LeAnn Rhymes, but I’m not sure what with

Can it be that it was all so simple then?

Rhyming used to seem like such a simple business. You wrote your line, looked for a word that rhymed perfectly with the last word of the line, came up with a line that ended with that word and hey presto – a rhyming couplet. Here’s one – “I think that you’ve been very brave, I’ll take your secret to the grave.” Previously I would have been less happy with an imperfect rhyme, like; “I think that you’ve been very brave, They’ll live to see much better days.” This isn’t far off as rhymes go but until recently I would be thinking that I could get a closer rhyme and that closer equalled better.

Books that helped

I’ve been reading about rhyming and to my surprise (after all these years) I find that rhymes can be used in sophisticated ways to enhance our songs. The best books on this that I have come across so far are “Writing Better Lyrics” by Pat Pattison and “Popular Lyric Writing” by Andrea Stolpe. There is another one by Pat Pattison called “Songwriting: Essential Guide to Rhyming” that I’m going to check out shortly.

Great song – shame about the rhymes

I have looked at printed lyrics for a lot of successful songs and often thought that the rhymes weren’t very good. It seemed that the lyricists hadn’t tried very hard to find better ones, but now it seems that this was intentional. Perfect rhymes can sound amateurish (that’s me) and provide unwanted closure to the lines that rhyme. Imperfect rhymes can be used to enhance the feeling behind the lyrics by keeping the momentum of the lyric going and not making the lines sound settled, stable and final.

LeAnn’s here

Going back to LeAnn in the title, how about the lines, “I know a girl, she’s called LeAnn, She drove me home in her yellow van”? The perfect rhyme here makes it sound like that’s the end of the story. Using an imperfect rhyme; ” I know a girl, she’s called LeAnn, She drove me home in her yellow car”, takes away the closure and makes it sound like it isn’t finished at all. The listener wants to know what happens next and that’s the feeling we want to create here.

Moody one, ain’tcha?

In addition, imperfect rhymes can reflect the state of mind of characters in the songs. For example, if your wife has just left you and you’re confused, drinking too much and having trouble sleeping then you probably wouldn’t be expressing your feelings in perfectly rhymed couplets. Imperfect rhymes can also be used to show that what the character is saying is not how they are feeling by introducing a kind of dissonance and feeling of unease in the listener, despite the apparently upbeat words being sung.

Sing it back

These new ideas (new to me, anyway) are really inspiring. I’m going back over my own lyrics and working on lines that have always made me cringe. I can see now that the reason I felt so uncomfortable about these lines was that they employed perfect rhymes, and that the rhyme had lead to the line rather than the other way round. I also realise that just reading the lyrics while working on them isn’t enough. The lines can look okay in terms of rhyme, but when sung, well that’s when the cringing starts. Singing them for other people can be useful too. I remember singing a song I had written where I had rhymed “me” with “tea” (I’ll spare you the rest) and everyone burst out laughing. “Imbiciles”, I thought – that rhymes perfectly. Well, those rhymes and the terrible lines they inspired have been changed now, and so have many others.

Songwriters, we have the technology

It’s never been easier to make a demo, but…

There’s no doubt that the technology available to songwriters these days makes it easier than ever to make good quality demos of our songs. The technology ranges from free open source applications like Audacity to expensive digital audio workstations (DAWs) like Cubase, Logic and Ableton Live. I’ve been using a second hand version of Cubase (SX2) that I bought on eBay for a few years now and it’s great. Recently it seems everyone has been talking about Ableton Live so I bought a cut-down version called Ableton Live Intro to try it out. Both of these programs enable you to use software synthesisers, drum machines and other instruments to produce professional-sounding recordings of your songs.

And your problem is?

The ability to produce demos that sound like they have been made in a studio by professionals seems to be increasingly important these days. The writer of a song that was number one in four countries and made the top five in several others told me that he takes demos to publishers and producers and is told that they are “not very sonically interesting”. This amazed me; I was sure that someone like him wouldn’t be facing issues like this after all the success he’s had, so what about the rest of us? The availabililty of audio software will help us with this won’t it? Yes it will, but I think it brings some problems too.

Writer, producer, artist? Whatever

We have to be clear what we are trying to achieve with recordings of our songs. The successful songwriter I mentioned above was writing good songs but the publishers and producers wanted to hear the finished article so they didn’t have to use their imaginations (at all). As less successful songwriters (so far anyway) we have to be careful that we write excellent songs that sound good with just a guitar or piano accompaniment and that we don’t try to repair a poor song with layers and layers of electronically produced sounds to try and make it more interesting. I think the expression is, “you can’t fix it in the mix”. We need to be clear about why we are recording the song – is it as a demo or as a final version for release. Are we writers, producers or artists? If all three, great. If not, then what?

