I read this interview with Thurston Moore recently on songwriting. If I had to list the ‘best’ rock-era songwriters, Moore would certainly be near the top. It’s always silly to compare when it comes to art, but it is also helpful to know who the best are. Those are the ones you learn from & imitate.
The best songwriters sing their songs and also play an instrument, and usually lead a band or at least a stable core group of musicians. They will find the perfect working partners in musical colleagues & in the production sphere. This requires being able to interact with others and control egos, including your own. That is difficult in an age when anyone with a hit, instantly gets blown up into a superstar by the industry/media hype machine.
For me, having a song title and finding a melody hook are my starting points. The title acts as a reminder of what you are writing about, so your verses can feed seamlessly into the chorus. The melody hook from both the verse & chorus generates a rhythm, from which lyrics flow. I write all my songs on paper, usually on the back of an envelope with a pen. My guitar is out, and used to re-implant the melody as needed. Try to get the lyrics roughed out as quickly as possible. When being creative, keep the ideas fresh & fast– don’t get bogged down in details. Polish those out later.
Experimenting with song structure is a great idea for expanding your repertoire. Many novice songwriters fall into the trap of making every song the same, as far as verse-chorus-(2x)-solo-verse-chorus framework. Try writing songs without choruses. Vary the length of your compositions to break free of boxy concepts. All guitar players & songwriters should (at least) experiment on bass.
The most radical (recent) departure from conventionality for me has been the use of a slide. As a groove player, I noticed my pinky was often doing nothing, so I decided to put it to use. This adds an element of attack that few other singer-songwriters have. My solo performance can swing & rip better than many full bands due to this innovation. This scares most colleagues, along with all club owners & industry types– so I’m blacklisted.
This leads to the point of paying the price to be who you are. Understand what it is, and deal with it. Don’t change who you are, to become ‘successful.’ That’s when you start sucking. This requires patience & endurance. If you are any good, people will start to recognize your talent, as long as you put in the work.
What is the work? It’s reading EVERYTHING and learning as much as you can. The more you know and the more worldly conscious you are, the better your songs will be. You need to get out into the real world, and experience it with real people, in real relationships. This allows you to absorb all perspectives, and please note this includes nature itself. Someone needs to speak for all the animals being devastated, etc…
The more you immerse yourself in reality, the more relatable your songs become. Music fans want to hear music that speaks to them. If all you can write/sing about are your tormented love affairs & sexual conquests, then most of us aren’t going to be interested. It’s selfish and we’ve heard it over & over, endlessly already.
Find some other aspects of your life that listeners can also connect with, and go with it the next time your creative urge strikes. Once again, you need this for versatility, otherwise you’re a one-trick pony. We already have too many of those hacks hosting open mic nights with their tip jars empty. Every one of their ‘originals’ sounds the same, and their performances only generate pity applause. It’s sad & painful to experience. Don’t be like that.
Another creative area is covers. When performing songs from other artists, pick those you are most-influenced by, and learn (what you consider to be) their best songs. Too many avoid the best, because their songs are too difficult to perform well. Yeah– that’s the point in separating the talent from the wannabe’s!
I believe in many ways this is how you discover your songwriting muse. Apply this attitude to covers, and what you’ll notice is that each artist has a distinct style of composition & delivery. Some of your favorites will be naturally easier to play than others, and this becomes a key discovery. It tells you who your deepest influences will be, as you discover yourself in musicianship. For me it became Graham Parker in songwriting & vocal delivery, and Kurt Cobain in guitar style. My friend and working partner TomP, definitively convinced me that my preferred production style is Sonic Youth.
You only learn this through focus & dedication. I do believe there is an element of prodigy too, but with that said this ability is inside all of us. Music is primal. Music is much more basic & essential than film or any other art form. The heartbeat is our most basic rhythm, and it has been mimicked in music since man’s earliest existence. Finding your music muse is the natural expression of our humanity’s desire to creatively express itself. Find it and set it free.