Well, Paul has offered me a regular column. Which I accepted. Funny though, when I wrote my first article, I thought I’d just have to write a couple of pages and the information would all be there. I wasn’t even sure if it would actually be useful to anyone. When you’ve been writing songs for almost 20 years, you don’t really have to think about what you’re doing, you just do it.
Now, that first article ran for seven pages. In the days that followed, I realized there was a lot I hadn’t said. The response has been good. I still haven’t received any hate-mail, so I guess I’m doing something right… Therefore, thanks to everyone who’s been reading and thanks to Paul for accepting these excerpts from my twisted mind…
Since the reason I decided to do this was to help out by offering resources that were pretty much non-existent when I was starting out, a weekly column opens up a whole new set of possibilities. There are many things that may, at first, seem unrelated to songwriting, but in the end do have a relationship. Over the next little while we’ll be exploring many avenues that will help you, I hope.
One of these avenues will be digital recording. We are now at a crossroads in musical history. These are indeed great times in which to be a songwriter! We’ll also look at strange ways of writing songs. Formula writing. Being different, and proud of it. The emotional dangers. Which songs to bring to a record company. Translations, etc. I also welcome any suggestions you may have.
This week we’re looking at attitude. Attitude has a lot to do with writing songs. Or at least the orientation of your writing. “Has he lost his mind?” I hear you asking. “I would have had to have one first in order to lose it!” I answer. What do you want to do with your songs? Your answer will determine the attitude you need to assume to get there.
Being full of yourself
Alanis Morrissette was raised a few kilometers from where I live. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting her, but I know a lot of people who did. When they talk about her, there’s always one thing that stands out: her attitude. People who have no respect for talent, or who are jealous of it, say that she had a bad attitude, that she thought she was above everybody else. People who can respect talent say that seeing her walk by was enough to convince you that she would make it big time. Even if you didn’t know who she was.
You see a lot of big stars in interviews who seem like nice people. I’m sure they are. But, inside, they think they are above the rest of us. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be where they are. Some display that attitude regularly. Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page are two examples that come to mind. Back in the sixties, these two guys were battling among themselves to be recognized as the greatest guitarist in the world. They completely ignored everyone else. Including a young man named Jimi Hendrix. If Hendrix had survived, Clapton and Page would not be where they are today. (Trivia: Hendrix had an audition scheduled for 2 weeks following the date of his demise. The band, had he joined, would have been called HELP: Hendrix, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.) More proof of Clapton’s arrogance: Cream. Most people ignore the fact that the band was really called THE Cream, meaning the cream of musicians. Is that being full of it or what? Duane Allman recorded the guitar solo on Layla, not Clapton. At least Page isn’t a sellout.
Where do you want to go?
How often do you go to parties and have a bunch of people playing guitars? I never bring one myself. I’m not particularly interested in playing in that kind of setting and jamming isn’t really my thing, I prefer a more structured approach. Anyway, my songs are better than anything these guys can come up with… Now there’s an example of what I’m saying: There is nothing wrong in thinking this way, as long as you can RESPECT what else is being done.
I remember this one party where there was a guy in his sixties who handled his acoustic in ways I would not have thought possible. You look at a guy like that and think it’s a pity the world is missing out on this kind of raw talent. I asked the guy what he was doing there. He told me he simply had never had even the slightest interest in making a career out of it. He wanted the traditional life. Simple, undemanding, no pressure. Well, it’s his right.
There are others who will write that one song and be happy about it. They know they could write more, but are simply not interested. Some people will write many songs, but have absolutely no interest in playing them themselves. Others may be less talented (not necessarily) but want nothing more than to be on top of the world. And stay there.
First thing you have to do is figure out where you want to go with your songs. Then adopt the right attitude. If you just want to play at parties, then this column isn’t really for you, as any attitude you want to adopt will work.
Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have
If you’re aiming any higher, though, you need to adopt certain concepts. In some course or other I took many years ago, I remember the teacher saying “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have”. The idea behind this is that if people are used to seeing you as above your current position, they’ll think it only natural to place you in that position. If you act like you belong in the big leagues, everyone will assume that that’s your place. Never go begging to a record company:they’ll eat you alive! That’s if they even bother listening to you.
You have to go to a record company through the big door, looking like you’re in your natural habitat. In order to do that, you have to believe you belong there. If you’re on a stage and people have actually paid to see you, you have to believe you deserve to get paid to be there. If you want Sting to call you and ask to record one of your songs, you have to expect him to be calling.
However, you have to remember that it’s easy to go overboard. No-one likes someone who’s too full of himself. You have to remember to find the appropriate measure. A record company executive might listen to you if you seem to know what you’re talking about, but will ignore you completely if your love for yourself is your only topic of conversation.
Comparing yourself to the best
Your first step towards this attitude is to know how to compare your songs. The reason I started writing songs was that I figured that if others could do it, then I could do it too. That’s all there was to it. Once I had a few songs written, I started looking at other musicians who’d been in the business for 20 years or so and had never written any songs, and thought that I was better than they were. Now, I’m older. So I believe I am better than they are. But only in certain ways. Now I know that I could teach them a thing or two, but that they could also teach me a thing or two. See the difference?
What you want to do is not compare your songs to those of others who write songs and forget all about them. You want to compare your songs with those of professionals. If you write pop songs, you may realize that what you write is much better than most of what’s out there (yeah, I know that’s not too hard). But I’d be very surprised if you’re writing better songs than Duran Duran or David Bowie. Remember to be objective. Personally, I can’t stand Prince, but I can recognize that he’s one of the most talented people in the business.
