When I was thirteen, I begged my parents to sign me up for a songwriting workshop taking place at the U of O campus.

I had read about it in the newspaper, and I figured that if I could learn the one and only magic songwriting formula, I'd be able to craft perfect tunes all by myself. I had been writing music in some shape or form for years already, although nothing was really coming out as the stuff I heard on the radio. This workshop would change that, I was sure.

They signed me up after some discussion (it wasn't cheap), and I headed over with no doubt in my mind that I would learn the "trick," as it were, to songwriting.

Holy disappointment.

I'll leave the names out, but this is what I found when I arrived.

Young music types were packed into an auditorium. We all had our notebooks out, ready to learn. I knew these sorts of kids... I had been competing against them in music festivals for a good chunk of my childhood. They were driven, talented, and often slightly deranged. They had always been told that they were the best at what they did, and they believed it. Spoiled, you could say, with spoiled parents. Spoiled STAGE parents. The worst of the worst.

I did not have spoiled parents. My parents were theatre and costume geeks who had lived their lives surrounded with creativity and art. Not a lot of music there, but when they saw my interest in singing, they were happy to indulge me. I'm glad they did.

Anyway, the workshop. A commercially successful Canadian songwriter came on stage, and handouts were circulated in the crowd. These contained the magic song formula, I imagine.

The songwriter went on to explain that to create a successful pop song, you only needed to follow some very simple lyric and structure rules. Keep the language simple, write about love, and always follow the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus formula. DO NOT STRAY. She also included helpful tips on when to repeat lines from your chorus, what chord progressions to use, when to say "baby, baby," how to ooooh and aaaah like the best of them.... You get the picture.

I may have only been thirteen, but I was not an idiot. I was horrified by this so-called winning formula, not only because it stifled creativity, but also because it taught people to pump out songs that all sounded the same. It was based on the misguided assumption that pop for dummies is the only kind of music worth writing. It excluded nearly every other genre, and even really great pop music didn't fit in there.

I was crestfallen and angry. This was not music. It was clear to me that this workshop was nothing but a money grab for people who have been told that they need to "make it" in the industry. These people were not artists, and they weren't going to write anything I would want to listen to.

Thankfully, the workshop also managed to teach me what I didn't want in my own musical career: fake music and fake people. I would not become a commercial pop artist, it was clear.

Apparently I needn't have worried about learning to write songs. When I started playing guitar a year later, all the music inside of me suddenly had a way out. I was writing songs within a month of starting guitar lessons, and I haven't stopped since.

My songwriting formula is no more a winning, magical solution than the shit they taught me at that workshop. It does, however, work for me.

STEP ONE: Get inspired. If I am not doing anything interesting with my time, I am also not writing songs. To stay inspired, I take walks, day trips out of town, explore new neighbourhoods, listen to great music, surround myself with art, and keep notes on my experiences. Heartache is a creative goldmine... Another reason why I'm not writing much these days. :) My notes are usually in the form of phrases, themes or single words that I like. I go back to these lists years after making them to get material for my songs.

STEP TWO: Find a place where you can write. I'm having trouble with that now, since I write best in an empty house, and I rarely find myself in that situation these days. Still, if you just need a comfy chair, or a back porch, or a basement, make that space yours and use it. I think that if I ever have the cash, I will take "songwriting weekends" in Montreal or Toronto where I book a hotel room and I lock down to write for a few days. I would be Ms. Prolific.

STEP THREE: Surround yourself with your inspiration, either your lists or whatever's kicking around in your head, sit down in your songwriting space, and just start to play. I often keep a chord book nearby in case I have trouble getting started. I basically strum and hum until I stumble across a chord progression or a melody I really like, and I build it up until I have a good base to work from.

STEP FOUR: Take those chords and that melody and let them tell you what the lyrics will be. This part REALLY doesn't work for some people, especially songwriters who have their lyrics fully pre-written and fit them into their music. For me, the shape the song takes without words completely dictates how my lyrics end up. That works best for me.

STEP FIVE: Keep fiddling with your chords, melody and lyrics until your song starts to fill out and sound like a song. You will be able to hear it coming together. I try to record this process on a little handheld thingy so I don't forget anything the next day. Keep it up until you are done - your definition of "done" will evolve as your writing evolves.

Basically, write what you feel and keep it up until it becomes second nature. It will get easier, and you will get better. Besides, playing your own songs start to finish is incredibly rewarding, and you won't regret a thing.

(Not even the fact that you may never become a commercially successful pop star. Banjo is the new black. Indie is the new pop. Anything goes.)


Does anyone have anything to add about their creative process? How do you make art?

6 comments:

Laura said...

You should host a seminar - great advise and much better than what you got back then!

Jen G said...

host a songwriting weekend right here in Ottawa, or in Gatineau, seriously

Jen G said...

I meant to also say - this process is not unlike mine, except that I continually leave songs (and other types of art that I do) unfinished and come back to them repeatedly, sometimes for years, until they are finished. And I find that sometimes the words come from the music, but often some words will start haunting me with some music already attached to them and that makes me paranoid that I'm unknowingly stealing someone else's work. I'm working on a song now that had a phrase with music attached to it, but when I sat down with the guitar to try to work out the song more fully, the song completely changed! Gotta love the creative process.

Shawna said...

If only you had paid closer attention to the formula... you might be the writer of the Snuggie jingle by now. SIGH.

Stella said...

Laura: Not a bad idea!

Jen: We do have a similar process, although I tend to give up on songs if I can't finish them quickly. I blame my short attention span.

Shawna: It's all about the formula!

johnnyjingles said...

I have songs that I wrote 20 years ago that I still work on!! It might only be changing a single word! or writing an extra or unfinished verse.
I have 1000's of scraps of paper which my have a line /a single word /an theme/ or a chord pattern on.

I would love to be a commercial songwriter but it seems the business is set up for those who are already in the business and not new blood! Its no wonder main stream music gets so stale