This Songwriting Life

Jim writes: I hope this weblog (or online songwriting diary), is able to cast some light on the creative struggles I go through with my muse when writing new songs.
I had thought of making this a general diary, but I can't imagine why anyone would be even remotely interested in reading such a journal. However, I may be able to provide some useful insights into the way I compose songs, which in turn may prove of some value to other songwriters.
This weblog should be read along with my companion pieces, Courting The Muse, and Courting The Act.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003: Move The Song Forward
My new song, The Liberty Café has been nagging away at me lately. I started writing the song on the 23rd of last month, and had settled on what I thought was a final draft at the beginning of May. Here's how it stands at the moment:

The Liberty Café
She was working in a truck stop, on the way to who knows where,
Flipping burgers; chopping onions; washing grease out of her hair.
I could see she was unhappy; it’s a look I won’t forget,
She was staring at the future with a heart full of regret.

When she drifted into town she said, she was running from the past,
She was looking for some peace of mind, but it never seemed to last.
So she stood behind the counter, watching seconds rise and fall,
Measuring each wasted day, buy the clock nailed to the wall.

She said she had a husband, there were kids, a picket fence,
But the view outside the window, did not seem to make much sense.
She was looking for her freedom, on the day she ran away,
Now she spends it taking orders, in the Liberty Café.


When I left her I could see she had tears in both her eyes,
She said it must have been the onions, they still take her by surprise.
But we both knew she was lying, so she would not feel the pain,
While she waited for redemption, and swept the floors again.


She was looking for her freedom, on the day she ran away,
Now she spends it taking orders, in the Liberty Café.
© 2003, Jim Lesses

By any measure I think it is a perfectly good song as it is. However, every time I practice it, I get the feeling that there is more we can learn about the central character. That information, if I ever write it, will go after the first chorus. In effect it will become the third verse. Today I decided that if the narrator provides me with some compelling new information, it will go into the song. If he doesn't (and in my mind the narrator is male), it won't. It's as simple as that.

This raises a songwriting truism I try to remember every time I work on a new song. Each verse has to add something new to the song, or move the song forward in some way or it is just filler.

And another thing; each new verse has to be as strong and as compelling as the verses already written. If it is not, it will weaken the whole song. It will not 'ring true', and the listener will feel, quite rightly, that even the songwriter is not convinced by what s/he has written.

Thursday, May 22, 2003: Challenge Yourself
Here is an interesting exercise you can try if you feel you are in a songwriting rut. Write a song on a topic or theme you haven't previously addressed before. Why? I hear you ask. For the intellectual challenge, I reply.

I know a perfectly good songwriter who has never written a love song. For the past year or so she has been challenged by other songwriter's to compose just such a song, but she can't seem to do it. My advice to her was to write a love song to her dog! Nobody has to know that the object of her affection is a dog (unless she explicitly mentions the creature in the song), and anyway, the challenge is to write a love song in general, so writing a song about her dog is fine as long as it is a love song. Sadly, we are all still waiting for her Ode to Eros (or should that be, Ode to Canine?), and I suspect we we'll be waiting for some time yet.

This exercise is something I have used to good effect in my own songwriting life. Several years ago, I was going through a big country music phase. One of the sub-genre's in country music is the trucking song, and since I didn't have a trucking song in my repertoire of original songs, I decided I would write one. My song, I Just Can't Wait is the result of this exercise.

On another occasion, while driving home, I happened to tune into a radio program that featured as its theme, songs about prisons. I immediately decided I needed a prison song in my repertoire, and asked my Muse to start working on it. I have to say, my Muse really took his time about this one, because it was probably a year or two after tuning into that radio program that I finally got my death row prison song, Bitter Wine.

By the way, Muse, I am still waiting for that train song I requested several years ago. How is it going?

"I just dig music that has passion and heart. The only criteria is that the artist is creatively driven, has some kind of idea and substance about them, and is passionate about what they do."

