Posts Tagged 'original music'


Why write a song?

If your answer is some variation of “I had to” or “There was something I really wanted to say” or “I was moved by (fill in the blank) and wanted to express it,” there’s a good chance that the song will resonate with others.

If, as a songwriter, you can manage to keep your original source of inspiration alive and intact through the ups and downs of the creative process, the song can actually come alive and go on to transmit that inspiration to others like a direct current.

When a song brings tears to someone’s eyes or a smile to their face or makes their heart beat just a little faster, there’s something more going on than just a pleasant melody or a relevant topic. There’s a shared knowing, an authenticity, a mood — or a hundred other forms of emotional electricity — that’s connecting.

One of the songs I’ve written that has connected with many listeners, albeit in a sad way, is Where Peaceful Waters Flow. The song is about the human face of the seafaring tragedy described in “A Perfect Storm.” While reading the book, I kept tapping into how it might personally feel to be too far at sea to be able to make it back to dry land as an ominous storm grows in intensity and ever closer in proximity.

By the time I finished reading the book, I had to find some way to express the thoughts churning in my head, and I started writing…

Three days from home
Three miles below
A ship and crew went down
To darkness they were bound…

The idea of being so far out in the ocean that even if you “made a run for it” there was simply no way to outpace destiny, weighed heavily as I was writing.

Three long days from home, a ship sailed all alone
When a raging storm descended on the sea
Too far to make it in, to home and worried friends
They rode the waters to their destiny

Those words and the others that followed brought forward a melody in D minor that suited the mood, and the resulting tribute to the men who fought and died aboard the Andrea Gail.

Not that it needed it, but I gave the song a twist of irony in the chorus. I wanted to juxtapose the sentiment of “rest in peace” with the terrifying turbulence on the surface of the water, and wrote…

A ship and crew went down
To darkness they were bound
Where peaceful waters flow without a sound

…and finally…

Clear skies returned again, no trace of what had been
The ocean looked just like it did before
No sign of ship or crew, no witness left who knew
Their tragic journey to the ocean floor

Do you have a story of your own to share?
Comments and songwriting experiences welcome!


Phil Cornish On Songwriting

Phil is the only person I’ve collaborated with to write, and actually finish, an original song. It’s an instrumental called “Snowfall on Cedar” and we recorded it on the Copper Canyon CD Tales from the Canyon along with Megan Lynch, Pat Ickes and Jerry Logan.

Although that’s the current extent of my own co-authoring experience, Phil has written songs with a variety of other songwriters in recent years, including Megan, Paul Lee, Eric Guest and others. That makes Phil something of an expert on the subject, so I was curious about his thoughts on the process.

Rick: How is co-authoring a song different from writing one by yourself?

Phil: There’s someone there to reel you in when you stray or push you forward when you’re on the right track. It can be exciting and fun, or very formal and remote. In any case, it’s usually easier because you don’t have to do 100% of the work. On the other hand, you might have to compromise some of your ideas, which can be frustrating (but don’t worry, you can save those ideas for another song later!). No matter what, you’ll always have to share the glory — but you can also share the criticism if bad reviews abound.

Rick: Mmmm… Less work. Compromise. Glory/blame sharing. Sounds a bit like a relationship. What do you like best about that kind of collaboration?

Phil: I think there’s a special satisfaction gained due to the fact you can get along with someone well enough to pull it off. I think it allows you to sell the song better if you’re the type of person who is not 100% into self-promotion. Most of the time when I’m introducing a song to a crowd on stage, I’m more comfortable telling them I co-wrote a song because I feel less boastful and it also gives me a little wiggle room in case they don’t like it.

Rick: In your experience, how do you begin the process of co-writing a song?

Phil: Sometimes you pop open some beers and show the other person an idea… maybe some words or chords or melody and it just goes from there whether planned or not. Other times someone dumps two verses in your email in-box and says “You do the rest” or “What do you think of this… want to use it for something?” It can depend on whose idea it is to start something, or what sort of projects are on the horizon. In a specific case, a friend told me an interesting story about a failed marriage that seemed like great fodder for a song and it went from there. Another time, a co-author and I had each written incomplete songs that seemed to fit together after a little tweaking.

Rick: Are two heads really better than one, or does one of the writers tend to make most of the contributions?

Phil: I think there’s a cut-off point. I’m not sure where it is but, for example, if someone is showing you a new song and you make one suggestion that locks the song into place, that doesn’t make you a co-author. Maybe you’d need to write a whole verse or section or premise to be granted that title. I would wager it is not usually 50-50, and I would also like to suggest that it is in the eye of the originator. If the originator wrote 99% of a song but someone came along with just the right word to change the song from a mediocre tune to masterpiece — and the originator feels so strongly that the contributor deserves credit — then it can instantly become a co-authored song.

