Category Archives: Songwriting

7 Tips for Overcoming Songwriter’s Block

The brilliant jazz composer/pianist/vocalist Dave Frishberg once wrote a song titled “My Swan Song” in which he ruminates about the challenge of continuing to come up with new song ideas. Frishberg sings, “It’s the final cry of a dry imagination.”

If you’ve ever put pencil to staff paper or simply tried to hum along a new melody to a few chords on your acoustic guitar, I’m sure you know the feeling. I broke out of a personal songwriter’s slump late last year and pumped out a few tunes. Here are a few things I learned that might help you if you’re struggling with composition:

Rewriting is Easier than Writing

Beatles Abbey RdPaul McCartney woke up in the middle of the night with the idea for the song “Yesterday.” But as he tells the story, he used the title “Scrambled Eggs” instead. He was simply trying to pen lyrics to match the song so he wouldn’t forget the idea, knowing he’d rewrite later. Don’t get hung up on the song trying to find the perfect lyrics. Write something with roughly the appropriate number of syllables and go back and rewrite later.

I’ve written and published 2 books and probably 60-70 songs. In both cases, I’ve found that it’s easier to get ideas out and edit later than to try to make them perfect from the outset.

Capture Every Idea

I have a voice memo function on my smartphone, and I’d imagine most of you do as well. Every time you have an idea, even a couple of lines or a few chords with a melody, capture it. You never know which one can blossom into a full song, but if you plant enough seeds, one will grow into something beautiful.

Walk Away and Come Back

Sometimes a little time away can recharge your batteries or help you look at a song or an idea differently. I’ve had songs that I walked away from because I wasn’t pleased with them. After some time away, I had new ideas – change the tempo, change a few chords, or reverse the order of the verses.

There’s a Reason They Call it the “Creative Process”

In Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art, he speaks of how the artist doesn’t take criticism too personally. They understand that they aren’t defined by any particular piece of art, but rather each work is part of a creative process. They’ll wake up tomorrow and go to work again. Some days/works will be better than others, but each is a step forward.

Write Some Bad Songs

Don’t be deterred because something you wrote doesn’t necessarily live up to your standard. Go ahead and see the work through to completion. Maybe you’ll revisit and improve the song later, but maybe not. You’ll feel better about yourself and your creative abilities if you see ideas through to completion every once in a while, even if you’re not completely happy with the song, rather than just a collection of half-finished songs that leave you frustrated.

Change Your Routine

I typically start composing by strumming chords on the guitar (or piano), then I’ll try to find melodies that fit, and finally lyrics to match the song after the chords and melodies are complete. But I was in a rut using that technique for a long time. So I just started writing lyrics one day. It unlocked my muse, so to speak. Shortly thereafter, I returned to my usual methodology, but changing my routine got me back in a rhythm again, and the ideas started to flow again.

Learn Something New/ Listen to Something Different

Paul McCartney speaks of a Minor 7th chord at the start of the Bridge of the song “From Me to You” as a real breakthrough. Remember that many of the early songs of the Beatles like “Love Me Do” were very simplistic musically and the band was influenced by many of the 3-chord songs of early rockers like Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins. McCartney also suggested to Producer George Martin that they try a piccolo trumpet solo in the song “Penny Lane” after seeing a BBC performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto.

When you consider how far the Beatles took popular music from the late 50’s and early 60’s to albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and Abby Road, it really puts their accomplishments into perspective. If you’re a rock or pop songwriter, listening to new genres might not turn you into a jazz or classical musician, but it might make you better at what you do.

Expand your music vocabulary to give you a broader foundation of ideas to draw from.

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John Lennon Knew the Source of the World’s Troubles

lennon-001“One thing you can’t hide, is when you’re crippled inside.”  ~ John Lennon

Every day I watch the news and I’m saddened by the fact that we as a society spend most of our time dealing with symptoms and not the problem. Crime, war, abusive behavior, addiction, appetite for power, depression – they’re just symptoms. Inability to deal with one’s human emotions is almost always at the heart of these issues.

We’ve made incredible advances in medicine, technology, our universe. And yet as a society, have we had any success reducing violence, divorce, suicide, or increasing our levels of happiness or meaning in our lives? We have an intense curiosity when it comes to exploring the world outside of us – and a paralyzing fear when it comes to exploring the world within.

And until we make the same advances in addressing human emotions in a constructive manner, we can never build enough jails, pop enough pills, conquer enough kingdoms, or fill our lives with enough gadgets and creature comforts to make our problems go away.

There’s a saying that emotions will always find an outlet. If you don’t find a constructive one, they’ll find a destructive one for you. And we see it on the news or in our lives every day.

…And John Lennon knew it.

With that thought in mind, my latest original composition, “Tales of the Emotionally Blind.”

A Little Wisdom on World Events…From Billy Joel

Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden

In increasingly turbulent times globally speaking, a few briefs thoughts today.

Regardless of the nation in which you live, the one from which you came, your political affiliation, or your religious beliefs, there is a troubling trend – Our world seems to be losing tolerance – an acknowledgement that contrasting viewpoints can come from reasonable, intelligent, good-hearted people.

