On Songwriting | Musings On How To Write a Song

Interviews Part 2

Derek Sivers, Part II

Derek Sivers, Part II

Here is Part 2 of my recent interview with Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby: Rick: In your experience marketing songs and listening to songs marketed by others, is it better to introduce a new song in the form of a rough recording (where the listener has room to imagine how they might arrange and interpret the song themselves) or a highly-polished CD track that demonstrates a well-produced expression of the song’s potential? Derek: Arranged and produced, definitely.  You definitely do not need the million-dollar Neve console and Neumann mic, but you do need the bass, drums, background vocals, or whatever else you imagine is really part of the song. Never think “polished.”  Very few people like polished.  Go for cheap and rough, but do the arrangement your mind really hears.  People can’t read your mind. Rick: Since selling your business to Disc Makers last year, what’s ahead for you? Derek: I’m always thinking about how I can best help musicians.  Lately it felt like distribution is something that’s already “done” for them.  They don’t need my help with that anymore. But the actual hands-on labor help: help booking, help promoting, help with the boring uncreative work around being an independent musician — that really interests me.  That’s what MuckWork is all about.  It’s not ready yet, but that’s what I’m working on now and really excited about. Rick: What’s the most important question I could ask you that it didn’t occur to me to ask? Derek: My two biggest bits of advice to writers are to be prolific and to improve every song. Did you know the Beatles wrote 100 songs before “Love Me Do” – their first release?  They wrote, improved, performed, and then basically threw away those first 100 songs.  Some people at clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg heard them, but that’s it.  Because of this, by the time we heard the first note from them, they were already very seasoned experienced writers. If the Beatles were coming out today, they would have spent far too much time, emotion, and expectations on uploading their first three songs to their website, MySpace, and iTunes.  They would have emailed everyone saying, “Let us know what you think!”  They would have gotten incredibly discouraged with the lukewarm response. Luckily for them (and us!), the Beatles were in an age where they just kept writing and writing and writing.  Constantly improving every song, trying it out on crowds, improving it again, then writing more and moving on. I strongly recommend throwing away your first 100 songs.  Get into that mindset and it changes everything.  Instead of trying to promote every song, you just keep writing.  You stop worrying about piracy, because you know you have 100 more songs coming.  Each time you record an album, it’ll be your 10 favorite songs from the last 100 you wrote.  You focus on building and building your career instead of trying to force everyone on earth to love your first three songs. As for improving, I was blown away by the responses I got recently, asking writers What do you do for feedback on a new song you’re writing? Apparently most people just treat the first thing out of their mouth as if it’s the unchangeable stone tablets handed to Moses! I have always been a relentless song-improver.  I would write 25 verses to come up with two good ones.  I’d ask all my friends, “What don’t you like about this? Where do you lose interest? What line do you not love?”   Some of their feedback would resonate with me, and make me...

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Dan Miller On Songwriting, Part II

Dan Miller On Songwriting, Part II

Dan Miller is the founder and publisher of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, a bi-monthly print and online-based periodical (and companion audio CD) dedicated to presenting all aspects of the art of flatpicking the acoustic guitar. The following conversation concludes my interview with Dan that began with the previous post on March 22. Rick: Excellent insights, Dan. I totally resemble the part about getting excited about writing a new song only to do next to nothing to promote it beyond the people who already enjoy listening to my music. So what are some of the other changes you’re seeing in the music industry as the digital age continues to unfold — and what is staying the same? Dan: What is constantly changing and evolving are all of the new ways listeners are getting their music and all of the new avenues for promotion and sales. On the down side of this is that there is a lot of competition and there are so many artists out there trying to sell their music and capture the interest of music listeners. Add to that the fact that there are so many artists willing to give their songs away for free and it is so easy for the consumer to copy songs from their friends, most people, especially the younger demographic, don’t really spend any money for the music that is on their computer or in their iPod. Not many people are buying CDs these days, and huge numbers of people are getting downloads for free. That is not good for the artist who is trying to make a living at this. What is staying the same is that it takes a lot of hard work and investment in time and money to make it. This has not changed. In the old days, a band had to work really hard to get picked up by a label. There was a lot of competition to get on a label. So the competition part is the same. Once a band or artist got picked up by a label and had the label’s support, they could get somewhere. However, if they didn’t get picked up by a label, it was really hard to get anywhere because studio costs were high, record duplication and distribution was expensive and difficult, and avenues of promotion were nearly closed off if you didn’t have the support of a label. Today, in the digital age, recording is affordable, and distribution, promotion, and marketing online are easy if you put the time in and know what you are doing. So, in today’s digital world, it is possible for a band or artist to make it on their own without the support of a label or a lot of money. The downside is because it is all so affordable and accessible, hundreds of thousands of artists are doing it and so it is very difficult for the consumer to sort through it all. So the competition is still there and the hard work is still there, the success factor has just been taken out of the hands of the labels and put more into the hands of the artists and consumers. Rick: Do believe it’s possible for a songwriter to be successful without touring – or at least committing to an ongoing public performance schedule? Dan: I’ll assume that you are talking just about someone who is a songwriter trying to pitch and sell their songs, not someone who is also working to be a performing or recording artist (because the answer would be different for each). If we are strictly talking about a...

