Writing Wednesday: 10 Songwriting Tips from the Pros

This weekend the 56th annual Grammy Awards will honour some of the greatest musical achievements of the past year. An impending event of this calibre got us thinking: How different is the art of songwriting from the novel and short story writing practices that we typically feature here on Writing Wednesday?

As it turns out, the two crafts are not that different at all. The advice for aspiring songwriters is overwhelmingly similar to that which we hear given to fiction writers – don’t force it, be true to yourself and (most importantly) keep creating! Here are ten of the most helpful tips we found from some of the world’s most accomplished songwriters.

1) Embrace the Process, Don’t Force It

The one thing somebody told me which helped me a lot was, ‘The A material definitely lies beneath the B material.’ You have to let yourself go, and accumulate a lot of crap, and then sift through it to get to the good stuff. You can’t rush it. A lot of times I’ll pick up the guitar and play, and if a song’s not coming, I do something else – clean the house, listen to some music – and come back to writing later. There is a time for your internal judge to come in and make the call, but you have to free yourself from that in the beginning stages of the creative process. I’ve often stifled myself because I was trying to bash the music into shape instead of letting it lead. When I shut off the judge in my head, music usually comes quite easily.
-Johnny Rzeznik (Goo Goo Dolls)

I don’t think you can ever do your best. Doing your best is a process of trying to do your best.
-Townes Van Zandt

2) Always be Prepared for Inspiration

Very often, ideas come to me when I’m falling asleep – when the busy mind gets out of the way, and the intuitive, imaginative mind gets a shot at the steering wheel. My friend, science fiction writer William Gibson, told me, ‘It’s an established phenomenon. The elves take over the workshop. That’s why all writers keep a pen and paper by their bed.’
-David Crosby (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)

For me, writing comes directly from a specific source. Like something that just happened to me, a conversation, a strong emotion, a line in a book, a word… Usually I seize that exact moment to write down what [I] felt, even if it makes no sense or it doesn’t rhyme… Or I will call my [voicemail] and leave myself a message if I have no pen, or only a melody. Later, when I have time alone, I like to sit quietly, most times at my piano… and I revisit what I felt.
-Alicia Keys

3) Don’t be Afraid to Let a Song Evolve

I’ve got so many notes and little things that I write down every day. Some of those lines are really important, and I’ll just take one and move on from there. Sometimes, there’s more than just a line, and sometimes there’s nothing. There’s a song title, and you just go. That’s the beauty of it. Even if I do have an idea of where I want to be, I might end up somewhere else— which is even cooler. But you can’t get to that spot unless you travel the other road. You might be all frustrated, and then one line will just open up so many doors.
-James Hetfield (Metallica)

4) Challenge Yourself

I tell writers to do whatever it takes to keep your brain sharp. I’ll find something in the newspaper and say, ‘What would I do if I had to write that as a song?’ I did a British TV series in the early ’70s where I was given an assignment on Thursday, wrote the song on a Friday, and it was in the show on Saturday. That kept me sharp. Every writer is different – everyone has their own handicaps, assets, and needs.
-Ray Davies (The Kinks)

It’s easier to be ‘vocally creative’ over odd-time riffs. In a weird time signature, there’s really only one thing you can sing, and it jumps right out at you. Straight-four riffs have been around for so long that you can end up writing the same song 500 times.
-Chris Cornell (Soundgarden)

5) This Isn’t a News Piece – Don’t be Afraid to Embellish!

About 50 percent of my lyrics are autobiographical, and about 50 percent is making up stuff, adding to, or out-and-out lying – which I like to do quite a bit. It’s the artist’s duty!
-John Hiatt

If you told the truth, that was all well and good and if you told the un-truth, well, that’s still well and good. Folk songs had taught me that.
-Bob Dylan

6) Avoid Cliches – Someone Else Has Already Said it Better

Most lyricists don’t want to write meaningful stuff. They want to write stuff that sounds meaningful, which is a different thing altogether. They rely too much on the standard rock clichés. Good writers turn the clichés around, so at least you know they’ve thought about it, rather than saying, ‘Well, I’ve heard this 800,000 times, so it must be good!’ I try to avoid certain images that I feel have been done to death, such as:

• Weather and the elements. Rain, storms, clouds, snow. If one more person prays for rain, I’ll scream.

• Geography. Mountains, rivers, valleys, streams, oceans. Usually someone is crossing or climbing one or more of these to get to his or her love.

• Any reference to angels or hearts.

• Traveling or rambling from town to town. Either in a train or car with your baby, or alone, searching for, or running away from your baby.

• Use of the word ‘baby.’

• Gambling. Rolling of the dice in any way, shape, or form. Ace of spades, queen of hearts, etc.

• Weapons. Usually guns or knives.

Many of these clichés were originally written by great writers, but now they’re misused over and over again. I’m guilty of some of them myself. I don’t consider myself a great writer, but I would like to think that I can at least proof-read.
-Aimee Mann

7) Set Goals, But Don’t Be Afraid to Break Them

I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is.
-Leonard Cohen

If I come up with rules or limitations it focuses me in a direction. And those rules can change if you realize it’s a dumb idea. You start to mutate it to see what fits best.
-Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails)

8) Take an Active Role in Finding Inspiration

Inspiration is a word used by people who aren’t really doing anything. I go into my office every day that I’m in Brighton and work. Whether I feel like it or not is irrelevant.
Nick Cave

Don’t be discouraged by writer’s block. Writer’s block just means you need to listen to other music. That’s how new ideas come, and how musical inspiration is passed on – through other music and other brilliant artists. You can re-listen to the stuff you love, but that’s not always going to pull you in new directions. With that mental downtime, you can listen to Lee Scratch Perry or Jeff Buckley or the first Pearl Jam record. You can listen to Tim Hardin, Delta blues, country, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Paul Weller, and Run D.M.C. Listen to whatever pulls you in different musical directions so that you don’t start copying yourself.
-Ben Harper

9) Be Open to What’s Happening Around You

My news source for [songwriting] is everything. It has to be. It’s not just anything – it’s everything. I can’t ignore what people are saying in the world or in the streets. I hate that term now, ‘the streets,’ because it’s so commercial. You have to use the world. Your head has to be open… Perspective is always important for songwriters, too. You have to have the perspective of who you are talking to and have a perspective of who is talking to you and you’ve got to stitch it together. Then you have to have historical perspective. That means a lot if you’re trying to take something on and make it pertinent for the future.
-Chuck D (Public Enemy)

If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years.
-Bob Dylan

10) Let the Melody Guide You

What comes first? The melody, always. It’s all about singing the melodies live in my head. They go in circles. I guess I’m quite conservative and romantic about the power of melodies. I try not to record them on my Dictaphone when I first hear them. If I forget all about it and it pops up later on, then I know it’s good enough. I let my subconscious do the editing for me.
-Björk

Music – the universal language.
Photo: Embellished Manuscript, Albert Einstein, Special Theory of Relativity from our upcoming Spring 2014 collection.

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