On Songwriting Part 2: What A Mess I’ve Made

(This is the second in a series of posts about writing a song. Read the first.)

I’ve tried often to fix my handwriting but it’s too far gone at this point to do much about it. My decade as a newspaper journalist — scribbling notes as I interviewed people — ruined my handwriting, which was never great to begin with. Often, I apologize to my students for notes I put on their papers, and interpret what I wrote.

I mention this conundrum with handwritten text because when I am writing a song at my little corner in the house, with my guitar in my hands and a notebook and pencil nearby, I am often scribbling frantically to catch any words or phrases or lines that might be useful, and worth remembering. If I don’t write it down, I am apt to forget it, and often, the first way a phrase has tumbled out of my mouth is the most interesting.

For the most part, I can sort of read what I have written. But not always, and I’ve been frustrated at times when I come back to a lyric sheet in my notebook and can’t make heads or tails of some words or a line. I try to remember before taking a break or quitting for the day to read, and at least try to fix, anything that looks like it might be beyond recognition the next time I read it.

What I find interesting, though, is how the notebook pages are a map of what has happened with a song, as I move parts or change words or scratch out entire sections as the meaning of a song emerges or changes or shifts. I’ll draw arrows, and circle words, and indicate rhythmic emphasis on the start of a sung line.

From the outside, it’s a mess. For me, it’s the thing, the process where everything is made visible to me as a songwriter.

Here, for example, is the paper with my notes for the song that I am currently writing — the song that started me on the creation of this series of posts — which now has a working title of Million Miles Away (From Finding Me). This lyric sheet has more doodles and scratches than most, for I was having lots of problems with some of the ways the lines were ending, and I was working and reworking, and trying to track my ideas as the story of the narrator began to emerge.

Song Lyric Sheet

The following collage shows three versions of the same sheet of paper (wouldn’t it have been cool if I had had the foresight to set up a stop-motion capture of this paper from blank to finished?) where the opening verses and chorus came rather quickly, and then the revision process began with my chicken-scratch of the latest version (see above).

Song Lyric Collage

One I reach a point where I have most of the words and lines in place, I move over to the computer and type up a version to print out, and I put the notebook aside and work with that typed piece of paper. This allows my mind to not worry too much about navigating all the arrows and circles and pencil marks. Once again, I am trying to balance word flow and song rhythm, while staying true to the story of the song (in this case, a narrator grappling with self-doubt and an internal and nocturnal journey to think deep about where life is headed … you know, light stuff.)

Song Lyric sheet typed

Peace (always in revision),

On Songwriting: Open For Inspiration

(This is the first of a potentially periodic post about writing songs.)

I don’t know what this blog post is or what this post will be. But I started writing a song last night and I wanted to document where this particular song might go and how it came to be.

This blogging reflection on writing a song might go nowheres, fast, as the song might go, too. Or the song might become a demo for some other project. Or I might like it all enough to make a recording with instrumentation.

Who knows. I don’t.

That’s one of the beautiful things of songwriting, though — the slippery qualities that allow some songs to remain in the mix of regular playing and others, that just disappear. Maybe the melodic hook isn’t good or something’s not right. Maybe the words and story of the song don’t resonate. Maybe the song’s missing a bridge and there’s something elusive about how to create a connector point between verse and chorus (or maybe you don’t realize a bridge isn’t needed).

Last night’s kernel of a new song — not even named yet — began, as many of my songs do, as an accident. I had fumbled some chords from another song, and found I liked the sound of what I was hearing. I followed it further, as I long ago discovered that paying attention to the mistakes sometimes opens up another door.

I left the other song to the side and began to tinker around with this new chord, and then discovered the next place that chord could lead to. And then I found another chord. Then another, and suddenly, I had a five chord turnaround that sounded pretty interesting to my ears. There was potentially something there.

You can listen to what I stumbled upon:

The mystery for me of writing lyrics is this: I never really know what I’m doing at the beginning. (Or is that just my own singular mystery? I guess those pop music producers know their formula for radio glory). There are times when I have a theme or a turn of phrase in mind, but not often. More likely, I enter a song, cold or by mistake. As with this one.

