The Writing Process

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The Writing Process

There are different ways to write a song, and different people use different methods . Some people use more than one method for different songs.

You can write the music first, and then write lyrics to the music. You can write the words first, and then write the music. You can write both at the same time. Sometimes (this is rare, and I usually consider it a blessing), they both come at the same time. This can almost feel like it's falling out of the sky into your hands like something or someone is writing through you. It's pretty cool. I did this on "I'm So Tired." Other times, I've labored over the music and lyrics for weeks, like I did for the Bomb song, "Spoked Feet." (The title of this song has nothing to do with the lyrics. Tony came up with the name because I was working as a bike messenger and was writing the song on my messenger clipboard in elevators between deliveries.)

You can write with a band all at once. With a band you can write by telling them what to do, or by everyone contributing parts and talking it out, or by just jamming (improvising). This can work well, and often the rhythm of the song will suggest singy-songy vocal patterns to sing over it. Some can evolve into lyrics. Often into silly lyrics that still work because rock lyrics aren't really poetry or literature. Some great rock songs have lyrics that look absurd when printed ("Whole Lotta Love" by Zeppelin comes to mind), and poetry set to music doesn't usually work. Lyrics are just lyrics. I'd be willing to bet that the Nick Cave line "Zoo music girls " came phonetically out of the rhythm of the song. And Paul McCartney said that the first line for the song "Yesterday" was originally "Scrambled eggs. Ooh baby, I love your legs," which he used as a placeholder to sing and work on the melody and later came up with the words we know.

You and your band can also jam and tape it, and then later you listen to it alone and come up with lyrics and find which parts work.

Regardless, it's always a good idea to have a working tape recorder set up and ready to record. When inspiration strikes, you don't want to be looking for batteries or testing recording levels.

I don't read music. If I did, I would just write down melodies when they come to me. But since I don't, I have to record them before I forget them when they arrive. And believe me, they can arrive at any time.

If I come up with a melody and am not near a tape recorder, I call my home phone number and leave it on my message machine. Some cell phones also have the ability to record 30 seconds of music.

NOTE

The dial tone on most phones is A 440 and can be used to tune a guitar if you don't have another reference around.

NOTE

I sometimes carry a Dictaphone pocket tape recorder with me. And a pen at all times for lyrical ideas. If I have a melodic idea and no tape recorder nearby, I call my own answering machine and hum it to the recording.

Figure 2.1. Dictaphone.

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You can also write with one other person, but I have some advice for that. Chuck Prophet told me this one: If you're writing a song with another guitarist, only use one guitar and pass it back and forth. Otherwise, if you each have a guitar in your hands, you just end up playing blues jams and don't get any work done.

I often write a complete song on the bass and bring the bare-bones completed song to the band. I will play the bass and sing all the way through, and they will write their parts around it and make it cool by creating an arrangement to flesh out the skeleton framework I present to the band. In this case, what I play and sing for them the first time is very close to what ends up on the record when we finally record it. I did this on "All My References Are Dead" with Bomb. (Although the vocal melodies tend to flesh out stronger with repeated singing .)

NOTE

When a member of your band wants to show you a new song, let her play it and sing it all the way through without jamming along (unless you're the drummer and she asks you to give her a beat under it). Professionals always listen all the way through the first time. This is how you learn a song.You don't learn a song you've never heard before by noodling over it the first time you hear it. And it's actually insulting to the songwriter.

Regardless of how you write, listen to what you're playing. It's kind of a Zen thing. Let the song write you. The song will tell you, if you listen, which part wants to be verse and which wants to be chorus, what the next note or chord should be, and much more.

Writing a song is like having a baby or growing a seed. You can't yell at a flower and make it bloom. It comes in its own time. Sometimes it will just come. Sometimes you'll need to carry a song around for days and keep working on it, laboring over lines. You have to be patient with it, be ready to work, but if the Muse doesn't show, it ain't your fault. She might be busy elsewhere.

Lyrics and Singing

This is the easy part. They say, "If you can talk, you can sing." And it's true. The more you write your ideas down, the more they will make sense. Singing is easy, just practice it. Writing lyrics is just singing your thoughts over well constructed music. Let the melody find itself.

