- Andrei Tarkovsky
No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence or whose attitude is patronizing.
- E. B. White
I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done.
- Stephen Wright
There are at least two ways of approaching a creative endeavor. The first is to look around you to see what everyone else is doing and try to take a little bit from here or there in order to conform to the general tone of things. The second is to shut all of that off and go within to find your own voice and muse, and only emerge from the cave when the job is finished.
If you've been confused by too much critical advice, it's probably because you've approached your work using the first method. Almost everyone in the industry can spot this type of song. It has all of the flair and style of the Emperor's New Clothes. It sounds like the radio alright, but it sounds more like the radio's echo.
As hard as it is to understand, you will not be successful until you digest all of the elements of commercial music until they are in your very fibre and blood, in your cells, and then ignore every bit of conventional wisdom you hear and write from who you are. Your contribution will be unlike everyone else's and yet it will find a symbiotic place in the ecosystem of commercial music. It will fill a niche no one knew existed until you came along. This is exactly how it is.
Whenever I encounter a writer trying too hard to "be commercial" I tell him/her that the worst kind of song is the song that's clearly written for the money. A song can earn tons of it and still be a very original piece of work. But if you write for the money you are playing it too safe to succeed. What do "Wooly Bully" and "City Of New Orleans" have in common? Both are hit songs, both are nothing you could have ever imagined writing yourself, and neither one was written for the money.
Focus on your craft and learn everything you can about songs and songwriting. Become a better musician, and a better singer if possible. Study the writers who have forged their own path, but don't imitate them. Learn from them how to be you. Songwriting is like a personal instinct-- mannerisms, quirky expressions and gestures. No two people express themselves in quite the same way. If you are having a dialog, do you imitate the other person's accent? Do you say the same words, make the same gestures, lean the same way? Do you answer predictably? Do you repeat everything you heard yesterday or do you think for yourself? Songwriting is no different. We learn the language, we learn the musical scale, we learn what chords work best, we learn what's legal and what isn't. But nearly everything else is a reflection of the individual.
If you've got the page numbers done, don't think the rest is just a matter of filling up the blank spaces on the paper with readable sentences. Give us some reason to turn the page. You'll find that reason in your head, heart and soul, not in someone else's.
copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt