority of these acts pay dues by building a fan base by relentless touring, and by having teams of people who help them handle the promotion and publicity.  Creative types typically don’t have much interest in the business side of music.  With a day job, no desire to play live, and no extra cash to hire people to help grow my audience, I’m one of several million.  Although I’ve found free ways to have an online presence and cheap ways to get my music in online stores, and cheap ways to record my songs with a decent level of quality at home, it’s not enough.  I may have been among the first wave of people to do all these things totally alone and very inexpensively, but now everyone and their brother can record a song at home and put it on iTunes for sale and have a website.

Writing about your struggles to gain a greater audience is one thing, but sharing the joy of your passions is another.  Maybe this blog would be more interesting to more people if I wasn’t trying to get them to buy my music, but rather, just to focus on what it’s like to spend a few hours a week writing and recording songs.  Since I know there are millions of others like me out there, maybe they’d be interested in reading about the experiences of someone else who has a similar life.  That’s got to be the audience this blog will gain, if any.  Fans of my music might like to hear how the next album is coming along too.

The best thing I can say about this hobby of mine is that I can’t go very long without doing it, without thinking about it at least.  I wrote a song recently that started in my head on the way to work one morning.  I’d written about half the chorus during my 10 minute commute.  Then I worked all day, and when I got home, I had the whole chorus in about 5 minutes.  Then from that, I knew what I wanted the verses to include, content-wise, since this was a story-type song.  So, I made a few notes, and then all that was left was looking up a couple rhymes at rhymezone.com (free rhyming dictionary online) and writing a bridge.  After about 20 minutes, I had the whole song typed up in a word document.  What I’m really glad about was remembering my morning thoughts.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had great ideas and lines for a song in my head just from thinking in my car, but no recorder or pen and paper to write them down, then forgot them, and they’re lost forever.  All I remembered was that I wanted to remember the great song ideas, but when you wait too long, it’s all over.

The beauty of this hobby is, you can always write more, even when you lose a song.  My memory ain’t what it used to be, but that’s why a big part of my time spent on songwriting is actually typing the lyrics and typing the chords once I have those figured out.  So, with this song, I already had one of those things they call a dummy melody in my head.  Just reading the words to myself in my head made me envision the music, since the lyrics were intentionally written with a certain meter in mind – you know – close to the same number of syllables in each line and so forth.  I never have trouble picking a key, due to my limited vocal range, so then it was just a matter of getting out the guitar and finding some chord changes that worked.  Typing up the lyrics is the key, because after I do that and just read them to myself, I can “hear” in my mind where the chord changes will be.

Sometimes I will even type an X above the word or syllable where the chord would be strummed throughout the song.  Then I’ve got lyrics, and where the chords are to be played, and all that is left is choosing those chords.  Typically, certain chords in a song in a certain key go well with each other – you know, those “chord family” deals.  Sometimes though, you can go outside those rules and still make it work.  This song was one of those.  So, after about 10 more minutes, I had the chords nailed down and I just reach over the guitar in my lap to type those on the lyric document.  I’m lazy, so I only put the chord letter symbols in the first verse, chorus and bridge, knowing they repeat for subsequent sections.

The next step was to hit record on my cassette recorder I use for first takes.  I recorded it once all the way through, rewound, then listened back, when I discovered a few little things to tweak pronunciation-wise and arrangement-wise, then made those adjustments to my document and hit record again.  This time, when I listened back, it was exactly how I envisioned it that morning in my car.  Keeper, done with the songwriting part.  Now, when I get (make) time to record next in my digital multitrack software on my computer with microphones and everything, I’ll do that again, and separately record bass, drums, etc.  That’s another thing – you can “hear in your mind” what instrumentation is appropriate for the song as well, very early when writing it.  So, there I had a finished song in maybe 45 minutes.  It will probably take me, for this particular one, about another hour to get the final studio recording done.  So, yeah, about 2 hours per song, start to finish is not too far off from the time spent.

I release a new album of 13 songs every two years, so it’s like one every two months.  It’s usually a an hour or so on a weeknight, a couple nights per week on average, and then about two Saturdays per month for longer recording sessions where I crank out two songs in three hours or so.  Some songs don’t come so easy, and those are the ones that don’t end up being that great.  All of the above is fun for me.  It’s literally a blast, and if I go a month or so without doing any of the above, I get a little bummed out from missing it.  That should give you a glimpse into what the time spent is like for people like me who consider themselves songwriters.  If you look at it this way, it’s a fairly large part of my lifestyle, and I’m thankful I’m able to do it, whether I sell any records or not!  