Rick: What advice can you offer to other songwriters who might have an interest in co-writing original music?

Phil: Leave room for the brainstorming period where there are no bad ideas. Have patience with the other person. If you get stuck, take a break of 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days or 5 months. Show your progress to a third party, or even invite a third person to contribute. Be open to the idea that if things do not work out, one of you can take the body of work and revert it to single author status.

Rick: One more question: How do you know when the song is finished?

Phil: It’s not like compost, in that there’s no scientific definition you can refer to in answering this question. In fact, I would say a song is never finished because even after you’ve saved the Word document, recorded, mixed, mastered, printed, declared a copyright and shipped the CD, you still might change a word here or there when performing it on stage. And if someone else comes along and wants to borrow it, they’ll do it differently as well.

Rick: Very cool, the idea that songs — like languages — continue to evolve through time. Thanks, Phil, for your time… and for that snowy afternoon in Twain Harte when Cedar the Wonder Poodle inspired us to co-write a melody that evokes the pure joy of watching a puppy play in the snow.

Oh No… Not an Original!

Have you ever been in the following situation?

You’re in a jam where the other musicians don’t know you very well. It’s an equal opportunity jam where lead solos pass from player to player in an orderly clockwise manner. Nobody’s talking much, except for the predictable banjo quip that everybody predictably groans at.

Not only do solos pass around the circle clockwise, so does the right (obligation?) to call the next song when it’s your turn. All of the previous players have called familiar cover tunes, and as long as their choice wasn’t “Rocky Top” or “Fox on the Run,” everybody nodded in agreement and so began the song.

Then it’s your turn. You’re a songwriter. You would much rather introduce the group to one of your own songs than play yet another cover.

After all, these are fellow musicians, right? If anybody can relate to the creative process, it’s other musicians. Right? Sometimes yes, but not always.

There are plenty of times when folks automatically associate the word “original” with “complex” in the context of songwriting. That’s because they’ve been in other jams where an original song turns out to be a total jam buster. Too many chord changes. Too hard to follow.

To be sure, sometimes we can reach too far to be original by composing unlikely chord changes or odd melodic structures. Hey, I’ll bet nobody’s thought of that sequence before!

But the beauty of an original song is seldom an “original” chord change or contrived melody. Simpler is almost always better, and it’s usually the story, the hook or the overall balance of the song that makes it memorable.

Next time you’re in a jam, best to save the science experiment that includes every chord change known to mankind in favor of an easy-to-follow original song that has good words and a logical structure.

When the song’s over, if you’re lucky, you might get beyond a “Whew, that wasn’t so bad” to a “Wow, who wrote that song?”

Dave Richardson On Songwriting

What makes a good song good? Where do ideas for original songs come from? How do you know when the song is finished?

I recently chatted with San Gabriel-based composer, musician and recording engineer Dave Richardson about these philosophical aspects of songwriting. Dave picked some sparkling banjo, sang baritone vocals and mixed/mastered my most recent CD, The Magic Hour. These days, he still wakes up before dawn to rip through a bunch of amazingly fast scales while most of the West Coast is catching a final hour of sleep, happily unaware of the cacophony of notes bursting from his Gibson.

Rick: In your opinion, what makes a song particularly memorable or special?

Dave: A good song must bring about an emotion. Whether it’s laughter, sadness, anger or contemplation, a good one will elicit some kind of response from most people in your audience. Some, of course, will float right through it, and a meaningful message to one person might mean nothing to the next.

Rick: Yep, that’s probably why it feels like certain songs are actually telling your own story. When you sit down to write a new song, is that what you’re thinking about?

Dave: The songs that I have written come from real life experiences. I am really prolific when things are not going well! I really don’t know the reason for this. I know that when things are going well, it is very difficult for me to wake up and say, “I am going to write something today!” and then actually follow through. The creative process just comes to me at the moment, and I write it down. Recently, I wrote an instrumental for a friend who passed away unexpectedly. I suppose words could be written to it, but I wanted to play it for the loved ones left behind and let them imagine their own words to the melody.

Rick: When you’re writing a new piece of music, how do you know when to put a © on it, lay down your pen and call it done?

Dave: It’s hard to say when a song is finished. Sometimes, when your song is performed live for the first time, you realize that the words are hard to sing, or the meaning of your words is too obscure and need to be modified. I think that there must be a time, however, when you must stop working on it. Perhaps if you record it, and listen to it a month later, you will hear things that you didn’t hear when the song was closer to you.

Rick: One of my favorite Dave Richardson originals is a barn burner you call The JackRabbit at Kennywood Park. What’s the story behind that tune, and where did the quirky name come from?