I find that when I first sing new lyrics over new music, the melody is not yet evolved and is only a few notes, usually off a blues scale. With time and repetition, the melody shows me where it want to go. I just have to listen.

Follow your heart, find your voice, don't try to sing like anyone else. Your voice is you. It's your speaking voice crafted around notes. It's natural.

Writing and Performing within Your Limitations

Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst can barely sing, but pulls off compelling performances . If he tried to sing complex melodies in a " singer " singing style, it would sound horrible. But he doesn't. And it works.

In fact, I recently saw a band open for my band, with a singer who could not sing but was attempting to. It was embarrassing. I was embarrassed for her. She was worse than the worst singer ever on American Idol . She was cute, and tried really hard, and her band was good, and in fact, the songwriting was pretty strong, but she was horrible.

And she was assless. My good friend, Tiffany, pointed out that this singer was really cute, but didn't have a butt. Neither did anyone in her band. Nor did most of their crowd . So this instantly became our name for bloodless, lifeless rock that sounds like the radio and offers none of the threat that made rock dangerous a long time ago. We call it Assless Rock and Roll. Or No-Ass Rock and Roll. Los Angeles is full of it, and all these no-ass rockers would probably literally kill to be on the radio.

I think a lot of people who do not have what it takes to make a living at music are convinced by the Music Support Industry that they can make it, if only given a chance. And a lot of them are insanely deluded. They shouldn't give up playing music, because anyone can make valid music. Music is valid if you enjoy playing it. But many of them should quit predicating their life on the belief that they can all "quit their day job." Being realistic about your abilities is important.

A lot of rappers and punk singers can barely sing, but work within their limitations well. This is one reason producers are so important in hip-hop. In most music, the producer is the person who is sort of the in-studio liaison between the band and the engineer, who works with both to get the best possible polished diamond out of the rough lump of coal that is the band. The producer basically takes the same role that a director takes in a film. In rock, a producer's role can sometimes involve helping with arranging (changing the order of parts in an existing song and/or directing the instrumentation of an existing song). Sometimes the producer also does a small bit of songwriting, but usually a rock group enters the studio with the songs already written. In hip-hop, the producer often writes the entire backing track, and the rapper just writes the lyrics and raps them over the track. Sometimes the rapper takes a more proactive role in the creation of these background beds . But often the producer is a cut creator who creates an entire song, melody and instrumental backing track. He then sells a single CD of it for exclusive use to the highest bidder. The rapper then just adds his own rhymes and performance over that to make the final song.

This is a reason many hip-hop albums have different producers listed for every song: The creation methodology is different from a band and doesn't entail being locked into the same person for every song. I like that. It's more like making films .

I did this with Mike DeLuna more or less on "Rock Your Body." He created the complete track in Fruity Loops and gave me the mixed-down track on a CD. I created and edited the middle eight in Sound Forge and then added the vocals in Vegas. I sang the lead in a falsetto (false high upper register men can use to sing like a woman ), and my friend Jason Hawks sang the deep "Oh baby" prompting vocals.

Tiffany heard this and then asked, "Why is it that fake bands are so much fun?"

I answered , "Because you have no emotional investment in them. This often makes you free enough to rise above worrying about being cool and make something truly cool. Look at Spinal Tapalthough part of what made them so cool is that their songwriting was better than most of the bands they were parodying."

Tiff also adds that making a fake song or band can be a fun way to get over writer's block. I would add, "Just be careful; it might end up more popular than your own band. Gwar started as a joke side project of a band called Death Piggy, and look at them now!"

Reduce your limitations by remaining open. Don't be afraid to ask questions of anyone. That's how smart people learn. People who are afraid to look stupid never learn. "The only stupid question is the one you don't ask."

Work within your limitations, but let your songwriting grow to match your growing abilities. If you keep an open mind, the music itself is the best teacher.

Inspiration

Spacing out is an important part of my personal timeline, and thus my artistic process.

My dad loves to tell the story about Henry Ford giving a tour of his factory to a group of investors. They passed one guy who was in his office staring out the window with his feet up on his desk. After they passed the door, one of the investors asked Ford why he would keep such a lazy man on the payroll. Ford remarked "That man came up with our last three big-money ideas, and he was in the exact same position when he came up with all of them."

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