5 Things I’ve Learned About Songwriting


By Dan Wilson

Dan Wilson, songwriter

Dan Wilson, songwriter

When I was a very litle kid my parents too k me to swim lessons. On my first day, standing at the end of the diving board, waiting to jump in, I froze with fear. I couldn’t climb down. I couldn’t jump. What happened next was terrible but also helpful. My big, blonde, Norwegian-American swim teacher strode up onto the diving board, wrapped me in her arms, and jumped int o the pool with me. My eyes were open as we went under, and I can still remember rising through the blue and popping up to the surface with her. I was fine! There was nothing to be afraid of. I enjoyed the water ever after. So many musicians I know spend their careers standing at the top of the diving board, waiting to jump in. I wish I could wrap them all up in my arms and jump in with them. Songwriters, here are some good ways to get yourself into the pool.

1. Work on Your Music Every Day, Inspired or Not
Once during my time as an art student, I complained to my instructor, Tina Stack, that I wasn’t inspired to work that day, so I was going to knock off early. She said something that surprised me and that has helped me ever since: “You’re better off staying and working, whether you’re inspired or not. The muse doesn’t always visit. But when she does, you need to be in your studio, working. If the muse visits your studio when you’re at the bar, she can’t do you any good.” There was something so liberating about the idea that I didn’t need to be inspired every minute of the day to be a real artist— that I could get meaningful work done whether I felt inspired or not. And even though I wasn’t inspired at that moment, inspiration would eventually come. This turned out to be completely true. Over time, I have learned that most great painters paint everyday, most novelists write every day, and most great musicians make music every day, whether or not they’re “feeling it.”
2. Have an Artistic Practice
Prince has a great song called “There Is Joy in Repetition.” Is there something about your artistic practice that you can do every day? At the same time every day, even? It’s challenging to arrange your life so that you can have an artistic practice, but it’s not impossible, and it’s worth the effort. Every weekday morning, after getting the kids off to school, I try to play the piano for half an hour. I play Broadway standards and jazz hits from the middle of the last century: Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus, and Leonard Bernstein. It’s a joy for me, partly because I like the sense of a simple routine, partly because reading music is an interesting challenge, and partly because I know I’m loading up my imagination with great melodies. After I’m done with the greats, I start working on my own music. The excitement of Ellington carries me through, even when my own song might not be quite figured out.

Experimenting with new artistic practices can be a fun game in itself. Among the most fruitful songwriting times I’ve ever had were two stretches when I wrote a song a day, every day, for a month. The first time I did it was when I was writing material for Semisonic’s Feeling Strangely Fine album. I got the song-a-day idea from a fellow songwriter, and it seemed interesting. The rules were that you had to finish the song, from beginning to end, every note of melody and every word of lyrics, by the end of that day. Importantly, it didn’t have to be good; it just had to be done. Then the next day, you would start a new one. For the first two weeks, it felt weird and artificial. The stuff I was writing all seemed a little forced. I nearly gave up the experiment. But then suddenly I turned a corner, and writing a song became really easy. I found myself continuously transforming small moments from everyday life into metaphors, stealing remarks my friends made
3 Let Your Audience Teach You
The best thing you can do to improve your songs is to play them for people, even if you don’t feel like they are “finished” or “good enough” or “original enough.” Don’t wait for some magical “readiness” to descend upon you. You are ready now. Open mic. Church talent show. A party or gathering with friends. When you play your song for people, you get the amazing feedback effect of an audience. It’s like a magical kind of critique that needs no words. You will learn from the audience’s reaction which songs are good and which need work. You will learn which of your “tricks” are worth using over and over (of course you’ll use the same tricks over and over—we all do) and which “trick” isn’t really a trick at all. And you’ll start to get yourself hooked on playing your songs for people, which is the biggest trick of all. Another great hidden benefit of getting in front of audiences is that you’re way more likely to meet other musicians that way. Musicians are always the first group of people to discover a new songwriter or player. So you might find that during your first year of shows, most of the people who show up are other musicians. This is a good thing, because not only are other musicians good cheerleaders for great music, but they’re also going to be crucial to your own musical efforts. When I’m at an impasse in the studio, when I can’t figure out a great next verse for a song, when I want to make a gig more interesting and entertaining, I find the most effective trick is getting another musician involved.
4. Hang Out With Musicians, Be a Friend, and Help Somebody
This is a life you’re trying to create here, an artist’s life. It’s not a windfall, or a payday, or a brand. Your biggest and most complex creative project is the creation of an artist’s life. And one thing that makes an artist’s life worth living is the wonderful company of other artists. Musicians are the funniest, silliest, most generous, spontaneous, and overly dramatic tribe of people in the world. By being a musician, you already have earned the amazing right to hang out and have a beer with them, to help them move house, to date them, and to bail them out when they’re in trouble. Don’t forget about these things, because they’re almost the best part. A teacher of mine, Ron Jones, says: “Work a lot, yes; work six days and nights a week, but save one day or night to hang out with musicians.”
5. Working on Music You
Love Is a Long-Term Investment. Working on Music You Hate is a Short-Term Hedge. Go for the Long Haul. Artist Tom Sachs says, “The only reward for work, is more work.” It’s hard to overemphasize how true this is. Nobody in this gig wants to retire at age 35; I don’t care what you say. If you’re a real musician, you’ll be stuck with this inconvenient obsession for the rest of your life. Which means most of your time will be spent working, and very little time will be left for relaxing on the yacht that you buy with your royalties. If you succeed, the world will flood you with requests for more of whatever music has brought you the most success. So if you’re doing music you love, in a style and a direction that you love, your reward will eventually be this: the chance to do more music that you love. If you’re doing music that you despise, just for the money, your reward will be to do more of the same music you despise. I have friends who study the Top 10 and try to cop the sounds and styles of the Top 10. These friends don’t even enjoy the sounds and styles of the Top 10; they just think that by studying this music, they’ll find their own paths to success. What a nightmare! I say, study greatness! What music do you love most deeply? What really moves you? Study that with great passion, and try to follow that music. Then one day the world will be asking you to make more of what you love.
(Reprinted with permission from Keyboard Magazine)

