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5 Things I’ve Learned About Songwriting

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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

 

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31 Responses to “5 Things I’ve Learned About Songwriting”

  1. Ron Poole says:

    Great words of wisdom. I have not had the success you have enjoyed but I have been a working musician and song writer for more than 50 years. As you say, it is a passion, something that you have to do in life, and one of life’s greatest gifts. Best of luck with your new album.

  2. Steve Purcell says:

    Great thoughts, and a concise, workable discipline. I would offer one small difference of opinion. If you’re at the bar, (or the grocery store or dentist or stuck in traffic or whatever) when the songwriting muse visits…. you Are at the Office. Be ready to take notes!
    All the Best,
    Steve

  3. Great write up loaded with great tips.
    I agree with you all the way. Sadly, songwriters no longer seem to help other songwriters to succeed. To me it looks like the moment somebody sees how talented you’re, he immediately looks at you as threat instead of a possible collaborator. So, with that in mind, I’d like to know how you got a break.

  4. David Davol says:

    Agree with Mr. Poole above, similar sentiments. I’ve been a full-time performing musician for 35 years, play upwards of 170 shows a year, and while I haven’t enjoyed “commercial success”, I enjoy going to work every day. Really appreciate the encouragement for song-writing, as I’ve done a bit here and there, but always feel intimidated by the aura of the giants, Dylan, Springsteen, Stephen Stills, (my pantheon…) Keep hoping lightning will strike, but I know it would have a greater chance if I worked at songwriting every day… thanks to Dan Wilson…

  5. Thomas Elgin says:

    Great article. Reaffirming. Now that I’m writing only the music I believe in, I no longer care about whether it’ll be successful. And that’s liberating.

  6. DeDe says:

    Well said Dan, great advice from someone who obviously has had a lot of success doing and writing what you love musically. My music is a little different than mainstream, I’ve been writing professionally and recording for only a little under 3 years, but people are starting to notice my songs, because I don’t write what others expect me to write, I write what I love, while following a few of the more basic rules of songwriting, of course. I’ve also had a few opportunities to perform with groups or venues who are not musically aligned with my sound, and I’ve learned to pass, however, I do find I support a lot of various artists some of them very different musically than me. That helps keeps up the joy, doing what you love in a good setting for it, and with people you musically appreciate and who appreciate your music too.

  7. John Rodriquez says:

    Thank you for this. I love the insight about the artist’s life being the greatest creative project. I love doing creative things but never looked at it this way before.

  8. Gloria Wilson says:

    I could not read it all as the print was too small. I am a lyric writer have been for some years and enjoy writing. I enjoyed what I read because it is true.
    Thanks. Gloria Wilson.

  9. Bill Houston says:

    I couldn’t have said it better. My whole life has been dedicated to writing songs, and I have achieved some moderate successes. I’m seventy years old now, but it’s still what I love doing more than anything else. My greatest satisfaction comes when I’m told that my music has brought joy into the lives of others. Dan is absolutely right when he says that it’s best when you do it for the love of it. And that’s how I’ve done it. There’s truly no greater reward than to be asked to do what you love doing.

  10. Serina Jung says:

    Absolutely. There’s a q by uote by a wise old woman by the name of Regina Brett: “Get up, dress up, show up”. When inspiration isn’t there, daily practice will hone the skill that you’ll use to “finish” inspired works. Thanks for your wonderful article.

  11. Bill Gordon says:

    What solid advice and a great piece anytime, and for me during current floundering, very timely. I’ve been on the horns between doing crap with a tiny chance of The Big Payback vs. doing what I believe in. And having just spent five weeks wandering Europe thinking little and taking a lot in, it’s so clear this is no decision. Decades doing music and yes – it’s the music and the people who make it that make this life such a fine thing! Thanks.

  12. William Moroney says:

    Yes, indeed! Thank you Dan, for putting it so clearly! The tonal quality of your article seems to me like that same tonal quality that carries great songs through our spirits.

  13. Steve Lockie says:

    Thanks for the article …very affirming and reassuring! I love creating songs and find there is a strong spiritual effect on people….”Music is a ladder for the soul” So much so that I now devote myself mainly to Soul music based on the Bahai writings. Check out the Bahai musicians doing the same. Could be the way of the future if we want music to be a beckon of light in these dark times!
    Thanks again and all the best!

  14. JVB says:

    Great article and so true. We can only get better by doing. Since writing every day I do not believe in writers block anymore. Let the muse in and she’ll take you on some fun rides and hopefully one day to the top of the charts 😉

  15. Rivky Saxon says:

    Excellent advice. For me, it’s hard to be inspired enough to just sit down and write a song, so # 2 is a very helpful idea. Also, I purchased a voice recorder which I always have on hand so that when new lyrics pop into my head and a paper and pen are not available, I record my ideas and work on then later. It helps a great deal, as does as your article. Thank you very much for sharing it!

