by Moe Berg, Canadian Musician, May/June, 1998
There are, in my opinion, two types of songwriters. One is the craftsman. He plans out what he wants to sing about and pre-conceptualizes the musical style he wants to perform the song in.
Then there is the intuitive writer. He or she sits down in front of a blank piece of paper and hopes that something meaningful flows out of their pen. Similarly, they sit with a guitar or at the piano and pray for a visit from their musical muse.
I place myself basically in the latter camp but I do acknowledge the importance of craft, especially conceptualizing which I learned from working with Todd Rundgren. When you are putting together an album, he thought it was important not to put conflicting or contradictory ideas on the same disc. Every record should have consistent themes. That was how I wrote for The Pursuit of Happiness. I'd write a bunch of songs and if some of them were headed in a certain direction, I'd chase after them. They'd reveal what I was preoccupied with at that point in my life, so I would lodge that in my brain and when my muse came along I would be in (loosely speaking) a pre-arranged mind set.
The biggest difference between writing for The Pursuit of Happiness and my solo record Summer's Over is that when you have a band, it's important that everyone has something to do both in the studio and on stage. The songs that ended up on my solo disc didn't require a very elaborate musical backdrop so it seemed appropriate to do it myself. Summer's Over is basically entries from my journal. I sat in cafes and wrote stream of consciousness. Eventually something inspired would start to flow and begin to organize itself into verse form. There were two very important things occurring in my life during the time I wrote most of these songs. One I was very unhappy and two, I was on a spiritual quest, so there was plenty to talk about. When I was finished I'd start the second part of the process which was to hope that the lyrics suggested the kind of musical treatment that would best represent them.
Usually it was pretty minimal since I didn't want there to be a lot of noise cluttering up the sentiment of the lyrics. Stylistically I was able to be fairly unbridled. If a song felt folky, I went folky; if it seemed like it would come alive on a cheap keyboard, that's what I'd write on. So there is no stylistic centre to the record which is something I DO NOT RECOMMEND to all you aspiring songwriters. One good thing about writing for a band is that however wide you make the parameters while you're writing, the inherent "sound" of the band will bring everything into focus.
Writing for myself meant I could be a little more self-indulgent. I didn't have to worry about the band saying, "What is this crap?" I was free to make as big a fool of myself as I wanted to knowing that I would only be humiliating myself and not my long-suffering bandmates. Being self-indulgent is, in my opinion, a good thing for an artist. However there are conditions.
One of the major problems with what I'm calling the intuitive school of writing is that a lot of people who write this way do not always know what their songs are about (this has happened to me). It's important that when you finish a lyric that you go over it in your mind and make sure you mean what you are saying and saying what you mean. This is where a little of the craft aspect can be invaluable. Another danger is believing that your every little thought is precious and deep. A lot of writers claim to write from 'personal' experience, as if that is all they need to legitimize themselves as artists. The fact of the matter is that EVERYONE has personal experiences - that doesn't make them good songwriters. You have to be able to express your thoughts and feelings in a manner that is of some interest to others and (hopefully) in an artistic and original way. Though some bands have become successful singing about nothing, generally speaking if you're too obtuse no one will be able to relate to you and if you're too cliched, you will sound corny and EVERYONE WILL LAUGH AT YOU. Be on guard for boring or sappy sentiments. If your prose gets too purple, your rhymes too mushy or obvious, you'll have to step back and figure out how you can express yourself with more finesse. Musically do the same thing. Often when I'm listening to the radio or hear a CD for the first time I can anticipate the next chord or melody line BEFORE it happens. Be unpredictable. Sometimes the best route is not the obvious one.
One of my goals on Summer's Over was to be as honest as I could. I think there is a natural tendency with many writers to present themselves in a relatively flattering light. Even the rise of 'nouveau losers' is the same impulse turned on its head. Well, I wasn't going to project anything other than the reality of my current situation. I highly recommend this approach to young writers because it will take you out of the traditional rock'n'roll vernacular. If you are truly honest, you'll begin to speak in terms that aren't the popular lyrical clichˇs. You might even say something ORIGINAL and wouldn't that be fun. You may not have a hit record this way but you will grow as a writer (and person) which is its own reward.
Copyright © 1998, Canadian Musician, Norris-Whitney Communications, Inc.