I was driving home on Highway 101 on a September evening when a spark finally lit a fire in my mind. I was thinking about how again and again through the years I’m drawn back to make an attempt at songwriting. And again and again the inspiration fizzles out in frustration. It started in college during a music theory class when I wrote my first, simple instrumental piece. Over the years, I tried a few similar instrumentals and eventually a few simple songs. But I’ve never found my songwriting groove.
The trouble is always: Where to start? When I finally find some time to sit down and write and I haven’t the foggiest notion what to write about. So, I’ve borrowed inspiration to keep the pace in recent years – writing a few parody songs for work, recording a few covers to practice sound production.
My train of thought that day in the car started with more borrowed inspiration. Maybe I could write a song based on characters and events in a movie? Maybe on the verses of the Tao te Ching? Perhaps not as original as I’d like, but at least it would be a stepping stone.
Then I looked at my iPhone mounted next to the steering wheel, connected into my stereo. I realized I had a valuable tool inside of it that I’d never even considered. For years I had been compiling my Resonance playlist, containing only songs that had a powerful impact. Out of the 10000+ songs in my library I’d distilled just over a hundred that really, really ‘worked’ – at least for me. So the simple spark that day was this: Why not mine these for inspiration? What makes them work so well? So, still on 101, I brought up the playlist and started cycling through songs at random, excitedly jotting down mental notes about their content.
Within minutes I spotted my first trend. In song after song I found one word appearing over and over: You. They weren’t about what “I” did or “he” did or “she” did. They were all written like letters to someone specific, someone important. Later, when I put everything into Excel like a good (former) engineer, I found out that fully 2/3 of all the songs on the playlist were written in this way.
This seems painfully obvious to me now. It’s probably on Page 3 of “Songwriting for Dummies.” But I’ve always approached songwriting either from the third person (as with almost any book) or from the first person, like a journal entry. I’d never thought of writing a song like a letter to someone significant. Duh.
What seems to make this vantage point powerful is that it is so personal. Often the artist is singing to you – “you there, in the car.” That makes a connection. Even more often, though, the writer is speaking to a lover or an ex-lover. You are eavesdropping on a very private conversation. Even more compelling.
For me, it finally gave me place to start and still be original. I could write to people. I do it everyday – my daily work is steeped in carefully worded emails to people. Suddenly there were so many options: writing songs directed at family, old friends or old flames about great or awful relationships. Writing to politicians to tell them how really I feel. Writing to historical or fictional characters in admiration.
That one observation led me to create not only this blog but also my next song. In this case it will be about a particularly important ‘You.’ I hope to write a post about it here soon.
In the mean time, I encourage you to take note of your own favorite songs. How many are written to You?