Know and respect your process

Most of the time, songs don’t just appear – you have to write them. Even if you are so lucky/brilliant that they emerge fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, you might worry that it won’t always be so.

There are many, many ways of writing songs. For example, the process that comes naturally to me is to write a song, music and lyrics, in a single sitting on guitar. This usually takes me one to two hours and works best first thing in the morning or late at night. Others may find a different process most effective: writing lyrics first, or music first, or writing music and lyrics over a beat, or co-writing with a collaborator, or writing with a band, or collaging bits and pieces of songs on a computer, or improvising into a live mike, or any one of dozens of other options.

I really don’t think any one process is better than another, though I do think that different processes tend to produce different types of songs (more on that in the next post). I do think that finding your process and coming to understand and accept it is an important step in becoming a songwriter, and especially in continuing to write songs. The more you know about how and when you are able to write songs, the easier it will be to fit songwriting into your life. Take a very simple example – if I set aside two hours on Saturday mornings, I can write songs in that time. If I substitute four hours on Sunday afternoons, I might write half as many songs in twice as much time. But in order to save that time, I have to know when I am more likely to be able to write.

It’s also important to respect, and even have some pride in your process. If you are happy with your songs, your process is working for you. One thing I have seen in others and experienced myself is insecurity around songwriting processes. A writer who writes more slowly might feel intimidated by a more prolific songwriter. But there’s always a flipside – I write a lot of songs, and I often feel jealous of writers who seem to write more deliberately and focus more energy into a single song. I end up with throw-away songs and songs that are different versions of the same idea. It may be impossible to avoid a little process-envy, but in the end it’s important to value and respect the process that works for you.

Songwriting Advice

Songwriting advice is no different from other advice: most of it is simplistic, a lot of it is ungenerous, and the worst of it is discouraging and just plain mean. Still, I can’t resist reading it, and now that I’m 35 and feeling a little bit of momentary confidence in my own writing, I can’t resist giving my own advice. Hopefully, though, this advice is going to be a little different.

If your goal is to write songs that sound like the ones you hear on the radio, this advice may not help you that much. If your goal is to write songs that are more interesting, more powerful, more true to life – songs that do more than the songs on the radio – then, hopefully, you’ll be able to relate to this advice. So that’s the first songwriting tip: songs can do more.

Just a quick example – a recent song that floored me when I first heard it is Vince Staples’ “Blue Suede”:

Staples blue suede sneakers are more than just an allusion to Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” – Staples’ song is a thorough rewrite of the rock and roll hit. The speaker of “Blue Suede Shoes” is a swaggering nihilist, unconcerned for his own physical safety, except as it affects his exceptional shoe game. Perkins plays this character for laughs, but this combination of themes – the cheapness of life, in contrast to the high cost of fashion – is also the subject of the many versions of “Stagger Lee”, where Billy Lyons gets killed for a five-dollar Stetson hat.

In Staples’ reimagining of “Blue Suede Shoes” the violence is no longer cartoonish, and the consequences are outlined in the song’s second line; here “young graves get the bouquets”. The verses outline a laundry list of hip hop clichés, complete with frequent allusions which make it clear that Staples, like Perkins, is constructing a character. Unlike the happy-go-lucky speaker of “Blue Suede Shoes”, Staples’ alter ego fears for his own life, and his bravado feels empty, undercut with a deep ambivalence.

In addition to creating a compelling and complex character in two verses and a chorus, “Blue Suede” convincingly connects the “killed for Jordans” motif to older song traditions that dealt with the same stories and themes. It’s a packed three minutes, but it’s not unique. Lots of songs do this much, even if they do it in more subtle ways.

