20 Lessons Learned from 20 Weeks of Songwriting

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21 weeks ago I had a thought… Should I do a song challenge? I have a new home, a new environment and new neighbourhood to explore, a new set of people to get to know. Would this be a good time to challenge myself to create a new body of work? A good time to get to know myself as a disciplined songwriter?

Well some folks thought it crazy to do a #52songs52weeks challenge but I have now completed 20 weeks and 20 songs, and just the other day I went to the studio recorded the first quarter, 13 songs! It feels like quite an accomplishment and I am excited and proud of myself for that!

I have learned a few things along the way so I thought I’d share with you 20 of those little lessons. Whether you write daily, weekly, monthly or even once in a lifetime here are some tips I hope you’ll find helpful with your creative endeavours, even if they are not songwriting!

1. Be prepared – Ideally you want to come with an idea. Ideas can come at any time and often quicker and more readily that you might expect. So grab those ideas and create a store house. You see, I think there are often two parts to songwriting. The first part is the idea, the inspiration. Sometimes it comes by jammin’ with a groove and it seems there is an intention and attitude towards a lyric, then it’s almost a complete song. And sometimes it’s just a wisp of melody, and I often think of a melody like a beautiful bird, you get once chance to remember it because when it flys away you may never see it again.  Either way you have to keep a record of it somehow so make sure you have a recording device and note book handy at all times to build up your storehouse of ideas.

2. Make time for it  –  This second part is taking the idea and the pieces of inspiration you have gathered in your store house, and crafting it into a story with a beginning, middle and an end, that forms a compelling lyric.  It takes time and effort, so there’s the rub. Songs don’t really just write themselves. You have to make time to give it your full attention and focus. Sometimes that means 15 minutes, sometimes a few hours, other times a few months! I find they take as long as you give them but the discipline that has come with the song challenge of sitting down once a week, every week, to work up song ideas has been fab and has generated 20 songs that may otherwise have sat unfinished in my ideas store house! So put it in your diary and show up for it!

3. Have a ritual – Anything that you do repeatedly over time becomes a ritual. So if you always eat breakfast, then take a cup of coffee to sit by the window with your instrument, dictaphone and notebooks, and write songs, that is a ritual. And if you did that every day or once every week, over time your mind and body becomes wired to know that you’ll go through your ritual and be creating a song that day. It can really help to be aware of your rituals because on a day when you aren’t quite as up for it or inspired as you might like, they can trigger the body and mind into the synergetic creative state required for songwriting. I like to be near nature so I will light a candle, sit by a window or the open fire, or be somewhere I can see the sky. You can make it fun, you can make it whatever you like but the more you repeat it, the more accustomed to it you become, the more your body and mind will deliver creativity on demand!

4. Get organised – This is the practical part. A lot of time and energy can be wasted in faffing about with stuff! Ideally you want the process to be as streamlined and easy as possible. So decide when your songwriting session will take place, plan what you need to bring (Instrument, notebook, dictaphone, printed charts, video camera, costume.. etc.) and make sure it’s as accessible as possible. You want this process to be as easy as you can make it for yourself. I suggest keeping it all together if you can so that each time you don’t waste time gathering for your gear!

5. Tell everyone what you are doing – Songwriting requires your full attention and focus, it’s near impossible if you’re constantly interrupted so tell as many people as possible, turn off your phone, set the auto-responders and reduce the risk that just at a crucial moment someone will call and pop your creative thought bubble. Argh!  This also has the added bonus of making you accountable to these people and thus making you more likely to complete the work!

6. Bring only one idea at a time – Once you have a store house, you’ll have more than one idea to work up, just pick one at a time! Bringing more than one idea at a time is never a good idea. It creates split and unfocussed thinking, and wastes your time, no good comes from that. Just write the one in front of you and then you can move on!

7. Don’t change your mind. – When I am struggling with songwriting I often find myself tempted to switch ideas and work on something else, trouble is that the next song won’t go well either and I’ll want to switch again. I have come to realise that the problem is not the song ideas, it’s my state of mind that day! So now I just trust my gut, pick one at the beginning and stick to it regardless of how tempted I am to switch. I re-iterate: Just write the one in front of you and then you can move on!

8. Save the other idea for another day. Before I started this song challenge I used to feel quite a lot of pressure to make the next song a hit, or at least measure up to some external idea of what is good enough. The trouble is that those expectations can paralyse a songwriter. When I started the song challenge and suddenly I needed a new idea every week I got a lot less precious and became very grateful that there is always another opportunity to write a song. If this one wasn’t great, that’s okay there’s always the next one. And the more you write, the more chance you have of generating great songs! You don’t need to work them all up at once, save the idea for another day, and work it up then. There will always be another day, songs come in abundance if you open the tap and let them out! There’s no limit. I say it again – Focus! Just write the one in front of you and then you can move on!

