How Do You Write?
From the moment I picked up a guitar, I started writing songs.
I’m sure all song writers get asked the same question I get asked, “How do you write? Music first or lyrics and then music, or what? My answer is all of the above!
Inspiration comes in many ways and I am grateful for every one of them!
As I was learning chords, I figured out that if I put them together in the right way, they would match a melody line I had in my head. I would sing the melody and then fish around for the chord that would match each change.
Not much has changed in my writing approach since. I just got better at playing and learning different inversions that would enhance the melody even stronger. I had read somewhere that if a song sounds good when just singing to a guitar then it is a good song. You could do so much later with it by adding other instruments and production, but it still had to sound good in its most basic form. I have always believed that,
…but was I writing good songs?
The only test market I had in those days was my family and friends sitting in my living room. Of course they are going to like them or at least be kind enough to say they do. Would a total stranger like my songs though?
I will always remember something that David Parker told me years ago when we were with Amherst Records. David was the company lawyer and very involved in everything we did. He is a great guy and was a lot of help in those days. He told me that it was always going to be tough for me to be a song writer. He said, “It will be hard for you and sometimes for people close to you, to know if a song is good or not, because you are a great singer. Anything you sing is going to sound great, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great song.”
Hmmm… My process became, “Hey guys, I got a new song, want to try it?”
The only way to find out was to incorporate them into the bands I was playing with and see what happens in a live show. I would try them out with the band and if they could dig it, we would use it. They didn’t like them all which was great for the learning process.
Every songwriter has to figure out their strengths and go with it. Mine was when I started collaborating with other musicians. I found I could hear a melody over just about anything anyone played and would just go to town on words! After a while I preferred that to my own music writing.
Then my process became, “Hey who’s got some new music that I can play with?”
In the early days, very few songs that I recorded were self-composed. Most were in collaboration with some great guys. A strong melody was the thing I would concentrate on the most and lyrics became my passion. I could sit and write for hours. I have a million ideas of what I want to say but the tricky part is for the lyrics to mean something to everyone. All of my songs mean one thing to me but I will almost guarantee they will mean something else to someone else. I believe that is the way it is supposed to work.
My most talented, loving and incredible wife Cindy, …school teacher by day,… Rock star, Superhero by night, …once took the lyrics to my song “Dim” From my Red Heart – Bridge album, to her classroom and had each student write what they thought the author was saying. The responses were very enlightening! It was so cool to hear their interpretation. Some described the song as having such deep meaning and others interpreted it literally. I considered it mission accomplished!
Here is the song. What do you think?
Dim – Red Heart
My meaning? My whole life I have had “cluster headaches”. They are excruciating and debilitating at times but I deal the best I can. The song can be taken literally in that when I am in a cluster, I need to be in a dark room. Also, bright light is a trigger for a cluster so that is why I wear tinted glasses most of the time. …Yes, I do look totally cool in them …but that’s not the reason I wear them. “Everything looks better in dim light” was simply true. “fluorescent fire, crowding the room” is what I call those hated fluorescent lights that are everywhere. They really can burn my eyes at times.
I then expanded on that simple concept and used it as a metaphor for other things in life. Ignorance is bliss. It is sometimes best not to understand everything and let it go. . …If I smoked pot I would take a big hit off a joint now …but I don’t.
Sometimes, as I said earlier, it is just a melody in my head and I build the music and lyrics to it. I got in the habit of carrying a mini-recorder around with me. (Man, I’m old! I use my smart phone now.) When I am driving or doing anything that I couldn’t stop doing, I would just sing and record the melody and save it for later!
Other times I get some catchy lyrics floating around in my head and jot them down to later develop, or perhaps they will work to someone else’s music idea.
Other times still, I will just be jamming on my guitar and something falls together, chords or a riff that inspires me to work with that.
Then there is that rarest of all times when it just comes out, words, melody and music all at once. You’re messing around and it just gets feeling good to you! You can’t stop and the next thing you know it is a finished song! It is so gratifying! It makes up for all the times you spent agonizing over another piece of a song that just won’t fix.
How about some examples you say? O-tay!
Here is an example of a lyric idea that I had kicking around. Blayne Pierce, amazing keyboard player and songwriter, had some music he had written. It was early in the band “Cheater”. He laid it down, we all joined in and I started putting a melody over it using those lyrics. Brilliant lyrics? No. Timely? Yes!
Ten Cent Love Affair
Another one from Red Heart – Bridge album. I started playing this little riff and some chords on my guitar and it led me to hearing a melody and adding lyrics.
That rarest of times! When writing for my Jeff Cosco and Times Square album, this idea just came out, melody, lyrics and music. The songs you have heard so far are the result of much time and effort. This song I wrote in about an hour…
Rock This Town
Now this next attempt I suggest you do not try at home. That is unless you are working with a genius. When Jeff Tyzik and I got together to write the “Jeff Cosco and Times Square” album. It became apparent to me that I was in the presence of genius, not to mention one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Jeff is a GRAMMY Award winner and one of the most sought after conductor, arranger, and composers in the country. What an honor to work with him.
Remember I told you about my little recordings that I make when I’m driving or doing something that I can’t stop? I would just sing the little ditty in the recorder for later so that I wouldn’t forget it. Jeff saw me doing that one day and said, “Hey, give me that. Do you have other ideas on here also?”
I said that I did and gave it to him.
He actually spent a few days with those silly little ideas that were an average of about 15 seconds long and developed them into full blown music arrangements! I am amazed to this day at what he did. I don’t remember how many of those went on the album but here is one.
I have never written a national hit in the top 40, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. I can take comfort though in the fact that I have recorded 6 albums and my music sells all over the world. Thank you iTunes, CD Baby, Spotify, and all the other distributors!
I also get to hear wonderful things from people everywhere that enjoy my music. I am blessed.