How Do You Write Songs?

I’ve been calling myself a songwriter since about 1991, when the Hynes Brothers (Chris and Sean) started whipping me into writing a song a day, and ever since Ron Hynes listened to one of my songs and said, “That’s pretty good, Chris. Now write another one.” So I guess you can say I started writing songs in an attempt to impress great writers. I liked the idea of being a songwriter. It gave me license to wear that greasy 3/4-length leather jacket – at least before Danier set up shop at the Village in the late ’90s and bestowed this style of jacket upon the general male population of Newfoundland, forcing songwriters back into jean jackets.

In the early ’90s, before cell phones, home computers, and 800-channel cable packages, all I did was write songs. I didn’t even own a television; I gigged and wrote. I did have a phone with an answering machine, which was the only way someone could contact me besides coming to knock on my apartment door. When the night settled in, I would light a few candles, have a smoke, and run the tape recorder as I rambled on over random chords and melody structures until something struck me as half-decent. I would then move to the pen and paper and start exploring lyrical rhymes and meters that would match the chords and melody. Over 90% of what I wrote during these times was complete shite and will never see the light of day. I do have it all poked away somewhere, but it represents the pile of rubble resulting from a excavation process that eventually yielded less ambiguously-shaped stones.

After about six straight years of doing this, I decided I had 11 half-decent songs that would probably make a good album. I recorded that album, Too Commercial, in 1997, and continued to write more songs until Andrew and I recorded Brothers in Stereo in 2003. This album proved easy to make because we only had to provide six each, and Andrew had a backlog by this point, stemming from years of his own digging.

I don’t write as much these days. I sometimes attribute this to kids, non-musical pursuits, and just mellowing out in general. I only write when in a defiant mood, and for most of my twenties that was me. So I often chalk it up to just settling in to a relatively happier existence and not needing that outlet all the time to temper my passions. But recent conversations with fellow musicians have me second-guessing my theories as to why I don’t write as much anymore.

As I write this note, my Blackberry’s little red beacon is flashing, beckoning me to check it. This indicator could mean a text message, an email, a FB notification, a BBM, a security update, a missed call, or a voice mail. This little red light is even preventing me from concentrating fully on this note. I have a rebellious attitude toward my phone; I will not allow myself to stop writing this note to check it. However, it is still distracting me. And that’s the problem. Much of a songwriter’s creative process happens while on the run: shopping, driving, dancing, walking, swimming, etc. During a songwriter’s day, he or she is constantly going over melodies and song structures in the mind, working out possible ideas and throwing around themes internally. If one is constantly bombarded by texts and emails, one tends to get distracted from the creative process. This is an almost unavoidable shame, really. How can we exist without some form of electronic communication? And now that all your friends expect to hear back from you right away, lest they feel slighted and ignored, you need to be on top of the communication or you will be shunned. Sad, isn’t it?

Back in 1992, in my basement apartment on Cornwall Avenue, I was 21 years old. I made just enough on gigs to make the rent, and had no luxuries at all. I even had to run the bath every time I washed because there was no shower stall. I slept on a single mattress that was elevated by a piece of wood. I mostly ate whatever I could find at the corner store: pasta with canned sauce, bologna, peanut butter, oven fries, hamburgers, etc. Even if there were the technology we have today, I could never have been able to afford it. I barely made my electricity and home phone.  I’m not sure how musicians do it these days. Maybe they all don’t have this stuff. But the ones I know do.

So this leads me to my new theory that songwriting has been seriously hampered by technology. How many aspiring songwriters are actually willing to give up their gadgets to focus on their craft? I’m not talking about putting them away for a few hours at a time and going back to them later to excitedly check all their new messages. This is still a distraction. I mean to give up messaging, FB, Twitter, video games, and movie channels pretty much altogether. I seriously don’t think most musicians want it bad enough to do that, which is probably why I haven’t met a young songwriter these days that blows me away. Where are they all? Twenty years ago, I could walk into any bar on George or Water and hear solid original songs from the Hynes Brothers, Ron Hynes, Barry Canning, Paul Lamb, Jeff Kelland, Wayne Hynes, Randy Hutchings, Liz Pickard, the Pantings, and on and on (I’m sure I’m missing many other obvious ones). I’m aware there’s a scene right now as well, but I hear a lot of wailing and not much song structure. And yes, I’m talking about those over-hyped bands of which no one’s allowed to speak ill. I don’t know about you, but if it ain’t got a chorus, it ain’t a song. Ideas aren’t songs.

So if anyone is looking for advice on songwriting, I would strongly suggest dropping those gadgets and gathering the courage to forgo unnecessary communication with others. They will get over it. And you will get creative. And I will try to heed my own advice and get back writing as well.

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