Paul Curtis, Rip It Up, #574, May 18-24, 2000



Sunday, May 25, 2003: (Song)Writer's Block
A songwriting friend said to me that he thought I was one of the most prolific songwriter's he knew, and wanted to know where I got my songwriting ideas from. Personally, I don't think I am all that prolific, and besides, it's not the number of songs you write, but the quality of them that really counts. However, that wasn't the answer he was looking for, so here is the gist of what I told him.

My general feeling on the topic of writer's block is this: If you've got writer's block - you are not paying attention!

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of songs being written every day around the world. These songs are triggered by a word; a passage in a book; the look of joy on a child's face; the worry in a mother's eyes; a newspaper headline; a famous quote; the melody from a popular song; the echo of a freight train moving through the night; a miss-heard lyric in another song; the far off barking of a dog; and many other sights, and sounds. In fact, all the senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) can spark off associations that lead to new songs.

Actually, I worry more about the song ideas I miss, than I do about the song ideas I get. For instance...

Recently I was returning from a trip to our National Capital, Canberra, and on a whim I decided to pass through the town of Yass, which is about 60km from the capital. As I drove up the main street of Yass, I noticed a business called, the Liberty Café. 'What a great name,' I thought to myself. 'I must remember it, and work it into a song one day.'

Within ten minutes of passing through Yass, I began writing my song, The Liberty Café (reproduced above). I have no doubt what-so-ever, that if I had not driven through Yass and spotted the Café, I would never have written the song.

On the same trip, after passing over yet another dried out creek bed, I suddenly began to sing:

The creeks are dry on the other side of the Great Dividing Range,
They fought the drought for three longs years, now they’re praying for a change.

Elsewhere, inspired by the ever present mirages along the highways I was driving on, I wrote:

I see you shimmering, like mirages in the heat,
I hear you shimmering, like the ever present beat
Of my heart, shimmering, like the waves upon the sand,
I feel you shimmering, every time I touch your hand,
We both start shimmering.

I ended up with ideas for eleven new songs during my ten day trip, and all were inspired by some little observation or incident that took place over the course of that journey. Friends, if you've got writer's block, you are not paying attention. Keep your eyes open, and your ears tuned into the possibilities, because the songs are all around you, right now, waiting to be written down.

- - o0o - -

Thursday, June 5, 2003: Why Be a Songwriter?
I started thinking about this question recently, after it occurred to me that the idea of telling a story in song form is quite bizarre if you stop to think about it for more than a few minutes. After all, why would anyone choose to use this form of storytelling when it is so inherently restrictive? With the exception of poetry, particularly the Japanese art of Haiku, I can’t think of any other form of written expression that puts so many constraints on its practitioners.

Novelists have it easy compared to songwriters. Imagine having hundreds of pages in which to tell your story. Imagine too, having the time to let your plot unfold as you warm to your theme, while you introduce new characters and dramatic events into your novel. Even short story writers have the luxury of several thousand words in which to work their magic.

The songwriter on the other hand is generally restricted to two or three verses, a chorus, and sometimes a bridge. Yes, I know there are many variations on this structure, but I’m sure you can see what I’m getting at. As if that wasn’t enough, we then proceed to make matters harder for ourselves by giving our ‘stories’ melodies, and then putting ourselves through the stress of memorising them, and performing them in public.

What the heck for? When was the last time you saw a poet recite 20 or 30 poems from memory? Never, I’ll wager. So pity the poor singer-songwriter who is expected to do so night after night. And yet...

And yet, there is something extremely satisfying and even addictive about songwriting. Developing the ability to tell a compelling story in as little as two verses, with the addition of a chorus and bridge, is a high art indeed, and many great songwriters have tried and failed at this art. But don't let that stop you. Instead, use that fact to spur you on to emulate the best songs your favourite songwriters have produced. If they can do it - so can you.

