Writing…Getting Things Done!

“Writing is not difficult, what’s hard is sitting down to write”
– Stephen King
Getting things done is hard. Writing is hard. And no, it’s not the actually doing, it’s actually sitting down and writing. It’s the active decision to alter our brainwave patterns into a different state. I’m good. My current Alpha Waves are pretty comfy. Those Betas are harshing my mellow.
Today I’m going to throw out some tips and tricks to help you get more done with your writing/songwriting.
Take A Bite Outta Crime
I love the 10 Minute Rule—when I want to put off a task, simply begin it for 10 minutes, then abruptly stop.

There.

We get over the hardest hurdle which is simply having started. Originally, I heard this from a student of mine who used this method to get a jump on her assignments. The paper no longer hung over her head, cramping her style, but she had already had a bite taken out of it. It became easier now she just had to “finish” the project.

Take a bite outta crime

Tomato/Tomahto
A more fleshed out version of the 10 Minute Rule is the Pomodoro Technique. In fact, I’m using it right now. Here is a great rundown of it. When I’m procrastinating and have an afternoon with an open block of time, elves run out playing flutes, and it’s suddenly a great time to do laundry, bathe the dog, or chip away the honey-do list instead of the thing I need to accomplish. I become yellow and squeamish and it’s hard to begin, knowing i’m going to be locked in the task’s prison all afternoon. Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato. The technique originally encouraged a little red kitchen timer to “chunk” out your big task into smaller, fun-sized bits of 25 minute increments.
1) 25 minutes of hard work
2) 5 minutes break

3) Every third break should be 20 minutes long



I personally love the free app FocusBooster—it’s free, really customizable, and already on my computer. There is even a built in “break” that will auto-sound so that you can lift your head out of your prairie dog hole and know when it’s time to go back. I do happen to have a personal reward system for that “break” time—my mind is jumpy and creates ideas and distractions and things I want to Google and songs I want to hear RIGHT NOW, so i just jot them down on a “parking lot” on a separate sheet so my toddler mind knows it won’t forget them. It is a great way to juggle projects. I’ve had buddies tell me that starting a new Netflix show intimidates them in the same way. They don’t want to watch Daredevil or Kimmie Schmidt because the feeling of multiple seasons slogging thru is intimidating.


First Things First
One common trend in most of the people’s lives in Daily Rituals is that almost all the men and women start early. They get their work done first before the rest of the days’ tasks. Not everyone, but most people. Ever since reading that book I have decidedly awoken an extra 90 min before I need to and have that time to write, meditate, and read. I literally crank out 750 words before breakfast. I start with Morning Pages, and most people agree that the mind is better able to handle tasks involved with critical thinking early in the morning. (esp once the caffeine bean kicks in). I personally try to disregard email (not very good at this) and jump right in to writing projects of different kinds, scheduling conundrums, and critical project management. The afternoon is saved for emails/correspondence, meetings (read re:work), grading, and editing. I have dear friends that swear by their late night workloads, and that does have it’s own magic, but that’s a blog for another day.
Lastly, don’t try and do it all in one sitting.
The outstanding remainder will compel us to complete. Hemingway said the secret to his workflow was that he stopped at a point where he knew he’d obviously know where to pick up the work the following day. It created a forward momentum to help him continue a kinesthetic workflow.


Watching: True Detective S2 (Anyone else see that the lyric’s to the Leonard Cohen intro tune changes every time???)
Listening: Brian Reitzell – Auto Music
Reading: Law & Gospel – Mockingbird Press
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Write Smarter, Not Harder: Bro. Andy Paens the Praise of Evernote


My fourteenth semester at Visible Music College has concluded, and I’d like to roll out the time to plan and plot. However, a two-year-old bio-terrorist in the twins’ class brought a lice outbreak to their classroom, and now I’m just trying to keep cheese on the cracker.

But. On to this week’s lesson and musings. I know you’re excited.


Today I’m going to show you how the organizational process I use to write and save songs.
It’s crucial to write down and record every song I write. I audition scores of scallawags for the college’s Songwriting Division who simply rely on their own memory devices to recall all the songs they’ve written. Let’s give our brains a break. Our minds feel relaxed and open to new sources of information and inspiration when they feel they don’t have to “hold” on to previous data. That’s basically the scuttlebutt on one of the primary ideas behind Morning Pages.