What I do, myself, is just start singing something, anything, without thinking about what it is at first that I’m singing (some songwriters hum a melody but that never worked for me). I open my ears to listen listen to my voice (and both mouth and ear seem remotely disconnected from the guitar, where my fingers are now mostly on auto-pilot). I’ll hear a phrase, or a word, or a line, and then, by singing it over and over, I let my voice shape the rhythm of the words.

And I am furiously scribbling down words on paper what I can, so I don’t lose it in the moment I am creating it. I am shuffling madly between guitar and pencil and paper.

Interestingly, it’s almost as if someone else is making up the song and I am just paying attention. I let myself wander. I trust my mind. Which is weird when you’re in that moment. Yet it’s powerfully interesting magic, too, as the writer in me is separated from the listener in me which is separated from the musician in me. I think it’s these exact moments that makes songwriting such an inspirational creative experience for me, and why for many, writing a song is so daunting. You have to let the unknown make its way into the world.

Or, that’s my approach.

At this point, as I am playing and singing whatever comes to mind, I’m hoping for rhymes that will string thoughts together, but the rhythms of words also seems fundamentally important here as my ears now work to merge the guitar and voice, and I am editing the lines as I sing them, on the fly, tweaking and tinkering — add a word here, replacing another there — until I come to understand the story, or the character, or the message, and if I get the first line or two down, then the rest of the lyrics often unfold much easier because the opening lines are the map, forward.

I find I often write in first person, even though many songs may not be about me. Even so, the lyrics most certainly have parts of me in them, even when I have another character in mind. My insecurities. My loves. My wonder. My failures. My curiosity. I can pull out a sheet of lyrics and know, myself, exactly where I am in any single song, at any given time. I try not to be too careful in protecting myself, but I am, and if a song is too personal, it never leaves my practice space.

Last night, when I had to leave this particular song, I had two verses and the framework of a chorus set into motion. I had moved the capo up and down the neck of the guitar and found a spot for it (fifth fret). I long ago learned that unless I can come back and play the guitar part and sing the melody at least a handful of times through a day, with gaps of time away from the song, I am apt to lose the inspiration. What I had …  will just disappear.

Here’s what came to my mind as the opening lines on this song:

Sunday morning weather
I don’t even know where I stand

I often record a rough demo on my phone (which I did for this one), so I can listen and remember the next day the threads of what I was working on. (I’m listening as I am writing this morning). When I was younger, I would walk around for hours with a new song and new lyrics dancing in my head, all day long, like some internal pirate radio, but I guess I have too much going on upstairs with school and family and life, and that technique no longer works for me.

These days, instead, I try to be “in the moment” when I sit down in my practice space to write, and to give the creative space my upmost focus, and to hope a song spills out from the consciousness that might even be worth keeping. And then I hope I pick up the threads of anything resonant, later.

A songwriter has to have faith in the creative process, for sure.

Today, for example, I’ll be searching for the threads of the song again, and try to make sense of what I started yesterday. And if a song still emerges from yesterday’s dreaming, I might have a second blog post soon, to continue this reflection on where a song of mine comes from and where it goes.

Peace (in songs),

Upon Further Remix: Gift of Peace v3

I’ve been having some remix fun with an original song that my friend, John, and I wrote and recorded and share out this time of year. The other day, I did a more classical instrumentation remix (see below) and then, I went in another direction entirely for this one (see above). I tried to give it a little more funky beat. (And played around with the image cover).

The first remix:

And the original (recorded in a studio, with video produced by my son):

Peace (to the world),

Watching ‘Get Back’: Staying Attuned to the Songwriting Muse

The Beatles: Get Back (2021) — The Movie Database (TMDb)

Seven and a half hours is a long slog through any documentary, and my family gave up on Get Back (about The Beatles) but I kept with it because I was fascinated by the songwriting process of the band, in the studio, under pressure to produce new songs, quickly.

There’s a now famous scene — the one that sticks in my head, too — where Paul McCartney starts pounding on his bass by himself, almost in frustration of the tension of the moment but also, he seems just lost in the rhythm of what he’s doing, and then, from that nothingness, there begins to emerge the first melody and first words of the song, Get Back, and as we watch, you can see McCartney working out what will become the iconic song (and title of the documentary we are watching.)

Over the course of the documentary, in fact, we watch as the band takes those initial inklings and transform the ideas into the song that will define the roof-top concert that is the finale at the end of the movie. George and John slowly work in guitar parts over the days, and Ringo keeps the beat, and Paul, at times with help from John, works and revamps the lyrics into stories of the characters in the verses, changing words and phrases as they practice the song. They debate single words, and phrase flow.

I love all that — the way the movie peels back the songwriting process, and as a songwriter myself (although nowhere near their level), I saw a glimpse in the movie of how I often start a new song, too — sometimes with no ideas at all, but just a faint rhythm on the guitar or a loose melody line or maybe a phrase or two that emerges out of nearly nothingness.

Here’s a lyric sheet of mine for a music collaboration I had done (for Whale’s Lantern global collaborations) that shows what I’m talking about:

Draft Lyrics Photobooth Song

While McCartney is clearly in his songwriting prime here (or so I might argue), it’s also interesting to see Harrison bringing in his new songs, and trying to get the attention of John and Paul to see the value of his creative songwriting, and of his voice as an artist. (Not all that successfully getting their attention, it is clear). I enjoyed those moments of George and Ringo before the others arrived, as they jammed out on George’s songs, ones that would emerge later on his own albums after failing to make the cut with The Beatles.

Even Ringo sits down at the piano at one point, and plays the opening to Octopus Garden for George, who then gives a master class on how to take a snippet and move an idea into a song, as he helps Ringo explore transitions, bridges and development of the chorus over chords. It’s a wonderful moment of building a piece of music from the two members who are not Paul or John.

John’s songwriting process is less visible, though, as he had probably entered a time when he was writing less with the others, and more on his own, bringing in fairly finished songs to be learned by the band, not to be developed by the band, if that makes sense. He seems less in the vein at this point to share the vulnerability of the songwriting process with the others. (or maybe my observation is limited by what we see on film).

Peace (singing it),

PS — years ago, I tried to capture the writing of a song in a video on an old flip camera. I found it in my archives. It’s difficult for me (now) to hear myself (then) thinking out loud like this but …

Music Remix: Gift of Peace

I was doing something else on my guitar when I realized I was remixing our song, A Gift of Peace, and then that remix suddenly drew me in with full attention to honor the original but at a slant. In the end, I went in an entirely new direction than where I started, but I like this instrumental version of our song.

Peace (singing it),

Musical Slice of Life: Tuned Into Open

(The Slice of Life Challenge in March is hosted by Two Writing Teachers as way to encourage teachers-as-writers. You can join in, if you want. There is also a monthly call for Slices on Tuesdays. You can write then, too)

I will often have stretches where I am writing lots of songs and the ideas are everywhere. Then there are the fallow times, when nothing seems to be flowing in any certain direction. I’ve learned to be patient — that the songs will still come. But I have also developed some strategies — pick up another instrument, try a new loop pack, or tune my guitar into another key.

That’s what I was doing yesterday — exploring open tuning on my guitar and this little sequence of riffs began to play out. I like open tuning now and then because of the space it creates on the fretboard.

This piece is short but long enough to remind me that music is all around, even if sometimes you need to approach it, slant (as Emily D might say). The title is merely a hopeful gesture of wording  …

Peace (sounds like),

Turning Collaborative Poem Into Song (but it ain’t no Shanty)


The other day, I wrote about a collaborative poem that folks in #ds106, and #clmooc, and beyond had contributed to. With 106 lines in its construction, the poem has now become a place of possible remix. I had joked at one point at trying to write a Sea Shanty with some of the words (ie, TikTok trend) and yesterday morning, after watching a bunch of YouTube videos of the recent Shanty trend, I was pretty confident that I could remix something. Too confident. I tried to work out a song on my guitar and realized my Sea Shanty was becoming more folk-punk with a hint of Dylan.

Ah well. I abandoned that ship and sailed forward into this:

Here are my process notes for the writing and recording:

I dove into the 106 lines of poem and began to find and make couplets to the rhythm I had started on my guitar. Sometimes, I could use the phrasing outright. Other times, I had to do a little twisting and editing to make the words fit. If a line didn’t seem right, I moved on to the next.

I quickly realized again just how much interesting phrasing was going on in the collaboration, as people jumped into the original poem to add lines. I felt bad that I could not use something from every line but that was not going to happen or else it would be a 30 minute song. In the end, I had eight full stanzas of four lines of mostly rhymed couplets.