So pick out the talented songwriters, and compare your songs to theirs. Assume, from the start, that you can do at least as well as they can. Then do it. Once you start comparing, you’ll also notice things that they’re doing and that can help to improve your own style. Once you think you’ve achieved their level, it’s time to go beyond. Therefore, you must know that you can.
And don’t limit yourself to one songwriter. Choose many. Over time it’ll be encouraging for you once you realize that you’re getting better than some of them.
This is by no means an exhaustive list (and is in no specific order), but some songwriters you may want to check out: Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), Justin Hayward (The Moody Blues), David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette, Steve Hackett.
Of course, with an attitude like that, a lot of people won’t like you. But that’s actually a good thing. By talking to people from various places around the world, it seems that school systems are pretty much the same everywhere. Teachers teach what they have to teach and nothing more (with some few exceptions). By the time you finish school and go out into the real world, you find that you know nothing you need to know. Most people, therefore, fall back to what they’ve been taught: 1-Get a job, 2-Get married, 3-Buy a house, 4-Have kids, 5-Buy a minivan. It’s simple and it’s what’s expected from you from the beginning of your life (how many times did your parents say: “When you grow up and get married…”?). Bringing your art to a professional level is not. It’s continuous work that doesn’t even stop once you’re an established star.
Twelve years ago, I’d had enough of fighting my way to the top and I took the easy way out. I followed most of the rules (although, not in order). I got a job, got married, had kids and woke up kicking and screaming in the middle of the night from nightmares of rows of minivans driving in front of rows of identical suburban houses.
It took me eight years to realize this was not what I wanted. Once the realization came, getting back into it was not very easy. I’d established a routine that, even though I didn’t like, was easy. I had to let go of many things. Once I did, however, I found that I was much better off without them. But those are years I lost and will never get back. If I had kept the attitude I had, I would never have surrendered to the easy life.
So what if some people don’t like you? You’re not in a popularity contest. The people who matter, those who will be wanting to listen to you will have the same kind of attitude you have. Some people might disagree, but if you study the people around you, you’ll realize that the vast majority of people stop growing, intellectually, at some point in their lives. Some people stop growing when they’re eighteen, others stop at thirty or forty. Most stop around twelve. (I can feel the hate mail coming now…) Before disagreeing, check it out. What you want to do is be part of the very few who never stop growing. That’s the only way you can believe in yourself.
And belief in yourself is what matters. If what you want to do is have others record your songs, you need to approach them. No one’s going to come up to you and ask whether you’re a songwriter. If you’ve just written a song that you think would sound good with Roger Daltrey’s (The Who) voice, you have to go up to him and get him to listen to it. You have to make him understand that your song is good enough for him (not that he’s good enough for you song). Therefore, you have to believe that your song is good enough for him. If you don’t approach him because you’re too shy, he’ll never hear it or sing it. You have to remember that no matter what name they go by, they’re just people. Assume that if they made it, so can you.
It’s sort of like going in a bar and seeing this magnificent woman. If your attitude is that she’s too good for you, you’re not in her class, whatever, you’ll never get her phone number. If you go to her with the attitude that she’s a woman and you’re a man, then your chances are better. You have to believe you’re better than the other guys there and you have to show her you are (just telling her won’t work). Now you know why you’ll see an extremely beautiful woman going out with a guy who looks like he just escaped from the local zoo; he went over and talked to her. He believed he was better than the other guys there and he showed her. That’s attitude.
Who makes it?
Start dreaming, but never let go of the dream. Especially during the hard times. You hear about so many people who’ve tried to make it but failed. The truth is that not very many people have tried to make it and failed. There are some, obviously, but not many. Most people get discouraged once they see the work involved. Once their band breaks up and they realize they have to start all over again, that’s it. That’s when you start separating the men from the boys. Or the women from the girls (don’t worry, ladies, I’d never forget about you!). Go on to the next band and the next. If you knock on twenty record company doors with your demo and they all reject it, don’t get deflated. Most people do. What you need to do is write and record more songs and do it all over again. Don’t assume that they’re fools who wouldn’t recognize a good demo if it hit them in the face. Assume that they’re fools who wouldn’t recognize a good demo if it hit them in the face, but come up with something even better anyway.
Flash and the pan
A lot of people sign record contracts, have a hit and are forgotten. Why is that? They come up with other albums, but not as good. Well they thought they were lucky with the first one and were “hoping” the next one would do as good. Bad attitude. You have to assume that you can do better the next time around. That’s the only way you’ll do better. Every artist or singer out there that stays on top has this sort of attitude. Or has a manager who has that attitude. I can’t stand Celine Dion, but her husband/manager has quite the attitude.
Don’t be afraid of knocking on people’s doors or of imposing. Just don’t be rude. The only way of earning respect is to show respect. If a manger has a wall covered with gold and platinum albums from artists he’s represented, don’t bow to him, but respect his abilities at getting people in the right places. Acknowledge that he knows the business. Also assume that this is the type of person you need to represent yourself. Don’t speak to him as if he were a superior being, nor as if he were a moron (even if that’s what you think of him). Speak to him as an equal.
So, to review: Be a go-getter. Believe in yourself. Assume you’re better than the rest, but remember there’s always someone better than you.
And always remember: If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out!
Questions, comments, feel free to email them to me.