ASK THE INDEPENDENT SINGER/SONGWRITER: songwriting

Well, it’s 2AM, and I’m still up. I’ve spent these last few hours collecting data for my taxes (I drove 2000 miles in my car in 2007 on music-related trips), playing bass on a new song in my basement studio, changing my daughter Svea’s diaper, and now, posting this blog.

It’s time for another installment of my blog series ASK THE INDEPENDENT SINGER/SONGWRITER! Here’s how it works…my dear blog readers email me (Rundman at msn dot com) with showbiz-related questions, and I post their questions anonymously here for the world to see, along with my answers and commentary. If you've got a question for future postings, shoot me an email. Here's the deal for tonight:

TOPIC: Songwriting

• What is your most common inspiration for songs?

A gap. Absence. I’m most inspired to write when I notice a topic/theme that hasn’t been addressed in song. And, my main target audience (for good or ill) has always been myself…so I’m always asking, subconsciously, “what kind of song would I enjoy hearing in my life right now?” I think my best songs are these kind: “Smart Girls,” “Librarian,” “Forgiveness Waltz,” “Tape,” “Workin’ My Committee,” “Front Row at the Fashion Show.”

I’m also inspired by movies, or other works of creativity. “You Never Last Where You Land” (from the Tennesota CD) was initially inspired by the Spike Lee / Edward Norton movie The 25th Hour. “We Made Up” (from the Wherever CD) was initially inspired by the movie Gas, Food, Lodging. “My Helen” (from the Best of the 20th Century CD) is based on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. The title for my song “Tired Tired Tired” is quoted from the Chris Rock comedy special Bring The Pain.

• What kind of songwriting challenges/assignments do you give yourself? (write a song in a key you don’t normally use; with 2 different choruses; etc.)

A lot of my songs came about from a personal creative challenge, or some sort of parameters I forced myself to stay within. Some examples:
“Only If” (from the Best of the 20th Century CD): write a lyric using a quote from the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness, found in the Lutheran Book of Worship hymnal.
“Nothing Old, Nothing New” (from the Best of the 20th Century CD): write a guitar riff where your fingers stay only within the second fret.
“Soluble” (from the Myopia CD): write a guitar riff by playing correct chord position fingerings on incorrect strings.
“The Stars Start to Take on that Same Old Shine” (from Sound Theology): write a whole new song based upon the drum track from a previous song (in this case “Life in the Real World” from the Chandlers album, pitched way down by slowing the 4-track tape).
“The Princess Wants to Spend Her Time With Me” (from the Best of the 20th Century CD): write a song on the violin (even though I can’t play violin).
“Ask Me in Nebraska” (from the Best of the 20th Century CD): write a simple 3-chord pop song that never goes to the V (five) chord.
“The ‘Con’ Prefix Song” (from the Best of the 20th Century CD): write a song where every lyrical phrase begins with a word that starts with the prefix “con.”
“Almost Never See” (from the Public Library CD): write a song with a rotating 4-chord progression that never changes.
“Chopin’s Heart” (from the Sound Theology CD): write a song in 5/4 time.
"My Apology" (from the Sound Theology CD): write a piano part using only the black keys ('cause all the white keys were banged out of tune)

My favorite example was ridiculously complex. I wrote the song “Failing Rockstar Attempt” (from the Sound Theology CD) with my long-time musical collaborator David Casimir. Here’s how we wrote the music. We looked at all the letters of the musical scale, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and combined them to make three words. “BED,” “FEC” (a very sophomoric abbreviation of…well…it’s toilet humor), and “EGG.” Then we wrote a series of chord progressions based on these three words, allowing manipulations of major/minor or flat/sharp for each chord. The result was a gloriously bizarre series of riffs and changes that we performed with trashy drums and crunchy guitars. I wrote the lyrics later, and had to construct a singable melody to weave correctly through the chord changes. It’s one of my all-time favorite songs on any of my albums, but I suspect it’s one of the most ignored (or most loathed) by my listeners.

I love hearing what other writers do to challenge themselves. A couple years ago Tom Freund told me that he had an email-based songwriting challenge going on with other artists like Jason Mraz and Mike Doughty…each week they were given one song title, and each person wrote a song using it, and then emailed one other MP3s of their final tunes. GREAT idea. I recently picked up a solo album by Sean Watkins, who wrote in the liner notes about a tour he did with his bandmates in Nickel Creek and Glen Phillips (of Toad the Wet Sprocket)…they played the same game. Everybody had to write a song using the same title, and for Watkins a few of those songs ended up on his solo record. Last year my friend Nate Houge wrote a whole album in the month of February, along with a bunch of other writers united through a songwriting webpage.