More bare songs

The bare song is not inherently linked to a folk or acoustic style of arrangement. One of the first songs that comes to my mind when I think of a bare song, where the song itself draws the listener’s entire focus, is the Outkast song “A Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre (Incomplete)”:

The song consists of a single extended verse which moves from one digression to the next. The beat is relatively static; a meandering melodic element providing variation doesn’t impose sections or divisions onto the song. This song feels bare to me because it doesn’t have the elements of a typical Outkast song – a melodic hook, pop song structures, multiple vocalists performing verses, often with contrasting approaches to the song’s themes. “A Life in Day…” suggests (unsurprisingly) that, if you want to look for the complexity in an Outkast song, the verses are a good place to start.
Listening more closely to songs and their possibilities doesn’t have to mean listening to simple arrangement or acoustic songs. What the constitutes a bare or unobscured song varies dramatically based on the way that songs are created and conceived. But many genres of music do have a performance mode that, in contrast to more typical or elaborate modes, attempts to present a song in an unadorned way. Another example might be Coleman Hawkins’ “Picasso”, an early solo saxophone recording:
If the sax solo is where the meaning of Hawkins’ music is concentrated, isolating it does more than just focus the listener’s attention. It liberates the solo to follow its own logic, rather than that of a pre-determined arrangement.
Do songs need this kind of liberation? I think that in some cases they do. I know that I often fall back on or restrict myself to familiar song structures, ignoring possibilities that might produce something surprising and new, but which might also make the song more difficult to listen to, perform, or record. But the reason I am interested in writing about songwriting is to look for ways to embrace and really listen to these more difficult songs.

Arrangements, bare songs, and idioms

Arrangements often nail down aspects of a song’s meaning which are productively ambiguous in the song itself. An arrangement can take a complex song, which can be heard in any number of ways, and tell the listener to hear the song in particular way, to focus on certain resonances and ignore others. An arrangement can dramatically simplify or even obscure a song’s meaning. 
In this performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”, Judy Collins and her band make a decision to arrange the song as a gospel number – if you’re not convinced, listen to the piano part. This arrangement has a few effects on the way the song comes across:
  1. A spiritual/religious interpretation of the song’s lyrics is foregrounded over an interpersonal/relationship interpretation. In the first B section (“If I have been unkind…”), the speaker could be justifying himself to a lover, or asking forgiveness of a supreme being; the gospel interpretation puts a heavy thumb on the scales.
  2. The performance starts to overwhelm the song, making it more difficult to listen to the lyrics. This softens the blow of some of the more surprising images in the song (“a baby, stillborn”; “a pretty woman standing in her darkened door”).
  3. The meaning of the song’s lyrics may even be mingled, for the listener, with the meaning of the gospel standards the arrangement suggests. While this kind of interpretation – enhancing or changing the meaning of a song through an unexpected arrangement – can be wonderful, I’m not sure that it works that way here.
Here’s Collins, followed by a version of the song Cohen performed in 1979:
For me, the Cohen version allows the song to mean more – to express more ideas, to resonate in more different directions. It allows us to hear the song. Perhaps that is an obvious observation, but I thought this was a particularly clear example of what I mean by listening for a bare song. The arrangement doesn’t have to be acoustic or minimal for the song to be heard, but an idiomatic arrangement – one that strives to ensure a song is heard as part of an established idiom – has the potential to limit the meaning of a song by priming listeners to only hear a limited range of themes or ideas.
This is a problem for most popular forms of music, because idiom or genre is an important part of any record’s sales strategy. Fitting songs into an idiom dramatically effects the way they are heard and makes it easy for the listener to ignore surprising or unwelcome ideas. Think of “Born in the USA” or “YMCA” – these songs might be subversive for sneaking unwelcome narratives into pop culture, but they became hits because the meaning of the underlying songs are themselves subverted by the resonances introduced by their accessible arrangements.
The idea of idiomatic and non-idiomatic arrangements is derived from Derek Bailey’s concept of idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisation, though he would certainly object that, in his use of the word, all of these arrangements are equally, which is to say completely, idiomatic.

