Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Art of Songwriting

This article is about art.  It is not about making money.  It is not about gaining popularity.  It is less about rules and more about definitions.  So lets go.

Vincent Van Gogh was an artist.  He created art.  He attempted to sell some of it and was a miserable failure.  However, you know his name and may or may not appreciate his work but his work was art.  There is a guy in your home town who makes a living painting houses.  He has paint and brushes.  He may or may not be an artist.  The defining point here is that painting houses commercially does not make him an artist.  It is possible for him to be an artist who also is a commercial painter.  These two titles are unrelated though the function of painting is shared by the two tasks.  How does that relate?

I don't want you thinking that every test-tube pop star that ends up on the cover of Rolling Stone is an artist.  While being successful does not negate your artisanship the two are not related.  Many "stars" of the "music business" are house painters.  Or rather, singers.  You know...those people at work who belt out Joplin, the little girl at church who squeals out Christmas tunes every year...the people on The Voice.  Any of these people may be perhaps they create something as well, but the act of singing is a task of rudimentary addition to an already existing piece of art.  You can be an artist who sings.  You can be a singer who is also an artist.  Nothing however, links the two together.  Many singers are just that.  Many guitarists make no attempt to create artwork.  Many drummers just want to know what the set list will be and if there's free beer involved.  These people are musicians.

While I'm saying this I'm sensing an arrogance in my own tone.  There isn't any intended.  There is nothing wrong with being a singer, a guitarist, a drummer or a house painter.  Those are fine pursuits with their own unique challenges.  But I want to be clear.  Creating a piece of music from nothing is an art form.

So now.  You're going to write a song.  That's your goal.  Where should you start?  What kind of songs will you write?  Why should you write them?   What should you write them about?  How should you display your artwork?  Key Signatures? Tempo? ...who cares

Here comes the freedom.

There are no rules.  It's art.

Assembling musical notes and/or words in a musical manner constitutes writing a song...varying quantities of notes and/or words may bridge the gap between jingles, tunes, verses etc but that's all subjective.

Oh wait.  Everything about art is subjective.

This is the best song ever.  You're the best writer ever.  It sucks.  You suck.  It's all subjective.

This is good news for you!  The wonderful news for the would-be songwriter tearing themselves apart over whether what they intend to do is "good", "valid", "smart", "funny", "entertaining"...The good news is it's all subjective.  The good news is that there are people who like Lady Gaga and there are people who like John Denver.  Linda Ronstadt and Marilyn Manson, Eminem and Tom Waits, Elvis Presley and the Sex Pistols.  There are no rules!  You can write whatever you like and present it however you like and somebody out there is going to enjoy it.

This is an important lesson:  Someone is going to HATE it!  That's right.  The art that you create, from the depths of your soul, with all of your heart and mind and effort is going to someone's eyes.  And that someone may well be your best friend, the girl you were hoping to impress, your spouse/significant other.  That's just the way the ball bounces baby.  Van Gogh's mother used his paintings to patch holes in the roof.

More good news.  Doesn't freaking matter.

The beauty of art is truly in the eyes of the beholder.  I'm not joking.  I'm not trying to be poetic.  Only you will ever know the experiences, the information, the feelings that generated your artwork.  You can attempt to describe those things to other people but no matter how valiant an effort you make they will never truly understand you.  The piece of work you've created should give some insight perhaps but that's it.  You have interpreted an idea, a feeling, a mood, a moment in have interpreted something into a new language that only you can understand.  I'm going to get a little philosophical for a moment so buckle up.  I fear at times that the art form of music has suffered the broad transfiguration of the gravity of fear.  So many people criticize this particular art form that it is difficult to eliminate such fears from the artist's mind, especially wholly remove those fears to the point that they can create work without fear guiding their creation more than their own spirits.
   It's tough to be criticized or rather it's tough to not allow that criticism to influence you.  But you need to remember:

It's not your job to make other people like your work.  That's THEIR job.  Your job is to make your art.  Make your art the way your soul and mind want you to make it.  If you choose to show anyone your art work then they can decide what they think of it.  And remember...even if you don't meet the people who love your art work, they exist.  Maybe one day they'll see it and know that they love your art work or perhaps they wont...but they exist.  It's statistically far more probable that you will first find many people who do not love your art work.  That doesn't matter.

The art work is what matters.  Before you can concern yourself with what folks think you need to do something.  You need to do something good...but wait, that's subjective.  But

It has to be good to you.  So the first song you write may be fit for the trash can.  Oh well.  You write another and another.  You choose to or not to use various influences from other work as you create.  Doesn't matter.  You choose to or not to read books that may influence you.  Doesn't matter.  You create and create and create and now what?

Is it good?  to you?  That's all you need to be asking as these creations come to be.  And then answer yourself.  No?  Well then it's time to make a change.  I won't suggest an approach that works.  They all work.  Leonard Cohen likes to pain over lyrics for years at a time and perfect every nuance.  I don't think the Ramones did that with "Beat on The Brat".  It's your deal.  You may benefit from working late, working early, eating well, traveling, being happy, being sad, listening to other music, being in silence, doing drugs, doing's your deal.  There are no rules.  One thing is for sure.  All artists go through a roller-coaster of ups and downs creatively and you need to know that going into this.  You will win big (with yourself) and you will walk in circles.

Why are you doing this?  Having a goal is helpful.  "Because it's fun to me" is sufficient but if your goal is to make a political statement then maybe some research will help.  If your goal is make people happy then maybe some research will help.  See where I'm going with this?  Sit on the street, see a movie, watch the neighbors, ask yourself questions.  Do any kind of research you like but LIVING is a good way to research life and may inspire you to write about it.  Some artists benefit from time away from their art.  Maybe write a blog or something.

Music does differ from other art medias in that it branches off as we decide how to capture the art in some form for display.


It's a different art form but capturing a song on a device in a way that imparts the desired emotion is very creative.  It's not what I'm here to talk about right now.

You should certainly document your work.  You don't HAVE to record it.  You could write it down but that's perhaps not as rewarding and certainly not easy to deliver to the random person who wants to know what your songs sound like.  Maybe they don't read music.  So you may WANT to record it.  Record it.  Record it poorly.  Do that before you try to do it any better.  If you feel the need to hire an orchestra and get a producer involved than by all means do it but please be advised:  A song is very nearly a living organism and it will grow and change within you.  No need to rush to putting it in a jar.  And here's the kicker.  The recording does not make the song any better or worse.  It just makes it sound better or worse.  Some of the greatest songs (subjective) I've ever heard were very poorly recorded or I only heard them live.  No recording.  I'm just throwing that out there.  It's not a law.

The real reason I'm writing this is to clear my head of conversations I've had with lots of people about songwriting.  I don't think many people believe me but I do firmly believe that the art of music is in no way related to the business of it.  Many people who call themselves "artists" are just people who want to be famous or people who would like to make money at an art form instead of what they do.  I get tired of talking to them.

I hope that someone reads this and realizes that I've given you my permission to do any damn thing you please musically.  If it makes you feel more fulfilled then I think it was worth doing.  If you want to show someone who won't criticize your work (unless you ask) you can send them to me.  I won't steal your work and I may tell you thank you.  I will not tell you if I liked it or not...unless I like it a whole lot and then I'll be your groupie.  I think my email is on this page somewhere.  Doesn't matter either way.

Happy Music Making.  Go out and be artists!

Jefferson Fox