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Recording Mythology, Pt. 19 / a bit more about songwriting

When I was in the fifth grade the teacher had all of the students read from a book of selected poems. Two poems from that period of my life stand out as being the primary inspiration for my appreciation of what the written word is capable of conveying: they were William Cullen Bryant’s ‘To A Waterfowl’ and ‘Thanatopsis’. I recall the images that the pieces conjured up inside my young head and it amazed me that the poet had been able to paint such vivid pictures using only words. I began to sporadically write poetry and free-verse prose by the time I was twelve. I hid my poems and told no one of my work.

When I was sixteen I ‘fell in love’ for the first time. This was impetus for my return to writing ardently; and although my writing was half-fast, it was the beginning of my forray into creative writing. In 1974, I determined that words alone would not convey the weight of my emotions and, as I was the singer in a rock band, I decided to take up the guitar in order to turn to songwriting. It was advantageous to have had, during high school, an instructor who shared my passion for the written word. With her guidance I was able to become the songwriter I have become today. Not that I am anyone particularly gifted nor prolific. But I am completely content in doing what I do and that is the goal of every writer.

I have been writing songs ever since I attempted, at the age of seventeen, to write my first. I composed it on my mom’s spinet piano. It wasn’t bad for a beginner. I still have the original copy. I have been writing now, pretty much non-stop, for 38 years and I’ve had time to figure a couple of things out. Conversely I am not writing this series from any assumed level of expertise. I don’t believe in ‘experts’. I do, however, think that as long as inspiration persists and one puts in the required 10,000 hours, one can grow as a writer and do nothing but become better at it. The ‘10,000 hours’ is an arbitrary concept of course, the point being that if one should ever discontinue the pursuit in writing ‘the perfect song’, someone else will end up writing it.

Enough about me, though.

I’d like to address those of you who have come to the realisation that writing is more than simply putting together words that rhyme. This assumes that you 1) have a relatively good command of the English language, 2) have prior writing experience and 3) have goals in writing outside those of pop tunes or rap lyrics. With very few exceptions, I think that the majority of pop and/or rap pieces are childish and stupid. If one cannot imagine a world beyond either oneself, coitus or gunfights, one may as well keep ones’ day job. No one having reached serious adulthood is interested neither in how deep your love is nor all of your imaginary ‘skillz’. I hope this clarifies my intentions for the reader. If you try too hard to fulfill everyone else’s expectations, you will never fulfill your own. 

Our collective goal must be to write a standard. This is the song, the yardstick, by which all other tunes are measured. Everybody knows a standard. They erase ethnic barriers and are timeless. They are as relevant today as the day they were written. The truth of the matter is that one need never reach any given level of proficiency before they are capable of penning a standard. In addition, many standards are incredibly simple songs; no multi-sylibic words, no fancy chord structures. And perhaps the most awe inspiring fact is that no one knew that they were composing a standard when they were writing it.

Now, in order to be a successful writer in any sense of the word, one must, first and foremost, be oneself. If we try living our lives through someone else, imagining that if we do what they did and drink what they drank, we will somehow miraculously become them, it is a terrible mistake. Who needs another William Wadsworth Longfellow or another John Denver? Wasn’t one enough? Trying to cop someone’s else identity is a waste of time and energy. First, we will be doomed to failure, and second, we will lose our only chance at being who we might become.

Thus, my first piece of advice is to mercilessly destroy all of your idols. Only then can you move on to finding the uniquely individual writer inside.

Now let us discuss the subjects and pitfalls that we should avoid.

Unless one has led the colourful life of Anne Frank or Helen Keller, it is helpful to remember not to write in first person or draw from personal experience. After all, if your life is interesting enough to share with others, you must first presume that their lives are less exciting than yours. With this in mind, you’d better have a good story to tell otherwise you stand to isolate any prospective audience with the ‘it’s all about me’ approach. I prefer not to waste anyone’s time with plantive minor chord melodies about how some girl ‘broke my heart’. I can count the truly prime songs pertaining to this matter on one hand and have fingers left over. Brook Benton’s Rainy Night In Georgia is one, with John Hartford’s Gentle On My Mind being another. How many can you think of that you enjoy? The fact of the matter is that nobody is going to want to sit around and listen to a bunch of ‘poor little ol’ me’ crybaby tunes. If you simply must, write the best one you can. Take a lesson from Paul McCartney’s Yesterday: make it short, especially if it is in a minor key, using the term “I” as little as possible and make the tune universally applicable. And then try to move on.

The above edict leaves the other two other writing options open, namely the second and third person approach. One will find either advance less confining, for the less subjective the writer is to the material, the more freely he or she can elaborate on the content of the song. Standards written in second person tend to be a bit less common than third person tunes, but then they generally tend to involve the writer in some sense. This subjectivity can wear thin quickly, so it pays to focus on the objective without being overtly judgemental. You don’t want to come across as being one who never makes mistakes, always blaming the other person. Bill Dees and Roy Orbison Oh Pretty Woman is one of my second person favorites, which involves both parties perfectly. Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tom Evans had a killer tune in Without You, which was expertly performed by Harry Nilsson. Note how well the writers draw your attention to the object of their affection. Even though the narrators refer to themselves throughout the tunes, the songs aren’t about them.

It pays to know your strong points and then to play to those strengths. I prefer to write in third person. This style allows one to write about almost anything from a very objective point of view, thus it becomes much like describing a film that one has watched. Subject matter is far ranging in this style because it gives one the opportunity to write about people, places and things. Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald  is a well written third person piece, as is Betty Comden’s New York, New York and DuBose Heyward’s Summertime, however both combine first, second and third person references.

Among the subjects one should be mindful to avoid while writing are those that have become cliche. Trains, long, lonesome roads, pickup trucks, drinking and/or drunkedness, leaving home, falling in or out of love, grandmaw or grandpaw, dust on your shoes, crossroads, hell or the devil, your ‘old guitar’, or anything with the words ‘lovin cup’, ‘momma’, ‘little girl’ or ‘rockin’ me’. All of these references have basically beaten to death in blues, country and rock genres.

Now, go into it with the attitude that you are going to write the perfect song that has yet to be written and you very well may impress yourself with an original idea.

Johnny Nowhere is a jack-of-one-trade at Hell Paving Company.


About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

One response »

  1. A well thought and written text, Johnny. Bravo! You may have extrapolated on the use of the first person in a tongue in cheek kind of way as in your “food” song, perhaps… Humouring the self still has appeal, I believe. “Half-fast”…?! 🙂


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