Monday, January 26, 2009

The Radio's Echo

If you try to please audiences, uncritically accepting their tastes, it can only mean that you have no respect for them: that you simply want to collect their money.
- 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

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Rhyming Your Way Through It

I’ve learned something from almost every collaborator I’ve worked with. Sometimes I learned what not to do. But more often I learned something like this: the essence of a great lyric lies in the concept behind the line as much as in the words themselves.

Teaching yourself to think in concepts isn’t easy. We begin our little journey as songwriters toying with rhymes. We learn how to unbox ourselves by rhyming clever words, by staying away from moon, June, spoon or love, dove. But some of us never learn to chase a concept rather than a suitable line that ends with our pet rhyme word.

It takes a little practice. When you get hung up (fixated upon) a rhyme pair that seems to go nowhere, you’re thinking in terms of rhyme rather than a concept. I’ve watched writers spend weeks trying to rhyme two words with some meaning attached. I’ll get several versions of a couplet that keeps ending with the same two words, and keeps failing to say something significant. This is always clear evidence that the writer isn’t looking for a fresh concept. He’s rhyming his way through.

Thom Schuyler is the best concept lyricist I’ve ever written with. Here’s a brilliant verse from “Who Needs A Hummer”, an acerbically funny protest song from his brand new CD:

You can always go to Kosevo,
Damascus or Iraq
Just take that beast, point it east
And please don’t bring it back
It’s well equipped to make that trip
Hell, it’s fitted out for war
But it always will be overkill
For runnin’ to the liquor store

Clearly Schuyler had a complete concept when he started this verse. In spite of his challenging rhyme scheme: AABCCB, he has a solid destination in mind. He isn’t writing blindly, searching for rhyme words and lines that connect them. Without presuming too much, it’s easy to see that he had the punch line very early in the process of tackling this verse, and he thought backwards to the beginning. I suspect he spent some time juggling the imagery, but the concept dictated a clear direction: the ideal place for a Hummer, the military purpose of a Hummer, and the absurd use. And there’s the wonderful word “overkill”, which is a wink and a nod to his inner punster. The entire verse hangs on a clear statement, the purpose of which is to make us laugh at the absurdity of a war vehicle “runnin’ to the liquor store”.

Schuyler’s brand of humor is very much in the tradition of Will Rogers, Mark Twain and Woody Guthrie. But his source material is straight out of personal observation. He mentally records the images he sees in his daily life and files them away in his mind for future use.

The lesson is: observe, record, process, write. I think the average writer does it this way: stumble onto an idea, write, re-write, get a collaborator. Searching for concepts after you’ve plunged into the writing is dangerous. I’ve often had to tell a writer that his idea is a one-verse song. Spend more time observing, recording (mentally) and processing. Then the writing will come easier. You’ve heard the expression “the song practically wrote itself”. Here’s wishing you a slew of those.

copyright 2009 craig bickhardt


After 25 years in and around Nashville (I lived there for 23 of those years) I can share some of my experience with you. One thing is true: the music industry is a network that is made up of smaller networks, and people only want to do business with their friends. This was some of the earliest advice given to me in Nashville by my friend Don Schlitz. Almost everyone knows everyone else in some capacity.

Another piece of good advice I got early on was to keep my head in my papers and ignore the crap swirling around me. The work is what matters.

We need each other badly now. No matter how much or how little you have accomplished in terms of your goals, you are important to the grand scheme because our only strength is in numbers. There are powerful forces trying to tear down everything we've created. They want our copyrights to be unprotected and unregulated, they want our royalties sliced down to microscopic size. Networking is also about protecting our futures.

Talent and determination is not all you need for success. This is naive, let me assure you. You need talent, determination and tremendous help from a large group of friends and allies. No one gets anywhere by being a talented army of one. Here's the simple reason why: everyone in the industry wants to be part of something. You succeed by building up a group of friends who want to SEE you succeed. They have "stock" in you, they invest time and energy, sometimes money. They have a commitment to your rise to the top. It's part of the game, and they all enjoy playing it. They don't want to sit there and watch you do it alone, they want to participate.

Meetings, pitches, writer's nights, that's the easy stuff, so easy a child could do it. Every door in Nashville will open with a few determined knocks. Don't kid yourself into thinking you're getting somewhere just because they listened to your song. You must forge an alliance. Building a network of committed friends is what it's all about.

So, be inspired and inspire others. Network with long term goals. God knows this is a damn hard life and the good stuff doesn't come easy.

copyright 2009 craig bickhardt