Hook, Keith Urban, Performing Songwriter, songwriter, songwriting

Hooks & Spare Parts

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Spare Parts
In the December 2006 issue of Performing Songwriter, Keith Urban is quoted as saying:

“Sometimes a song will be great for spare parts. You have to be willing to give up a few songs to get that one great song sometimes. For me, I hope it’s always about quality and not quantity”.

This quote applies directly to my ongoing songwriting process. About two years ago, I sat down with a bunch of old tapes and got 100+ song ideas down to less than 10 finished songs. On the one hand, I was disappointed at the low number of actual songs. On the other hand, all these new “composite” songs are stronger with multiple hooks.

3 Hooks Theory
Since that time, I try to fit about 3 hooks in every song, usually one for each important song section: verse, chorus and bridge. More than that and the song become unfocused, like some kind of progressive rock song. Less than that and I have the feeling that the song is not as good as it could be.

I view each hook as an independent song idea with the potential of forming a complete song. Then, once in a while, I go through all my available song ideas and try to see if they could be combined into complete songs. Most time it doesn’t work, but when it does it’s really cool. Also, I find it easier to finish a song that already has 2 solid hooks.

Instrumentals
One thing I noticed however is that instrumental spare parts have very limited usefulness. For me, they are generally the result of my guitar or piano noodlings and are hard to fit in any song. I try using them as intros, but they are often too long for that. I also tried using them as bridges, but I much rather have a singing bridge than a solo or instrumental break.

One Big Puzzle
Songwriting is like multi-dimensional puzzles where you have to fit melodies and chords with lyrics that are emotional yet make sense. Sometime, you can find that you already have the missing pieces lying around somewhere. Other times, you have to design a custom piece to finish the puzzle.

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Dianne Warren, Jason Blume, John Braheny, songwriter, songwriting

1987 Dianne Warren Interview

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Check out this awesome John Braheny interview with Dianne Warren. This interview is especially interesting because at the time, Warren had just experienced her first few hits after years of persistence. She started receiving song critiques at 15 in 1971. Do the math: that’s over 15 years spent honing her skills. Read this if you feel disappointed that you’re still “not there yet” after one year with Taxi. By the way, she is a very shy person who does her own song pitching and publishing. We have no excuse! I remember reading in Jason Blume’s book that he had a similar learning period.

Another very interesting fact is that she started on guitar before switching to keyboards. Personally, my own songwriting improved ten-fold once I switched to keyboards. It’s just a better instrument for writing and arranging songs. I can always go back to the guitar for actual recording, but for initial arrangement, nothing beats a keyboard.

Lastly, both Dianne Warren and Jason Blume are musically self-taught, which I find quite interesting. I mean, in all their years songwriting, they have not managed to learn to read or write music notation? Instead they focused on learning how to turn the ideas in their heads into finished songs. Very wise

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Avril Lavigne, canada, Chantal Kreviazuk, credit, Kelly Clarkson, Paul Anka, songwriter, songwriting

Credit Hunters

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As a struggling songwriter, there’s a lot of things to navigate before you can get a successful “cut”. One of them are what I call “credit hunters”. For a long time now, singers of all genres have tried to get songwriter credits as their “fee” for covering certain songs. As we all know, even adding one phrase to a song provides songwriting credit.

Most of the time, this is done for monetary gain but it’s also a way for some to gain “credentials”. This confirms that the songwriter’s badge is one of the most sought after form of recognition in the music business. After all, it’s all about the song isn’t it?

Kreviazuk & Lavigne
In the June 2007 issue of Performing Songwriter, Canadian songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk expressed her astonishment that Avril Lavigne was calling herself a songwriter, since she usually gets songs from other people and adds herself as co-writer. Kreviazuk later had to retract her comments for fear of upsetting a powerful artist (and scaring off many potential clients). Lavigne would love to be respected as a songwriter but people just won’t let her do that. Poor Avril.

Clarkson & Davis
We all want recognition. American Idol success story Kelly Clarkson has experienced some frustrations trying to get some songwriting credits herself. She explains it as sexism, but I don’t really buy this considering the high percentage of sought-after female songwriters. A hit is a hit and usually, executives will use any song that can bring them more federally approved paper currency. It’s more likely that she has problems convincing Clive Davis, her famous producer. She’s the real deal, but she’s understandably upset that she cannot use more of her own song on albums that bare her name.

Presley & Parton
As a struggling songwriter, it takes a lot of courage and self-confidence to say “no” to a well-known pop star. Yet, this is exactly what Dolly Parton did when Elvis Presley asked to be named as co-writer of “I will Always Love You” in exchange of covering the song in the late 60’s. She stuck to her guns and the song became a hit for herself and others, including the now famous Whitney Houston cover. No means no Elvis!

