Five Common Things That Hold Songwriters Back

Five Common Things That Hold Songwriters Back

Leo Tolstoy once wrote that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Well, it turns out songwriting is the opposite. Every happy songwriter is happy because they’re unique in some way. But the causes behind every stuck, struggling one are usually pretty similar. See, in most cases, what stops would-be songwriters is fear of getting started. Songwriting can be frightening. Songwriting is hard. It’s easier and safer to watch TV. But if you want to get good at songwriting – and since you’re reading this, you probably do – you have to write. And if you want to write – and since you’re reading this, you probably do – you have to get off your ass and start. Even though it’s frightening. Even though it’s hard. Even though Netflix just released the new season of Narcos. 90% of success in songwriting is getting started. Because the more you do, the more you realize your fears are unfounded and the easier it gets to overcome them in future. That’s right. Feel scared but do it anyway. Because here’s the thing: in songwriting, like in life, it’s almost always better to do something than nothing. It’s almost always better to do the quote-unquote wrong thing – and learn from it – than do nothing at all. And just in case you’re still round the fire making S’mores at Camp Sit-There-And-Do-Nothing, let’s talk about five common beliefs that might be holding you back – and what you can do about them.   You Think You Don’t Know What You’re Doing OK. I’ve got a newsflash for you. Nobody really knows what they’re...
Sure, Blank Pages Are Frightening. But They Don’t Have to Be.

Sure, Blank Pages Are Frightening. But They Don’t Have to Be.

I know, I know. The blank page is frightening. It could be anything. Anything. That’s frightening. But then again, it could be anything. Anything. That’s exciting. I’ve never once sat down to write and not surprised myself with what I came up with. Not now. Not ever. Not even when I was just starting out. Somehow, every time I sit down to write I end up discovering things I didn’t know existed. Cool turns of phrase. Interesting melodic shapes. Chord progressions I didn’t realize worked. There are always surprises.     Sure, there are plenty of bad surprises. Things I didn’t realize don’t work. In fact, there are probably more of those than good surprises. But to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, it’s OK because that kind of surprise goes in the wastebasket. But those good surprises go in the thing I’m making. Or I save them to go in some future thing I’ll be making. They make the thing I’m making interesting. They make the thing I’m making fresh – first to me, and later to everyone else. And the more I’m excited by the surprises I’ll discover once I start to write, the more fun writing becomes. And the more fun writing becomes, the better I do it. And the better I do it, the more I want to do it. Go on, try it. Change your mind about writing. You might surprise yourself.   Photo by Caleb Woods on...
There’s No Such Thing As Writer’s Block

There’s No Such Thing As Writer’s Block

When you were growing up you probably believed all kinds of crazy things. Maybe you believed in the tooth fairy. Maybe you thought you’d grow up to be an astronaut. Maybe you believed you had to be good all year or you wouldn’t get any Christmas presents. Of course you believed these kinds of things. That’s what being a kid is all about. But if you’re above the age of twelve you probably don’t believe these things any more. You realized your parents made up the tooth fairy to help you feel less weird that parts of your mouth kept falling out. You realized that being an astronaut would be pretty cool, but you hadn’t really thought through how hard the training is, how dangerous it can be and how difficult it is to be selected to go into space in the first place. You realized that being good for Santa isn’t nearly as rewarding as being good because you live your life in accordance with your own morals and values. And if you’re above the age of twelve you probably started to realize that part of growing up is realizing that some of the things you believe aren’t that useful to you any more. And if you’re above the age of twelve you probably started to realize that readjusting your beliefs can be hard. You probably started to realize that acknowledging there’s a better way to think about something can really piss you off. But you probably started to realize that once you got through that discomfort you were much better off in the end. So it is with writer’s block. Writer’s block is a convenient thing...
Why I Chose Art

Why I Chose Art

When I was sixteen I thought I’d be a doctor. I say I thought. I didn’t really know. I figured you had to decide something, I was good at science at school, my parents are both medical. So I said ‘why not be that’. I’m glad it didn’t work out that way. I’m glad I gradually wound up where I am today. Not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed medicine. Not that I wouldn’t have been a good doctor. Even for all mind-fucking things you have to do to become one, and the back-breaking and mostly thankless things you have to do to stay one, it would have been a life very well spent. Whether ultimately I chose songwriting or songwriting chose me, I’m not sure. But I am sure I’m glad I’m here. Even if eighteen-year-old ‘No thanks, I’ll be a musician’ me had no idea where here would be. There’s a common view of young artists (actually, most artists) that says we’re a drain on society. That arts education is a high-minded, mostly masturbatory waste of time. That we should go get a real job: work in a factory, an office or – even – save lives in a hospital. It’s a view that says what we do is less important because it’s hard to see what point art can have in a world where North Korea are probably making nuclear warheads, millions of Africans definitely don’t have enough food to eat, and anyway the street is full of potholes, they missed the trash collection this week and bloody hell have any of you seen my keys? And you know, there’s a point...
Playing It Safe Is the Riskiest Thing You Can Do

Playing It Safe Is the Riskiest Thing You Can Do

Let’s just get straight to it: there’s no room for safe any more. Safe is guaranteed boring. Safe is guaranteed mediocrity. Safe is a guaranteed ticket to nowhere exciting. Economy, of course. The appeal with safe is that it’s easy. It’s easier not to take risks. It’s easier just to repeat the same old way of doing things ad infinitum. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with something being old. It’s that we get bored of old. What’s hot right now ends up looking like those dodgy 70s haircuts that make you wonder what the hell your parents were thinking. The trouble with safe in 2016 is that safe is everywhere. It’s never been easier to saturate the daily fabric of life with safe: pictures of your cat, your Facebook status about your broken microwave, some comment about your grumpy boss. We’re one wafer thin mint away from exploding from overconsumption of safe. We’ve learnt to block most of it out because it’s the only way any of us can go about our lives. Risky is harder because where there’s risk, there’s fear of failure. But taking that fear of failure too seriously comes at a price. Let’s imagine for a moment that every song ever made could be given a single score from 1 to 10. 1 is the worst thing ever written. 10 is the best. The trouble is that when most people write, they aim (intentionally or not) for the 4 to 6 range. They’re writing songs you might describe as nice, average or OK. But here’s the crux: if you want to write a 7, you have to be prepared for it to come out a 3. If...
As an Artist, You Should Travel More

As an Artist, You Should Travel More

I’m writing this from my cousin’s apartment in Mexico City. Saludos. Mexico is the thirteenth country I’ve been to and I’m trying to raise that number stat. Why? It’s not just the travel bug. It’s that I figure international travel really isn’t optional for anyone who considers themself an artist. And no, this isn’t some article about some prissy millenial who discovered himself while shearing goats in the mountains of Nepal. I’m not trying to convince you to start an online business, travel the world and live a life without ties and regrets. I’m not telling you your life in some Birmingham suburb is meaningless and unfulfilling by comparison. I’m telling you that travelling is an essential part of growing up as an artist. And I’ll tell you why. Unless you still live round the corner from your parents, you’ll have experienced moving city at least once. Maybe it was when you left home to get a job or go to college. Do you remember what that was like? Suddenly there are things you can’t take for granted. Suddenly you have to find your way around unfamiliar streets and resort to Google every time you need to find a supermarket, hardware store or post office. Suddenly you have to adjust to all kinds of cultural micro-subtleties: how much to tip, the local slang, whether jay-walking is considered acceptable. Travelling abroad, when it’s done properly, is the same thing magnified a hundred times over. You have to adjust to a totally different culture: different expectations, different values, different ways of doing things. Sometimes this process happens smoothly. Sometimes not. But there...

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