On Songwriting | Musings On How To Write a Song

Caren Armstrong On Songwriting

Caren Armstrong On Songwriting

Oakland, California-based singer/songwriter Caren Armstrong has been making “big buoyant music” since the year she reached double digits. She has won numerous songwriting awards, recorded three CDs and has a busy touring schedule. Written with a sharp yet compassionate pen, Caren’s songs transcend the self-revelatory and speak universally to the human condition in all of its humor and outrage.


So Caren, why do you write original music?


I have been writing songs for so much of my life it’s kind of like asking me why I breathe… because I gotta.


True that. But beyond breathing, what motivates you? Inspires you?


I have been motivated by the need to express my feelings from an early age. I started playing guitar when I was 10 years old, and was teaching lessons at the local music store by the time I was 13. My fellow teachers included folks like Vince Gill and I was hanging out with a lot of accomplished musicians who were older than me, already gigging, recording, etc.

They were all writing songs and it never occurred to me not to do the same thing. I was hugely influenced by Joni Mitchell’s confessional, one girl/one guitar approach, and music/songwriting was a perfect place for me to direct the contents of my sensitive, overly perceptive head.

The source of my inspiration is rather polarized in that my writing process is deeply personal and solitary in it’s initial phase, but then becomes a public, shared experience that is never really over or complete. I recently wrote about this phenomenon in a blog called The Life of a Song.


What is it like for you when you’re presenting new material to a live audience for the first time? What do you like best about that experience?


There is so much going on the first time a song gets performed live. To start with, I often write above my playing level just to keep things interesting, so even though I don’t want to be focused on my guitar during a performance there is an inevitable scramble the first few times. (I recently started playing/writing on slide guitar, which has given me a whole new perspective).

Then if you’re me, you are playing it the day you finished it and you are still “on the page” with the lyrics. Show dates make great deadlines!

It requires a very specific kind of focus and mindfulness to pull this off; it’s so dangerous and creative all at the same time. You’d have to be nuts to like anything about dangling so far out on the limb, but the virgin voyage is one of my favorite parts of songwriting.

That very first time I’m mostly paying attention to my reaction to the song. How do I feel about what I’m expressing? Is it true? Is it worth listening to? I’m still discovering the song as it takes on it’s own life in public. Somehow the presence of witnesses gives me a perspective that I can’t get in my living room, and I trust the listeners to bring themselves to whatever I am expressing.


Dangling way far out on a limb, high above solid ground without a net. Creative and dangerous all at the same time. No territory for the timid… stay tuned…

Hear Caren’s original song Leaving Lincoln County


Caren’s music is available here:


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