|Tunes & Travels|
by Jennifer Matthews
songwriting: composing and writing
Composing and writing songs is one of my favorite art forms. I often think it is very similar to painting. I say this because when you begin writing a song you start with a blank canvas. A blank canvas and your mind, your thoughts, your voice and spirit. Your soul! It is a canvas that begins with a pen and paper. With your hand and mind. Creating entire landscapes of colors, moods, evocative images… with lyrics, melody, sound and emotion. The lyric and melody weave together with the music that you create… that comes out of you. Your soul!
There is a genre of music referred to as soul… Soul music is all about bearing the soul, singing the soul, the raw emotion singing it out with all of the passion and fervor that you have deep down. The more you put your essence and attitude into it, the more convincing and moving it is. Soul music has generally got a groove that is sexy and makes you want to move with it. It carries a message that most people can relate to. A message of love, broken love, of being poor and busted, homeless, bought and sold, of death and birth, of meeting the devil at the crossroads and having to make a choice. Soul music is full of sweat and pain, it is so raw that it is sultry and intoxicating. It is derived out of the blues! The great blues that was born in the deep south. Where the African Americans would join together in the cotton fields under the burning sun and the midnight moon and share their woes in writing and sharing lyrics of pain and love… lyrics singing about freedom… and enslavement. It was a language that was born out of a horrible time of repression and enslavement. A time when a man’s spirit was all he had to hold onto. The lyrics and the melodies in those times and those tunes must have flowed real easy. There was so much emotion to derive from… an emotion that when released helped to give power to the people and a voice to their suffering.
Music is born out of emotion and life experience. Whether it is pain or joy… it is still emotion and has the ability and power to touch millions if you tap into it right. The Blues is the forefather of what music has become today. Blues music, especially Mississippi Delta blues, encompasses it all. Lyrics, strong melodies, simple melodic chord changes and rhythm that support the emotion through singing…through laying all down with a rhythm that supports the story. Every great lyrical song revolves around a story. It doesn’t have to be a story that already happened or that you read in a fictional novel. It can be a story you create out of your own mind. A good example of that would be a song by Suzanne Vega called “The Queen and the Soldier”. It is a great song with a really captivating story about love and betrayal. Another good example that comes to mind is Don McLean’s “Starry Starry Night” It is a masterpiece he wrote about the great painter Vincent Van Gogh.
I recommend as a songwriter to take the approach of being an individual. Of not following the basic conventional formula or what has already been written before, but carving new paths with your own creativity and originality. I say go natural with it. To follow what you hear in your head and be true to your creative flow… to that inner voice that is pouring through. It is about trusting in the process and letting go. Not doubting or over analyzing what you write, but letting the tune write itself in the nature of its own creative voice. I have talked with songwriters who have told me that sometimes it takes them many months to write one song. And then when written, they critique and rewrite it for months and change it twenty times and by the time it is finally considered finished, it is so far from what it initially began as, that the magic goes from the tune. Other times when it takes that long, you might want to abandon it and move on to the next idea. In my personal experience as a songwriter I can tell you it is the songs that write themselves that always turn out to be the best and most captivating. That is the process of intuitive songwriting where all of a sudden you hear a knocking on your musical minds door and you grab the guitar. 45 minutes later after the first line was written, the song is entirely completed and you blink your eyes and say wow… what just happened… where did that come from. And you feel grateful because a song was just handed to you and it felt effortless. The best songs that I wrote in my repertoire were written by themselves. I say that because writing them felt effortless, like they just came through me real easy. I remember at times, it feels like my hand can’t move fast enough to get the lyrics down on paper that flow through my mind. Other times, I may write half the tune and then come back a day or two later and finish it. I tend to write a lot of my songs at night after the sun has gone down. There is a hush that happens and in that time you can breathe a little easier and relax into writing. Light a candle and dim the lights… create an atmosphere that invites creativity and a peaceful, open mind.
