I’m certainly no authority on songwritting. However, I’ve written a hand full of songs and people seem to ask me often about songwriting.
The greatest songwriting lesson I’ve ever heard came from the movie Walk The Line. Listen to the sound clip called "bring it home" on moviesoundscentral.com (scroll down to: "bring it home" it's 4th from the top) or just read this excerpt from the script:
[after record producer Sam Phillips stops Cash's band a couple of verses into their audition]
Sam Phillips: We've already heard that song a hundred times. Just like that. Just... like... how... you... sing it.
Johnny Cash: Well you didn't let us bring it home.
Sam Phillips: Bring... bring it home? Alright, let's bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you were lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you're dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You're telling me that's the song you sing. That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio, all day. About your peace within, and how it's real, and how you're gonna shout it? Or... would you sing something different. Something real. Something you felt. Cause I'm telling you right now, that's the kind of song people want to hear. That's the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain't got nothin to do with believin' in God, Mr. Cash. It has to do with believin' in yourself.
- Walk The Line, 2005, 20th Century Fox
Something worth singing about originates from your “gut”. That means it’s not something you know as much as it’s something you feel. Furthermore, it’s something you feel strongly about. It’s not always correct or even accurate, but it is how you feel at the time.
In my opinion, it seems like too many songs I hear sound more like they’ve been written from a place of obligation or pressure as opposed to any sense of real urgency. (Pressure meaning to appease a specific audience, culture, or a time crunch.) Often the result if this kind of writing is that the words might be “true”, but they just don’t sound like “the truth”.
Quick note: Have you ever wondered why bands often put out an incredible first album, then release very average second and third projects? It’s probably due to a major label production schedule. They spent 3 years writing the first album (before they got signed) and about 6 months writing the second and third.
All this to say the writers who really touch me are the ones who are brave enough and honest enough to tap into that dangerous place in their hearts and sing about something they really feel. Not just something they think they’re supposed to feel.
So lets bring this home:
“If you was hit by a truck and you were lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song..that people would remember before you're dirt….that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. You're telling me that's the song you sing…. Or would you sing something different. Something real. Something you felt. “
How do you really feel about life, yourself and the world around you? Do you really believe your words that your singing? Are these the words you would sing if nobody was around? What makes you cry? What makes you laugh? Do your own words and melodies move you or are you writing the things that you feel people like you ‘aught to write? Are you singing the words and phrases because they mean something to you or because you’ve heard them before?
Don’t give me the “side hug” folks. Write music from your gut, not out of obligation. I want the grit. I want the hard truth. Otherwise your just buzzing like the fridge. We all hear ya, we just don’t notice anymore.