Look at me back up on my songwriting horse!
Last year — 2018 — I challenged myself to write two songs each month. I was ahead of schedule for most of the year. But then somewhere around the middle of August I just kind of stopped and forgot how to do it.
I ended up writing 21 new songs in 2018, and I consider my output to be a smashing success, even though I finished the year a few tunes short of my goal.
My songwriting slump is finally in the rear view, and 2019 has gotten off to a great start. At the time of this writing, I’ve completed one new song (“Meadowlark Lemon”) and I have two (thus far untitled) songs nearing completion.
I think my songs are pretty good, too. I mean, I’m happy with them and other people seem to dig them. And if they aren’t any good, well, the next 21 songs will almost certainly be better.
Now that I’ve emerged from my slump, I’ve spent some time reflecting on what it means to be a successful songwriter. I’m not talking about making lots of money or anything; I’m just talking about being consistent, productive and proud of one’s work.
I came up with 25 pieces of advice for myself so I can avoid slumping again. And now I’m going to share them with you.
#1 — Don’t Be So Precious About It
If I had to choose a single piece of advice or wisdom to share with creative people, this would be it. Stop trying to create masterpieces; just create. Stop trying to create capital-I “Important” works; just create. Stop waiting for the perfect set of conditions to present itself; just create.
I rarely wrote songs prior to 2018 because I was way too goddamn precious about the process. So I had to stop caring so much. I had to stop putting the songs on pedestals before they were even 10% completed. I realized that if I was going to write two songs each month, I had to just write them. Go to the widget factory. Make the widgets. Go home. Go back to the widget factory to make more widgets the next day. And so on.
Yes, I care a lot about the songs I write. But I no longer care so much that I convince myself I’m not worthy of the privilege to write them. Does that make sense?
#2 — Inspiration, Shminspiration
One of the things people do when they are feeling particularly precious about their art is wait for inspiration to strike before taking action. So they never take action.
Sometimes you just have to sit down and write the damn thing, regardless of whether you’re feeling inspired or not.
#3 — Schedule the Time
If you wait for the ideal set of conditions to present itself, it will never present itself.
Pull out your phone, go to your calendar app and block out time strictly for songwriting. Protect that time. And try not to spend it scrolling through Twitter and getting pissed off. If you realize you’ve spent 45 minutes of your protected songwriting hour looking at Twitter (or Facebook or Instagram or LinkedIn) getting pissed off, use your final 15 minutes to start writing a song about how you get pissed off when you spend 45 minutes looking at social media stuff while you should be doing something else. It’s all grist for the mill!
#4 — Stop Trying to Make the Definitive Musical Statement About Whatever Topic
Too many would-be songwriters waste their time pouring everything into one song as their definitive statement of purpose. Successful songwriters just write the song, and then they write the next one. And then they write the next one. Eventually, some of those songs become “signature” pieces, or they tell a particular story better than any other song has.
It’s not about writing the one amazing masterpiece that will make you a household name; it’s about creating a body of work that’s as complex, diverse, contradictory, provocative, banal, inspiring and human as the individual creating it.
#5 — Write Tons of Songs
Again — just keep writing! The best songwriters write constantly. For every song on your favorite album, there are probably two or three that were discarded. The more songs you have, the more chances you have to connect with people. And if you’re not precious about your songs, you won’t be hurt by the fact that some of them just don’t seem to work.
#6 — Copy Other People’s Songs
This is a great place to start! If you like a certain groove, feel, structure, chord progression, melody or some other element, steal it and run it through the filter of your creativity and personality. Mess around with it. Try to isolate what you like about it and distill something useful out of it.
My song “Beach Body: European Suit (Without a Hat)” began its life as a ripoff of “Overkill” by Men at Work. It retains references to the band’s homeland of Australia as a sort of tribute. My song “Don’t Be Afraid to Blow Your Mind” comes from a reworking of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind,” as performed by Albert King.
I could come up with several more examples. In each case, the new song I wrote sounds nothing like its original inspiration. I took existing songs and ran them through my Matt Kollock filter. And now I have these songs that I can call “original.”
#7 — Just Write the Lyrics Down, Then Make Them Better
I don’t know about you, but for me, lyric writing is the most difficult aspect of the songwriting process. Lyrics tend to be the last things I think about, and I usually spend way too much time trying to get them right. But when things are grooving and I’m feeling prolific with my craft, it’s usually when I decide to just write something down. Once I do that, I have something to perform and practice, which leads to reworking and restructuring the lyrics. Sometimes I throw out whole verses and choruses and replace them with new ones. Other times the initial lyrics stick. Just write something. Then you can rewrite it.
#8 — Write, Write Some More and Then Rewrite
Embrace what author Anne Lamott describes as the “shitty first draft.” Get it out of your system. Then rework it. It’s not just for lyrics. It could be for your melody or chord progression or any other element. Writing is rewriting.
#9 — Make Decisions
Don’t get yourself stuck wondering if you should go to D major or B minor. Just pick one. At its core, songwriting is nothing more than the act of cutting a path through a series of decision points. So make the decisions. And then correct them later, if necessary.
#10 — Cut It Out
Does your song really need to be six fucking minutes long? Probably not. Cut out a verse or two if you have to. Tighten up that bridge section. Try to eliminate anything that keeps you from getting to the main hook in a minute or less.
