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When I meet songwriters who are struggling with a lack of momentum, it usually transpires that they’ve overlooking some key components in their preparation. Like any artist, every songwriter needs to understand that they write songs as part of a multi-stage creative process. This well-documented process is both partly conscious and partly subconscious. Preparation is the first step towards the “aha!” moment — what we think of as inspiration — a happy flow of effortlessly generated material.
Preparation is like tilling the soil before planting seeds. Not much grows in barren ground. Preparation for songwriting is active, rather than the equally necessary incubation, which is more about your subconscious connections coming to the party. Ignore at your peril.
Here are five areas I’ve noticed songwriters who are stumbling or feeling blocked tend to underdo. Let’s dive in!
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1. Knowing what people want to hear.
By this I mean become truly aware what people love about their favourite songs. It doesn’t mean aping what the Billboard 100 is doing today because by the time you do that, it’s already old hat. Neither does it mean being formulaic. It means paying attention to the audience you want to deliver your songs too, and what they use songs for. We all feel emotions just by being human, but as songwriters, we can express them for an audience to deeply identify with.
How can we connect? Active and immersive listening can help with this — so can using reference tracks. Keep a well-logged track of those musical waypoints, old, and new. Keep refreshing and referring to them. Prime the pump.
2. Knowing what artists have risked.
Taste cycles fluctuate quickly in contemporary commercial music. There is always appetite for the new best thing. Searching out and understanding what the greats have done, what they were prepared to try – even though at times it felt counterintuitive or potential career suicide can free you up to innovate.
Stand on the shoulders of giants. Classic stories like Bob Dylan going electric, Motown stacking choruses at the front of their hits and David Bowie’s “Thin White Duke” soul period point to the courage to go against the expected. Kate Bush didn’t want to just be a “girl at the piano” — she wanted her music to smash people up against the wall.
Take stock of what you’ve done, what’s worked and what hasn’t, shake it up and prepare to go all out.
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3. Knowing what you want to say.
Developing your own creative vision; the types of topics and styles you want to express, really digging deep into your inner artistry pays off. Some writers talk about having to shed the shit before the good stuff floats up. Some writers have a very strong path they want to travel and others know they just have to at some stage to keep the wheels in motion.
Growth as an artist means spending energy reflecting on what you want to bring to the stage and the airwaves. It may mean holing up and taking stock, on retreat or traveling or it may mean searching for new collaborators and producers and exploring different ways to approach your writing. It may mean journaling your backside off. It may mean taking yourself seriously and prioritizing your songwriting for once and for all. Whatever you need to find your own unique voice.
Artist development is exactly that and it’s not the preserve of record moguls. If not you, then who will do it? If not now, then when.
4. Knowing what you have to offer.
Songwriting has many facets and not everyone tends to be great at all of them. As a writer, where do you fit in the matrix? Great facility with lyrics? Strong and positive co-writer? A most excellent beat maker? Are you conceptual; full of compelling ideas to bring to the table?
Part of preparation is finding the gaps in your strengths (intrinsic) and your network (extrinsic), and seek input. You may be very surprised where this process takes you. It is a chance to put feedback from trusted sources to good use. And to use a cliché, reach out, and up — connect with writers who are better than you in some way. It will improve your work.
5. Knowing how to make the best of your abilities.
Finally, give yourself the best chance.
I’ve met people who have been able to put in to motion preparations to create projects that would have daunted many a veteran by making a series of choices — not just one! From changing their mindset to one of commitment in spite of setback, learning new musical skills of all flavours, surrounding themselves with supportive colleagues who encourage them to raise the bar and making a myriad of incremental changes that allow them to write the best songs they can. And I’ve met others whose projects flounder and who wonder why they can’t write what and how they want.
You may not know what you’re capable of yet. Why not prepare as much as possible so you and your songs have the option to be really, really good?
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