Spotlight on SSG – March 2011

This month we’re shining our Sunday Songwriter’s Group spotlight on James, who goes by “jamestoffee” on the Guitar Noise Forum Pages. Even though he’s a relative newcomer to the SSG, having joined in at the start of Year 7, he’s probably one of the most prolific members in SSG history. I’m actually having a hard time remembering a week he’s not contributed something to the assignment, whether a catchy, clever song or some very thoughtful and appreciated bits of advice.

We’ve picked James’ song “Bollywood Blues” as our March Spotlight on SSG feature. It’s from Week 1 of the current SSG Year 9, the assignment being to use a non-12 bar blues but still blues format, such as found in the song “Motherless Children” as a template. Little did I realize that the assignment might produce something like this!

James was also kind enough to answer some questions for me, so here we go:

GN: You joined the Guitar Noise community just a little over two years ago. Do you remember how you found the site and what led you to the Sunday Songwriter’s Group?

James: Yes, I joined on 11/22/08. I found the SSG because of you, David, and your promotion of the SSG in Volume 3, Issue #78

In another repeat of last time’s news, we’ve recently begun the seventh year
of the Sunday Songwriters Group (or “SSG” as we tend to refer to it on the
forum pages). Who would have thought, began back in the Fall of 2002 when
Nick Torres and Ryan Spencer thought it would be great to have a place where
both aspiring and seasoned songwriters could hone their craft, that this
section of the Guitar Noise Forums would still be going strong?

Even more exciting than that news is that the SSG has a new head honcho,
none other than our own Vic Lewis. Something about those British folks
(first Nick, then Bob and now Vic) must make them so keen on songwriting and
assisting aspiring songwriters. I kind of feel lucky to have snuck in there
for the past year!

If you don’t know how the SSG works, well, each week we get a new assignment
to work on and the group also helps each other by offering critiques and
constructive suggestions to those who submit their work. So far in this new
SSG Year, Vic has been concentrating on building songs out of specific chord
progressions and the early results have been very positive.

Songwriting (just like playing) requires practice and feedback, so why not
come on by the SSG page on the Guitar Noise Forums. You’ll find it here:

GN: It seems like you manage to write a song for each week’s assignment. Do you purposefully set up time to write? Do you have a routine, or something that passes as one?

James: I usually write in the evenings after my family and work responsibilities are done for the day. So I usually start around 7:30 and go until I stop for that night; maybe 9, 10, 11, 12, 1….I haven’t made it to 2 AM yet LOL

To “make time” for song writing, I stopped watching television. I’ll still sit through a movie with my kids for our Friday night movie time and I’ll watch a movie with my wife for some cuddle time, but other than that, I could really do without watching television. I’d much rather read or work on music .

My basic song writing process has been as follows:

Idea -lyrical sometimes musical
Bridge and/or solo

As far as routine, I feel like a wannabe “spy or nerd” every Sunday morning waiting for the “new mission” from the SSG headquarters. “This message will self-destruct in…..POOF”….. LOL

I print out the assignment to carry around in my pocket to scratch notes and ideas on. I also keep a small low-budget digital recorder around to sing or hum phrases or ideas into.

After reading the assignment, I try to do some quick brainstorming. I’ll think about the literal and figurative interpretation of the assignment.

I like twists in stories and songs, so I’ll think if any angle or association comes to mind. Material from Edward de Bono has helped me think differently when considering a new idea; specifically his presentations of Lateral Thinking, Six Thinking Hats, and his book, How to Have Creative Ideas.

For my own songwriting process, I’ve come to realize the importance of having an “idea” of what to write about. However, sometimes I’ll start thinking of the music of a song or part of a song that is related or unrelated to the topic. I make a note of the songs that come to mind as well ideas.

If an idea forms in the first two minutes, I know it will be a fast song write for the week. If I come away blank, I know it will be a long week of waiting for the muse to arrive, but it’s not passive waiting; it’s active.

If no initial idea comes, I’ll google quotes about the topic.

If it’s a new song style I am trying, I’ll look on Youtube to find something similar, but I have found something that really stops my creativity is when I find a song that fits the assignment and it’s already done well. Then it’s hard for me to think of alternatives.

If nothing is still coming, I’ll read a lot about the topic. I also think about Myer’s-Briggs personality types and try to piece together what makes this character or singer “tick”

Worse comes to worse, if it’s the end of the week and nothing has worked out, I’ll just force myself to write a first line and keeping asking myself, ” and then what”….. ” and then what”…… ” and then what”….If I’ve been reading all week on the topic, something usually gets squeezed out.

I keep a paper and pencil by my bed if my mind kicks out a thought.

I also review whatever I had written the night before in the morning to see what my subconscious put in order for me, but this only works if I’ve been “feeding my mind” the night before. If I just tell myself to think about a topic before I go to bed, I have nothing in the morning, but if I’ve been reading about the topic, it’s surprising how the mind craves to organize the disorganized while we sleep.

GN: Speaking of routines, are you generally a music-first or a lyric-first writer?

James: I’d say though my preference leans towards lyrics. Knowing what I want to say then helps me figure out what style of music could best help communicate the message of the lyrics.

If a thought comes to mind first, I try to flesh it out. If a thought doesn’t come, I read and read and read.

If a music idea comes to mind first, I’ll try to figure what type of section the music sounds like. Is it a verse, intro, chorus?….and then think about contrast to that section. One of the easy quick ways to come up a “second section” is to play the first section chord progression in reverse and use it as the “second section”

I get a bit more nervous though when the music comes first, because most, if not all, of the music running around in my head is there because I heard it from somewhere else. Then the concern becomes being cliché or having music sound to similar.