Whether you approach songwriting from more of an intuitive process or a conventional and theoretical process, it is all creating none the less. It is also gratifying and automatically puts you in the position of being an artist opposed to being a musician or singer that covers other peoples songs and compositions. I penned my first song after learning a few chords on the guitar. Once I got a strum down pretty good, the songs just started flowing out. It went hand in hand for me. Playing guitar and writing songs. It felt like a really natural thing to do. After writing my first song there was no turning back. I was hooked! My life began to revolve around writing songs and playing the guitar. I don’t want to say I am obsessed, but certainly I can say that I felt I found one of my life’s main callings when I began writing songs. It became my whole lifestyle and one that I have pursued whole heartedly for over twenty years now. I write new songs every week consistently, and if I don’t for some reason, I feel that something is missing or that I am not connecting. Of course I experience dry spells, or writers block, where nothing is coming through and I feel I can’t write to save my life. Those can be trying times. There can be times when you can be so challenged by suffering from writers block that you get worried and question will it ever come back? I can assure you it does. From experience I have learned over the years that sometimes you need to give your writing a rest and take time to live and experience life. Stories and lyrics come out of living life and metaphorically riding the waves as they ebb and flow on a daily basis. Riding the highs and lows and the testing times. As you may have heard from other songwriters, I find my best work has come out of some of the lowest times in my life.
Music is healing!! I believe it is the greatest form of communication on earth. Singing together in unison, in harmony, or alone… it is transcending and lifts your spirits. Those songs that make you feel like you are not alone in your emotion or your life. A great song is like a good friend who takes your hand and walks you through your day. Who jumps in your face, looks in your eyes and says hey look at the sun and not the ground… look up… it’s a beautiful day…dry your tears and dance with me.
A couple of years into songwriting, I became a full time student at the University of Colorado School of Music in Boulder. When I flew from New Jersey with my guitar in hand to audition for the school, I had no idea what I was in for. My audition song was one that I wrote. It was a simple folksy song with a finger picking guitar part and a pretty vocal melody. I walked into the school and sat down with my guitar and played and sang the song. When I was finished, the committee that auditioned me looked at me kind of strangely, and I had no idea why. I left that building of music that day with my head hung low because I thought they would not accept me into the program and probably didn’t like my song as well. I came to find out that the school I auditioned for was pretty much straight ahead an opera and classical school. I had no idea!! All I knew was that I loved the Rockies and wanted to go to college where there were huge mountains. I think I blew their minds a little when I naively showed up and played my original folksy song. I was completely unaware of the fact that I was in possibly the wrong place presenting to them a kind of music some of them would scowl at. Needless to say… to my great surprise, I did get accepted to the program and as time went on there, and I went through the program, I was embraced by the teachers for my songwriting abilities. At one point they made an exception for me and allowed me to sing my own songs during recitals… while most of the students were singing Italian classical arias, etc… I was standing there singing and playing my folk rock songs. I believed in what I was doing. I lived and breathed it. I made an agreement with them, I’ll learn to sing classically with the vocal training they give, and in exchange they let me be who I am as a developing artist. That is a good example of what I said earlier, about not being afraid to be original and creative. You have to have conviction and confidence in your work and your creations. I carved that path for myself. Many great things came out of that school experience including a development deal from an A&R rep at Famous Music out of California, and a two month road tour of Japan and Korea…also at the same time a great manager from Denver came along and booked shows for me and got me radio play. Believe in yourself!! It is the key. You know in your gut if you have something to offer with your songs. Listen to what is on the inside…and write from that place.
One of the big things I recommend when starting out is writing a song everyday. Even if you don’t like what you are writing, work it and finish it, and then start on a new one. You might write 5 mediocre tunes in one month period and feel unsatisfied with them and than out of nowhere two songs come in right after, that you feel a magic with and you know are keepers. Those are the songs that will make it onto the stage and your recordings.
I have always found the best way to write is not to sit down and say “I am going to write a song now” but more of a sitting with your guitar, jamming with it and you coming up with a riff or a chord progression that feels good and then from there, the melody and lyrics start to flow. When you feel this just go with it don’t try to control it, or over analyze and judge. After you penned the basic outline, go back over it and rework the weak lines and craft it to your liking. I was 17 years old when I wrote my first tune. At the time I had been listening to a lot of Neil Young, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin. As a vocalist I found the early 70’s rock records of early Heart and Linda Rondstadt to have a style that I could relate to well. I found that style was a good and natural direction for my voice. If you are going in the direction of singer/songwriter, you want to listen as much as possible to the greatest songwriters of our time. Listen to their songs as if you were studying in a class. Learn from them and teach yourself how to incorporate their methods into your creations. You need a blueprint to work from. Some great songwriters that I consider to be masters at it and have continually enjoyed and learned from as well as received endless inspiration are to name a few: Bob Dylan, JD Souther, Joni Mitchell, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, John Prine, Blind Willie Johnson, Nick Drake, Woody Guthrie, Jeff Buckley, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Paul Simon, Chris Cornell and Bob Marley. I couldn’t let this section finish without mentioning some more recent favorite songwriters of mine which are Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch, Edie Brickel, Lauren Hill, Fiona Apple, David Gray, PJ Harvey and Kurt Cobain. We can’t forget Jimi Hendrix which in my mind was the ultimate. He wrote incredible lyrics, melodies and music. His tunes in my mind literally are Castles in the Sand hence the name of his gorgeous tune. Most of his songs are a great example of tunes that sound like they wrote themselves. They don’t sound contrived or overworked… They are full of soul and fire. Songs that tell a story and intoxicate you with it’s music. Some writers say they feel like they were a vehicle for the songs and the music… as if the music came through them. That is what is called being an ’Intuitive’ writer and composer.
