SONGWRITING 101 by Joel Sattler
"It takes a prodigious amount of talent to be second rate."
- Ed Eastridge, of Eddy & The Esoteriks
Anyone can write a great song. Anyone whatsoever. But it takes a very good songwriter to do it more than once. And, three times or more? Great.
I am a fourth rate songwriter attempting to be third rate. Sometimes, if I really fool myself, I can pretend to be first rate. Then, once I come down from the high of writing a good lyric, I can mollify to second rate. But in the dark night of the soul at 3 o'clock in the morning, I know where I rank.
Still, there might be something below that an aspiring songwriter can find of use.
I say "songwriter", but what I am really is a lyricist, a maker of words for songs. On occasion I can pick out the melody too, so to call myself a "songwriter" is not wrong.
1.) The number one thing to learn is to know what a great song is, and to know the difference between that and a near miss and a merely good song and a failure. To me, the best is the Beatles, but I was 13 when they hit, and am, perhaps, a bit prejudiced, since I was of the generation that they molded.
A great song is a perfect marriage of words to music, that emos the listener, pumps up the blood sweat and/or tears, gets in the head and never gets out.
There are perfect songs that are bad songs, like "Sugar Sugar" by the Archies, or hundreds of other ditties that are like fleas in the brain that you wish you could kill, but there are many others that can take their place if you do.
There are emo songs that leave you hanging, that just don't quite make it, from a mistake in the lyrics, to an incomplete structure of the music, to other factors which are unknown to me, but seem obvious to the pros.
An example of a "near miss" is "Stairway to Heaven", which takes you up to the top, but the lyrics are ultimately idiotic. "To be a rock and not roll"??? Gimme a break!
The list of great songwriters is subjective. To me, some of them include: Lennon and/or McCartney, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jagger and Richards, Robert Johnson, Rogers and Hammerstein, King and Goffin, Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Irving Berlin, Pete Townsend, Ray Davies, Lerner and Loewe, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Smokey Robinson, Hank Williams, Gershwin and Gershwin, and on and on. The greatest of all lyricists was Johnny Mercer, who could make a silk purse out of any sow's ear. Other lyricists I admire are Robert Hunter, Ira Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, Bernie Taupin, Tim Rice, etc.
2.) Write write write! Then, when you're finished, write some more!!! Most songwriters write hundreds of songs before their first hit. Some great songwriters never have a "hit" per se, but invent pieces that last forever.
In the book "Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell talks about the "10,000 Hour Rule", using the Beatles as an example. The Beatles, when they were unknown teenagers playing in strip clubs in Germany, would play all day all night through thousands of performances until they became something more than a mere rock band. 10,000 hours practicing your craft, writing, playing, working, studying, listening, reading, and talking about it. That's what you gotta do. It's a long haul. It's a tough row to hoe.
One of the worst things that can happen to you as any kind of writer or artist is to make it too soon. To get the reward before you've "paid your dues". Then, you have no sense of perspective. [Not that I would know that personally, but that is what I interpret from the early deaths of the 27 Club.]
If I had known how much work it was gonna be, I would've gotten a REAL job!
3.) Learn what is bad.
The ability to tell bad from good is probably the most important thing you can learn as an artist.
You need to be able to take your bad stuff and just throw it away. I have seen far too many painters try to sell crap. I have read far too many poets who just didn't go far enough. I have seen far too many bands willing to settle for almost.
Bad is not good.
It's amazing how many people just don't understand that.
[I often get it wrong myself. But sometimes it takes years to figure that out.]
4.) Learn what is unique [or, at least, good]. And use it.
You need to be able to look at something you've done, and save that which is in it worth saving.