Acclaimed singer and songwriter Dan Wilson wrote Adele’s #1 song “Someone Like You” and Co-wrote the song “Not Ready to Make Nice”, the 2007 Grammy Award for Song of the Year for the Dixie Chicks. He has been a frequent presence atop the pop charts since his 1998 song with Semisonic “Closing Time” rocketed to number one. Wilson has written songs with artists including Adele, Pink, Nas, Taylor Swift, John Legend and others. His new solo album, Love Without Fear, is out now. Find out more at danwilsonmusic.com

For more information on the 11th Annual IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), go to: http://www.inacoustic.com



Improvise Your Way To Your Next Song

Improvise Your Way To Your Next Song

Improvise Your Way To Your Next Song

by Gary Ewer

As a musical exercise, nothing beats improvising. It doesn’t just improve your playing chops – it’s a great generator of songwriting ideas. While it’s often thought of as a group activity, there are ways to improvise on your own––just you and your instrumen––that can provide you with great material for your next song. Many of the ideas listed below come from Chapter 3 of Gary Ewer’s new book, Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music. The first five activities will help you create melodies, and the next five pertain to creating lyrics. Some involve singing, others will use guitar or keyboards. Most of them work as solo activities, but are fun to try with a fellow songwriter. Feel free to modify them to suit your purposes.

1. Play the following 4-chord turn-around: C F Dm G, or invent your own. Now… start singing––anything. Keep in mind that most good song melodies are comprised of repeating ideas, so try singing the same short fragment repeatedly as you change chords. The key to generating ideas is to keep things simple.