Up until about three years ago, I’d transcribe chord charts in Word/Pages/Finale and save them in a “Music” folder within Documents on my laptop’s hard drive. Inside that there would be different folders corresponding to a bevy of bands, projects, or years (if they were songs-without-a-home). This helped with organization as far as archival, but not helpful when it came to quickly finding something I was looking for, or juggling in-progress ideas. As I normally work on two or more songs at a time, this weakness was crucial to fix. Also, trying to access the songs anywhere besides my hard drive was a drag. I’d need to print off on paper or email a file to myself in order to open it on my phone (where I do most of my work on-the-go).

Next, I’d sing musical ideas into the VoiceNotes app in iOS, or just throw down a rough take in GarageBand. As far as  on-the-go lyrical ideas, I’d use an iOS note feature like MagicPad, since it had more text editing features than Notes, (although the Notes feature of syncing-with-iCloud is really attractive).

I needed ONE primary source to aggregate all my inspirations, works-in-progress, and finished ideas. Not countless computer folders that I can only access on my Mac, not three different was of recording. Not even two. ONE.


ENTER: EVERNOTE
I’ll forever sing the praises of Evernote. All my files live in the cloud, so I never lose information whenever my computer or phone crashes, AND I don’t need to worry about re-copying material across multiple devices. Basically, you create documents called “Notes” that you can put in formatted text, photos, audio, etc. It is not limited by page breaks or tight margins, so I feel like I’m writing on a giant whiteboard, not a typewriter sheet. For some reason, that stimulates the ol’ Newton noggin. In fact, I write all of these blog entries in Evernote, then once edited, I upload them to the WordPress interface.


WORKCHAT
Since Evernote’s WorkChat feature has been added, the possibility of collaborative songwriting efforts right in the program are realized. I’ve used it a couple of times in teaching songwriting lessons, but not yet in something that I’ve worked on with somebody. (If you want to collab on something, email me!) The only thing I feel WorkChat is missing is a markup history, ala  GoogleDocs, that way I could follow who made which changes. It definitely decreases the amount of steps needed to share a saved file between people, whether it is a song chart or a saved web article.

NOTEBOOKS
On the organization/archival front, Evernote lets you create “Notebooks” that contain notes on a certain subject. For the topic of “Songwriting”, I actually have three: Songwriting Tips, Songwriting Ideas, and plain ol’ Songwriting, where I have works-in-progress and completed songs. Evernote’s tagging feature helps me further organize the minutia.
Here’s a simple songwriting workflow.

Sample Songwriting Workflow


Full disclosure: when I’m in a pinch, (aka driving) I’ll still open up iOS voice notes and quickly throw an idea in there, but if I can focus long enough, I depend fully on Evernote.

I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to the capabilities of the program, but I wanted to simply outline the way I use it for my songwriting workflow. I’ve chosen Evernote because hey, you can’t beat free, but ultimately I would encourage you to find some method that helps you 1. Record and archive every idea

Watching: Whiplash
Listening: The Delivery Man – Elvis Costello

How Hoarding Can Help Your Songwriting/Writing

I tell people my twins are “thirty-three months old” because, duh, it’s hilarious to watch people’s faces while creating living satire. Maybe I’m getting older and suddenly I’ve devolved to that 8th grade history teacher that quotes Simpsons references just for their own amusement. Well my thirty-three-month-old/two-year-old daughter bojangles behind the whole fam when we take walks. She’ll find rocks, dandelions, forgotten lego pieces, and teeth from drifters she’s murdered and tries to bundle them all in her hands and pockets (with cumbersome success). My wife says this is a typical girl phenomenon called “collecting”.
I call it “hoarding”.
I walked into her room the other day and next to her My Little Pony collection there were five stacks of yellowed newspapers yay-high, a pile of old phone books, and 8 black trash bags full of McDonald’s-limited-edition Beanie Babies. Gotta get that toddler an intervention.


When it comes to songwriting/writing how can it be to our advantage to collect and hoard? The more you have, the more you have to draw from. Don’t sit there and try to brainstorm ex nihilo. We descend from the Information Age and with the world’s collected knowledge at our fingertips, our songs and prose should be savagely different than the last couple of centuries.

I’ve been accumulating ideas for years, My Evernote is Smaug’s horde, huffing around as a dragon amongst seas of gold doubloons. Where do these ideas come from? This list about sums it up. I read once that every quarter or so we should go through our backlog of ideas to see if our psyche can make the coveted connections that we call “inspiration”.
I did this very thing recently. So I I had an original (failed) song draft of that was more a noir crime story, but the plot wasn’t compelling enough. I re-wrote with aggression, digging into my steamer trunk of “good” and “inspired” ideas, dumping as much as I could into one song. I guess it was an event of spring cleaning. The song evolved into more of an impressionistic owl pellet of ideas. You ever have to dissect one of those in grade school? We did in 6th grade in northern-lower-peninsula Michigan. The owls eat mice, rats, and bowls, digest the usable proteins and cough up the unusable bones and hair in a compressed pellet. Yes, another dissection story. My mind seems to absorb inspiration and ideas over time and eventually combine them into an owl pellet of finished work.

