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Blue Collar's Songwriting By Osmosis!
By Mick Polich - 11/24/2008 - 08:56 AM EST

So…’ve got some songs you want to write? Well, friends and neighbors, the line forms right here. This form of freedom of artistic expression is as old as the hills, yet did we have the proper outlets for your material in our society today?

O.k., I know, I know – YouTube, My Space, websites, media shows on t.v. and the web, podcasts, and columns such as the one that you’re currently reading. But does it all add up to what you WANT to do (that is, sing your song, brothers and sisters)?

Sing your song – WHO are you singing to? WHERE are you singing?

As of lately, quite frankly, I’ve been on a ‘lo-fi’ movement for getting my songs down, and out to an audience. I get amazed as anyone else with modern communications – it’s all about audio/visual, folks, and how we place the combo in our world (which is mostly thru digital communications). But, as fascinating as it all is, I’m “Idoled” and quite possibly, “Tubed” out for the moment, so I’m trying an organic blend of electronics and old-school D.Y.I. in everything I do towards the music, and the music business. Last installment, I talked about trying to find your audience. Now, let’s talk about trying to find your SONG! 

My CD, and computer music collections, I feel, are diverse, as I’ve stated before – you want indigenous music from Burma? Got it. New - school, indie rock from the Lone Star State? Yep. I find the music blends comfortable and refreshing – I mean, I’ve been thinking and collecting music this way for years, and really, it’s fairly commonplace today.

When it comes to songwriting, where do you start? I’ve have recordings, CD’s of everything from electronica to roots-rock, kid’s songs to jazz – I pull from every genre. But this melting pot is the fun of it for me – I’ve played a lot of different music with different people in my own backyards (and bars, and eateries, and coffee shops, and….), so I like to continue to explore the musical universe.  When it comes to my songwriting, I can pull from anywhere in the ol’ musical melting pot.

Let’s say we want to stick with singer/songwriter roots because that’s easily indentifiable. For my influences, I could go more modern like Bright Eyes (Connor Oberst) and Ani DeFranco, or old-school like Joni Mitchell. I could throw some alt-country spice in there from faves like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. As the old pros say, you don’t borrow ideas, you steal! It’s a bit of a sneaky       term,but what better sources to swipe from, huh?

My songwriting techniques and procedures have changed over 30 years – now, I don’t worry if the lyrics come first, or the music, or if the lyrics rhyme or not – it’s very much a  stream-of-consciousness method. First, get anything and all of it out of your system and down on paper or a recording source (this is where I would like to have one of those cool digital field recorders – perhaps someday, matey…..).

I used to carry one of those pocket notebooks around with me in the early days – pretty invaluable, especially on some of the early janitorial jobs that I had as a young man. I would scribble lyrics to make it thru the day of cleaning and trash hauling –steal some moments away from the tedium of the job (I was en route to being a Serious Songwriter of the Serious Songwriting Club – hey, I was nineteen, what the ghedus, bub?).

I still have those lyric notebooks – man, looking back, talk about self-absorption!

I was two years removed from high school, and as I’ve always told folks, it actually took me about five years to get OUT of high school, if you know what I mean. So, lyrically, my stuff was probably typical of a young man just barely hitting twenty years of age, and wondering what the hell to do with his life (rock and roll, of course, at that point).

I spent much of the 1980’s in between gigging, going to school, working in a music store, and the recording studio trying to write bad rock and metal songs. For a guy with a balding palate, hair metal music had encapsulated me! Ratt, Van Halen, Guns And Roses – big guitars, big hair, spandex, and clothing with colors not found in nature –YEAH! But, I had some other musical sides that were lurking about. Roots rock and roots music in general were making comebacks in the mid-1980’s, and in our gigging band at the end of that decade, Salmon Dave, we played that music in spades. I had to ride out the hard rock/metal thing for my own sensibilities, but I knew, give my proclivity for country, roots rock, and world beat stuff, my songwriting fortunes would take another turn towards those genres.

I have a tendency to not fully absorb music at the moment it happens – I process it down the line, then come to some realizations later on. Same with my own songs and compositions – I look back and think, huh, what was THAT?” on some of them, while other songs age well. I will say this: I haven’t had the urge to dust off some old tunes from 20, 25 years ago because I feel my songwriting is getting better. I don’t feel as if I’m at an apex yet, but I’m at the doorstep to the house of where I want to live for a bit with songwriting.

 The best piece of advice that I’ve heard on songwriting has come from one of the founders of the Fort Worth Songwriters Association, who said you need to write for yourself first, because, of course, any success elsewhere is never guaranteed. I agree – so many planets and stars have to align, Jupiter in the second house, dogs and cats, living together (er.. sorry, I went Bill Murray on ya…) – you get the picture.

Another route is to swipe ideas from your favorite writers. Thank de Lawd that sampling royalties have been getting worked out because one of the biggest summer hits of 2007 was from Kid Rock, and he mashed together two well-established rock chestnuts – “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Werewolves Of London” to do it with “All Summer Long”. And I like Kid/Bob Ritchie – he’s like AC/DC in that he’s a ‘wink-and-a-nod’ rocker – gets the joke, gets the fun of it (plus, being a Michigan dude is o.k. in my Midwest rock canon…), and has a good time with the whole process.

 On lyric writing: depending on the genre and the style, I find that song verses don’t need to rhyme. I find it’s a lot harder to make sense of trying to couple ideas that don’t rhyme than do rhyme (so do be a good do-bee, and scoobie doobie doo…). Say if you had a verse that went “ winds blew cold, whenever I saw her”. The Essential Songwriter’s Rhyming Dictionary gives 27 words that rhyme with ‘her’ (great little book, Alfred Publishing, by the way…). You could go that route, or you could try a non-rhyming line, such as  ‘there was no warmth in her touch’, which carries the cold-as-ice theme further. AND…… you could continue with the non-rhyming lines until the end of the verse, rhyming with ‘her’, and throwing a nice little twist into the mix.

Before I continue, a must-have for a bio and how-to book on songwriting is Jimmy Webb’s book – at one point in the mid to late 1960’s, Jimmy could have written about the phone book and copped a hit. “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “Mc Arthur Park”, and “ Wichita Lineman” were just some of the hits that got him acclaim (I tell ya, the “Glen Campbell Good Time Hour” t.v. show had it going on back in the day – great music and great musicians….). In his book, Jimmy approaches practical music theory and applies it to the art of songwriting, breaking down fine points on song construction, where others might say, ”I dunno, man, it just happens.” Another excellent read is Paul Zollo’s book of interviews called “Songwriting On Songwriting”. A TON of great interviews with Paul Simon, Tom Petty, Rickie Lee Jones, and a host of other greats – this is another must-have for the music library.

I think for now I’ll shut it off right here – it will probably take a few more columns on songwriting to hit the dusty trail to pull everything together. But really, isn’t it nice to be able to have access to the creative muse, and try to pull together a story thru words and music? For that gift alone, we should be thankful – stardom, maybe, a hit song, maybe – I don’t want to dose anyone’s dreams that are still in the kiln. But don’t forget about your gift – doesn’t matter if you’re spiritual or not, but the ability to put pen to paper and pour your soul onto a page and into a song is worth the farm. Just be thankful and humble for that, and keep on calling down the muse!

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