I realized a chorus and maybe a little musical bridge was needed to break up the song and to give it a hook. I tried a bunch of possibilities and ended up on a Believe/See theme (after abandoning a Breathe/See theme). The couplet lines in the chorus are mine, as they capture what the poem is all about, about remembering and connecting. The short musical interlude is a way to put space between the verse and the chorus.

You can read all the lyrics here.

For the music, I had first thought just to do a raw recording and be done with it. Guitar and voice. But then I had this bass line in my mind and I realized a simple drum pattern would propel it along, so I jumped into Garageband to lay down some tracks. From there, I moved the files to my computer, and recorded the guitar part.

The vocals, always my weakest point, came last and I nearly passed out, trying to fit all the words into the phrasing. At some points, you can hear me, gasping for breath on the phrasing. (or I hear me, anyway).  I gave it a real Dylan reading/singing feel. You may notice that the first section has two verses, and then the next two sections, three verses, before landing on the last section, with one verse. It makes the center of the song feel longer than I’d like but when I had it another way, it all felt too long. Combining verses condensed the song.

I tweaked some of the audio settings here and there, and added an underlying vocal track to the chorus to give it more life and played an organ keyboard down low in the mix, but mostly, the song was recorded straightforward. I think it’s OK.

Peace (listening in),

Song: Hope Remains

The very morning after the 2016 election, I wrote this song to process my thinking  — Hope Remains — and as a way to to remind myself that better days would still be ahead. In 2018, I recorded it as a live video. Today, with the change I hoped for now here on Inauguration Day, I share it again, with lyrics.

Hope Remains

I’m doing fine, I swear
I’m just a little bit quiet out here
And I admit, I’m confused
I’m holding on tight to me and you
I can feel the winds of change
yet hope remains

Remember all the things we said
how we’d pick up the pieces and move ahead
and now that times are tough
let’s hope that our love is big enough
I can feel the winds of change
and hope remains

We feel lost
Turned around
I see how you’re reaching out
And I won’t let you down
We’ll raise our voice
Let it carry the sound
Out here in the darkness
I won’t let you down

We’ll find our way from here
The world we built wasn’t built on fear
I know the words won’t ease the pain
But we’re holding on tight – and try again
I can feel the winds of change
and hope remains

Peace (to the a new start in a difficult world),

Music: We Won’t Be Missing You

I wrote and recorded this song – We Won’t Be Missing You — over the summer, as part of a larger Pandemic song collection called Notes from a Quiet Corner (listen over at Bandcamp, if you want).

I wrote it after watching Trump tell lies after lies about Covid when he was still trying to lead the daily briefings, rambling on about the spread of the virus, about the impact on people’s lives, and how he would then pivot the conversation to its impact on himself and his own businesses.

It wasn’t pretty. It still isn’t.

Now that the foot has nearly kicked him out the door, I figured I would share this song again.

Here are the lyrics, if curious:

We Won’t Be Missing You

I hear a whole of talking but I don’t see a change out here
You might be on the screen but we don’t have to hear
I see your mouth still moving and reality disappears
If you listen to the whispers – the whispers are everywhere

We don’t surely know
where this is gonna go
When you’re gone
We ain’t gonna shed a tear

I know you got a lot of money and you think that makes you cool
then you turn your back and you act so frickin’ cruel
If I had to find a reason – I might resort to fool
But all those people listen so what are we gonna do?

We don’t surely know
where this is gonna go
when you’re gone
we won’t be missing you

I got my own news station playing inside my head
it’s got static and its tragic, to hear what it is you said
the world’s gone crazy and all you wanna know instead
is if the hotel’s standing and the money flowing again

We don’t comprehend
how this is gonna end
when you’re gone
we won’t be missing you
(bandcamp link)

Peace (shouting it),

Music Monday: Whispers in the Flames

The last few days, I’ve been working on finishing up a song that has a little more rhythmic kick than the last few songs I have worked on. I wanted a bit of rock and roll in the mix. This one rocks more in headphones, I think, as there are some instrumental nuances to the sound.

The lyrics are reworked from a song draft I had done previously, and the music was a mix of live instruments and Garageband loops. I think the Hammond organ parts really give the song some personality.

Peace (in whispers),