9. Don’t try to be original – Being truly original is a myth, there is nothing new under the sun, everything is a regurgitation or re-invention of something else. Trying to be so will just add another hurdle to the challenge of creating and will limit you. The greatest and most unique thing you can bring to your songwriting is your own unique way of being, doing and seeing the world. That is enough originality!

10. Don’t chase fashion – By the time you create, produce and dispatch something in keeping with current fashion it will have changed and you’ll be left behind. Just create what you like and become a trendsetter not a trend chaser.

Songwriting gear

11. Don’t worry about perfect – Perfection is unattainable in songwriting and it’s subjective anyway! It’s much better to decide instead when you think it works as a complete entity. Then leave it alone to become what it becomes over the life of it’s performance. Chasing perfection will mean you never complete and deliver. So do the best you can in the moment, and when you know better, do better!

12. Songs change with the moon and energy – This may seem a little odd to some of you but I really notice cycles in my life. I notice my body’s cycles and I notice how the earth’s cycles effect them. I find that my songwriting I always much edgier and introspective around the new moon and that’s also when I find it hardest to write but then around the full moon my energy levels rise and the songs are more buoyant or aggressive. Noticing my cycles helps me know what to expect from myself and to not over commit when my energy levels are on a down. I recommend that you pay attention to your cycles and plan your creative, work and home life accordingly. It helps!

13. Remove other peoples judgements from the equation – There have been a few days when I have felt paralysed by the vulnerability hangover that comes from putting so much creative output into the public domain and have everyone cast an opinion on it. Most of the time I do this for me and the experience of getting to know myself as a disciplined focussed songwriter generating a heap of new work. Caring too much about other’s opinions really slows you down and limits your creativity. So just don’t care too much what people think of you! If you’d like more on this topic, check out my blog Coping With Criticism

14. Seek out new ideas – Become a sponge for creative ideas! Keep your mind tuned in and be aware all week of everything you come into contact with, you’re looking for a possible starting point. Seek them out in new music, films, the sounds in your environment, your nephew drumming his hands on the table top, the rhythm of an engine, the relationships around you, the changing seasons, your experience… Ideas are there in abundance if you’ll be open to them!

15. Don’t get intoxicated – If you have time and space to explore your creativity under the influence, don’t let me stop you! Writing like that can be a powerful thing and there are many stunning examples throughout history but it’s not helpful when you have just a few hours to write the song, record it and put it on the internet. That calls for clarity, focus and time management all of which are really hampered by other substances so just don’t bother! It doesn’t make it easier, it makes it harder!

16. Do it now! As Allen Ginsberg has famously said “If the muse comes to your bedside, don’t tell her you’ll fuck her later.” If you have the time and inspiration to write the song all at once, do it! Don’t procrastinate, grab that inspiration and work the most out of it while you can!

17. Loose the fear. Songwriting is a very exposing and vulnerable thing to do. It’s natural to feel nervous and edgy when sharing your creative works but fear (Of success, of failure, of humiliation… etc) is not at all helpful. If will strangle every creative vibe you have going and poo-poo all your ideas! Get rid of it! Get over it! Change the tape playing in your head… Use any method available to you to get beyond the fear! And if you really can’t then channel the fear and write a flippin’ song about it!

18. Realise that this will increase your skill and your confidence.  So maybe the first song isn’t that great, but that fact that you wrote it at all is an achievement to be celebrated! And that can power you into the next one, you learn and grow and write more, and then the songs will improve, you’ll write another, and learn and grow some more and before you know it you’ll be looking back saying ‘Wow! 20 songs in 20 weeks!’  I am proud of myself for doing that and this is what I have learned along the way…’

19. Trust and believe in yourself – You’ve heard this quote from Henry Ford before I’m sure: ‘Whether you think you can or think you can’t, either way you are right’.

Along the way many have expressed to me that they think it’s crazy to try and write 52 songs in 52 weeks and post videos on Youtube. I can’t speak for them but I believe that your subconscious mind will deliver whatever you expect of yourself. As soon as the challenge was underway, as soon as I started telling people, and announcing it on the radio, I made it tough for myself to back out and just trusted that I could do this. Make no mistake, this has NOT been easy but it has been do-able. But very importantly at no point have I ever let myself say I can’t, and the result has always been that I can!

20. Just Do it! – Seriously now, just sit there and do it till it’s done! 😉

Love,

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