By Matt Donald – Nexus ICA Assistant Principal, Director of Education
In and amongst all the challenges that our national lockdown has presented, it has proved to be a fruitful season for those who like to make music. Yes, we’re all waiting for the time that we can actually gig again, get out in front of people and perform stood next to other musicians. But if you’re like me, that itch to do something creative, something musical has not gone away. So, I’ve turned my attention back to writing songs instead of performing them and I’d like to share a few tips that might help rekindle those voice notes or song sketches that you might not have looked at for a while.
1. Keep a lyric notebook.
This is not likely news to you but make sure you keep a lyric notebook. Ideas are often fleeting, so you need to grab them when you can. Keep a journal of your life, write everything down. The purpose of the notebook isn’t primarily to be the location of your finished lyrics, although it likely will become this. The purpose is to get you used to exploring and observing the world and your experiences through words. Lyrics carry the message of any song, so get practiced in composing words.
2. Keep a musical notebook.
Like keeping track of your lyrical inspiration, you should be tracking your musical inspiration. I currently have 135 music memos on my phone, nearly all are unrealised songs and I will never play you any of them. Most of them are me singing nonsensical lyrics, trying to capture a vibe whilst simultaneously not looking like an idiot by ‘performing’ into my phone. Some, I beatbox. I can’t beatbox. Some, I sing melodies and bass lines and chords all at once. I can’t do that either. But the point is I captured them and did so when the idea struck me.
3. Change the key.
Ever find that everything you write sounds the same? This is probably because of the range of your singing voice. You’ll like how certain notes feel to sing and you’ll pick them over other options because of how that feeling fits over your use of harmony. So, change the key. Move the entire progression you’re working on up or down quite a bit. This will completely transform the parts you write. What you did before will now be uncomfortably high or low. Chords will need to be re-voiced, parts re-considered and of course melodies re-invented too.
4. Set a really quick deadline.
The truth is that so often we can be ruled by our creative process that we forget to set deadlines and we turn into our own worst enemy – constantly tweaking, re-working and re-shaping everything as we try to realise the best song the world has ever seen. Sometimes, we need to trust our instincts and just get it done. Set yourself a deadline, a quick one and tell someone you’ll send them a track by that deadline. You may be surprised by the results.
5. Limit your choices.
Having too many options is a problem. Ever find yourself scrolling through Netflix thinking ‘there’s nothing to watch’? Nowadays we have so much choice that we can’t choose, and this impacts our creative process too. You could probably imagine anything and be able to download or sample or record or programme or create or source or remix or learn or watch or grab or steal or listen or access a solution in a matter of seconds. It’s a good discipline to, dare I say, lock yourself down and limit your choices. Not only because you’ll begin to write with an increased overarching aesthetic but because it forces you to be creative within restraint.
6. Appreciate the creative process.
“I just woke up and the best song that has ever been was in my head. I rolled over into my perfect home studio and recorded it in just one take!“
We’ve all heard someone say that..
Yes, writing good songs involves inspiration and you should do everything you can to capture that muse when it appears. But don’t forget a lot of the creative process is a ‘process’. Working on it and with it is part of it. Some great songs take seconds to write but some take years. It’s ok to pause on a song because you’re not feeling it but it’s just as important to know when you need to keep exploring. Most musicians measure their practice time in hours per day. When was the last time you built in hours to your day to practice songwriting? Craft that deep joy of the process not just the likes, comments or streams of the final product. That way when inspiration runs out, you’ll enjoy the work.
“I’m a perfectionist”…
You’ve probably heard that before, but truth be told this often means “I’m scared of sharing my ideas”. It’s ok to have a clear vision and not to settle until that vision is realised but the creative process was never meant to be isolating. Get over the ‘I don’t share works in process’-mentality and start using feedback from others. Start with those you trust, people you know will be honest but gentle and supportive but then widen the circle. Then when you’re used to sharing, you’ll be much better placed to write with someone else, to bring ideas to the table and to be part of team. There’s no one like you. No one hears things like you or writes things like you. This is true of everyone! Writing with others will open your song to possibilities you just can’t create because it’s not ‘you’.
8. Listen to what you don’t like.
“If you listen to something and don’t like it, it’s probably because you don’t understand it. Listen again”
This is what Michael League, the bass player and leader of Snarky Puppy said at a conference in NYC I presented at last summer.
We all have our favourites, songs that we come back to time and time again because they ‘just do it’ every single time. The problem with staying in your creative safe zone is that you don’t learn, push or question. Get stuck into the music you don’t like because it’ll likely teach you something. Write down what’s happening, articulate why you don’t like it, explore the creative choices that were made and you might be surprised at how this could impact your own writing.
9. Build a jigsaw.
There’s lots of research that suggests that completing non-creative tasks in which you have to follow instructions or a set formula actually improves your creative thinking afterwards. Take a break from songwriting and build some Lego, complete a jigsaw, colour inside the lines, be told what to do and then return to your song with fresh eyes and ears.
10. Write without a screen.
Removing the screen forces you to engage physically and aurally with the process of making music. Just stop and think about that for a second. Music isn’t about the visual, it’s about the aural & physical. Why do we feel the need to be the tethered to a screen? Screens are everywhere and even more so now (you’re reading this on a…). Why do you need to use your phone, laptop or tablet to write your song? Break out of the screen and write just with an instrument, feel the keys, touch the paper of your actual notebook, press or turn (not click or drag) a button or dial on your hardware and engage physically with the process of writing.
11. Finally, get the right perspective.
Your art is most definitely an expression and extension of you, but it shouldn’t define everything that is you. People will like or dislike your songs, connect with them or not, follow you or not. These do not define your value nor the value of your art.