Here is the result:

Superbowl Sunday
It was this Superbowl Sunday
I took a jawbone of an ass
I went in to the house of jackals
Took a deep breath of laughing gas
Walking through a thicket of antlers
I thought I smelled somebody telling truth
Then you flashed your Cold War glamour
And said “We’ve been expecting you”
I was fumblin’ thru the wreckage
Thought ’bout Jesus and his dad
It was last Super Bowl sunday
The best that I ever had
It was this Super Bowl sunday
“Dharma bummed” in your parlance
You were my burnside companion
A friend of friends of friends
A man born under hunches
I fought up into welterweight
Though I retired in the Winner’s Circle
But caught the Legionnaire’s Disease
Autopsy showed no foul play
But I know something had
On last Superbowl Sunday
With Jesus and his dad
I’ve continued cleaning out my personal inspiration horde/hook book because I feel like my mind has become stagnant. My boat is waist-high in grouper, why would I need to cast my nets overboard? I’ll put my mind in a place of need for more, and my subconscious should begin collecting the items I need for me to write down in Evernote. Why Evernote, you say? Well, that is a post for a different day…

Does anyone know of any studies done on the the fact-gathering/holding phenomenon that our brains have?


Listening: The Descendents – Everything Sucks
Reading: The Voice of the Heart, Chip Dodd
Watching: Netflix’s Bloodlines

“Gimme Something Good” Analysis

Ryan adams
Something I’ll do occasionally here on the blog is deconstruct great songs for our songwriting learning purposes. I love anytime others do this, whether it’s this blog, or Owen Pallett’s analyses of pop hits for Slate.com.

I want to look at Gimme Something Good from last year’s superb self-titled release. This song has a number of music theory magical elements at play here, but I’m going to zero in on one in particular—the effect of where the rhythm of the lyric lines begin.
Here’s the tune:


The primary electric guitar riff firmly establishes a strong assertion on beat 1, forcing the song to feel very grounded, while a blues-influenced vocal line sashays around the verse. The verse lines come in on beat 3, which establishes an assertive mood (beats 1 and 3 are the “strong” beats).
Verse 1 
Line 1: enters on beat 3
Line 2: + of 2
Line 3:+ of 2
Line 4: 2
Line 5: 3
Line 6:+ of 2
Line 7: 3
Line 8: 2
Chorus: There are two two-measure lines at the top of the chorus that enter firmly on the downbeat of beat 2.
Line 1: (beat 2) All my life…
Line 1: (beat 2) Holding…
The title/hook line appears directly after these “set-up” lines on beat 1. This is the first time we’ve heard any line fall on a beat 1, and it assumes a position of power in the listeners ear. Whether intentional or not, placing the hook/title line on beat 1 creates an undeniable mental cementation.

Gimme Something Good (chorus analysis)
bt 1 Gimme something good
bt 4 Gimme something good
bt 3 Gimme something
bt 1 Gimme something good
bt 4 Gimme something good
bt 3 Gimme something good
THEN the primary electric guitar riff slams on beat 1 of the re-intro to verse 2, leaving the listener very satisfied.
This is idea is reminiscent of Frank Black/Black Francis’ writing for Pixies’ choruses to provide an addictive and disorienting 3-over-2 chorus feel. They’ll use a 3-bar phrasing in 4/4 time. See: “Wave of Mutilation” and “Hey” (this article goes into great detail on this concept). Also, Jimmy Eat World’s “For Me This Is Heaven” achieves the same effect, over a linear drumset pattern for even more unruliness.
The good ideas don’t end there—, that last “Gimme something…” before the end of the chorus leaps up a minor 7th from the B to an A, leaving the listener with a feeling of urgency.
Anything anybody else wants to add to this analysis, or disagree with anything I said? Comment section, y’all!!