• Do you prefer to write with pen/pencil/paper or on the computer?

I always write with a pen in a hardcover blank book. I started this habit in the late-90s when I was writing for the Sound Theology album. Before then, I wrote with a pen on endless, random piles of scrap paper. It was a mess. The hardcover blank books are awesome. Back in the ‘80s I read a Guitar Player magazine interview with Eric Bazilian of The Hooters, one of my musical heroes, and he said to never write in spiral notebook or legal pad because you’ll be temped to tear out the junky lyric ideas you don’t like. The hardcover blank books force you to keep all your crappy ideas, so you can go back years later and harvest them. This was life-changing advice for me, and I’ve scrounged mountains of new good ideas from ancient lame ideas. I also read in the early-90s something Paul Westerberg said about having a book or list of only song titles. I started a song title book myself back then, and it resulted in a TON of songs, such as “Ask Me in Nebraska,” “Armyman,” “The Princess Wants to Spend Her Time With Me,” and many others. I got away from the song title book for many years, but recently went back to that original book I started years ago, and just used one of those old old old title ideas to finish a song I was stuck on. It took me about 15 years to get around to using the idea, but it was exactly what I needed about a month ago. I think I’ll try to come up with a whole bunch of new titles for my next series of songs. It’s an awesome way to write interesting songs, and I’ve been neglecting that trick.

Another thing about the actual transcribing of lyrics…very often I’ll write down the date and time that I complete a new song lyric, and I think it’s really cool to know exactly when you wrote the tune…for example, I documented the writing of the song “My Helen” on September 20th, 1988, 10:29PM, when I was a senior in high school. I notice that throughout Bruce Cockburn’s career, you can read his album liner notes and see exactly when and WHERE he was when he wrote each song….it’ll say something like “December 8, 1971, Toronto.” I love that! Cockburn is the coolest.

• Do you keep a journal?

I kept a journal daily from when I was 17 ‘til when I was 20. About four pages a day. I’ve got a whole shelf-worth of journals from that season of life. After I got married, Dawn fulfilled the feedback/processing role my journal was playing, and from then until about 2004 I only kept a journal while I was on tour, away from home. Then I started blogging, and gave up the paper journal all together. Now that I’m stay-home-Dadding, my lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to journaling the way it did when I was a on-the-road young adult.

• How often do you write in any form – songs, journal, blog, etc.

Well, the journaling is pretty much done. I blog about once a week, depending on what’s going on. When I’m on tour, and have internet access, then I tend to blog more frequently. Regarding songwriting, I do it in huge waves. I’ll have a year where I’m writing like crazy (2002-2003 was like that, as I prepared songs for the Public Library album), and then I can go a year (or two!) without writing any songs at all. I wrote almost nothing from 2005 until 2007. Then last Fall I allowed myself to open up to new songs, and I started cranking out a ton of ideas. Right now I’m in a pretty creative mode, and I’m finishing up a bunch of old lyric ideas that needed finishing. It’s a very satisfying situation. And, once I release these finalized songs to the public (hopefully this Summer!), I’ll start from scratch, writing a whole group of new songs from the ground up!

• Do you find that the Bible inspires your songwriting? If so, what in particular most often – select verses? parables? Psalms?

I’ve never read/heard a Bible story/verse and immediately been inspired to write a song. However, I’ve written a ton of Bible songs that were assigned to me. Over the years many camps, events, publishers, and church groups have asked me to write music based on certain Bible passages, and I’ve had a blast writing lyrics to fit the parameters of the text. Almost my entire Protestant Rock Ethic album is made up of songs written in this way. I’m really proud of some of these songs, like “Treasurer’s Report to Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians,” “Hey Hey Samuel,” “Pass Us By,” and one of my brand new songs “If You Have a Question…” The Psalms are okay, but it’s the strange or obscure Bible stories that I’ve enjoyed tackling the most.

There’s the story from my end, folks. I know there are a lot of songwriters/composers who read this blog, and I’d love it if you’d share some of your own tricks and inspirations in the comments below!

Comments

Bridget Delaney said…
If you are ever in or near Lake Charles, I'll show you around the area and what's so great about it as there really are not songs about the city at all and I'd bet you could write one!

A trick that I recently learned was to read the headlines of tabloids (or legit newspapers) and not read the story and see what ideas that gives. Keep wondering instead of reading - or do that with any blog post title, story title, etc.

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