Writing Songs (the songwriter FAQ)
I started writing songs in 1996. It was more cathartic than anything else, as I’d had some life experiences that I needed to work through. My first batch of songs became my somewhat quirky release “Wrong Side of My Life”. The songs certainly weren’t destined for the mainstream, but definitely made me feel better.
At the time I was playing tons of roadhouse gigs around New England and New York. In ‘97 and ‘98 I played well over 400 shows. After the record was released (ie, sold off the bandstand and through my website), there were new people showing up at the gigs and I started noticing new faces who were singing along with the lyrics. The record was largely quite personal, and I considered anyone who connected with the songs to that extent to be a brother (or sister). They would have had to have walked in my shoes in some way, I felt. It was awesome and it energized me to write more.
This led me to live in New York City, or actually West New York, New Jersey, where I wrote the songs that became the New York City album. I’d obsessed on my life in the ‘80s enough with “Wrong Side of My Life,” and I wanted to have a wider world view. I was listening to lots of Lou Reed, and identified with his connection to the city.
I began collaborating when we were putting together the Chance and Circumstance album, and I love the unpredictability of working with other songwriters. A great deal of my writing today is collaboration with artists that I’m producing.
Do you wait for the muse to visit?
I feel that songwriting is similar to any other creative craft in that you have to practice. I’ve tried to learn guitar by thinking about it, but the results weren’t what I’d hoped for. Yes, I definitely have woken up from a deep sleep with the hook I’d been searching for, but that’s a bonus. I need to sit down in front of my recording rig, and start playing around. Something is going to happen, and while it may not always be genius, it’s always something.
Lyrics or Melody? Music or Word?
The only rule is that there is no rule. Whatever starts the process is the place to start. I’ll sometimes work from a loop/beat, or a song title, or a melody, or a chord progression that suggests a melody, or a concept, or a story that begs to be told.
Is there a formula for collaboration/co-writing?
Again, each writing relationship is unique. Since I’m usually not the artist, I need to understand my collaborator’s voice. I need to know what his/her point of view is, and how he/she got there. It’s also key to know exactly where I’m needed and where I’m not. I’ve had one productive partnership where the artist’s voice is very unique and strong. Almost all of my input has been on the music side, and I’ve stayed away from lyrical input by design. Other co-writes have been less structured, one song will be 80% me, the next 80% by my collaborator, the next more balanced. It all works out in the end. The goal is always to create a flow and to maintain a forward momentum.
What about writer’s block?
Sometimes life is smooth and easy, and sometimes it isn’t. There are days when completing 3, or even 4, strong songs just happens. There are also days when you agonize over the first verse of the first idea that you’ve had in the morning. I’m down for the challenge. Every once in a while we all need to slog through the muck and garbage. I try to keep a high capacity psychic trash bin handy, you know, the kind that you won’t find at Target. I just strive to have a willingness to get through to the other side.
The bottom line is that if there’s a commitment to write the songs, we will inevitably get the work done.