Listening: Ryan Adams, S/T
Reading: The Voice of the Heart, Chip Dodd
Watching: Daredevil, S1

Rube Goldberg Songwriting


As I’ve written about many times before, I like the idea of creative systems.
I think I first picked the idea up on my radar from Brian Eno and his work with Peter Schmidt on the Oblique Strategies card deck, and he’s spoken about the subject at length in his published journal A Year With Swollen Appendices. The late poetry professor Richard Hugo speaks about a this phenomenon in his essays on creative writing, The Triggering Town. For a poetry final exam, he gave his students a poem project with an insane amount of restrictions, and then says that, without fail,
Too many beginners have the idea that they know what they have to say–now if they can just find the words. Here, you give them the words, some of them anyway, and some technical problems to solve. Many of them will write their best poem of the term. It works, and I’ve seen it work again and again. While the student is concentrating on the problems of the exercise, the real problems go away fro a moment simply because they are ignored, and with the real problems gone the poet is free to say what he never expected and always wanted to say (pg. 31).
IMG_9035

This week, I also gave my students an assignment with an hearty number of restrictions. The idea is to put your inspiration through the system of your craft, rolling around the creative restrictions. Think of a Rube Goldberg Device (funny name, serious sandwich). I first saw one when I was a young lad on the opening to a moralistic show about a boy with a cartoon friend only he could see.


The assignment: Choose one of Kyle Thompson’s photos from his online gallery and stare at it–generating a large amount of unconscious inspiration. Start with your gut feeling and describe the emotion you are feeling. Keep the emotional content heightened for your chorus. Maybe take out another piece of paper and free-write words and other images evoked by the photo. Form: Must follow this order:
V1
V2
C
V3
C
1/2 VERSE
C2
Special instructions -Must include an instance of contrary motion between the melody moving against the opposite direction of the harmony. (i.e. There She Goes, by The La’s)
Must also include an internal rhyme in the penultimate chorus line, leading to the final title line. Ex. You thought it was fine/to take what was mine
But now you’re just — killing time

I liked this series NPR did called Music Project Song where they’d bring in songwriters—sometimes individually (as in the case with The Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt), sometimes a team (Moby + Kelli Scarr), and sometimes a couple that have never even met before (Chris Walla (ex-Death Cab) and Jawbox’s J. Robbins). They’d let them choose from a series of pictures and a series of words, and then write an record the song in two days. The stuff of thrills.




Reading: The Voice of the Heart – Chip Dodd
Listening: Fugazi – The Argument

Hot Yoga, and Leonard Cohen Tells The Truth

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“I’ll be there for you”


A new Planet Fitness opened around the corner from my house, and I decided to try something new and become a member. I totally love going, and going as often as I can. Kinda surprised myself. Am I becoming a gym rat? I just like going for the drugs. Get all those juicy endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin flowing like wine. Keep away the haranguing depression and anxiety–a pox on you! This morning they actually gave out free bagels, so I made sure to replace all those beloved calories that I had just burnt off. I was a runner for almost ten years…I loved the high and the freedom of the wind blowing betwixt my whiskers. Running’s not for everyone. My wife hates running. I respect that. I hate hot yoga. No, not Bikram Yoga, hot yoga. Practicing two feet away from a lot of other sweaty, farting, bodies in a 100º room. Yoga rules. Love yoga. But I hate being hot. It’s difficult enough surviving in the Memphis summer heat, my tongue parched and pores screaming for moisture—except for the 80% humidity, ahhh that’ll do the trick. But she loves it. And since my knees staged a body mutiny, I stick to the gym machines. That is a truth.

Been plagued by this idea of “truth” in songwriting (and “regular” writing), ever since I read Leonard Cohen’s interview in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting. I wrote about this interview a couple of weeks ago, but this idea of truth has emerged like a weed in many songwriting conversations the past couple of weeks. Maybe it’s not a weed, but a blossom.

Cohen starts by actually stating the opposite point of truth (pg 334):
Some songs take a decade to write. “Anthem” took a decade to write. And I’ve recorded it three times. More. I had a version prepared for my last album with strings and voices and overdubs. The whole thing completely finished. I listened to it, there was something wrong with the lyric, there was something wrong with the tune, there was something wrong with the tempo. there was a lie somewhere in there, there was a disclosure that I was refusing to make.

Zollo keys into this and follows up with,
PZ: Earlier you said that you couldn’t sing an early version of “Anthem” because it had a lie in it. Does this mean that the songs have to resonate in truth for you to be able to sing them?
LC: They have to resonate with the kind of truth that I can recognize… (pg 339)

My mind’s been orbiting this thought in one way or another for the better part of this month, with (two posts ago) about point-of-view and value. Maybe that has something to do with it, as well—being authentic with your POV and your values. Bringing everything into focus, like the focus wheel on binoculars. I’m trying to strive for this…this, focal truth—I’m throwing overboard the word authentic because it stinks of co-option by marketing boardrooms. Writing songs this month committing to not having lies in them.


