Just this past August, I had the pleasure of performing in my hometown of Muskegon at The Temple House. I met a lovely songwriter named Patty Pierzchala. After the show, she asked me about my approach to songwriting. I think I gave her some kind of wandering, incoherent answer because as I was talking to her, I realized I don’t seem to have one approach to songwriting.
And yet here I was, trying to explain something that after so many years I feel like I still don’t have a handle on. I tried to boil it down to a more cohesive list for you all.
1. I don’t really like the process of songwriting, but I like increasing my catalogue of original tunes.
I would like to have a catalogue of hundreds of songs that I’ve written, and that desire occasionally overcomes my dislike for songwriting, so I sit down and hack one out. Many times my inspiration isn’t anything more than, “Whelp, I guess I better write another song.” It’s not glamorous, but it’s reality. It’s sort of like a jar of pickles that you want opened, but the lid seems impossible to twist of – you have to really be in the mood for a pickle so that you prevail over the jar; you become more stubborn about opening it than the jar is about remaining closed.
2. Songwriting is like that estranged family member you’re forced to interact with.
I don’t WANT to spend my time with songwriting. When the idea for a song comes, I think, “Oh god, here we go.” I know it’s going to be difficult. I know I’m going to squirm. I know I’ll want to disappear at some point. And yet somewhere deep inside, I know it’s the right thing, the best thing, and that Mom would be proud. So I soldier on.
3. Songs come out however they damn well please.
Sometimes I start with a sentence I scribbled down months ago and think of a tune for it. Sometimes I have a tune in my head and I start fitting words in. Sometimes I learn a neat new chord on the guitar and try to work a song around it. Sometimes I’m looking to emulate a song that I love – maybe its lyrical format, or maybe a different strumming pattern. Sometimes the song comes out quickly like bad food that you’ve eaten: EVERYTHING MUST COME OUT RIGHT NOW. Sometimes the song takes its sweet time, starting with a catchy hook and then forgotten for months until the next time I think, “Boy, I should write a song!” My technique is sort of whatever seems to be working at the moment. Beggars can’t be choosers.
4. I love it. Then I hate it. Then I love it again. Then I hate it for a while. And then I accept it.
While I’m writing, internally, there’s a whole monologue of nonsense: “This is great! Well, this bit sounds a little familiar. Oh my god, this is really sort of terrible. I shouldn’t ever write again, what was I thinking? This bit’s ok, I guess – it’s really catchy and I can’t get it out of my head! That counts for something, right? Ugh, but the lyrics are kind of clunky right here. Am I lying in this song? Is that how I felt or is that the Hollywood-adapted-for-the-big-screen-not-really-true-to-life-version? I’m such a fake. This is dumb. Maybe there’s still time to be an astrophysicist.” I have started to kind of shrug at what happens to come out and at the violently high/low internal monologue. As long as I’m mostly satisfied with how the lyrics are working and how the melody is moving along, then I’ll decide “It’s a real song!” and start playing it out to see how it feels in front of people. Because someone, somewhere, is bound to get something out of it, even if it’s no longer meaningful to me – right?!
5. It’s not a sprint, and it’s not a marathon – there’s never a finish line.
I always liked math in school because there was always a definite solution to a problem. If you couldn’t work it backwards to the initial problem, it meant you did it wrong, and you could go and explicitly work out where it went sideways. Songwriting isn’t anything like that. There doesn’t ever seem to be a lasting satisfaction upon completion of a song. Even once it’s recorded, it still doesn’t feel complete. And maybe this is the thing that keeps me writing more – the challenge is never over.