James Blood Ulmer

One of the musicians who most inspires me is James Blood Ulmer. Ulmer played guitar in Ornette Coleman’s bands in the 1970s and has gone on to record many records as a band leader and frontman since. In 2005 Ulmer released Birthright, a record of solo performances which included new songs, blues covers, and solo guitar and flute. One song, “Geechee Joe”, narrates the life of Ulmer’s grandfather:

The distinctive elements of Ulmer’s songwriting are brought to the surface in this performance. His music uses Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic concept, but it draws ideas and elements from blues, country, and other American “roots” musics. The song structure is what we might expect from a folk or country song, and the improvisatory feel of the guitar arrangement simultaneously suggests (to me) the loosest front porch performance and the most sophisticated jazz interpretation. That the song shares its title with a Cab Calloway number is probably not lost on Ulmer either.
The bare arrangement helps the song achieve or suggest a variety of musical ideas in a short time. In this case the bare song is like a simple poem that lets the reader fill in the details – it encourages a form of active listening and engagement with the music. A bigger arrangement demands answers to questions which the bare version leaves productively ambiguous. Is it a folk song, a country song, a jazz song, or a blues? What are the chord changes? How many bars is that solo? How should we feel about Geechee Joe? Is this an anthem or an elegy?

Bare songs and hearing songs

I wrote in my last post that the way the music industry structures and delivers music can make it difficult to hear songs. The song may come to us as a framework for a powerful arrangement or performance, or even as a piece of a larger narrative about a particular celebrity. But, given that context, what possibilities arise when songs are presented in a bare form?

For very popular musicians, presenting bare, often acoustic, versions of popular songs has become a familiar gesture, meant to rekindle a sense of immediacy or authenticity around songs that have been heard dozens or hundreds of times. This tactic may have peaked in the ’90s with the popularity of MTV Unplugged, but it is a standard element in the pop star playbook.

Another familiar mode of presenting the bare song is as a deliberate choice for a particular song – that is, for a performer who normally uses fuller arrangements to present a particular song in a simple way to highlight something about that song. This is the mode that I am most interested in because it seems more likely to be focused on the song itself, rather than the performer’s persona. The two modes can also overlap or one mode can masquerade as the other. What I am interested in is not particularly authenticity, but a performance mode that lets the listener hear the song better as a song. Pining for a truly authentic performance is a little like visiting the location of the first McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts.

What (else) can songs do?

Songwriting is poorly understood, if at all. Take a critical look at songwriting advice and it becomes clear that the advice-givers are almost exclusively concerned with popular and industry success and have little regard for or awareness of the possibilities of the song itself. One popular advice listicle, for example, explains that music industry executives, who fancy themselves as song experts, can’t recognize the quality of a song unless they hear it in a slick sounding demo, because they listen to slick sounding demos all day. But how can it be that our song experts are actually unable to hear songs?

Songs are undertheorized. We don’t know what they are. I have read reams and reams of music criticism, journalism, and history, and the amount I’ve read that was actually about songs could probably fit on a few dozen pages. We understand the records, the recording process, the industry, the personalities, the costumes, the packaging, the tours, the TV appearances, but what about the songs?

In the music industry, songs are raw materials, like uncut diamonds to a jeweler or cows to a butcher. One of the music industry’s activities is the transformation of songs into industrial products. A record is like a sausage – there’s a song in there, but it’s usually been mixed up with a lot of salt and spices and wrapped up in its own intestines. I don’t intend that as a criticism – I love sausage and I love records – but I do think that this practice, of turning songs into records, blinds both listener and musician to other possible uses and lives that songs might have.

There are several assumptions about the lives of songs that go unstated in nearly all songwriting advice:

  • Songs are potential records. The goal of songwriting should be to write songs that make good records.
  • Songwriting is a craft. There might be some arty bits floating around it, but they are slightly embarrassing and best discussed in hushed tones or not at all.
  • A song on its own – without a record or an arrangement – cannot make its way in the world.
  • Songwriting is a commercial art. Regardless of genre, success is a meaningful concept.
These are observably true facts about the world, but it’s possible to ignore them and create something different in the world. What if songwriting were not a commercial art, but whatever the opposite is – a fine art, a pure art, an art for art’s sake, any of those romantic concepts that cynics say are outdated – what they don’t know is that they’ve always been outdated, always been laughed at and dismissed, and always stuck around, like the awkward party guests you keep inviting because they’re the only ones who bring good booze.
And if songwriting were truly an art, and not a craft or a raw material for commerce, wouldn’t a song be enough? Couldn’t a song stand on its own and speak in the world? Couldn’t a song say all of the crooked, asymmetrical, complicated, unknowable things that a record just isn’t the right place for? And what would that look like? How do we sit and listen to pure, bare songs?