Reading: Song: The World’s Best Songwriters on Creating the Music that Moves Us ed. American Songwriter Magazine
Listening: Giant Sand
Watching: House of Cards, S3

Van Dyke Parks And A Matter Of Perspective

Brian Wilson micromanaging Van Dyke Parks. (j/k???)

On a bit of a creative momentum. Been finishing a lot of new songs lately, trying to figure out why. I would say that I normally start a lot, but I won’t put the time into it if I feel that it’s not worth finishing. Or maybe I have another idea and I move on to the new shiny. A lot of “writing coaches” talk about finishing everything, no matter what, and maybe that’s somewhere in my head? I already have 14 songs in the running for a new record, falling under the working title Precious Melodies Against Satan’s Devices. Yes, an old Puritan reference. Or perhaps, Old Hundredth. So, yeah, a creative momentum. Not this week, though. Been an odd week; with a combination of a persnickety sickness and fistful of snow days, I didn’t leave the house for almost a week. Wednesday was my birthday and it was a quiet one, at home with my children, playing Legos, fielding hilarious calls from loving family members.
Around the site here, I’ve attempted to re-working my bio in the STORY section, and make sure there are listed lyrics for the last two records in the SOUNDS page.
The other night I played LaserTag for a good pal’s bday, and the mob of us were required to pick codenames. There was a score system to tell you who you shot and who shot you, and 10-year old us’ crawled out of our skins. Hanging out with such a group of clever guys keeps the laughter flowing like wine, and we had a couple version of codenames of my friend’s mom, and two alternate spellings of his dad’s name, and mine, JUNG$TUNNA—yes, as in Carl Jung, shooting lasers into everyone’s collective unconsciousness!!
snapshot-D53288BC-7B94-4830-B84F-1D503AA640D5
I enjoyed everyone’s humor point of view, and I might wager that’s why we like who we like. I’ve been re-reading sections of Paul Zollo’s weighty tome Songwriters on Songwriting, specifically the mid-triptych of Leonard Cohen/Van Dyke Parks/Randy Newman/Harry Nilsson. If you haven’t checked it out, Songwriters is an essential musicological primary sources and an embarrassment of riches. Zollo compiles in one volume his interviews with “classic” folk/pop/R&B/country songwriting heavyweights whose careers peaked between the 1950’s through ’80s. It is the kind of book that works in small chunks, as a desk resource and bathroom accoutrement. So many of the interviews sparkle; many take considerable time to digest the gold.
(The Incomparable) Van Dyke Parks mentions in passing, that his perspective on lyric is that all lyric is is an illustration of a point of view. My copy’s at the office and it’s a snow day, but I have the Fourth Ed, and it’s in that chapter, beginning on pg. 295.
I can show you practical ins-and-outs regarding lyrical technique, but I can’t make your lyric interesting. It’s your POV that will help your lyric from falling flat. A former colleague used to say that people respond to feel over perfection. This is why you can have an amateur lyric that shakes your soul, and at the same time have an elaborately well-articulated idea in with perfect meter, rhyme scheme,  and prosody that sounds like it was written by a robot. And everything is adjusted to taste. I’m picky, and you may hate what I like, and vice-versa. This is ok as well. We like points-of-views like we like people and personalites. And isn’t that what a lyric is? An extension of someone’s personality? This is the case I’m trying to make, at least.
The point-of-view becomes the vehicle for your aesthetic values and art philosophy.
I once had–I wouldn’t call them lessons, because they were more collaborative feedback sessions on the artist’s work–but I worked with a really cool songwriter/musician from the Faroe Islands (I hadn’t heard of it either, somewhere off the coast of Iceland and the Netherlands?). I think he’s now hung up his rock n roll hat and become a sheep farmer, but the kid was genius. He told me that in every song he had three values he worked to integrate: a spiritual truth, something humorous, and something dance-y, or movement oriented. He posited that if you could get the audience to become physically involved, the band could make quick work of their minds and emotions. This writer had an enjoyable and distinct point-of-view, and I had found a brother in values from across the sea.
Find more out the perspective that you love–what you love, finding out why you love it, someone else’s values mirror your own in a point-of-view that is sympathetic, empathetic, or seductively contrary to their own (or parents: see: hip-hop, heavy metal, every teenager everywhere). Your point-of-view then becomes a vehicle for your values, your writing isn’t a utilitarian vehicle for your values. You don’t like the color blue, and then find a car you can spray paint blue just to show it off, right?
That’s why I love the song Susanne: values of spiritual, and earthy. Same thing with Running Up That Hill (Kate Bush) and One of Us (Eric Bazilian). God is real in these songs, he has a phone and lives in a building, maybe, thus preserving mystery.