A lot of times I’ll write a first verse that’s really just me clearing my throat. So I’ll get rid of it. It’s hard to do, especially considering how difficult lyric writing can be, but it gets easier, and my songs are better for it.
If you’ve pruned your song effectively and it’s still six fucking minutes long, then it’s probably a pretty good six-minute song that earns its run time.
#11 — Don’t Be So Sure You Know What the Song Is About
One great way to get into a songwriting slump is to decide what a song is going to be about before you’ve written one note or a single lyric. This closes the creative valve completely. Just write the song. Let it be what it wants to be.
I’m still figuring out what some of my songs are about, and I think that’s okay.
#12 — Don’t Be Afraid to Use Online Resources
My top three?
I use the shit out of these and I’m not afraid to admit it!
#13 — Document Every Little Idea
“I write jokes for a living. I sit at my hotel at night, I think of something that's funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen is too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain't funny.” -Mitch Hedberg
This is something that separates successful artists from those who may be just as talented, but not as successful. When you get an idea, write it down. Save it for later. Don’t assume that you’ll remember it when you’re ready to sit down and write. You won’t remember it. I promise. Keep a notebook with you, or use the notes app on your phone. Build a habit. Create a personal database of little idea nuggets and you’ll increase your output considerably.
#14 — Use Constraints
If you approach songwriting with a complete blank slate where anything is possible, it’s going to be really hard to get any songs written. So start with some constraints.
For example, my song “Wait to Walk into the Light” came about because I assigned myself the challenge of writing a song with just two chords. And I wrote “The Dreams Inside of You” specifically to appeal to ad agencies and music supervisors for sync licensing. I wouldn’t have written those songs outside the constraints I placed on their creation.
#15 — Change Instruments
If you’re a guitar player, go sit at the piano. If you’re a pianist, pick up a trombone. Whatever. Changing your instrument changes the way you interface with the music, which changes your approach and causes you to generate different ideas.
You don’t even have to be that extreme. Maybe just use a different guitar. Or use a different tuning. I wrote the aforementioned “Wait to Walk into the Light” mostly on a crappy nylon-string acoustic guitar that rarely comes out of the case. And I was inspired to write three new songs in quick succession just by screwing around with open D tuning over the course of a month or so.
#16 — Pay Attention!
You can’t write lots of different songs if you keep writing the same song over and over again. I almost fell into this particular trap last year with a bunch of melancholy tunes all based around the A minor chord shape. Thankfully, I noticed the groove I had gotten myself into and climbed out.
#17 — React to Your Previous Work
When you’re mindful of the work you’re creating, you can avoid recreating it. You can also take the opportunity to react to what you’ve done. This ensures that you’re always working on something new and differently flavored. Notice what you’ve been doing and then do something else.
#18 — Write with the TV On/Write in Silence
Sometimes it’s cool to have the TV on in the background. It can inspire you with random words or phrases, and it can give you little bits of musical inspiration, too. It works for me!
But sometimes you just have to shut everything down and focus. So turn that shit off.
#19 — Write Sober/Write Under the Influence
Working sober helps you stay focused and productive.
But sometimes it’s cool to see what comes out when you’re not experiencing default consciousness. Just be careful and know your limits, friends.
A lot of my songs come from me sitting down at my desk with a workmanlike approach and the unsullied bloodstream of a Boy Scout. A lot of them come from… elsewhere.
#20 — Understand Some Songs Will Take 10 Minutes to Write; Others May Take 10 Months or 10 Years
Who knows why this is the way it is? But it is this way. And that’s okay.
#21 — Be a Problem Solver
My most-requested song, “In Case of Emergency,” was a real sonofabitch to write. I knew I had something good, but I got frustrated because I couldn’t figure out how to put it all together. So I decided to approach it not as a song, but as a series of problems to solve. Only then could I get the math right. So sometimes it pays to put on a different hat. Stop being a songwriter or a musician, and transform into a problem solver for a while. You’ll make some progress, I’m sure.
#22 — Let Yourself Off the Hook
There’s no rule that says you have to bring your old ideas to completion before you can start working on new ones. Work on the song you feel like working on now. Then you’ll have a much better chance of finishing it. Those old ideas will always be there. And if you never end up doing anything with them, that’s fine. Let them go.
#23 — Take the Listener Somewhere
Tell a story. Give some direction to your melody. Make your transitions seem like transportation. Spend some time in the relative minor/major key and then go back. Add a dramatic key change. Consider dynamics as part of the songwriting process. Stuff like that. Being unobtrusive is a cardinal songwriting sin.
It’s okay to drop people off where you picked them up, but at least take them on a ride.
#24 — Honor the Song with an Enthusiastic Performance
You wrote a song! That’s awesome! Truly. So give it the performance it deserves. Don’t consider it finished until you can perform it with energy, enthusiasm and heart. If you’re not feeling it, it’s not finished.
#25 — Don’t Be Satisfied
One day you may find yourself sitting on a repertoire of dozens of songs and you may feel as if you’ve built a complete body of work and that you can rest now. Don’t do that.
You can write more songs. Better songs. Songs that speak more truthfully about who you are and what your whole deal is. Your work is never finished. You have more ideas. You have more concepts. All that. So keep writing. And then write some more.
What About You?
Do you have any songwriting tips, tricks or pieces of wisdom to share? Agree or disagree with any of the nuggets I’ve laid out here? I would love to hear from you, so leave a comment below or send me an email or whatever. Thanks for reading!
I’m going to go work on this song now...