Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Getting Crafty: Rewriting Never Really A Wasted Effort

My latest experiences with the craft of writing songs have been part of a long, drawn-out process since my last album release in mid-2014.  That process has included starting with the "leftover" songs in my Works In Progress (WIP) folder on my computer, which houses subfolders for lyrics, session files, and individual recorded song tracks.  When you finish an album, there are inevitably some that didn't make the cut, and these are typically left in an uncompleted state. 

So, after taking a break from writing, recording and release-oriented activities, one of the first things to do is clean up the unfinished stuff if you can.  At least, after having time off you revisit and confirm why you weeded them out in the first place, but with a fresh perspective.  So, I did that, and in doing so, added to my notes of what wasn't right. 

Usually in my case, the majority have acceptable music, but the lyrics and/or singing weren't right.  Sometimes it's a tempo thing, in which I'm cramming too many syllables into too little space, and those are easily remedied by re-recording at a slower pace the instrument tracks, which to me always seems like a hassle, but after the break, no problem.  Sometimes it's an issue with the lyrics not being great, so new ones can be written to fit. 

I did that successfully just this year, and it is one of the few times it's worked and not resulted in the music being scrapped.  Other times it's a case of the lyrics, when read aloud without music, naturally calling for a certain type of music, which isn't the kind of music you already had.  These are really tough, because of the do-over hassle psychologically, but again, after a break, not as daunting.  It's usually a situation where sad lyrics are calling for minor chords and a slower tempo, yet you recorded it major and fast, or vice versa. 

I started doing all of the above, and next thing you know, I'm back into the swing of things again and not only have a couple keepers for the next release, but also get the creative juices flowing again and new songs start to happen.  Some get weeded out again, and maybe get rewritten to keeper status two albums later after being left in the WIP folder again (very rare, but yes, it's happened to me), while with others you do indeed conclude they were wasted effort and perhaps delete entirely. 

My whole point here though is that non-keepers are never wasted effort.  You have to fail a lot to have a good keeper ratio.  I'd be willing to bet the same must be true for even the most prolific and celebrated songwriters out there in the world, it must be the case.  When the new songs arrive, It's like magic to me every time. 

The mystery can only be explained by saying that by doing the "hard work" tasks involved in rewriting or rerecording, you're putting yourself in the best state of readiness for creative flow again.  Breaks are important, and just as important is the manual labor part.  Granted, this is coming from someone who would rather just write a new song than perfect an existing one, but the annoying do-over tasks have both the real-yet-rare benefit of actually turning a non-keeper into a keeper, combined with the inevitable influx of new material as a result. 

Worth it, for sure, because new song ideas are what you're ultimately after, and if you can also do some recycling and reduce wasted past effort, it's a major bonus.  From this, I conclude that all songwriters should 1) save their songs that didn't make the cut, 2) revisit them after a break, 3) start attempting to rewrite them, and good things will happen.  It should be a part of any songwriting/recording process. 

I've heard it said that all artists have an arc to their career, and that there is an average number of albums they release.  Some are ground-breakers with a short-lived period of creativity (Chuck Berry comes to mind), others have long careers (Paul McCartney), others shorter but very prolific (Prince), and then of course you have the one-hit wonders.  When you mention well-known artists there are so many other factors that contributed to their output to take into consideration, but I see some truth in this arc concept. 

Some blast out of the gate and never live up to their first album (Violent Femmes), others hit their stride well into their careers (Bob Seger), but generally (and I have no stats to back this up) I've observed that for most there is a noticeable decline in quality and/or quantity at some point.  Perhaps it's inevitable for us all, perhaps some need longer breaks than others, but I think when faced with writer's block, following this simple process can keep the craft alive. 

It's a matter of forcing yourself to get back into it that makes for the steadiness and consistency.  Just when you think that maybe you just can't do it any more, a little focused effort on the mundane aspects can remove your doubts and make the magic return, which is pretty cool.

Did I mention that I now have my next full-length album written and recorded ahead of schedule?  For the related news item, see