Friday, February 10, 2023

Deep Thoughts on Songwriting and Recording, by Scott Cooley

I'm a self-taught, do-it-all-myselfer with this songwriting and recording hobby I have.  Here are some thoughts about the various aspects of what I do that you might find interesting to read:

Just kidding on the quote in that image above by Jack Handey of SNL fame.  Below are my real "deep" thoughts:

Songwriting:  As a songwriter, I take the opposite approach of the one I take with being a musician.  I don't practice guitar, and I don't ever set out to learn cover songs, so the only times I play are when I'm writing songs and recording them.  Of all the aspects of my hobby, this is the one I'm really passionate about.  Instead of spending a lot of time rewriting and editing and toiling over a song, I let it flow quickly and if I'm not feeling it, I stop and move on to a different song the next time the urge strikes.  So I don't "practice" or keep polishing a song very long to get it perfect, but I accept a low keeper ratio and have a lot of throwaway scraps that rarely get recycled.  Sometimes I have droughts where no ideas show up for months, but sometimes I'll write 3 songs in one night.  I'm more of a lyrics-first guy, but sometimes do the music first, and it's always a back-and-forth thing anyway to some degree.  Sometimes it takes 5 minutes to finish one, sometimes an hour, but very rarely do I spend any more than an hour writing any one song.  I do it quite a lot, and I think like most things, you have to do it a lot to be good at it.  I can't help it, I just like to make up songs, and although I haven't written a really good one yet, I haven't stopped for 30 years.  It's a mysterious process, but it's the most exciting part of what I do.

Recording:  As a solo recording artist, I enjoy recording songs I write, and I enjoy blending multiple vocal and instrument tracks together to achieve the sound of a band.  I try to get close to what I envisioned the finished song would sound like as fast as possible, then move on to the next.  I'm not out for perfection at all, I just like the process.  I like to stay away from the auto-tune and fancy effects, and find the multitrack digital audio workstations to have way too many bells and whistles for my liking, but I find ways to keep it very simple and raw, with a tolerance for imperfection.  What might set me apart from most is I sing and play all the instruments and write the songs and do all the mixing and mastering myself.  I'm not good at any of it, but I like doing it.  Writing songs is the most creative part, but then figuring out how to arrange them and produce them is an extension of that which I also enjoy, provided it doesn't take too long.

Musician:  My approach to being a musician has always been to buy an instrument first, then figure out how to play it.  You make a commitment that way and are more likely to mess around with it.  Although I'm a proponent of people taking lessons first before just diving in for most things, I've had no formal training to speak of, and it's worked for me.  Learning to read music is overwhelming and intimidating as a first step, and I'm glad I avoided it entirely.  When I was a kid I wanted to be a unicycle rider, so I got one, then figured it out through falling a lot, but as a former ski instructor, I really believe it's important to go the lesson-first route so you don't end up being one of the millions who can only claim they "tried" skiing once.  With music, I'm never trying to get great at playing an instrument, or get great at playing popular songs written by others, so I never practice at all.

Vocal:  Not an excruciatingly bad singer, but not particularly good either, known for starting a bit sharp or flat and then sliding up or down accordingly to eventually hit the right pitch, have been told I'm in the baritone range and am certain that the vocal range is very limited.  Was in 5th grade elementary school choir and 8th grade church choir, but didn't participate much or pay much attention in either.

Guitar:  Not a bad guitar player, not particularly great in any way, but can play both rhythm and lead, know a couple of basic scales and most open and barre chords, can figure out melody notes fairly easily by ear, can strum pretty well, and can do some basic finger picking and arpeggios.  Can't read music at all, understand tablature but never memorize covers, took Intro to Guitar senior year in college and got a B.

Keyboard:  Not an actual piano player at all, piano/organ sounds you hear on my recordings are virtual via midi keyboard on which a single key will automatically play a chord sound, and then I figure out the melody notes by ear/trial/error to match vocal melodies I make up.  I took about 5 piano lessons at about age 10 and remember absolutely nothing from it except the fact that I was completely intimidated and overwhelmed about being forced to try to learn to read music notation first.

Bass:  Not a horrible bass player, but not outstanding in any way, no knowlege whatsoever other than self-taught from buying one and playing it, but can usually go beyond the stay-at-home root notes and do a little walking without much trouble, finding it to be a fun challenge to write a song on guitar, then figure out some bass parts that support it.

Drums & Percussion:  Not comfortable on a drum kit due to never having one, tried them out a few times but not great with the foot/hand coordination, but can keep a simple beat on a snare, tom or cymbal with a brush or stick, working in a few understated appropriate fills here and there, not bad at hand percussion with both hands simultaneously such as congas, bongos or djembe, can play a tambourine or shaker with basic proficiency, able to generally hold down decent timing.

Marimba:  No idea how a marimba works, except that it's even easier than finding an existing melody on a guitar because the actual notes are printed on it, but I never learn cover songs, so I'm not using them, I'm making them match vocal melodies by ear for my own songs.

Harmonica:  No idea how a harmonica works either, yet somehow able to find chords and individual notes through trial and error while enjoying the fact that it is forgiving and that less than precise still sounds okay.

Ukulele:  Ukulele, like all other instruments I play, I bought one first, then googled how to string it, tune it, and play chords.  The low tension and nylon strings are easy on the fingers, but certain chords are quite the challenge.

Mandolin:  Borrowed a friend's a couple times, looked up chord diagrams online, found it way too small and cramped for my large, fat fingers, became frustated by this easily.

Other:  Tried out some flute and cello and maybe even horn sounds on a few songs, using my midi keyboard to basically just dial up the sound in software, then hit root note keys.

Although I don't keep track anymore, I've probably written about 1,000 songs, and I haven't even released 200 of them yet.  About half of those released 200 I could live without, so do your math and make of it what you will.

So, there you have it.  My thoughts about the various aspects of my hobby as I describe them now, in 2023.  That's about as real and honest as I can think of to be at this time.  It is what it is, and hopefully you found it entertaining to know some of the backstory of what I do.  You can't be good at everything, and probably most wisely focus on far fewer aspects than me.  Instead of a specialist in any one area, I guess I'm more of a jack of all trades and master at none.  I'm obviously a control freak, but happily, I'm not a perfectionist and prefer a speedy creative process.  There's some self-assessment in there that shows a lot of room for improvement I'm sure, but instead of focusing on getting better at any one thing, I'm just in it for the fun.

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