How do the world’s great songwriters write songs?
I can’t remember where I first read about Paul Zollo’s book, Songwriters on Songwriting, but wherever it was, I was instantly intrigued and downloaded it to my Kindle. I started reading. The book is a simple collection of richly complex interviews with the likes of Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty, Madonna and many, many other songwriters, a lot of whom I’d never heard of. I thought the book would be a quick read, but after several weeks of near daily reading, I was still at it, with many more interviews to go. Chalk it up to a quirk of the Kindle: you truly cannot judge a Kindle book by its cover or by its size, as these are not at all immediately apparent. (I suppose you could look at the page count, but that didn’t occur to me!) Anyway, deep into the book, I decided I had to have the hard copy, so I could flip back through to the most interesting bits easily, a hard task on a Kindle. When my paperback edition arrived, I was stunned at its bulk. This is a BIG BOOK. But its big size is dwarfed by its massive content. Never before have I felt so informed by a book on songwriting. Never.
So, what’s the answer? How do the world’s greatest songwriters do it? As with so many of life’s finest pursuits, there is no set path. But there are commonalities among the various ways to go. And here they are (obviously, this list is not definitive, merely my takeaway from Zollo’s peerless interviews).
1) Be receptive. All this notion means is to keep your antenna up, so when those song ideas float by or bubble up from within, you capture them.
2) Be disciplined. Songwriting is art, to be sure, but it is also craft, and you get better at it the more you do it. Some folks in Zollo’s book write every day for several hours, others work more sporadically, but all of the work a LOT.
3) Be fearless. Sounds corny, I know, but all this idea means is to TRY stuff. Got a weird lyric that somehow feels like a real direction? Go for it. Got a chord that defies music theory but sounds good to you, go for it. Got a melody or a rhythm that feels strange, but right. Go for it. You have nothing to loose and everything to gain.
4) Be respectful of the greats. Sure, you want to march to your own beat, but don’t ignore those who have gone before you. After all, how will you know whether you’re onto something new if you have no clue about the old?
5) Be relentless. Many songwriters in the book talk of songs that took them YEARS to write, so if a song is proving to be a tough nut to crack, but you think it’s worth cracking, keep at it.
6) Be selfish. All I mean by this observation is put yourself before others as you work. Because if you’re not happy with your output, does it really matter if others are?