Today I'm working on some new songs -- going slow but going, which I always count as a good day. Here are some guiding ideas, and of course I offer these not for the benefit of strangers but to think them through for myself and then look at them in cold print -- self-help.
1. Negative progress is still progress. It takes a little spine to junk a lousy line or lines that you've previously put time into, but once they're gone, you're a little closer to the corner around which the good ones wait.
2. If you aren't throwing away most of your work, you aren't doing a good job. Irving Berlin and two or three others possibly excluded.
3. Keep several songs going at once. It's an efficient way to maintain perspective. During the days that you become enchanted or ensnared by one song, you will forget another. Then, upon your returning to it, its strengths or flaws will stand in plainer view.
4. I think a lot of "songwriters" of my ilk, people who sit with a guitar, pen, and notebook and put down stanzas of lyrics while singing them over chords, tend to forget something important -- melodies contain their own meanings. It's forgotten because the words and their meanings sit there on the page, facing you, and songwriters like us don't chart our melodic lines as we go, so if we're not careful they can slide into second place. When the song hits the real world though, the melody takes first place. You should see that its arc or energy doesn't neutralize or contradict your lyrics, and what your lyrics imply about the kind of character singing them. If the two do clash, the clash should be overridingly interesting and fruitful.
5. It's hard to write a song from the point of view of a character foreign or entirely unsympathetic to you. (I exclude satire.) But it's often boring to write from a place too sympathetic to you -- I mean your own life and times. Personally, I find it best to go in between. If you are of aware of yourself writing about other people, try your best to relate to them and enjoy their company; if you're writing from life, make some details from whole cloth, offer some opinions not strictly your own, and so forth. As a disclaimer, I should say that it's clear there's a lot of commercially successful and even good music in the world that's oblivious to this recommendation of steering between objectivity/Scylla and subjectivity/Charybdis; but I feel sure the world would be fuller of fascinating songs if a hunk of the gloppy self-absorption and acidulously partisan commentary out there in the wide ocean of art were to melt away.
6. Once you've written one or two hundred songs, there's no avoiding the fact that most of the rest of your songwriting time will be spent honing rather than forging. There's only so much you -- your values and interests aren't infinite, or infinitely mutable. It can be discouraging spending your writing hours awash in previously touched-on themes. To ward off this sort of discouragement there is: aging, which offers the writer a fresh take on old subjects; openness to new music, which is harder with age but certainly not impossible; and the knowledge that, until "yesterday" on evolution's timeline, all songs were unashamed recyclings.
7. Densities of lines and phrases need varying. The tempo of your music might be steady but the tempo of your language usually shouldn't be. Mate simple expressions with dense ambiguities, put sex cheek to jowl with death, pull the rabbit of princely wisdom out of the hat of humble kitchen-sink narration. These simply executed turns never outwear their welcome, I don't think. They are very reflective of the random mixed-up-ness of life, as well as being engaging to the listener, who quickly tires of processing all the information you give him at the same rate.
8. You can learn more about writing songs by learning about music itself than learning about "songwriting." Wrapping your head around, for instance, modes, charts, and the music of other places and times will give you a better vantage point for writing songs and incidentally make you a more worldly, dimensional person. Spending very much time at songwriting workshops (or on the blogs of marginal songwriters!) will probably not help your songs sound better. In fact, they may very well make you dull, self-satisfied, and terminally confused.
9. Little words are words too.
10. There's crazy reckless inspiration, and there's careful craftsmanship, and if you ask me, most of the good songs display evidence of both.
11. As in sex, overprofessionalism in music is worse than bad -- ruinous. Don't approach a song like a game, filling in boxes and moving pieces around. Don't score points or drive home obvious lessons. Cultivate a little distrust of easy payoffs in the form of dramatic register lifts and comfortable chord patterns. If you get to a point in the song where you instinctively think "Next this always happens" (verse 3, Christ descends!), do that instead. Songs created in a spirit of cold calculation almost always fall well short of the mark, both commercially and artistically. A few risky moves, a touch of regional color or other endearing stigmatism, some awkwardness indicating amateur sincerity: these are always welcome, even if applied deliberately by someone who's written a lot of songs and should know better.
While on the subject, here's a few nuggets of useful advice, or resonantly true thoughts, I've heard or read from other songwriters.
Stephen Sondheim: the power of the rhyme is contained not just in the rhyming syllable(s) or word(s) but in the entire phrase that contains them. I'm paraphrasing from memory, but I was delighted to hear this from this masterful writer -- inspiring in the face of all the dogeared rhyming words that confront us each time we write.
Tom Meltzer: "How many people have written five or ten good songs -- I mean, really good songs?"
Tom T. Hall: Don't worry too much if someone steals your song and makes a lot of money. Write another song that's better.
Me to Jim Lauderdale during a co-writing session: "That line's, I don't know...interesting...but what does it mean?" Jim Lauderdale to me: "No idea. But I think it sounds real good."
John Williams (the Irish musician) to me on writing for movies: "Remember -- music and image together are incredibly powerful." He was advising me not to overdo it, because it was very easy to. It's less easy to overstimulate with just music and words, but still something to consider. Leave some effects unplayed, for better effect.
Al Anderson, skeptically reviewing some lyrics just put to a good melody: "All right, it's good. But is it magical?"