  1.  Detune your guitar to something other than the standard E-A-D-G-B-E. Move your B up to C, your G down to F#… that sort of thing. Now start improvising chords and melodic shapes as if you were playing a standard tuning. Why? The odd tuning will give you melodic and harmonic ideas you’d probably not have found otherwise. The best results happen when you detune your guitar randomly. Be prepared for weird sounds, but you’ll probably stumble on something that’ll get the creative juices flowing.
  2.  Dial up a short rhythmic/chord loop on your synthesizer and sing or play improvised melodies. Handing over part of the musical job to a synth frees you up to create ideas, both vocal and instrumental.
  3.  Sing a note that works. A song like Jack Johnson’s “Don’t Believe a Thing I Say,” or the verse of Maroon 5’s “One More Night” show us that melodies can do quite well sitting in and around one pitch. So give it a try: invent a short 3- or 4-chord progression (Am F G  C, for example). Play it several times to get it in your ear. Now, start by scat singing rhythmically on one note that works with the first chord. As much as possible, keep that note as you cycle through the chords. When a chord doesn’t support the note, switch to singing a note that works.
  4.  Create new melodies by borrowing from old ones. Take an old hit (“Hound Dog”, for example), and write down the all the notes used in that melody. (“Hound Dog” uses G-A-C-D-D#-E, listed from low to high.) Now put “Hound Dog” completely out of your mind and use that tone set to create an entirely new melody. As with our first idea, use lots of repeating patterns, but use only those six notes.
  5.  Choose a book from your bookshelf or from a blog or online news site. Open randomly to any page, or scroll to any random spot on a website, and point to the first word you see. With that word in your mind, point to a second word. Quickly invent a short line of lyric within five seconds that starts with your first chosen word and ends with the second one. Repeat. Example: You open a book and point to the word, “that,” and then you point to “more.” Possible lyric: “That is how I know I love you more.”
  6.  The best lyrics are not necessarily poems; they’re made of simple words whose main job is to stimulate the imagination of the listener. Take the following list of words and paraphrase them in as many different ways as you can that might work in a descriptive lyric. Work quickly. (The first one has been done to demonstrate.):
    • Fog: The grey murkiness; through the misty haze; in the cloudy haze; the soup; etc.
    • Happiness
    • Anger
    • Trust
    • Held on
    • Heartbroken
  7.  Lyrical clichés will kill a song faster than you can say Jack Robinson. (See what I did there?) “What goes around, comes around” is a cliché that’s not very interesting. But “What comes around is gone again” has potential. Or you might change “A friend in need is a friend indeed” to “A friend indeed, but what do I need?” Both of those examples turn the original expression around backwards, giving you something that’s a bit more creative. So for a fun improvising activity, Google “The Phrase Finder” website, have a songwriting partner read one of the sayings to a rhythmic beat, and try creating something spontaneously by reversing the order of some of the words. Another example: “Every cloud has a silver lining” might become “My silver lining turned a little cloudy.”
  8.  Bounce lyrical ideas off a songwriting partner. Sit facing each other, keep a beat by tapping your foot or dialing up a loop. Then one of you speaks out a line, and the other one has to immediately answer it with a line of their own. “I got you, and you got me”… “Anywhere I’m with you is where I wanna be…”
  9.  Try brainstorming titles. Work as quickly as you can. Don’t worry about clichés, just get a list of titles written that you can consider later. Some titles may just pop into your head with no story behind them at all: “That’s the Way To Do It.” Others may be a bit silly: “George is Going Crazy, and His World’s a Little Hazy.” Later, look through your list, strum a chord, and say the titles with a considerable amount of melodrama and vocal expression. See if melodic ideas pop into your mind.

This article is preprinted with permission from Music Connection magazine

GARY EWER is a veteran music teacher, clinician, composer and arranger. His interest in the relationship between the pop and classical worlds eventually led him to write an ebook for songwriters, The Essential Secrets of Songwriting, that looks at hit songs in much the same way a classical musician would analyze a symphony. Through his writings, he shows songwriters how to take their music to a new level of excellence. He is the author of Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music, published by Backbeat Books. His songwriting blog can be found at http://garyewer.wordpress.com

For more information on IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), go to: http://www.inacoustic.com




USA Songwriting Competition Podcast 2014

  1. “Believer” – American Authors
  2. “Chemistry” – Tony DeSare
  3. “Rather Go Blind” – Auburn Williams
  4. “How Could I Not” – Johnny Bulford
  5. “Half A Heart” – Gail Swanson & Willie Nelson
  6. “Broken Glass” – David Francey
  7. “Pega no Coco” – Badi Assad
  8. “Let The Joy Rise” – Abigail

Acoustic Music Radio Podcast 2013

Acoustic Music Radio

Acoustic Music Radio

  1. Blood and BoneWes Carr
  2. I Should Have Known - AJ Croce
  3. Rambler’s PleaThe Unseen Strangers
  4. OnceMayu Wakisaka
  5. Hurry HomeZane Williams
  6. Dance Around My Atom FireJoel Rafael
  7. OnwardLoren Barrigar & Mark Mazengarb

Expert advice: Recording Tips For The Indie Artist


By Brian Tarquin

Recording Studio with  Brian Tarquin

Recording Studio with Brian Tarquin

I remember, as an adolescent in the ‘70s, recording guitar parts on my Dad’s Grundig 2-track 1/4-inch reel-to-reel tape machine, using a razor to edit the tape—which I still do today. That’s right. I find it necessary, for certain types of music, to record to 2-inch tape, especially when tracking drums, bass and rhythm guitars.

