On Songwriting | Musings On How To Write a Song

Bill Abernathy On Songwriting

Bill Abernathy On Songwriting

Bill Abernathy is a singer/songwriter based in Kansas City, Missouri. In 2017, Bill’s album Find A Way reached #5 on the Roots Music Report Traditional Folk Albums chart, spending more than a year on the chart. His single, “Goodbye Will Never Come Again” reached #1 on the Traditional Folk Songs chart.

Bill is a storyteller and a pure lyrics-first songwriter. “I feel the story and lyrics talk to me and tell me what the rest of the song is supposed to sound like,” he says. 

Bill’s latest collection of songs, Crossing Willow Creek is available now, with the first single, “Cry Wolf” hitting radio airwaves around the globe.

Rick:

What inspires you to write original music?

Bill:

Every songwriter has experiences in our lives that motivate us to write. I see songwriting as an expression of these experiences and thoughts. When something happens and I am touched by it, I try to write down some thoughts about the event and then mold those thoughts into a song.

I think the real motivation is using songwriting as a venue to express ideas and thoughts that happen in our daily lives.

Rick: 

Where, in your opinion, do good original songs come from?

Bill:

That is a really good question. Sometimes I think it’s a bit of magic. When something touches you in a special place, it’s just natural for me to tell the story.

Many times, that story evolves into a song. It would be nice if there were a formula for the process, and certainly as the process continues a process is followed, but the real motivation is something I don’t understand. That’s why I call it magic. I don’t think this inspiration can be forced scheduled or planned, but rather it’s a natural by-product of our daily lives and interactions with others.

Rick:

Do you have a predictable/repeatable process for writing original songs

Bill:

Actually yes. The process starts with the idea, then chaos begins.

Thoughts are written down as the story evolves. These thoughts are a bit scattered and there ends up being words written down on various pieces of paper and scattered around my desk, or sometimes my whole home. At some point the concept for the song takes form, and the thoughts are then consolidated into the structure of the work. This is where the chaos evolves into organization.

I consolidate my thoughts into verses, choruses and bridges, and then mold everything into a structure. In my process once the lyric is organized and the story has taken some structure, I start the process to match music with the lyric. I try to use the music and notes to emphasize the lyric.

Rick:

What’s typically the easiest part of writing a song? 

Bill:

I think the easiest part of a song is the chorus. It’s the fun part. Creating the hook and then building the chorus to focus on the hook.

What’s the hardest part?

The hardest part is to find the right melody, notes and musical voicings to properly reflect the feel of the story and the lyric. The music is really key to point the focus of the song on the lyric. I always think about watching a movie and how the background music gives you clues to what is about to occur. Sometimes I wish life had the same background music so one would know what’s coming. 

Rick:

When your creativity hits a roadblock, what do you do to “summon the Muse” and get back on track?

Bill:

I think there’s a point where you just have to power through, but that does not always work. Many times, I will just walk away from the work for a bit, take a drive, maybe take a shower and let my mind wander elsewhere. I find that letting the song go for a while and creating focus on something else will trigger additional thoughts and help the creative process.

I remember one tune where I was trying to power through and was getting nowhere. I got a call and talked with an old friend on a completely different subject. During that conversation, the block I was powering through broke down and the lyric I was struggling with just came to be. It’s a bit of magic how that sometimes happens.

Rick:

What have you learned so far about marketing original music and getting your songs out there for others to hear?

Bill:

As with many businesses, it’s not necessarily what you know but rather who you know. I have chosen to work with MTS Management on the Crossing Willow Creek project and utilize their expertise regarding marketing. I think many times we want to try to control the whole process as the songwriter, but as with any business, focusing on core competencies is really the key to success. I write songs and record them. That is my strength in this process. Utilizing others, and in this case MTS, and their core competencies is the smarter and far more effective process to getting your work heard. Work Smarter not Harder.

Rick:

Who are some other songwriters you particularly enjoy listening to?

Bill:

I’m really a lyric guy, so when I listen to another artist, I really focus on what they have to say in the lyric. That is key for me. When I listen to John Mayer, Dan Fogelberg, CSN, Jackson Brown, or Kenny Loggins, I really appreciate how they use music to say what they’re feeling.

That said, great lyrics are out there in any genre. There are genres of music that I don’t particularly like from a musical standpoint but can still appreciate good lyrics. I’m not a fan of the rap genre for example, but there are artists who rap that have written some very interesting and insightful lyrics. Tupac for one… there are many in every genre.

Rick:

Of all the songs you’ve written so far, which is your favorite?

Bill:

This is a tough question. It’s a bit like asking who your favorite child is. Ha Ha. I have a song that took me many years to write. It’s about the day my dad passed away. The tune is the title cut of my Find A Way CD. The song documents that particular day, and my reminiscing about my dad and our time together.

There was some magic involved with that song and it still brings up a flood of emotions when I play it. I missed the chance to see my dad and say my final goodbyes that day by five minutes. I struggled with my decision making that day for many years. I had stayed at work that extra 5 minutes to complete a project. That loss of work/life balance at that moment has been a hard but very valuable lesson for me.

The outro of the tune is a fully acoustic version of my dad’s favorite song he liked me to play. Dad always said that if you want something bad enough and are willing to put in the blood sweat tears and toil, you can always Find A Way to make it happen. This song and in particular the outro is my way to say my final goodbye. My way to Find A Way.

Rick:

Finally, what have you observed about the art of composing original music that might be helpful to other songwriters?

Bill:

I think the best song are the ones that speak from the heart. Be yourself, have something to say and say it in your way. There are plenty of copycats out there. Don’t be one. Be original, be unique, be you.

Tools of the Trade

What instruments do you use when developing a new song?
Bill: I’m an acoustic guitar guy, so that’s my primary instrument when writing a song. I do use some keyboards occasionally to work out some math in the theory.

What devices do you use to record your songwriting ideas?
Bill: Lots of pencils and papers, post-it notes, voice memos, texting to myself. Coffee, lots of coffee. I hate the feeling of having a cool idea and not taking the time to document it. We all do it, and it’s frustrating.

Do you use any software in your songwriting process?
Bill: I have some recording software I run on my IPad. I only use this for practicing and working out the feel of the song. I do some quick recording and listen, make changes and do it all again.

Are there any other items you consider essential for your songwriting toolkit?
Bill: If I have the idea, a guitar, and some quiet time I am good. Sometimes the quiet time is the hardest tool to procure. We are all pretty busy and have to make sure to prioritize our time to allow a quality creative environment. Mine is being alone with my guitar and my thoughts. Don’t forget about the coffee!

 

Find Bill online at: https://www.billabernathy.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/billabernathymusic/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/bill_abernathy

 

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