Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Secrets of Songwriting Revealed! (not really)

It's been over a week since I returned from my trip to a Songwriting Retreat in Indiana, but I am just now getting around to blogging about it. It was my 3rd year there and I would say my best year. It was non-stop writing as usual, but this year I had just an extra measure of energy to make it through some late nights, some unexpected co-writes, and literally running up and down the halls to meet up with people on time. Counting songs that I finished up from last year, I came home with 6 new ones, and was apparently dubbed “The Little Writing Giant”. I wonder if I'll get my own infommerical. Anyway, it was such a good time and I wrote some really good songs and hung out with some really good people. The food was great as usual, and this year's t-shirts were great: “More ballads in a weekend then a whole season of Idol”. Yes, t-shirts. As my friend Allie puts it, it's basically songwriter nerd camp.

Nerdy as it is, a lot of people ask me about this mysterious process of writing a song. The most common question I get is “Do you write the melody first or the lyric?” I tell people it happens all different ways, but when you throw another writer or two into the mix, things get even more interesting.

The basic process, at least as I have experienced it, is you sit down in the writer's room with the other person or people and spend some time just shooting the breeze or getting to know each other if you don't already. Then you start throwing out ideas of what to write about. Both writers are ideally prepared with a few good ideas, some even partially developed, and after a little while both people can generally settle on one idea that strikes them each with enough passion and vision for the song to go ahead and “chase it”, as we say.

Every song is built around what is called the hook. The hook is usually that one line, often times the title, that just gets you when you hear it or sticks with you when the song is over. Ideally you would start with the hook and build a chorus around it, then come up with a couple of verses to explain and set up the chorus. If the song needs a bridge it's typically added after the rest has been written, and inevitably there will be some tweaking along the way. Depending on who you're writing with, the melody could be written right along with the lyric or you could end up with a completed lyric to hand over to a melody writer. Regardless of how it happens, the goal of that 3 hours or so is to birth a new song into the world.

Mysterious is a good way to describe it. It is never cut and dry. What I described was a sort of normal, standard, baseline for the process. But really, anything can happen. Sometimes it's miserable. Sometimes you laugh until your sides ache. Sometimes the Spirit is so present in the room you feel you could reach out and touch Him. I write solo most of the time, so I'm still relatively new to co-writing. But I'm so thankful that once a year for four days, I get to indulge in that mysterious melding of minds and muse.

PS- A note on those pictures... Each night we performed the songs that we'd written that day for the rest of the group, and that's what those pictures are from. So just to clarify, we do not write with microphones.


Bev H said...

Writing with microphones - now THERE'S a terrifying thought! How would we "dare to suck" if others were listening in?

Anonymous said...

CUT AND DRIED - "There is a widely held belief that the common expression 'cut and dried' - meaning 'something already prepared' - came from 'jerky,' thin strips of sun-dried beef that once were staples of the cowboy's rations on long trail drives. Actually, this meaning of 'cut and dried' is older than the oldest cowboy by a few centuries. It goes back to the ancient practice of cutting wood and letting it dry out thoroughly before using it in a fire." From "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988).

Kristin Schwartz said...

Where was the retreat located? I would love to go to a songwriting retreat myself!