Monday, January 04, 2010


I’ve been reading a book called “Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity” by Hugh McLeod. (It was recommended by Derek Sivers on his blog.) It’s a bright little book with short, easily digestible chapters, each with one piece of advice about creating creative, and possible financial, success. (The emphasis is on the creative and not the financial. And that’s the point of the book…but that’s not what this is about right now.)

I’ve just read, and reread, the chapter headed “The More Talented Somebody Is, The Less They Need the Props.” McLeod calls these props “pillars.” Pillars are things we hide behind. He states that fancy tools do not make one better at one does. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. The less capable one is at one’s job, or desired job, the fancier the equipment seems to get, the bigger the pillar to hide behind. He points out that there are many second rate photographers with expensive digital cameras.

It reminded me of a couple of things.

When I was in high school, there was a Jazz Band. The Jazz Band was made up of very talented high school players. The drummer was really cool. And he was really good. But, he had, like, a 37 piece drum kit. I’m not kidding. And I remember half-joking at the time that all he had to do was reach out and hit something and it would sound pretty good. He couldn’t miss. It was clear that he had the chops, and he was entertaining. But I couldn’t really tell exactly how skillful he was. Watch this clip of Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa on the Sammy Davis, Jr. Show. The kits are pretty basic, but the chops are truly amazing.

The other thing I thought of was a single panel cartoon I had clipped and saved many years ago. I don’t have it anymore and can’t properly cite it, but it was a picture of an artist holding a brush in his fancy studio, wearing a fancy smock and beret, with a giant easel, and a pallet full of paints and colors, and on the canvas was a crudely painted stick figure. The artist was saying, “The only thing standing between me and greatness is this lousy brush.”

In some ways, our pillars make us feel safe. We don’t have to accept responsibility. It’s a great life lesson and there are a lot of things to be learned from the “pillars” chapter in McLeod’s book. But, let’s talk about songwriting.
We put up pillars there, too.

Take them down. Or, at least, get out from behind them.

We could extend the physical analogy: There are a lot of second rate songwriters with expensive Taylor guitars, home recording studios, etc. And that may be true. But, I’m not here to judge anyone as second rate. I’m just offering ideas and insights that I’ve collected over the years so that we can both become better at our crafts. And, really, it doesn’t hurt to have those things. But they won’t, in and of themselves, make one better.

The only way to get better is to practice. (Yeah, I know. How do you get to Carnegie Hall…?) You just have to keep doing what you love, and PAY ATTENTION TO IT. It doesn’t matter if you have 27 new and vintage guitars, each with its own sound and personality, or one very old Guild or Yamaha. Your job is play a lot, write a lot, and listen to what you’re doing. And listen to what other people are doing. Emulation is OK. It can make you better.

But let’s apply a different metaphor to those pillars. Let’s think about the actual songwriting process; the putting pen to paper (or fingers to computer keyboard), and fingers to strings (or fingers to piano keyboard, or a capella voice to music. Whatever.) Let’s get out from behind the pillars.

(By the way, I don’t want to take the pillars down. Some pillars are actually structurally important. Leave those in place. Just don’t hide behind them.)

Not only should we get out from behind the pillars, but we should get naked. Strip away every extraneous thing in your musical little brain. More is not always better. Strip the song down to its barest elements. Don’t hide behind fancy rhymes and difficult chords or riffs. Stay focused on your intent, lyrically and musically. Stand naked before your naked song. It’s as hard to do as the literal meaning of that might be for most of us.

I’m asking you to do two seemingly opposite things: Stop thinking, and start thinking; Get naked and be self conscious and awkward, and get really comfortable and intimate.

First, get out from behind the “I’m a SONGWRITER” pillar. Don’t write for fame or money. Don’t act like a songwriter. Just be one. Do the writing, the work. Put in the hours. Write crap. Throw it away. Start over. Learn new words. Understand structures. Say what you want to say. (Isn’t that a song?) Do it for love, the love of writing, because you have to, because you can’t not do it. Strip away all of that other stuff. Stop thinking about being a songwriter, and just write songs.

Now, think about what you’re writing. Really get inside of your song. Get to know it. Let it get to know you. Sit with it for a while. Take it for a ride. Take it for a walk. Be patient with it. Let it reveal itself to you. Strip it bare. Don’t force clothes onto it that don’t fit. Peel away the layers. Break it down to single words, single chords, single notes. Now put it back together and listen to it for the first time, over and over again.

Here’s and old acting class maxim: Less is More. Apply that lesson to your song. It all comes back to my main songwriting philosophy about “wasted words.” You can’t have any. You can’t afford them. That goes for the entire structure of the song, lyrically and musically.

Many of the greatest songs are written with only three or four chords. And there are only seven notes to use in a basic scale. And there are a limited amount of words in anyone’s vocabulary. It’s how you use and organize them.

And now that you’ve stripped everything away, you can start adding things back. But you have to start with the truth, and you have to stick to the truth. Find the song’s soul and feed that soul. Being fancy is OK; using new and complex constructions is OK; Complicated chords, riffs, patterns, rhymes…all OK. If you know how, when and where to use them. Don’t let those things be your pillars to hide behind. Let them be pillars to support your structure.

One of my favorite poems is one called “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins. Here’s the link:


Chad Sharp said...

GREAT songwriting blog post. I am a songwriter and I have struggled with many of the things like trying to write what I think people want. It always works better when you just go with your heart. Also too many musicians are more worried about gear than their ears.
- Chad

Anonymous said...

Derek is a good guy with good thoughts. And the three books he suggested recently are well worth it because the ideas apply to many things.

A very important step that needs to be taken at some point is not just a stripping down of some things but CORE things. Too often when teaching I had reasonably talented people come up to me and ask my opinion. I would ask in return did they really want to hear it? Most didn't. Most were unsure of their selves in one important place where they were truly scared to look.

Do I really have the talent?

Many had drive, or at least ambition. Many had a love of their art, but so do fans and collectors.

Do you have what it takes to stick it out through all the tough times and hard breaks?

Actors may play poor theatres and get involved in iffy productions or customes, but musicians can get into real danger.

I don't know it all,,,except about light shows, my music is still a learning experience, but 137 songs written last year alone give me some perspective.

As always, my best of luck, Noah!

Beth Schafer said...

YES!!!!!! Great Noah! Keep it up. I love reading what you have to say.
Happy New Year, buddy,


Nice post, Noah. Thanks and all the best!



Nice post, Noah. Thanks and all the best!