I have to say it …. Listen, Listen and Listen again. Half of your learning is through listening. Absorb the music, the lyrics, and the melodies Learn the structures. See what resonates with you and what style of music you are attracted to. You can read books on songwriting and how to craft a song, but personally I think the best teacher is your ear… listening and experimenting on your own. Develop your own style and pave new roads with your own voice and style. Listen to all styles of music across the board. Learn from it all and listen so much that it feels as though you have become it. The more knowledge you have, the more language you will develop in songwriting and creating.
If you are working towards specifically being a songwriter, opposed to singer/songwriter… I’d say listen to every great songwriter you can get your hands on. Write every day. Make sure the structure of the song makes sense. That the meter in the lines flow well together. Pay attention to timing and phrasing. Keep in mind that saying we often hear at times…simple is better. Most pop tunes are no more than 3 ½ minutes long and are very melodic. The catchier the melody the better. Try to make your lyrics meaningful but not trite, meaning too simple… and certainly shy away from sounding like every other songwriter.
If you are working towards being a singer/songwriter sing and play all the time. Learn from the greats. Johnny Cash, Paul Simon and Woody Guthrie are some great examples as well as Bonnie Raitt and Nick Drake. All they needed was their guitars and their voices. Often when I am on tour, I play solo shows. The money is much better and it enables you to make a living at it. Another aspect of being a solo artist, singer/songwriter, is the more that you tour, the more musicians you meet along the way who want to play with you when you are in their neck of the woods.
If you are writing songs for a band, keep the instrumentation in your head. Can you hear the drums playing as you strum the tune… can you hear the electric guitars come in and the keyboards. The more well crafted and melodic the tunes, the easier it is for musicians to play and create catchy riffs over it. Some great bands I recommend to listen to for overall great songwriting, creativity and originality are… The Flaming Lips, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, The Verve, Muse, early Heart, Nirvana, Jethro Tull, Porcupine Tree, Soundgarden, the Church, Aerosmith, etc… research and find out who their influences were on down the line until you are at Alan Lomax and folkways recordings.
If you are strictly a songwriter and want to sell your songs…contact publishers via the web. There are a ton of publishing houses on the market today that sign single songs, and place them on TV shows, advertisements, soap operas, etc… Also… single out artists that you think would be great covering your tunes. For instance if you write a song that to your ears is perfect for a singer like Joan Osborne, or Kelly Clarkson, etc… find out who their management is and send them a cd of the tune. Or show up at one of their shows with your song on cd and note in hand…hand it to the artist or to the soundperson who is doing sound for the band and tell him or her that this is the best song in the world and you wrote it specifically for that artist. Believe me they will listen. One thing that never changes in the world of music business, is that the industry is always seeking a new talent that writes great songs.
Write every day. Even if it is just a few lines of poetry … keep the creative mind flowing. Read as much as you can. Not just books on songwriting or the industry of music, but read the classics, book after book, fiction is a great catalyst for inspiring tunes and creative writing. Did you know that Mick Jagger wrote Symphony for the Devil after reading the book the Master & the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. You can probably pick up a copy at Borders books store or online at www.bordersstores.com and at Amazon or eBay. Go to your local library. They usually have a great collection of cds and vinyl… and it’s free!! I discovered a lot of great music by combing the shelves of the library.
Another idea is start a songwriting circle where you trade off tunes back and forth with other songwriters. Compare and contrast, weaknesses and strengths, share it all. Careful not to let the ego get in the way. That can be a tricky one. Practicing humility is important. And lastly , try to make sure that all your songs don’t sound the same. Change it up… Don’t talk yourself out of songwriting… if you are reading this -- it means you need to get to it. Drop me an email if you have read this and would like to share one of your songs with me. Send me an mp3 to Jennifer@JenniferMatthews.com