  16. Mark Grim says:

    Dan wilson was interviewed recently by MPR’s Kerri Miller. One anecdote he cited was from a conversation he had with the painter Chuck Close. Close said
    “Inspiration is for amateurs”.

    The Dali Lama was once asked what the secret to life was. Without hesitating a moment he said “Routines.” (paraphrasing here) Having repetitive daily activities to engage in frees up the mind to persue more creative trains of thought…

    I think these thoughts support what Dan and others have said about writing daily, whether you feel it or not.

  17. Paul Osagie Taylor Odiase says:

    I wish to be a great Songwriter/Singer
    That is my goal…..but the years pass one by….
    Success is still far away…
    But i smile and carry on regardless because I know
    This is what i was born to do!!!
    All the best of luck to all my fellow Songwriters!!
    Its the best job in the World!!!✌️✌️✌️

  18. A Journal of Musical Things"5 Things I've Learned About Songwriting" » A Journal of Musical Things says:

    […] Continue reading. […]

  19. admin says:

    Thank you for your post Alan 🙂

  20. Nancy Sanchez says:

    Thank you for this insight. I really agree with all of what you said Alan. <3

  21. Nancy Sanchez says:

    I Meant to say Dan!!!!!

  22. meghan cary says:

    Thank you so much for this, Dan. I have been stalled in my songwriting as I was trying to force my way down the path of writing what I thought more people would want to hear…but oh so NOT what moves me. What a gift to be given a pass to write what I love. (And, as it turns out, what most of my die-hard listeners love too!) The music is flowing once again!

  23. Benjamin Maryanan says:

    I am rocksinger and songwriter. Busy at this moment with a rockguitarist to start up a new Dutch hardrockband. The time is right now!
    So thank you for all the wise advice to be a succesful and good musician with a heart and soul! Music is the key to show the world the best of yourself, I believe!

    🙂 Ben. From the Netherlands.

  24. Colin Taute says:

    Thank you for the words of wisdom Dan, however I sit is South Africa, I write most of my meterial is English, but the local market they say is saturated in english they want other languages, my passion lies in writing in english, what do I do, there seem to be no oppertunity is south africa except if you have loads of money which I simply do not have?

  25. Ajay says:

    Yes the Muse! When it gets you, it gets you so be ready to hold on to it. Good advice. Good solid piece of advice Dan.

  26. Fabio Henrique says:

    Thanks a lot! Several judges from the most important contests praised some of my songs for the originality and said that they have real chances of world success if the recordings are enhanced. As I do not have enough ressources to make it better I am seaching for people interested in investing on them, be it performing some or helping me to launch a single. The songs are available in the following sites and I would be very glad if other musicians and producers knew them:

    http://www.youtube.com/user/bynhola

    or at soudcloud

    http://soundcloud.com/fabiohenrique-3

    god bless you all…

  27. tonya says:

    yes I can relate, I am starting out wanting to dive in. Dan your article
    has me feeling like I am not alone and not to give up.

    thanks again

  28. mr floris brown says:

    Dear Dan

    on your point 1 this is what I also lack – “To work inspired or not.”

    on your point 2 this is a real practical exercise

    point 3 true but not always that true -yes you need a good support base of musician friends which is not so easy to get as many are too busy making money for themselves
    and even not all want to share their space with others on stage

    with my tour to the Netherlands I have experienced the open hearts of a whole lot of musicians who pitch for the TUINFEEST at 15 Stadsdennenweg HUIS APOLLO of Tiny & Michel Martinus in Harderwijk everybody brought their own instuments and just go with the flow – see pictures of this event on my website http://www.florisbrown.com

    thank you for a nice article for success

    mr floris brown from Worcester South Africa

  29. Jon West says:

    Dan do you know how people’s become famous?
    They hit it off with a song you cannot get it out of your head and of course your mind
    That’s a very good Songwriter…and guess what I have them and we can become the Best new Songwriters….BELIEVE

  30. Sconie says:

    I like all the info all seems relevant to enjoying and progressing in ones craft.I am a singer song writer and there are days I wished I had at least tried to play & write but just didn’t for life’s other distractions or not “feeling it” I now do try to play everyday even if its just for a little while it definitely makes me feel better.

  31. John Duff says:

    Thank you Dan for a well written piece. My girlfriend died a year past May, since then I have lost my heart and soul. I haven’t touched my guitar since then. I renewed the strings on my guitars and Banjo to see if that would create an interest. It didn’t. I always used music and writing songs to help me through life’s adversities. Now I just wish I could use your advice and pick up my guitar every day. Maybe one day it will happen. Good luck for everyone who took the time to comment. Another slight problem is that I am totaly blind and there are no places here in Scotland to meet other musicians.

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