Musicians and comedians are often capable of incisive, honest commentary on the human condition, made more palpable masked in their chosen artistic medium.

A little insight from a great songwriter on the aforementioned topic:

“Now with the wisdom of years, I try to reason things out

And the only people I fear are those who never have doubts

Save us all from arrogant men, and all the causes they’re for

I won’t be righteous again, I’m not that sure anymore”

~ Billy Joel from “Shades of Grey” off of his album River of Dreams

The One Thing Every Musician Needs to Earn a Living

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I took my family to a local restaurant in New Orleans called Felipe’s in the area known as Mid-City recently. Local guitarist Chip Wilson was playing on the patio. Most venues that have music are drinking establishments with age limits, so I’m always pleased to find a rare gem of a venue with live music where I can bring my family.

Chip is one of the good guys of New Orleans music, and a talented, versatile musician. A former luthier who transitioned to mastering the instruments he once produced, Chip is a bluesy, rootsy, jazzy, singer-songwriter with such tremendous command of the instrument. His playing evokes a cycle of inspiration and frustration for six-string layperson wannabes like myself, but I’m mesmerized by the way he engulfs the guitar with his finger-picking style.

When we were ready to leave, I walked back into the restaurant’s bar area and asked for a manager on duty. When he nervously approached, I said, “I just wanted to tell you that I’m always looking for place that I can bring my family to hear live music. I really appreciate you hiring great live musicians.” He thanked me for the feedback.

It’s easy to blame the venues for dwindling support of musicians, and there’s plenty we can criticize. I’m reminded of a viral ad that a restaurant posted for musicians to play for exposure in their restaurant and a musician’s comical reply. There are plenty of musician exploitation stories out there. But for the most part, restaurants and clubs are weighing a business decision – will the money I fork out for live music in my establishment be a good investment?

The truth is that if you don’t let the owner or manager know that you specifically sought out their venue because there was music, they’ll never know. So when there’s a slow season or there’s a downturn in the economy, it’s easy to cut back live music. If it drives more business than the musician’s fee, then not cutting music is a no-brainer.

The one thing every musician needs – supporters who are willing to take action.

So when you appreciate live music, let them know it. Somebody’s living depends on it.

Music Blog Anniversary Edition: ‘Til There Was You

Today marks 17 years of marriage with my wonderful wife Kim. I suppose she’s stood by me through more than most would have. I’ve always believed that the greatest thing that you can do for a loved one is support their dreams, and she’s always been willing to sacrifice for me to pursue mine. For that I am supremely grateful.

While most couples have a song they consider their own, we really have 2 songs that are memorable to us. We danced to the song “We’re All Alone” by Boz Scaggs at our wedding, but I later performed the Beatles’ “Til There Was You” (well, not actually composed by the Beatles, but the version I was familiar with growing up) to her at our wedding reception.

I’ll let Paul McCartney and the Fab Four do the honors today:

Assessing Academy Award Nominees for Best Song

Well it’s Academy Award night and the celebs are parading down the red carpet. Here are the nominees for Best Song:

Music (Original Song)
“Coming Home” from Country Strong Music and Lyric by Tom Douglas, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey
“I See the Light” from Tangled Music by Alan Menken Lyric by Glenn Slater
“If I Rise” from “127 Hours” Music by A.R. Rahman Lyric by Dido and Rollo Armstrong
“We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3″ Music and Lyric by Randy Newman

All songs have their merits. Randy Newman is one of my favorite all time songwriters, within and outside the movie world. But within the Toy Story series, he set the bar too high with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and “When Somebody Loved Me.”Though neither won the Academy Award for Best Song, both will be remembered as iconic songs in film history.

Gwyneth Paltrow gives “Coming Home” Oscar buzz and perhaps makes it a sentimental favorite. “I See the Light” is beautifully performed and orchestrated, but perhaps a little reminiscent of past Disney film tunes.

“If I Rise” with Dido and composer A.R. Rahman is from the movie 127 Hours. The story is that of a mountain climber who takes desperate measures after being trapped under a boulder, and it’s a testament to the strength of the human spirit. The song is a hauntingly beautiful song that captures both the mood and spirit of the film, and gets my nod for Best Song.

Jeff Bridges, The Fabulous Baker Boys & Cross-Artist Learning

I’ve always been a fan of the actor Jeff Bridges, and in particular the movie The Fabulous Baker Boys. Jeff portrayed half of the sibling piano lounge act who struggles with the reality that he’s selling out in Tiki Bars and hotel lounges every night when he yearns to play a more progressive form of jazz that’s more true to his talents and passion.

It’s the story that strikes the core of artistic work of any kind – Staying true to your self in your work.

I’ve also found fascination in listening to artists of all vocations speak about their craft and gaining insight into how they approach their work and the creative process. I’m a fan of the television show Inside the Actor’s Studio, because I love listening to artists discuss their approach to the creative process.

On the music front, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing some of the great musicians of my hometown like Ellis Marsalis, Jr., Pete Fountain, Henry Butler, and Irvin Mayfield (It’s great to be a New Orleanian!).