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Kathy Kallick On Songwriting, Part II

Kathy Kallick On Songwriting, Part II

Kathy Kallick has been leading bands and writing songs since 1975. Over the years, she has grown and evolved into an outstanding composer with over 100 of her original songs recorded and enjoyed by fans and listeners in Northern California, around the country and throughout the world. Rick: With so many songs already written and published, what inspires you to keep writing? Kathy: I can’t help but write songs. I have a very aggressive Muse who will not be denied! When I’ve tried to intentionally take a break from writing, it never works. Neither will it work for me to sit down and make myself write a song. The busier I am, the more input I’m receiving from the world at large, the more likely I am to have a burst of songs. I’m very inspired by the stories I hear from friends, or a common thread that runs through several situations. Sometimes I’m percolating a song subconsciously, and it’ll come out fully formed and surprise the heck out of me. I tend to write a lot in the first person. That’s how my first bluegrass songs came to me, as stories from my experience, but many songs are just story songs, or quite removed from my own experiences, when I can take the opportunity to try on another point of view. I love a good story song, and I’m sometimes inspired by novels I’ve read or songs I’ve heard. Sometimes I want to think about more of the story than has already been told. I get inspired to write new songs when ever I learn a new chord shape, or guitar run, or strum pattern. Anything that gets me playing the guitar a bunch to learn something new is likely to unleash a melody, and then the words fall into the cadence of the melody. For me, songs start in all those ways; melody inspires words, the lyric suggests a cadence that leads to a melody, or the lyrics and melody appear simultaneously. Sometimes a new song will be based on playing out of a certain chord shape and I’ll have to capo a gazillion frets up the neck in order to sing it in the right key! Rick: What have you learned from your personal journey as a songwriter that might be helpful to others walking their own creative path? Kathy: I’ve found that listeners will often take their own meaning from a song, and that’s something I really love. I’ve often not thought about the meaning of a song in the same way as somebody who hears it from their own experience, and the song is open to different interpretations. I never try to correct somebody who’s heard something that resonates for them, even if they’ve heard a completely different lyric than I wrote. Sometimes the music happens somewhere between my performance and their ears, and it’s magic. I think the most important thing about songwriting is to write in one’s own voice. By that I don’t mean everything has to be True Confessions, but that the voice I write in is believable. Even if I were to write in some arcane dialect or different gender or historical background, I have to believe the voice of the singer. I have to sing it from the heart, or it will fall flat. I’m always writing songs for me to sing; if somebody else wants to sing it, that’s great, but I first have to be able to sing it myself. I like to write a song that’s interesting to me, so even if it’s a simple love...

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Tim Stafford & Bobby Starnes, Part II

Tim Stafford & Bobby Starnes, Part II

Tim Stafford and Bobby Starnes are childhood friends, accomplished songwriters and creative collaborators. In Part I of this interview, Tim and Bobby talked about how they first decided to collaborate together as songwriters, how they go about creating brand fresh songs and whether they write songs with specific performers in mind. Here in Part II, our conversation concludes with some of their co-writing favorites, what they’ve learned over the years about creative collaboration and a bit of advice for other songwriters who may be interested in co-writing. Rick: What is one of your favorite songs you’ve co-written, and why? Tim: Gee, I guess “My Ropin’ Days are Done” from the last Blue Highway record (Through the Window of a Train) is one of my favorites. Bobby can tell you how that one came about. I also like “A Week From Today” on that record. A friend of mine who is a preacher came over to our house and said he was stopping by the prison on the way home — a lifer there was getting out the next day and he dreaded the thought. I wrote that down, and Bobby and I wrote it a week or so later. Lots of people have asked if it had anything to do with “Shawshank Redemption,” but neither one of us had seen the movie at the time. Another song I really like is one called “Back in the Day” that hasn’t been recorded yet — it’s about my grandma Ruby and our high school years. Bobby: Well, the “Ropin’ Days” story is a long one but I will try to shorten it. I have a cousin Phil Randazzo who was at one time a ropin’ cowboy on the rodeo circuit. Tim and I went up to his summer home called Whiskey Island on the St. Lawrence Seaway in upstate New York to spend a few days to write. Phil was telling us the story of how his last weekend on the rodeo circuit ended and how his wife Mary had had enough. It is a long story but it was at the end of his story when he said “…and that’s when I knew my ropin’ days were done.” Tim and I just looked at each other immediately and together said, “MY ROPIN’ DAYS ARE DONE!” Here are the lyrics we came up with… My Ropin’ Days Are Done (Tim Stafford-Robert G. Starnes/Daniel House Music, BMI-It Says What It Says Music, BMI) I was thinkin’ ’bout Mary as I left Tucumcari With four hours to make Santa Fe I know she’s been hopin’ I’ll quit this damn ropin’ But that’s one thing that she’d never say It’s a cowboy’s addiction, the smell and the friction Of the rope when it’s dallied and taut Every year it gets rougher, but her love is tougher Than any steer I’ve ever fought It’s more than a livin’, it’s been my whole life Taken and given the pleasure and strife… But I’ve known all along that this day would come Guess my ropin’ days are done There’s headers and heelers, addicts and dealers And Crown to cover the fear I been a saint and a sinner, a loser and winner So where do I go from here? I could be home by daybreak if I turn around now I’God boys, it’s been fun Tell the girls in Nogales I’m headed to Dallas Now my ropin’ days are done I’m also very excited about “Back in the Day” as well. We just recently wrote this one but it is very personal for both Tim and I...

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