Stripped back

Have you ever noticed how songs that were hits sound great when they are sung with just an acoustic guitar or piano, even if the hit version was highly produced? YouTube is full of videos of people singing hits from all genres with just their guitars and pianos, and I don’t see many bad ones. This is what we should be aiming for; songs that sound great with just a basic backing.

Wasting time or developing new skills?

The other big problem I have is messing around for hours with production technology (because it’s easy to mess around) instead of rewriting music and lyrics to make the songs as good as they can regardless of the production. The other danger is thinking that if you just had a certain piece of equipment, hardware or software, everything would be alright (I thought this when I bought Ableton Live – Cubase worked just fine). I can’t help thinking that the smart thing would be to focus on the writing, and of course rewriting, because that’s how success will come. Having said this though, at the same meeting where the hit songwriter I mentioned above talked about his sonically dull demos, an aspiring songwriter was told that just writing songs isn’t enough these days. He was advised to learn how to produce the songs he writes so that he could present a more complete package to interested parties. Doh!

Get your head in the songwriting game

Every sales book I ever read started the same way

I got my first job in sales many years ago. I didn’t know anything about selling and I thought I should, so I bought a book on the subject. In the many years since then I have had many jobs that involved selling (including the songwriting job, of course) and I have bought many more sales books to try to improve my selling skills. Here’s the thing; every single one of those books started with one or more chapters on motivation, organisation, goal setting or similar. When I started off, this drove me mad. “Just tell me how to sell things to people”, I thought. Tell me what to say, give me a step by step process to sell things and I’ll be fine. But I just didn’t understand.

Getting yourself to do it is the hard bit

The thing I didn’t understand was that what you say and the steps you follow is the easy bit. The hard bit is getting yourself to do it. Cold calling people who never return your calls, or who say, “I’m not interested”, and put the phone down. The person who told me, “if you were standing in front of me now I’d knock your f*****g head off”. That’s the hard bit. Ending each day with a feeling of defeat, feeling like a loser and yet trying to assure yourself that tomorrow will be different. That’s hard, and that’s why sales books always start with one or more sections on getting yourself to do it.

They won’t hit me, will they?

Is songwriting any different? Further down the line I’ll be sending songs to artists, producers and publishers and while they might not threaten to knock my head off, I am expecting a lot of rejection. We need some techniques to help us with this. So a lot of the skills the sales books attempt to teach us will come in very handy for us as songwriters. I should just say here that most people I met were very nice when they turned me down. Very few people threatened violence.

Not just outside but inside too

It’s not always the other person, whether on the end of the phone or face to face, that makes us feel rejected and unworthy. We all have an inner critic who can cut us down just as much, if not more. In fact, I’ve heard it said that even when the negativitiy originates outside us it’s our inner critic that reinforces it and this is what actually causes us problems. So we need to watch our inner critic and silence him or her before they sabotage our work.

Silence those critical voices

There are many techniques that can help us do this. From NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), for example, we can learn how to reduce the power the inner critic has over us. For example, we can listen to the voice and see where it comes from in our heads and note the quality of the voice (how it sounds, does it remind us of anyone, etc) without letting it affect us. Then make it sound ridiculous – high pitched, drawly or whatever, so that we don’t respect what it is saying anymore. Then we won’t let the voice tell us that our songs are no good, that no-one will be interested in them, that we might as well give up or whatever.

Take a picture of this

We need to actively cultivate another voice that tells us our songs are great. Imagine successful artists hearing your songs and begging you to let them record them. And when they do? That should shut your inner critic up for a while! So it’s time to get your head in the songwriting game. Beginning writers often think of it as an arty pursuit that is above all that grubby hustling; but it’s not. Remember, it’s the music business.

You don’t have to hit a home run every time – just show up

What? A song about baseball?

I don’t know very much about baseball, but I often hear baseball metaphors and I quite like them. One of my favourite pieces of baseball-related advice is that you don’t have to hit a home run every time. I’ve even heard a related one about not swinging at every ball (or did I make that one up?).

Not trying to hit a home run every time may sound like you lack ambition but maybe it could be put more accurately as “don’t think you have to hit a home run every time”. That sounds better – we now have permission to write songs and not demand they all have the makings of number one smash hits.

Permission to do it

Why is this important? Because if we start each song thinking that it has to be brilliant we are going to put a lot of pressure on ourselves. As soon as it becomes apparent that this may not be our “My Way” we might abandon it if we have this mindset. Having permission (from ourselves, of course) to write as many songs as we are able and to expect some of them not to be very good means that we get a lot of practise, and not only does that make perfect but it is also how you get to Carnegie Hall, apparently.

You have to show up

So here’s the key as it appears to me. Write, write, write all kinds of songs and don’t be discouraged if they aren’t brilliant. Develop the skill and craft to finish each song – beginning, middle, end, verses, chorus, bridge and all. When Diane Warren started off she used to write three songs a day on average and she says, “they all sucked”. Diane says that “showing up” is the secret to success and she seems to be pretty successful. If you just dream and don’t show up nothing is going to happen. It’s showtime now – so get on with it.