Either way and both ways, I try not to shut down the “muse”. It’s a lyric, run with it; if it’s a melody or chord progression, get the bits recorded and piece it together.

GN: We’re featuring your song “Bollywood Blues” this month. How did you make the leap from the assignment of working on a variation of the basic blues and turning into this terrific story?

James: Musically, I followed your suggestion of sticking with the chord progression from Eric Clapton’s “Motherless Child” version
MEASURE: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Chord: A D A D A D A D

MEASURE: 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Chord: A E D F A D A D

Lyrically, I followed your suggestion of sticking with the structure:
Assignment Year 9 Week 1:
“I like starting out with blues songs because they truly make you focus on lyrics in that you’ve really only got two lines per verse. In this case, it’s more like one and a half”:

Motherless children have a hard time when the mother is gone
Motherless children have a hard time when the mother is gone
Motherless children have a hard time there’s all that weeping and all that crying
Motherless children have a hard time when the mother is gone

On a side note, from the very beginning of reading the assignment, I kept thinking of the “She sells sea shells by the sea shore”.

I don’t know why it kept coming to mind. I thought I’d write a song about this girl who sold sea shells, but then I thought, “Why take from an alliteration that’s already been done? Why not try to make my own?
So an extra “restriction or challenge” for myself was to have all the words start with the letter “B”…..even though technically the Indian instrument is not called a “Bongo”, but a “tabla”, I took artistic license.
Then I thought of the “theme” of many blues songs is “loss” or “longing”. There is the universal connection. Also, I had recently purchased some REX2 loops that had Indian sounds, so I thought about unrequited love… India.

GN: You’ve also just taken part in the February songwriter challenge, correct? (NOTE: You can find James’ FAWM material here: What’s that like and how did you think you did this year?

Yes, I participated in the challenge (February Album Writing Month: write 14 songs in the 28 days of February).

The FAWM challenge is simple: 14 songs in 28 days. Why?

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” “” Jack London

Pushing oneself can produce unexpected surprises. However, there were times during the month I thought, “I really need to be careful not to neglect time with my family”.

Here were some of the ways I wrote the songs:

Did the SSG weekly assignments
Did a co-write of putting music to someone’s lyrics
Wrote a song about not being able to write the perfect song
Wrote some jingles for competitions at
Started with rhyming words and writing a song based on those words
Read a Myer’s-Briggs personality type INFP and wrote a song to “step into someone else’s shoes”
Turned “Mary Had A Little Lamb” into a psychedelic song called “Jerry Had A Little Plan”
Wrote a song trying to understand my wife’s perspective on a point in our marriage we can’t come to an agreement on
Wrote a “this is where I am” spiritual song trying to be “real” with my Maker

This comment on the FAWM forum kind of summed up my feelings:

“fawm widow / -er (n.) significant other of a fawmer, thoroughly neglected for the month of February save for (possibly) the 14th.”

February is over !
What a happy day it is for you guys eh?

Thank you all for your patience, your love, support and understanding.

Final count:
497 winners, 1238 active, 10.450 songs !

Everyone who posts 14 songs, or lyrics, or instrumentals is a “winner”…..The prize……It’s all done for the sake of doing it….but you get to keep the experience/education from the process as a parting gift ;)

GN: How important is critiquing others’ songs to the songwriting process? Has it helped you with your songwriting?

James: I think it’s very important as far as motivation and communication. It helps me know and appreciate that if I take time to listen and help others with their craft, someone will do the same for me. Iron sharpens iron.

It has helped my songwriting to see alternatives to get outside my own thinking and also to come with some critique questions I can ask myself as well as others.

GN: What advice would you give to the brand new songwriter who’s still trying to get the confidence to write his or her own songs?

James: The first post is always the hardest, so just do it and get it over with. You’ll be participating in no time!

Don’t compare where you are now with someone who has been doing the same thing longer. Start from where you are and give yourself a break from being hyper-critical.

Think of songwriting as working in a car “chop shop” rather than a “show room.” You don’t have to make every song polished for the “show room”.
Songs are bits and pieces stuck together. Even if you set out to write a “bad song”, just do it. You’ll learn something new from every assignment. Even if the song is totally bad with no redeeming qualities, at least you can say, “I knew it would be bad.”….I’ve learned something new from every assignment.

Read about songwriting from many sources. I used to read about a topic and it didn’t click with me. Then I read something else on the same topic and it did click. Just because you don’t understand or “get it” the first time, keep looking at advice from different sources on the same topic until it clicks for you.

A caveat about reading: I find I am least productive or encounter the most resistance in myself or writer’s block after having read a lot of advice; especially new concepts or methods. However, I find if I keep reading, the bits and pieces surface later when I come to different times of the songwriting. Some ideas I can remember reading about; some I can’t, but that’s not so important. The important thing is all the reading becomes part of my growth as a songwriter.

As far as participating at SSG, you don’t have to have a complete song polished and ready to go. If you get stuck on an assignment, you can post your line or lines, your thoughts or direction or mental block point of the song and see if others have suggestions to get you going again.

In all, songwriting is a marathon not a sprint.

Enjoy the process; enjoy the journey and exploration.

I hope to meet you at the SSG forum soon!


And let me just add that you can hear more of James’ songs at either of these sites:

Hope you enjoy them as much as I do!