"Music took me away from every bit of sorrow I felt and every bit of confusion I felt as a child. It was the only path that could relieve my youthful confusion, and it’s still really the clearest path that can relieve my adulthood confusion. It brings me to an emotional place faster than anything."
Ben Harper, in dB Magazine, #225, May 31-June 13, 2000



Sunday, June 15, 2003: More Thoughts on Writers Block
For many years I, like most other songwriter’s I know, kept my song fragments scattered around the various rooms of my house. Some were filed away properly in my filing cabinet, while others were ‘filed’ away under piles of paper; in long forgotten note books; on my computer; and on scraps of paper in numerous other obscure places.

Over the years I had forgotten about many of these songs, and even when I did remembered one of these fragments from the past, I could never readily put my hands on it. One day I got fed up with the organised chaos that was my house, and decided to clean up! Over a period of two weeks I went through just about every piece of paper lying around the house and either threw it in the bin, or tried to find somewhere logical to file it.

It was during this clean-up that I began discovering dozens of lost songs – one of which I’d started back in 1984. Each of these song fragments was put into a plastic sleeve and placed in a binder. I then went to the computer and open up my In Progress folder. I printed each unfinished song in that file and added them to my new binder. By the time I had finished collecting all these items together I had 76 unfinished songs!

What does all this have to do with writer’s block? Clearly, if the above description of organised chaos fits you, you may find as I did, that you have not been as unproductive as you think.

At the time all this 'spring cleaning' was taking place I had not finished anything new for several months. While some of the fragments of song in the binder were as short as two lines, others were almost complete. Leafing through the binder I realised immediately that it contained several songs that were just crying out to be finished – all I had to do was get to work on them. And this is exactly what I did.

The blue binder now sits on the shelf alongside my completed songs. Now, if I ever feel my Muse is taking an extended break, I open up the collection of incomplete songs and look for something to work on.

Needless to say, now that I’m a lot more organised, every new snippet of song is placed in its own plastic sleeve and added to the folder for completion at a later date. Of course, not all song ideas turn into finished works, but at least I know that I never have to worry about not having something to work on.

The lesson here is obvious, but I’ll state it anyway. Organise all your songs – especially the incomplete ones – in a way that makes it easy for you to find them when you are looking for something to work on. You need never suffer from writer’s block again.

Sunday, June 29, 2003: How Deep Is Your Love?
Does the world really need another angst ridden, clichéd love song? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean you that you shouldn’t try writing a song which taps into the deepest feelings of love you can possibly reach. Then again, sometimes what you see is exactly what you get.

Baby, I know you are hurting,
You’ve been let down again and again.
But I tell you this one thing for certain,
Baby, I’m not like those other men.

So Baby, I wrote you a letter,
I thought it would help if you knew,
I wrote down, I love you, I love you,
So please baby, let me get through.
     ~ Jim Lesses, Baby, I

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist!

The art critic for the New York Times, John Russell, wrote in his book, The Meaning of Modern Art, "When art is made new, we are made new with it."

The some could be said of any other artistic endeavour including songwriting. It is precisely because good songwriter’s are able to write about love, (or other topics) in new, fresh and exciting ways, that we enjoy listening to these songs year in and year out. And that of course, is the real challenge every songwriter faces.

"My take on music is that it has the potential to be wonderful, and so it should be."
~ Moby, Rip It Up, #583, July 20-26, 2000



Saturday, July 12, 2003: Yes, But What Is The Song About?
There is one school of thought that maintains that the theme of your song should at all times be blindingly obvious. While it is true that most hit factory songs abide by this ‘rule’ there are, as usual, enough exceptions to the principle to quietly ignore it.

I have already mentioned Don McLean’s classic song, American Pie. Ever since its release there has been a lively debate regarding just what exactly the song is all about. There is even an Internet site which dissects the song line by line and offers interpretations about the various sections of the song. To this day, Don McLean himself has – wisely – refused to offer any insight into the debate surrounding the song’s meaning.

