Do you write songs from the heart or from the head?

Often on Song Talk Radio, this question arises.  Sometimes, it’s fun for the hosts to try and guess.  “Your song sounds very cerebral,” or “Your song sounds very intuitive.”  The guests themselves tell us how well considered every decision in their songwriting process is, or tell us “It just came to me.”  This question of process in creative endeavour is as old as the creative endeavours themselves. On Blair Packham’s show, he talked about his own journey on both the intuitive and the cerebral roads.

Most songwriters and musicians know the history of the Beatles.  In the early 60’s, before they were famous, they played for hours every night in clubs in Hamburg, Germany.  They learned their chops, got better at harmonizing together and playing tightly together.  Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book Outliers, describes this as the 10,000 hours rule: practice anything for 10,000 hours and you’ll be an expert.  The Beatles played more shows in a few short years than many contemporary bands play in their entire career.  Gladwell uses evidence-based examples to show that the most successful people are those who put in the time.

In another book, Blink, Gladwell champions the subconscious mind as a powerful decision maker, and how little information can be beneficial in making positive, snap decisions.  He cites such examples as fine art experts who can spot a forgery at a glance (and can’t explain how they know they’re looking at a forgery) and orchestras who hold blind auditions to reduce conscious biases.

So let’s bring this back to our central question.  It may be possible that songwriters who feel they channel their songs from some outward source, may in fact be so well practiced they make decisions in a “blink” and rely more heavily on their subconscious experience to guide their songwriting decisions.  “That chord progression just felt right.”  On the other hand, some songwriters are deliberate and conscious in their writing, and know the reasons their songs work the way they do.

I recall clearly learning to play the drums many years ago.  I started with simple rhythms on a single drum, and practiced many hours to coordinate my hands and feet on a drumkit.  The moment I could successfully coordinate kick drum and snare hits with a running cymbal rhythm, something in me clicked and I’ve never forgotten how to do it, no matter how long it’s been since I’ve last played a drumkit.  These days, I don’t think about it – I just follow my subconscious to feel the beat and play along.  If I’m playing in an unusual time signature, like 5/4 or 7/4, I need to engage more of my conscious mind.

I think the same applies to songwriting.  As songwriters, we can rely on our ability to “blink” and know if a songwriting or performance decision is the right one.  However, we can also study more conscious tools of songwriting to change things up, overcome writer’s block, and think outside the boxes we have created ourselves through our experience.

For myself, how do I answer the question of do I write from the heart or the head?  Historically, I’ve been a head-dominated writer, but lately I’ve been “consciously” relying more on my snap judgements, and perhaps surprisingly, they’re mostly right.  So, like everyone else, I’m somewhere in the middle.

Let us know how you look at your own process.  Do you write from the heart or the head, or both?

Song Talk Radio articles

I’m a regular contributor to Song Talk Radio’s blog and newsletter, with writing original content on topics of interest to our songwriter audience.

Check out my articles at the Song Talk Radio website.

Song Talk Radio appearance

On November 24, once again I appeared on Song Talk Radio as the featured guest.  I spoke with Bruce and Phil about three of my latest songs, and in a special twist, Sonja Seiler joined us as co-host and co-writer of one of the songs.  We talked about collaboration, anthropomorphism, and whether or not I could pull off writing a love song for my wife.  Check out the complete episode, including the songs, here:

I Never Write Her a Song

My wife asked me why I never put her in a song, or one of our experiences, into a song. Good question. After much pondering, I thought it might be good to go all meta and write a song about how I never wrote her a song. And of course, in keeping with the meta element, by the end of the song, I realize I DID just write her a song.

I started with the chorus lyric and melody, defining the hook with a simple chord progression on the piano. Lyrics and the rest of the chords came after that. I also employed chord substitutions in the verse progression and as a transition from the second chorus to the bridge.

All in all, it’s probably the pop-iest song I’ve ever written, and some of my friends helped me out with a live jam of the song too! I also appeared as a guest on Song Talk Radio where the song was reviewed, including a mini-domestic disturbance with my wife who was on the radio with me!

It’s like we’ve been together for a million years
And I guess we’ll be together for a million more
But in all that time I’ve never smiled or shed a tear
And I never let my feelings out for show

She said I never write her a song
She’s right, and I’m always wrong

Now I’ve got a yearning stirring deep inside
Or is it just because she asked out loud?
Will I take pen to paper, and write it right?
Or choke up and admit, it’s all a fraud.