But today, of course, all one has to do is buy a computer, Mac or PC, and there are a plethora of digital recording platforms that come complete with tons of music loops to help you create songs. This takes the worry out of the recording process, letting the artist concentrate on the actual music at hand and not so much on the technical aspect of it. But all of this high-tech freedom to create doesn’t mean you can overlook some essential areas.

To help you get better results for your DIY recording projects, here are some tips and tricks that always work for me.

Combine Both the Analog and Digital Worlds
Even with the convenience of using built-in samples and recording everything in the “Box,” I find you need to combine both the analog and the digital worlds. That’s why I mix everything out of Pro Tools or Logic through my analog classic Trident recording console and use physical outboard gear, like Urei 1176, LA-4, and so on.

Though an indie artist does not have to go to that extent, if you want to record guitar I strongly recommend recording it from an amp with a very affordable mic, like a Shure SM57. Direct guitar signals are not very pleasing to listen to and many of the plug-ins have a processed sound.

Before I had a recording studio, I recorded guitar cabinets with a SM57 in my apartment in Los Angeles, I would place the amp in a closet, so as not to disturb the neighbors. To an all-digital song, this brings the track alive with an actual live instrument.

Keep in mind, if you want to change the tone of the instrument then move the mic first before you reach for any of your EQ plug ins. Usually this is the most natural and effective way.

Invest in Tools of the Trade
You would be surprised how many instruments the SM57 can record—everything imaginable. For less than a 100 bucks this is the most versatile microphone a musician can own, being able to record everything from horns to drums. There are also companies like CAD, Nady and Audix that make affordable mic sets for drums as well. Plus, depending on your digital interface you may want to use a mic preamp, which, again, a plethora of companies make from 99 bucks to thousands. One of my favorites is the Universal Audio 610.

But remember you don’t have to break the bank to get pro audio equipment today; there are so many affordable companies that manufacture gear for every price range. Bear in mind, this is a one-time expense for an essential item that you can use for many projects. If you plan on doing recording music for your livelihood, then it is a good investment.

Don’t Drown Under Too Many Tracks
This is an area where I see so many musicians drown themselves. Just because you can have unlimited tracks doesn’t mean you have to use tons of tracks for a song. If the song really calls for many tracks and crossfades, okay, then go ahead. But I still like the track limitation we had in the past—there was no choice but to stop recording take after take—simply because you would run out of tracks. Decisions had to be made when the take was completed so you could then move on.

Believe me, after 20 years doing this, 99.9 percent of times the best takes are usually within the first three; after that you can hear musicians start to wane. I advise you to label every track, such as Bass 1, Bass Chorus, Sax Solo and so on; otherwise during mixdown you’ll waste way too much time searching for the correct tracks to mix. There is nothing worse than having 45 tracks staring at you, unlabeled, for a five-minute song, in which you have to determine how to reconfigure the whole song.

Don’t Crush the Living Essence Out of Your Mix to Make It Loud
Man, when the Waves L2 Processor came out, yes it made everything loud, but destroyed so many mixes just for the sake of loudness! Music has to have some sort of dynamics, not just soaring levels constantly in the red. This is why vinyl has been making a come back in recent years, especially the old recordings, like David Bowie’s Diamond DogsLed Zeppelin IV, etc.—those records possess dynamics, no matter how much they rock out. Hell, even the hair bands had dynamics in their mixes.

If you crush the living essence out of your mix and make it loud, you’ll lose all of the tone of the instruments and vocals. But fortunately there is a great, affordable mastering plug-in that doesn’t squash your mix and still keeps it alive: the Slate Digital FG-X. For 200 bucks this plug-in is terrific. It keeps your dynamics in place and still gives you the loudness you need for modern-sounding tracks.

Bottom Line
Today’s musician can be it all: the engineer, producer and artist all in the confines of their own home. So use the technology to your advantage and take your time when recording to get the performances correct. And always be well rehearsed before you hit that red button!

(Reprinted by Permission, courtesy of Music Connection magazine

BRIAN TARQUIN is the winner of multiple Emmy Awards, having established himself as a top-rate TV composer/guitarist. In 2006 SESAC honored him with the Network Television Performance Award. In addition, Tarquin has produced and composed the Guitar Masters series, trading licks with such guitar greats as Leslie West, Steve Morse, Billy Sheehan, Frank Gambale, Andy Timmons, Chris Poland (Megadeth) and Hal Lindes (Dire Straits). For further information, visit http://tvfilmtrax.com.

For more information on IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), visit: http://www.inacoustic.com/entry.html




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