A Songwriter’s Tip Sheet by Rebecca Jordan
My background: I’ve been a professional songwriter for over 10 years. When I was growing up, I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I just knew that music lit a fire in me. I’ve now had publishing deals, been signed to a major label, and put out music on my own. My experiences have shown me both the inherent and potential value in songwriting, not just financially but also as an honest gift to the world.
I write with and for all kinds of singers, producers, and writers. Some have sold millions of records and some have never written a song before in their life. Each time and every song is different, but one thing is constant: my intent. I approach songwriting as a craft. To me, it is an art much like painting, sculpture, or film. Stanislavski said it is the goal of an actor to illuminate the human condition. I think that’s the goal and responsibility of any artist, a songwriter too. So even if I’m in a session writing a lighthearted four-on-the-floor dance song, underneath the beat my aim is true.
Getting started: People ask me all the time, “How do you become a songwriter?” Often they are more interested in the business aspects of that answer, which is not the part that should come first. The truest answer to becoming a songwriter is the obvious: write songs. You can read books about it, you can attend music conferences and industry events, you can ask other writers, but the real way to learn is to just do it. Ultimately, we learn by doing.
Songwriting is a distinctly subjective experience. Everyone has their process and their own little quirks. I have to use a Bic 4-Color Ballpoint pen. For some reason, I cannot (will not?) write without one. Sometimes I have to write when in absent-minded motion: on a walk, in the shower, or on the subway. Sometimes I take the train for no other reason than to write. I’m not actually going anywhere, I’m just trying to get to the chorus. Last week I wound up in Times Square.
Writing is often a journey a person has to take on their own. That said, to share what you learn along the way could be a good thing. So if I had to offer some insights, I’d start with these:
Documenting your ideas: Inspiration is a mysterious lover. It can be fleeting, so be ready to catch it. I keep a notebook or voice recorder near me at all times. If I am sleeping, on the train, in a meeting, doesn’t matter, I will stop what I’m doing to put down an idea. Show your idea that much respect: if it came to you, put it down. Don’t ignore it, don’t discard it, don’t take it for granted and say, “Oh I’ll remember later,” because no, you won’t. Ideas are gold. They are your gems. You wouldn’t throw away a diamond, so don’t toss off an idea.
Finding inspiration: They’re all around you. Open your eyes. Make yourself available. How many times do you go through the day focused on your “to-do” list or whatever internal dialogue loop is playing over and over in your head, all the while not noticing the person coming towards you, not noticing the sky? How many things do you miss or ignore? Songwriting is about noticing. See someone crying on the train? That’s a story, that’s a song. Be interested in other people; be interested in the world around you. If you feel closed, here’s an easy fix: Open up.
Be flexible and have patience: Allow your ideas to change. I have always been fascinated by the story of Creation, so I was excited when I got the idea to write a song about Eve. I came up with a chord progression on acoustic guitar, but couldn’t hone in on how to approach the lyric. I even brought the idea to a trusted co-writer who was excited to help. At the time, I thought I wanted to talk about how Eve got such a bad rap; I wanted to suggest that Eve didn’t bite the apple first, that Adam did and she took the fall for him. Fun stuff, I know. I just couldn’t find words or a melody that felt right. I tried and tried. I finally let it go. Months passed. A producer friend sent a piece of music he’d written with me in mind. As soon as I heard the first notes, I instinctively knew it was “Eve.” I let go of my original ideas and let myself dream to the music. I found out the song was about me just as much as Eve, that it was about daring to bite the apple in the first place, the audacity of a dream and the consequences. After all my effort, all my starts and stops, suddenly, finally, the words came out like a rush, the song was almost writing itself, but only because I’d given it space and let it change. So catch your idea, but don’t hold on too tightly. Your idea may have some ideas of its own.
Rebecca Jordan is the 2010 recipient of the Abe Olman Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a 2010 NPR Mountain Stage NewSong Finalist and a 2011 Independent Music Award Nominee for her self released Souvenir EP.