Writing songs – well begun is half done

The quote I actually had in mind was, “a task begun is half done”, but I was searching for it on the internet to make sure it was right and, “well begun is half done”, is all that kept coming up. Well lah-di-dah!

What I wanted to write about was the importance of making a start. Sitting down with a pen or pencil and actually getting something down on a bit of paper (or on a computer). Actually making a start and doing this often means that the rest of the process can often be pretty easy(ish).

For example, I once attended a songwriting class and the teacher told us to look around the room and write down the objects we saw as potential subjects or inspiration for songs. I’d read about this plenty of times before, but had I ever done it? No. I’ve no idea why not, but maybe it seemed obvious and I wanted to get on with the book I read it in and promised myself I would do it later. This time though, I saw a clock on the wall, was sad that the class was almost over, and came up with a killer title and refrain for a song. I quickly wrote it down.

Then what? Nothing for ages. I carried this line around in my head, singing it to myself, delighted with my brilliance. But where was the rest of the song to go with it?

Then one night I got some paper and a pen and sat down. Within twenty minutes verses and a bridge poured out and onto the page. Not brilliant verses and a bridge, I’ll admit, but I had something down on paper. A task begun is half done. I say half done because it’s the rewriting process that will turn this rough and ready song with awkward lyrics and amateur rhymes into something that may turn out to be pretty good.

Then what? Nothing for ages. Incredibly (this was quite a while ago now) I haven’t sat down again to work on the song and try to finish it off. I’ve no doubt that the reason the first draft of the song “poured out” so quickly is that my unconscious mind had been working on it without my knowledge. This time that probably won’t be the case because I can’t remember the lyrics that I wrote that night.

So here’s the plan. Dig out the lyrics for that song and finish it off. It really was a killer title and refrain, and the finished song should be great. Country charts look out! Sounds simple doesn’t it? This song isn’t alone – it has plenty of company from all the other first drafts that for some reason I never get around to working on to finish off. It’s now or never.

A great big brassy tart of a chorus

Many years ago on “Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out”, Vic explained to Bob how to achieve a finale for their show that would have maximum impact. “A great big brassy tart of an ending” is how he described it, and as a metaphor this is a real winner.

Verses relaxing

I’ve been listening to a lot of hit songs lately and reading through the lyrics at the same time to get an idea of the kinds of thing that make these songs hits. It’s often been said that you shouldn’t let the verses sit idly by and wait for the chorus to come around and rescue the song, but that is what seems to be happening in a lot of these songs.

Empty orchestra

I’ve seen people doing karaoke and they seem to mutter the verses and then really go for it on the chorus, rescuing their performance in the process. I’d assumed that the reason they muttered the verses was that they didn’t really know the song very well and the chorus was the only bit they were comfortable with, but maybe that’s not it. Maybe the verses were a bit lame and that’s the best that could be done with them.

In and out of the shade

Careful listening to the hit version of the songs seems to support this. These songs often dissolve into background noise during the verses and then grab your attention again with the chorus. I think that’s why it’s difficult to determing the structure of some of these songs without concentrating on it – you go to sleep on the verses and wake up on the chorus. Repeating the chorus at the end makes you think you were awake all along, when maybe your weren’t.

Carry that weight

Where did this get us? To be a hit your song (usually) needs a great big brassy tart of a chorus. If the rest of the song is great that that’s a bonus, but for a lot of hit songs, despite what we’re told, a (great) big chorus is carrying the passengers most of the way.

It’s hard to get into the songwriting habit

Like a lot of things that we need to do regularly, the activities required for successful songwriting need to be established as a regular habit. With most habitual things, e.g. smoking, drinking, exercise etc, we need to start doing them regularly and then the habit forms, compulsion of some sort takes over and we don’t look back. But being disciplined enough to start is pretty difficult. The people around us, I think psychologists call this our reference group, have a large part to play in this too. If they are smokers, drinkers or exercisers it is easier for us to get going. If not, it’s not so easy.

How do you get there from here?

Another thing is whether you have been successful at it already or not. If you are Diane Warren or Eg White then when people (your reference group, remember?) ask you what you are doing, you say, “writing a song”, and they leave you alone. When I tell them I am writing a song I get strange looks, the validity of the activity is questioned and the whole thing is dismissed and disapproved of.

Mind the gaps

So what’s the answer? Having a string of smash hit songs would help. But prior to that how do we get some time to write? The answer at the moment seems to be utilising all the ten, five, or even two, minute periods that crop up through the day. The luxury of a couple of hours to sit down and write seems unlikely. This requires some discipline to use the time effectively. I am trying to train myself to spot these short periods of time as they come up and to use them effectively to things things up, write things down or just hum a little. I am watching for those gaps in the day as they appear.