She said I never write her a song
I could do it, but it might take too long
She said I never write her a song

Maybe all she wanted was a love song
All mushy lovey dovey and googley eyed
But somehow I know she’ll get it
The kinda love that comes from her clever guy

She said I never write her a song
But look here, her song is now done

She said I never write her a song
Now she knows her song’s all for fun

Nature’s Lullaby (with Sonja Seiler)

This summer, I wrote a little progression on the piano which was intended to be a gently flowing chord progression and melody. I repeated it twice in the recording.  Having nothing more to do with it, I sent it to my friend Sonja to see if she would be willing to put a lyric and vocal melody to it.

Later on, we got together to hash out some ideas. Sometimes ideas can come from the strangest places. The piano sound I used was from Native Instruments “The Giant” and for lack of a title, I thought of “Giant…” and what’s something that’s NOT giant? “Giant Caterpillar.” So when we got together, we decided to write lyrics that reflected paradoxes or contradictions in nature, where the reality of things in nature may not be what they appear to be. Sonja came up with a gorgeous melody and beautifully poetic lyrics.

The final recording was done in my home studio, and we added a cello part to complement the piano and vocal. We also showcased the song on an episode of Song Talk Radio.

Artist interview on The Plug-In @ The Scope at Ryerson

I had the opportunity to be interviewed by one of the journalists at The Scope at Ryerson last week.  Alexia Kapralos hosts her weekly podcast, The Plug-In, around the latest in Canadian and international rock music.  I sat with her at the Ryerson studios for a short interview on my musical journey over the year and Song Talk Radio. She also featured my song “One Great Mistake” on the episode.  It starts at about the 8:50 mark of her show.  Thanks Alexia!

What does it mean to be an “amateur” songwriter?

On Song Talk Radio we have a wonderful variety of guests and songwriters, and one way to group them is whether they are professional or amateur songwriters. Often, when we refer to amateur, there’s a negative connotation that implies a less polished, unsophisticated, or otherwise lesser craft. When we talk about being professional, it implies a polished, well-considered, or elevated craft.

However, if we consider the word amateur and its inherent meaning, there’s a better way to look at it.  Amateur is derived from the Latin amatorem, which means “lover of.” So, if you love writing songs, you’re an amateur. This doesn’t say anything about the quality of your writing. Surely, many guests on Song Talk Radio, both amateur and professional, are superb songwriters.

Of course, there’s a caveat. Those songwriters who have devoted their careers, either full-time or part-time, to songwriting and performing, tend to have more polished and carefully considered songs. But consider if this is because they are “professionals” and earn money from their songs, or because they have made a decision to approach their craft with commitment, seriousness, and time.

Also consider the advantages of being an amateur writer. You don’t have to answer to anyone, or consider if your songs are “radio-friendly.” You can take risks, be experimental, and pretty much do as you please. (Another caveat – yes, there are commercial songwriters who can and do pretty much as they please and still sell records.)

The bottom line is if you love what you’re doing, you’re an amateur. You can still put in the time and commitment to polish your craft, and above all, embrace your amateur status with passion, integrity and creativity. Keep on writing.

Scope at Ryerson interview

Earlier this month, I had the chance to chat with Scope at Ryerson reporter Sara Cristiano about my music, songwriting, my album Counterfeit Lampshades, and the creation of Song Talk Radio.

Catacombs (online collaboration with Mike B.)

I recently re-joined an online forum that I was part of many years ago called the Muse’s Muse.  It’s populated mostly by lyricists, and there’s ample opportunity for musicians to collaborate with lyricists to complete songs.  There are also threads for posting your works in progress for peer review, and showcasing your finished songs.  I even had my album reviewed on the site!

Someone started a thread called the “Short Song Challenge” and several members posted lyric ideas for a short song (under 2 mins) that contained at least a verse, chorus, maybe a bridge.  I took a lyric written by Mike B., and decided to put some music and vocals to it.  My first take was far too bright and happy for the rather dark lyrics, so I tried a more industrial approach with heavier drums and distorted guitar.  I got his lyric into a 54 second song with a musical intro and interlude, too.  I took a cue from my friend Phil and wrote the bassline first.

Jam session with Bruce Harrott – I Could Do Anything

I got to play drums for another Song Talk Radio Backup Band jam session, this time with the show’s co-host Bruce Harrott and his catchy feel-good song I Could Do Anything.  We had co-host Phil Emery on bass, and Eric Sorenson and Braeden Mitchell on guitars and backup vocals.

We practiced and developed our individual parts for about 90 minutes, then recorded several takes.  Once again, I recorded both audio and video, and captured the vocals as a separate track and mixed them in during post-production.

All in all it was a fun afternoon, and I feel honoured to play with such talented guys.