October 6th, 2011

Finishing (On Songwriting)

By Bart

While the SpasmVan cruised north along I-69 for the hundredth time and Zach and Eric bobbed heads to Miles Davis up font, Lyndsy and I sat in the back and talked songwriting. She described her pile of partial songs needlessly gathering dust, and I admitted to having such scraps of my own. I think most songwriters have a folder or notebook filled with the same. Each song consists of a good line here, a satisfactory verse there, or maybe just an idea expressed hastily. Each midway between the idea pile and the first demo. Whenever we revisit them, we find our last attempt to bring the song to a close too weak or – attempting again – we find ourselves unable to summon the right words.

I was in a good state of mind to talk about these things with Lyndsy because last week I forced myself to stamp “Finished” onto four songs for End Times. This always feels like a major accomplishment because there’s often a big gap between the beginning and end for me. Months even. Up to a year in some cases. Since forming End Times, I’ve tried to become more aware of my own songwriting process, and have come to realize that there are two major reasons for the delay in my case.

1. Waiting for Inspiration

The American notion of creativity celebrates the individual who’s spontaneous, who creates because they must, who creates in a frenzy of passion. We picture Kerouac writing furiously at his typewriter surrounded by coffee cups and ash trays. We don’t picture the years of editing that came after the first draft of On the Road. Sitting down at a piano to clock in at 9 am and force yourself to compose doesn’t sound like songwriting to most of us, even those of us who know how many songs really are written that way. I think our contemporary notion of inspiration is very demotivating that way.

When facing an unfinished song, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’re just not inspired today and that maybe you will be tomorrow. This is true on occasion, but generally it’s not productive. I find it really is better to make a genuine effort to write regardless of how “creative” you feel. If the day’s work doesn’t meet your expectations, it can always be unwritten. Still, even believing this, to put that first new word to paper is a tough hurdle, but I’ve found a few tricks to help.

Combining partial songs. We decided that the song “My Dear So-And-So” was missing something. After struggling and failing to come up with anything appropriate, I looked through my unfinished pile and found a song that was clearly going nowhere. Its themes were very similar, so I cut out the best parts and made them into the introduction to “My Dear.”

Make a thematic checklist. When a song is meant to be part of a much larger project (like an album or musical), it’s unlikely that the song fragment has touched on all the major themes of the larger work. Reviewing the songs I’ve been working on, I noticed two major themes developing, and when I next looked at a song missing a second verse, I realized it only touched on one of them. The second verse was written almost instantly once I figured out how to add the second theme.

Make a list of simple alternatives. I don’t know of a list like Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work for songwriting, but I wish I did. I’ve long tried to develop my own, but I sometimes find that keeping things like fake books works toward the same end when it comes to chords and melodies. When I have one idea and need a second to get a song out of it, I sometimes look at what others have done in the same situation. This often happens with bridges and B-sections, and I’ll just run through a bunch of familiar ideas in the hopes that one will work. My go-to lyric-writing equivalent would be The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, but I’m not afraid to compile a list of rough ideas used by a few favorite songwriters (I find Morrissey and Paul Simon are particularly good at starting in one place and ending in another).

Find a partner. This one feels a bit like cheating, but when you have three talented musicians sitting around waiting on you, it’s silly not to ask them for help. Lyndsy finished “Frustrating Baby” and “Even a Red Hot Mama Gets the Blues,” when I realized all they really needed was a fresh perspective. A similar thing sometimes happens with Zach (usually when I’m stuck on writing a bridge or B-section again). He’s good at throwing out such random ideas that they almost always make me think outside my box.

2. Waiting for Perfection

Having taught writing, I’m big on editing. Most professionals will tell you that’s where the real writing happens. I don’t think it’s any different for songwriting, but sometimes it’s the editing process that bogs down a song. This can happen near the end or in the middle, when self-editing arrests the progress of that final verse. Before words hit the paper, there are so many possibilities for where a song could go, so many ideas and references to be included. When I get down to those last few lines, the pressure to include all those ideas makes any choice feel inadequate. This continues into editing. I tell myself that if only I could find the right word to change, I could convey the meaning more fully or more compactly.

I’ve realized that a song is really finished when I start making changes like the above that I later revert. Perfection isn’t shifting stacks of papers around on a desk. When a song reaches a state where I’m waffling over something as small as a word, I know I need to declare it finished.

It helps that an End Times song will go through a few stages before it’s performed on stage and again before it’s recorded. While demoing it out, I can tell myself that “this isn’t real, this doesn’t count.” I hear a lot of writers do the same, and that this is why author Neil Gaiman writes his first drafts with pen and paper: each decision feels less permanent given that the work will necessarily be edited when typed for the first time.

I also find it beneficial to work on a few songs simultaneously. If I bring one song to the band, the fear that it might not work is powerful. If I bring three songs to the band, it doesn’t matter if any one of them isn’t perfect yet: we’ll figure out what’s wrong together, put it aside, and focus on the other two.

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