By Jamie O’Connor
When I was asked to write about a subject so oblique and utterly ambiguous as “song-writing” I’ll admit, I got a little excited. No doubt the ensuing blather will illustrate to what degree, arising from the fact that I love writing songs. There, I said it, I love writing songs. I don’t presume that each and every one of my songs is a work of genius, I have written more bad songs than I’d care to tell you about, and definitely more than you’d care to hear.
First thing about song-writing: you are going to write bad songs and you are going to play them over and over for your friends and they are going to smile awkwardly and say “awesome!” and give you a big ”thumbs up”, which is odd because they don’t rely on the thumbs up signal for any other situation wherein they communicate. Hmmmmmm.
That’s okay! Song-writing is one of the purest, most powerful forms of expression. But let’s be honest, you heard some winners on the drive today, songs that just blew right? But wait…they were on the radio so that means they’re good right? Nope, they blew…except that one song by so and so, and that other song by you know…and so on.
In no other situation are bad examples of something heralded so loudly as songs. I would name examples, one’s playing in your head right now and you’re smiling, but man is that song dumb!
But that’s what makes songwriting so great, so open-ended. And yet, in spite of all this open endedness, we strive to zero in on the few particulars that might make a song great, or better still, a great song. It’s one of those beautifully uncertified trades that, in order to become a “songwriter” one must simply write a song…just don’t be ashamed if it sucks, write a better one!
Second thing: You have to have a good sense of humor about yourself, and don’t be too attached to your songs. You definitely won’t do well if you’re thin-skinned, yet all the while vulnerable and transparent. Oh, now it sounds easy right?
Personally, I get a good laugh when one of my long-time friends, or better yet family members, summons the courage to tell me how awful my older material was, now that I’m doing something new. The best fun is had when you pretend to be crushed and proceed to exploit the situation for gratuitous compliments and unsolicited gifts.
Old songs are like old clothes, you wear them out, they don’t fit so well, some you keep in a chest at the foot of the bed, and take them out once in a while to dust them off and recall those divine moments when you tried to play guitar in a swinging, windmill fashion and bloodied your own nose onstage in front of a live audience of 4, including the barkeep…classic!
Unfortunately it’s never wise to become too attached to a song simply because if it’s good, they’ll ask you to play it, over and over and then you won’t like it anymore and then it’ll come on VH1′s crappy countdown of the 90′s and you’ll drink yourself silly, go on a drunken tirade throughout your town of residence and get arrested and incarcerated for peeing on a flower you thought resembled a urinal in the shape of a Jawa, from Star-Wars, further stunting whatever emotional growth you were striving for in writing said song in the first place, and henceforth giving you pause around people less than 4 feet in stature.
And yes, I totally did just use the word henceforth with no good reason.
A songwriter will always write more songs, that’s what they do because when you write a song that you, yourself, love, it’s fantastic! When everyone else wants a copy…now that’s a great feeling. Not because “they like you, they really like you” but because whatever configuration of words, notes and sounds you presented them with, you touched them somehow and that’s what makes a great song into a song that is great, and that’s an immeasurably powerful thing.
I won’t elate you now with my theories on music’s ability to deliver information to the human body in a way that we haven’t even begun to comprehend, let’s simply say that I’ve considered the subject at length and have observed some pretty amazing things “in the laboratory”, and when I say “In The Laboratory”, I mean in bars, venues, stadiums, theaters and churches, not to mention humbler places like kitchens and living rooms and stoops all across this fine country.
Why are songs so immeasurably powerful you say? Because of the third thing: Sincerity. Always try to be sincere about whatever it is you’re being sincere about, even if it’s insincerity?
That means put real stuff into your songs, real experiences that you know, that you have lived and breathed to be sincere, and make shit up to be insincere, but most important, know the difference between the two and don’t confuse them. Don’t deliver one as the other, people will hear it and, while I do not believe there is a formula in this, rather more of an algorithm, even the algorithm has parameters within which it performs it’s intricate relationships.
Think of the songs dearest to your heart, I’m willing to bet they’re all musings of sincerity in one way or another. The common thread that draws people to good material is the human experience. The interesting part is that your conveyance of a particular sentiment may elicit an entirely different, yet equally powerful, emotion from your audience.
I have come to a conclusion that, in order to pontificate upon the details that make a song great or make a great song, however you like to put it, I would probably do well to deconstruct a song in order to better show it’s moving parts, or at least skin it a little. And, rather than turn this blog posting into a debate forum regarding the sanctity of “Stairway to Free-Bird”, I am instead going to dissect one of my own compositions, ruthlessly and objectively, not only to illustrate the necessity to be able to do so, but also to shamelessly plug my upcoming album, because if I’m going to beat myself up as a writer, I may as well get some cheap publicity out of the deal.