Anka & Carson
Then, there are songwriters who openly offer songwriting credits to incite the use of their songs. The best example is Paul Anka’s “Johnny’s Theme” song for the Johnny Carson show. Carson was actually going to choose another theme, when Anka approached him with the idea of splitting the song’s publishing. Both men collected millions of dollars on the arrangement.

Just Say “Maybe”
I can’t possibly advise you say “no” to credit hunters, because they can really make a big difference in a song earning potential. The trick is to not give credits to anyone who has done nothing to make a song happen.

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Brill building, George Stroumboulopoulos, Neil Sedaka, songwriter, songwriting

Neil Sedaka – 50 years of Songwriting

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The legendary Neil Sedaka was recently interviewed on George Stroumboulopoulos’s late night show on the CBC. Neil is one of the top songwriter of all times and had a few bits of advice for budding songwriters.

On the legendary Brill building work environment:

  • Every songwriter had a little cubicle with a piano and no window.
  • If you wrote a hit, you were promoted to an office with a window.
  • ”We were New York teenagers writing for the teenager market.”

On the essence of a great song:

  • The marriage of words and music.
  • The sentiment appealing to people. They’d say “Oh, that’s my story”.
  • The fact that you can ear it over and over, never getting tired of it.
  • Be inspired by great writers.

George Stroumboulopoulos is probably one of the best entertainment interviewer around. He is always prepared and knows his music history. This is very rare indeed.

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demo, Michael Laskow, songwriter, songwriting, TAXI

TAXI’s Michael Laskow on Demo Quality

Short yet to the point video of TAXI’s Michael Laskow about the quality of demos. Basically the message is that a badly produced great song is better than a great-sounding average one. Duh!

The only thing he does not mention is that these days, the quality of demos keeps going up all the time. Sure, some people can ear a song regardless of production, but most can’t. Even when I’m playing a song to fellow songwriters, I’m always surprised at how much they want to be impressed with the production. Everybody wants to ear a record.

Be safe: make the production as good as possible. No one will turn down your song for being too well recorded.

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Butch Vig, Garbage, mixing, Nirvana, songwriting

Butch Vig On Recording “Teen Spirit”

This is a short video of Butch Vig (Siamese Dreams, Nervemind, Garbage, etc.) commenting on the recording of “Smells like teen spirit”. It’s always fun to see how much double tracking was used to get that “in your face” wall of sound.

The thing with Butch is that he’s a drummer himself, so he always manages to get the best drum sounds ever. I’m not worthy!

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marketing, scam, songwriter, songwriting

Don’t Be a Scam Magnet

Scam Artist

Songwriters are a skeptical bunch. No wonder since, like other showbiz hopefuls, we are easy prays for snake oil salesman wanting to part us with our money in exchange for that “big break”.

The Scams
Let’s see if I can list the most common scams in the biz…

  • Compilation CDs that will be passed to “important” people — This one is the oldest one in the book. As a business owner I also get called on a regular basis to buy placement in business directories. When I ask for a copy of last years “success stories”, they are often “out of stock”. Same scam, different name.
  • Recording/Demo studio connected with record companies — Classic: If only I had a dollar every time someone claimed to know the CEO of a big record company…If that’s not enough, they’ll boost your ego a bit: “Yeah, these top session players are really busy, but they like your music so much, they’re willing to play on your demo”.
  • Song critique services – This one is really hard to spot, because many reputable people offer this useful service. Generally, I would prefer to get a critique from someone whose work I already admire instead of an anonymous one.
  • Songwriting Contests – Have you ever heard of a successful songwriter who have had his big break from winning a contest? Me neither. Case closed. It doesn’t mean that they are illegitimate. It’s just that I wonder about the quality of the exposure. Something really strange is going on these days: more and more professional songwriters are entering contests as an additional way to market their songs. So, the idea of a total amateur winning a national songwriting contest is diminishing every year.
  • Open Mike Nights – Basically, organized pay for play. Actually, I like the idea of a place where you pay to learn your craft. Stage presence is hard to build with a mirror and a broom alone. Busking is also a great way to learn your craft, but you don’t get to learn to operate a PA, play with a live band and wrestle club manager for your cut of the night’s profits.

No One Is Looking For Talent
The fact of the matter is that industry “insiders” and “deciders” already have more supply than what they could possibly have time to listen to. Imagine receiving all kind of junk mail in your postal box. Would you then go out to a place looking for more more junk mail to read? Obviously not.

What they are looking for are success stories: people who could make it with or without them. I know it’s hard, but they are just like banks: they only help those who don’t need the money.

Make Your Plan
It’s preferable to sit down and make a little career plan with short (less than 3 months) milestones. Another thing I find useful is to define a “plan B” for each milestone in case things don’t go 100% (nothing ever goes 100%). In the end the only person who can actually discover your talent and give you that “big break” is…yourself.

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