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On Songwriting…

27 Apr Posted by in Blog | Comments
On Songwriting…

Following are some thoughts and rambles on my approach to songwriting. Outside of my two girls, it’s my life’s biggest passion. I don’t pretend that these thoughts are unique, or even unified, but I hope that some part of them may be useful to you.

I’m a “wait for the inspiration” type of songwriter, not an “every morning at 5 AM sit down and write for 2 hours” type of songwriter. I’ve tried that. No, I’ve thought about trying that. I don’t have the discipline. There’s nothing wrong with, and everything right about, composing during “banker’s hours”, as Stravinsky referred to his 4 hour daily regimen. But that doesn’t mean I don’t take the original inspiration and sweat hours of cracked vocals and callouses on it. And time-wise I’m as likely to be working it from 11 PM to 5 AM as from 5 AM to 7 AM.

When trapping elusive fur animals (I wouldn’t know personally) trappers set their traps and come back later to check on them. As we know, that ain’t happening in songwriting! Get an idea, save it now or lose it forever. I’ve lost many awesome hook ideas because I had to make a left turn in traffic or push my cart up to the checkout at QFC.

When a great idea drifts by and I can snag it, I keep repeating it over and over (and over again if necessary) until I get it either recorded or written down. Otherwise it’s gone forever. I keep my cell phone with the recording app handy.

Later on, when playing back melody or word ideas where I didn’t have an instrument available, sometimes it’s hard to tell why they seemed so good to begin with. If they don’t sound immediately memorable upon playback I erase them. Couldn’t ‘a been much good in the first place. I save the good ones in Evernote.

My best ideas most often occur just in my head sans instrument; with rhythm, melody, harmony, and sometimes key changes, all at once. Four years at Berklee helps. I’m not talking about a whole song, just the original inspiration. It could be one beat, one bar, or sixteen bars. The good ones, even years later if they’re still waiting to be used, I never forget.

When I decide to start work on a new song it may or may not be the latest idea I’ve recorded. First I’ll pick the genre. For instance: if I’m going to do a co-write or want to write something to send to a certain publisher, I’ll go back over my favorite files, saved by genre of course, and maybe take an hour or two to kick the tires.

After picking an idea I get the equipment out. One or two guitars, a keyboard, desktop computer, and cell phone. That’s my usual setup. Depending on the genre, a guitar, my voice, and the recording app on my cell phone may do the initial grunt work, up to and including a super rough version for a co-writer (but not a publisher!). I can record a better version on my Tyros 5 keyboard. It’s got great vocal and guitar effects and can do simple overdubs. But if I want a full demo, I’ll do it in Pro Tools on my desktop. I’ve got a pair of Focal CMS 65 near-field monitors and AKG K701 reference headphones. Super good. And sound deadening material on the walls. Mostly I’ll work on the music, all the way through.

Then, if the music feels really special, sometimes I’ll wonder if I’ve copied someone’ s melody. I’m pretty sure they can’t nail you for a chord progression? I’ll spend hours, or even days (not all day long!) searching to see if I’ve ripped somebody off. Usually not. But sometimes!

Once I came up with an awesome melody and harmony, a perfect ballad. Turned out it was from a Tom Jones song, note for note. Took me weeks to find out. Bummer. I threw that idea away.

I would never intentionally copy anyone. But say I did, unintentionally. Who’s seriously going to come after me, at my level? It’s not like I have huge record sales and am picking their pockets. And another thing…

I’ll copyright the songs I send out. Just the old standby, sending registered mail to myself and then not opening it. If the song’s going to be successful, the publisher’s going to copyright it for themselves anyway. Until that point I’ll tell them it’s fully copyrighted.

But will someone really steal my song and turn it into a hit? Of course they will! NOT!!! You can probably count the famous cases on the fingers of both hands, over decades.

I read somewhere if you find that someone is making money off of a song of yours that you didn’t copyright, once you prove and copyright it you’ll get the royalties from then on. But you’ll lose the royalties from before. I can live with that. Personally, and only if it wouldn’t be recorded otherwise, I’d give up all my royalties on a hit song I wrote. It would give me the cred to work in the big leagues on my next hit! I would put it down to paying my dues.

For me, music is the easy part. It goes fast. It’s what I love.

Words have always been a struggle. I can write decent lyrics when push comes to shove, but I don’t enjoy that fight anymore. I’d rather work with a lyricist or a songwriter who writes great lyrics.

I made my living playing music for eight years. I’ve had one song published and won 2 songwriting awards. I’m still trying to write my best song, still trying to have my songs published. I’m still trying to get them performed by recording artists. There’s a long way to go, a big leap. But I have this passion, the same way you have this passion, for music.

Gary Milici
Gary was born and raised in Kailua, Hawaii. He has won two songwriting awards and has a degree in film composition from the Berklee College of Music. Other than singer/songwriter, country, pop/rock, and other popular genres, Gary has written and had performed music for big band, studio orchestra, and choir. His song, 'Lonely Christmas', was signed by Big Fish Music Publishing. He spent two years as lead singer and rhythm guitarist in The Smokey Road Band, a southern rock group that performed in Waikiki, throughout Oahu and the outer islands, and did a month-long tour of the orient. Gary currently resides in Seattle where he concentrates his time writing music for others and collaborating with lyricists and other songwriters.

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