Twice a year for the last six years or so, I have attended the four-day Durango Songwriters Expo. The people that attend this intensive confab are publishers, film supervisors, performers, and most of all songwriters of all ages. I’m going to break with my usual MO here and not drop any names, but I can tell you that the pedigree in attendance is pretty noble and the level of songwriting craft is pretty high.
Starting at 9 AM each morning (and going to well past midnight for most of us) we perform and attend panels, discussions, and workshops about the songwriting industry. But the main focus of this event are the song critiques.
Twice a day, we break off into groups of 20 or so for two hours and subject our songs to the industry luminaries and ask for their guidance in exchange for smiles and gratitude. Every session starts out with the disclaimer that these are just opinions and are to be taken as such. You’re not necessarily encouraged to change the song that you were sharing, but take the ideas and feedback and apply them to your next song. I did the math here and figure that over the course of my participation, I have probably listened to more than 500 song critiques. And although we tend to get specific and come up with unique ideas and feedback for each song, there is a thread of recurring criticism. So I thought I would share and highlight what I sense are the top 10.
1. Understand your role. Not so much a critique as an important distinction, the role of a songwriter as opposed to that of a singer-songwriter is good one to understand. As a singer-songwriter you will be able to get away with lyrics that you can explain in your performance intro or that goes along with your image and story. You have a bit more leeway since these are personal. Writing as a songwriter only, you are more beholden to the craft and use of direct language and form. You are now writing something personal for someone else. You not only have to win the heart of the audience, you have to win the heart of the performing artist.
2. Don’t chase the industry. Write from your deep place and your experiences. If you are still working your way into the industry there is a good chance that the market will have changed by the time you get there with what you think is the current trend.
3. Don’t write in an outdated style. This one comes up a bunch for us older types who are told we just wrote a hit song … if it was 1985! Again don’t set to chase the current styles but it is a great idea to be aware of the latest trends … and the old ones too.
4. Show not tell. This is the big one. We know you are sad, or in love, or ready to dance. But don’t just tell us. Paint a picture, give an example, create a mental image of your emotion. Think of it as a 3-minute movie and you have the camera.
5. Keep the lyrics conversational. Use as much common language as possible. It’s not poetry. Would we say that line, or use that lyric in everyday conversation?
6. Avoid the curse of the second verse. You have a killer first verse, but you said it all and now the second verse is just a rehash of the first. Learn to peel back the fruit and expose the story a little at a time, kind of like those Russian nesting dolls. I have also seen songs dramatically improved by switching the first and second verse.
7. Know when to throw out the best line. You know how you are working on a song, let’s say about sunshine, and you come up with a killer line. But it really doesn’t fit into your song about sunshine. But you keep trying to force it in. Experienced writers will be able to see what’s happening and pull that line and start another song with it.
8. Create lift. The idea here is that the songs needs to keep getting more interesting and pull the listener in as it goes along. The observation goes something like … the verse and chorus sound the same. Create lift and interest by raising the pitch of the chorus melody. Or lift by double timing or increasing the subdivisions of the rhythm. Or lift by increasing the energy of the lyrics or the cadence of the lyrics.
9. Keep your subject focused. The more narrow and specific you can be with your idea, the more powerful it will be. It will then be easier for the listener to know exactly what is on your mind. Frequently we have seen two songs being written as one. Create a statement or a short paragraph as to what the song is about. A little storyboarding can really help.
10. Can you think of another way to say that? Watch out for the over used and cliché lyric. There have been so many songs written that it seems by now that there can’t possibly be anything that has not been said or used in a song. But we have to keep trying to come up with fresh ideas … or old ideas and make them seem fresh.
I know these are short explanations for each. And I know that many creatives can be leery of the rules of craft. But as one of my favorites teachers years ago said, “You have to know the rules so that you know which ones you are breaking.”
We will be going over these ideas and much more at my Songwriters in Seattle workshop on February 25th in Greenwood.