Dave: My sister took me to Kennywood Park, a very old amusement park near Pittsburgh, when I was 9-years old. She told me that she wanted to take me on a “scenic railway” ride. That sounded tame enough to me. Well it wasn’t. It was the JackRabbit! It still runs today, and is one of the few wooden ravine roller coasters still in existence. There’s only a single leather strap holding you in, and there is a double-dip near the end of the ride where you become weightless! I didn’t write this tune until a few years ago, when I got to thinking about the experience. The B part of the song is supposed to imitate the roller coaster. I am going to re-record it this year at a more reasonable speed. It’s really too fast.

Rick: You mentioned earlier the importance of tapping into emotion with a song. You wrote a song called When Love Turns Blue that must have been hard to sing when you first wrote it.

Dave: This is a fairly simple song about a man who is intensely in love with a woman, but probably will never be with this person forever due to circumstances. I originally had a verse in the song that hinted at these circumstances, but removed it later. I thought it gave away too much. The song comes from personal experience.

Rick: Send me a link to an MP3 of that song, and we’ll spread the tears to a few new ears.

Helpful Hints for Writing an Original Song

I was asked to teach a couple of workshops on songwriting a few years back at some of my all-time favorite California bluegrass festivals, including the CBA Father’s Day Festival in Grass Valley, Bluegrassin’ in the Foothills in Plymouth and the Mid-state Bluegrass Festival in Paso Robles.

In preparation for those workshops, I put together the following notes that I thought might be useful to ponder and chat about, sitting in the grass in the shade of tall trees. Nothing like an acoustic guitar, kindred friends / musicians / songwriters and a shady spot to stretch out on a warm summer day.

Before you begin…

  • What inspires you to want to write a song?
  • What do you want to say that’s unique? Expressive? Thoughtful?
  • Write about a topic that you personally care about
  • Listen often to other artists you enjoy
  • Study the songwriting styles of other artists who inspire you
  • Be ready to answer the call of the muse—whenever and however it happens—with pen and paper, tape recorder and/or your instrument
  • Remember: every song ever written was built on the same limited palette of notes that is available to every songwriter

Writing the song…

  • Possible starting points: an inspirational topic, a memorable phrase, a story you want to tell, a chord progression, a cool riff, a melody line, a chorus, free-form experimentation
  • Be open minded about where your first idea may ultimately lead you
  • When writing lyrics, establish a logical pattern of meter and rhyme
  • Avoid sounding contrived in melody and verse. In other words, just because you can doesn’t mean you should
  • In writing words and melodies, simpler is often better
  • Be specific about how the melody is supposed to go
  • The memorability test: Is the melody one that you can hum or whistle?
  • Vowel sounds are easier to sing than hard consonants

Putting it all together…

  • Ask someone else to perform your song so you can listen to it objectively
  • Evaluate the continuity of the entire song once you’ve developed it
  • Don’t be reluctant to edit the song, even after you’ve decided it’s done
  • It helps to lay a finished song aside and return to it later with a fresh ear
  • Don’t let the opinions of others derail you
  • Like any other worthwhile pursuit—don’t give up, be persistent, be prolific

All the good names are already taken…

There are two things every blogger must do when starting a new blog: pick a subject and then pick a name.

It turns out that picking a subject is pretty easy: simply reflect on what you’re interested in and passionate about… and hopefully know a thing or two about. Picking a name? Not so easy.

Anyone who has gone through the process of naming a new song, deciding what to call a new band — or trying to think up a cool domain name or blogspot to register — inevitably runs into an invisible wall. This wall has a not-so-invisible sign tacked to it that reads “Sorry, but yer a little late and all the good names are already taken.”

Even though this imaginary wall is just an illusion, it can sure feel real enough until that happy moment arrives when you finally land on a name that 1) you like and 2) that’s actually available.

Picking a suitable name is kind of a big deal. It’s how people remember the thing behind the name. It’s also how you search for stuff, pass word to others or make snap decisions about if you’re even interested in the topic.

I originally wanted to call this blog “A Story and a Song” but, alas, that name was already taken by a dance company. Bummer. Then I thought of “Songscapes,” “SongSphere” and a bunch of other cool names that other folks had already thought of first.

Yet I pressed on, undeterred by the mirage of a pesky wall I don’t even believe in. After all, how many times have I played a game of Boggle and marveled at how many obvious words other players found that I totally overlooked? Good names are always out there, if we can but think of them and snatch ’em out of the ether.

This new blog is on songwriting. Hey, why not do a quick Google search for the obvious? “On Songwriting.” Sometimes the obvious answer = the best choice. In this case, the name was actually available. Booyah! Quick, snag it before somebody else thinks of it… and so a new blog begins.

With the name thing settled, all that’s left is to think up something interesting to write on the topic of songwriting. No shortage there. Uh-oh, is that another wall I see through the mist on the next horizon?