Then there is Bob Dylan, who at one point in his career, must surely have been the master of the obscure lyric! Once he had let the genie out of the bottle, many others tried their hands at this often frustrating art. Frustrating for the listener, that is – and therein lies the crux of the matter.

So why write a song filled with obscure images whose meaning is not immediately obvious? Because it’s there. By this I mean, because that is the way the song came out. When I have written this type of song, it was not because I wanted to confuse the audience with my cleverness, it is simply because that is the way my Muse presented it to me.

For example, take my song, Is This The Promise?

Is this the promise that you made,
When you looked deep into my eyes?
When you held me tight in your arms?
When you pressed me close to your side?
Is this the ode to love we sang,
Watching the blood-red sunset fall?
As we held hands along the beach?
I don't remember them at all.

You keep me trapped inside this dream,
I wake up crying in the night.
My lips afraid to voice the scream,
Pretending it will be all right.
You hold the power in your arms,
And leave me dying on my cross.
Is this the magic spell you wove?
You do not understand your loss.
~ Jim Lesses, Is This The Promise?

In live performance I often introduce the song by saying, "This is a song about broken promises – of all sorts," but I have never offered a wider explanation of the song than that – and I’m not about to do so now – except to say that when I sing the song, I do so as a female, not as a male, (if you are wondering what I am talking about here, read the section, Who’s Singing This Song? in my Courting The Act article.

A whole range of images crossed my mind as I was writing the song: a child accusing his or her abuser; Jesus on the cross talking to God; a victim of domestic violence talking to her abusive partner; another woman mourning the break up of her once ‘perfect’ relationship with her ex-partner, and so on. I believe Is This The Promise? works precisely because it allows the listener to interpret the song on any level that seems right to them.

Having said that, though, I believe that as the writer of the song, I must know what the song is about if I am to perform it properly, otherwise it runs the risk of becoming meaningless doggerel.

- - o0o - -

Sunday, August 10, 2003: Honouring Your Muse
Not that many years ago, my songwriting suffered from a serious malady called 'the arrogance of youth'.

The malady would break out from time to time, when my Muse would present me with songs which I would dismiss on the basis that, 'I don't write or sing those types of songs'. 'Those types of songs' being anything that didn't fit my persona as a writer of 'serious' political songs.

When my Muse offered me a 'country' song, or a 'pop' song, or heaven forbid, a 'love' song, I would treat the offer with disdain. That sort of song was not for me. I was only concerned with topics of real importance.

When I think back to the many songs I must have ignored, I shake my head in disbelief at my stupidity. Now I understand that every song is a precious gift from a source that I can't even begin to understand or explain. Now I clutch at every song idea, no matter how small, and commit it to paper in the hope that one day it will turn into another classic Jim Lesses song. Now I truly understand that a good song is a good song, no matter what style it is written in.

The fact that I don’t normally sing country music hasn’t stopped my Muse from giving me songs in the country genre, so it would be stupid and arrogant of me to continue to reject these songs just because I don’t see country music as fitting my image.

Country music has a huge following in Australia and in many other parts of the world, especially the United States. If I can get a well known country singer to record one of my songs I would be delighted. I would be even more delighted if one of my songs was turned into an international smash hit – but I’m not betting the house on that one!

Similarly, if I could get an up and coming contemporary band to perform and record one of my more commercial ‘pop’ songs, I would be just as happy.

The punk group Green Day come to mind here. Known for their high intensity playing style, they took everyone by surprise when they released, Good Riddance (Time of Your Life). Instead of the usual crashing guitars, drums and screaming vocals, we got an acoustic guitar, some strings, and one solo voice singing about the end of a relationship. The song became a huge hit, and Green Day went from being an obscure punk band with a cult following, to a well know act with a smash hit.

Honour your Muse by treating every new song as a gift, and by doing your utmost to turn each new song into the best work of art it can possibly be.