Since Bridges is a musician and an actor who has starred in critically acclaimed movies about musicians, he has a unique perspective on the common threads of both artistic outlets. Here’s a brief excerpt from one of his post-Oscar interviews on that subject: 

“Movies are more than just entertainment, they are connecting us. And music is the same way. We have a movie about music here, but music and movies are a common link for all of us. I am hoping that this will kind of raise my profile, and I am all about getting us all together, getting the world healthy. Sometimes I’ll think of movies as a great example for the way the world can work. You have all these different opinions, and all these different ways we can work together. And we can make the most beautiful movie we can make, and we have the opportunity to make this the most beautiful world too. So I hope that furthers that idea.”

The brief post-Oscar interview at BuzzSugar.com

Rock Vocalist “Meatloaf” and the Lesson of Fame vs. Talent

The greatest malady facing our culture today is the fact that we seem to value fame more than talent. It’s a phenomenon that has been exacerbated by the explosion of reality TV and the likes of Snookie, Kendra and Hank, American Idol cast-off William “She Bangs” Hung, and the laundry list of dysfunctional characters parading themselves across the screen on a nightly basis. It’s particularly sad when those flashes of stardom flame out, because there’s essentially no talent or substance to fall back on.

And that brings us to the story of Meatloaf. The animated rock/pop vocalist and performer burst onto the music scene in 1977 with the blockbuster album Bat Out of Hell, one of the best-selling albums of all time worldwide. The success of that album made the thought of any follow-up attempt daunting for the overnight music sensation. From the various accounts, it seems that he suffered from a temporary loss of his ability to sing brought on by psychological effects of that newfound stardom. The encore recording attempts were plagued by additional challenges including disagreements with his collaborative partner on B.O.O.H., drug use, and financial woes.

Then the music world changed. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, punk rock shook the music world. Video music brought on the likes of Duran Duran, The Cure, The Human League, Depeche Mode, and a plethora of fashion-focused, synthesizer-based pop stars. Only a few years after achieving blockbuster success, Meatloaf was perceived by record industry executives as being as outdated as the mood ring and the pet rock,  (pardon the 70’s references).

But when in doubt, he fell back on his talent. Meatloaf was one of the most dynamic live performers of the 70’s rock era with a powerful voice. He took his larger than life act on the road to small bars and clubs. Meatloaf gave the same exhaustive live performances that he once gave in sold out arenas, and word began to spread. The audiences and venues began to grow, until the late 80’s and 90’s when the recording industry once again took notice. 16 years after the release of B.O.O.H., Meatloaf released Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell which included “I’d Do Anything for Love,” a #1 hit in dozens of countries worldwide.

Venerate people committed to excellence and hard work, and society wins. Applaud shallow fame, and we get what we deserve.

Artistry and Success, Part 2: Todd Rundgren

In a previous post, I wrote about the struggle and dilemma of the artist – the fact that as you hone your skills you might perhaps begin to appeal to an increasingly narrow audience – and the idea that “simplicity” often outpaces “complexity or sophistication,” at least from a commercial standpoint. I was reminded of that idea again this evening while watching television.

I am a huge Todd Rundgren fan. Todd has been at the forefront of most every music innovation of the last 4 decades. From music video (as a creative medium rather than a commercial), to “interactive” CDs, to subscription-based fan subsidized recording, he has broken ground time and time again. Oh, and his musical legacy is phenomenal – as a producer, musician, composer, etc., etc., etc. (BTW, it’s a crime he’s not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but that’s another story).

I love his use of background vocals, the chordal complexity, the wit, edge, and outrage in his lyrics, and mostly his overall musicianship. But which Rundgren song do I hear most often? A simple ditty known as “Bang the Drum All Day.” It is played in every sports arena and most recently as the background music for a series of Carnival Cruise Line commercials.

Here’s one of Todd’s most beautiful compositions, “Pretending to Care,” a song I first heard as a cover by Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel on an album (Yes I have the vinyl version) called Short Stories with pianist Fred Hersch.

Louis Armstrong, The Rat Pack, & Cyndi Lauper: We All Just Wanna Have Fun

In the late 1950’s and early 60’s, the “Rat Pack” show at the Sands Hotel was the hottest ticket in Vegas. The group that eventually consisted of entertainers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop sang songs, told jokes, performed slapstick for laughs, and displayed various other forms of hijinks. But as those who were close to the action in those days tell it, the show was almost secondary. A seat at those shows was like an invitation to the greatest party on the planet.

The performers were having a blast, and you were now a part of their inner circle sharing in the fun.

Let’s take Louis Armstrong. Was there ever a moment that you watched him perform that you didn’t believe music was the purest form of joy on the planet? I think not.

That takes us to Cyndi Lauper. When she took the music world by storm in the 80’s, she came across as a quirky outsider with a flair for outrageous fashion. As her career progressed, however, she later became respected as a talented songwriter and musician, respected across musical genres. Her breakout hit? “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Fans were drawn to Cyndi by her love of music, and they have followed her on her 25+ year journey (30 million in global record sales at last count)

There’s a lesson for music educators and educators in general – Ultimately it’s your love of the subject matter that will inspire your students.