Ready, Aim, Compose
I am a songwriter. My chosen profession exists minus the oft preceding word 'singer', followed by an oh so appealing slash. I have no delusions about recording my own material and dazzling the world with my unique, if not stellar voice. Songwriters like me set our dreams on artists who do not write all or any of their own material, and as with all pursuits, it is a good idea to aim before you fire at the target!
When I began writing songs so long ago at a very tender age, I had not yet lost my voice, and the one I had to work with was compatible with folky James Taylor-styled songs. When I envisioned myself spilling my melodic guts on the stage of some cool urban coffee house, I was always crooning folk songs with gentle artsy tunes and introspective, even 'deep' lyrics.
When I arrived in Nashville, a decade later, I continued in the same tradition. At the time, some fairly folky songs were being recorded on Music Row and I felt hopeful that my songs would be in high demand.
"Too folky" became the mantra that far too many A and R reps and publishers wielded like a needle trying to pop my naive bubble.
Frustration soon followed. "Too folky" became the mantra that far too many A and R reps and publishers wielded like a needle trying to pop my naive bubble. For a while, I persisted in my attempt to 'sell grapes to vineyards'. I told myself that these folks just weren't getting my undeniable brilliance. I refused to make changes in my writing.
After the required amount of anger, denial, and indignation, I eventually realized that those kinds of songs were most frequently written or co-written by the artists. God forbid, I was going to have to re-invent myself!
Artists like Taylor Swift can write as personally and stylized as they choose. They don't have to win a publisher over. That publisher doesn't then have to jump through producer and artist hoops.
They, after all, are 'performing songwriters', and that is a whole 'nother animal. They can offend or baffle to their hearts content, as long as the songs are good. They can write and record something completely out of their usual style. It is not a luxury easily earned!
Peforming songwriters, like Taylor are selling a whole package that is composed of their sound, their image, and of course, their songs. The challenge I face, as do others like me, is entirely different.
Developing a healthy respect for styles and tastes other than your own is a good way to start the process.
Naturally, I could continue to write the kinds of songs I loved most, just for the sheer joy of it, and I did. But, I also ventured out of my comfort zone.
I studied the styles of songs less natural to me. I observed trends and became good at anticipating direction changes before they happened.
Just recently I was asked to write a song for a successful bluegrass group that wanted to take a turn in the direction of Jason Aldean. Because the years have taught me to be more versatile, I was able to deliver. Developing a healthy respect for styles and tastes other than your own is a good way to start the process.
A lot of successful songwriters maintain that country follows pop by a couple of years. If it's happening in pop, they claim, write it for the country market and jump the gun. I can't say that I entirely disagree. What's fresh in one market, might well be becoming stale in another.
Often a songwriter who has had success with one artist will be besieged with co-writing requests by other songwriters less adept in that style. If you can pull off such a request, an excellent lesson usually follows. When I write for the rock side of the market, I love to sit down with a great guitar player, whether they are a great writer or not. Grooves can really awaken the sleeping side of the musical brain.
Another great way to aim your creations effectiively, is to write with an up and coming artist. Only the big boys get to write with established artists most of the time, but promising singer/songwriters are everywhere. You might strike the perfect balance with one of them that spawns a fresh and marketable sound.
Just as an exercise, pick an artist, and make a case study of them. Observe the evolution their musical tastes have followed. Pay attention to the songwriters they have gravitated towards in the past. Consider what may have drawn them to these writers. Miranda Lambert, for example, is obviously drawn to the edgy, colorful lyrics of Kacey Musgraves. Note grooves, melodies, lyrical preferences.
In my early years, I was even advised to “try on” a style.
Next try to anticipate the direction they will take next. With all of the above in mind, sit down and compose with that artist in mind. If you need to write a groove song and can't accompany yourself that way, write to a drum track. Sometimes, to escape my natural tendencies, I just write in my head, where I am a virtuoso!
Another good technique is to take a leap off of someone else's intro, not having heard the whole song. When you're done, of course, come up with a new intro!
In my early years, I was even advised to "try on" a style. This is done by writing entirely new lyrics to a song out of your element, trying to use the same general flavor, and perhaps matching rhyme locations. Next, create a completely different melody. Lastly, alter some line lengths, chords, etc. You will have created an entirely original work in the end, and stepped out of your usual bag.
It is like going into a fitting room with the last garment on earth you'd normally try on. I found the experience to be a lot of fun. It helped me realize that my style range was about one to ten, rathen than the one to a hundred I wanted it to be.
Whatever you do, be sure to come up with something fresh, and not just a rewrite of an artist's last hit. They already did that, and with production and release schedules as they are, it was no doubt quite some time ago. Don't create what an artist recorded yesterday, but rather what they just might record tomorrow!