"All you can do is your best. Make the best record you can possibly make and write the greatest songs you can write and do the best performances you can do."
~ Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, in dB Magazine, #226, June 14-27, 2000




Sunday, August 31, 2003: My Song’s Longer Than Yours
My approach to songwriting length is simple. Concentrate on telling the story. If I can tell that story in three minutes, fine, but if it takes me longer, and it generally does, then I’m happy to take the extra time required to tell it. However, if I have learnt one thing about song writing length it is this: It doesn’t matter how long the song is, as long as it maintains the listeners interest from beginning to end.

Arlo Guthrie’s classic song, Alice’s Restaurant, is a case in point. At just over 18 minutes in length, this song still has the ability to make most listeners laugh after repeated listening, despite it’s length, and despite the fact that it has been around for over 30 years.

While I have written two verse songs, my longest tune (to date), is The Ballad of Billy Winter. This song originally had fourteen verses, but when I came to write the melody, I was able to pair verses together to create a seven minute, seven verse song! Not only that, but it contains no chorus or refrain, no bridge, and no instrumental breaks worth talking about, and yet it is one of my most popular songs.

If you take a moment to think of your favourite songs, you will find the one thing they have in common is the ability to hold your interest, not just once, but repeatedly – no matter how long they are. So give your audience the credit they deserve. In an age of 10 second sound bites, and glib catch phrases, there are still many people around who enjoy a good story, told well, in a lively and interesting manner.

Monday, December 22, 2003: Tools Of The Trade
One of the great things about being a songwriter as opposed to being a plumber, motor mechanic, or airline pilot, is that you do not need lots of specialised and expensive tools to do your job. You can just as easily write a classic song with the stub of a cheap lead pencil and a scrap of paper, as you can with a $2000 dollar computer and the latest word-processing package.

That's why I always make a point of always carrying a pen with me whenever I leave the house, and I have several pens in the car at all times as well. I also try and carry a small notebook with me, and make sure there is a notebook in the glove box of the car too.

Even if you have no paper with you when your Muse strikes, there is always paper available somewhere. On one occasion I had to resort to tearing a poster off a city wall in an attempt to get enough paper to jot down the first lines of a new song!

Apart from pencil and paper though, several other items should also be part of the songwriters tool box. Namely, a thesaurus, and a good rhyming dictionary. Oh, and don’t forget to get a good standard dictionary too.

Once you have made good use of these few basic tools in your songwriting kit, you may want to add a bit more to it. For instance, I have a small hand-held cassette recorder which is great for recording snippets of melody as they come to me when I am working on a new song. And the recorder always travels with me on any extended journeys I make.

Unfortunately, the recorder doesn’t always travel with me in the car, when I am out and about close to home. On one such occasion I had gone to see a film at a large suburban cinema complex located about 10 minutes from my house. Not long after arriving at the complex, and after I had already bought my movie ticket, my Muse chose to rearrange a melody to a song I was due to perform for the very first time the following night.

Talk about bad timing! What should I do? Since I liked the new melody I was humming around the foyer of the cinema complex, I had to make a decision, and quickly. Luckily I had arrived at the complex well before the movie I had chosen to see was due to start. By the time I had decided to head back home to get my recorder, I still had around 30 minutes to wait before the movie commenced.

I ran down to the car park, jumped into the car, drove home, raced inside, grabbed my recorder, and recorded the song to the new melody as I drove back to the cinema arriving five minutes before the start of the film.

Whew! It was a close call, but I have no doubt that if I had not returned home to get my recorder, I would have forgotten the new melody by the time the movie had finished. The lesson here is to seize the moment and get your words or melody down – even if it means you might miss a film you have already paid to see.

I’ve got a spiral note-pad in the glove-box of the car. I often pull over and go ‘Oh, that’s a great line’, and I can build a whole song around that."
~ Sheyne Coates of Madison Avenue in dB Magazine, #226, June 14-27, 2000



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