Category Archives: motivation
1. Get it done. Don’t make everything perfect.
Write all the time, and stop striving to reinvent the wheel. You’ll never write “In My Life” or “Fix You”. Neither will I. They’ve already been written. Just write. A lot. Daily. Slow and fast songs. Silly stupid songs. Serious ones. Get it done, and stop giving a damn what people think.
2. Get opinions from those you care about.
You made a 5-song digital EP? Awesome. Check in with friends. Send mp3s via email. “What do you think of the EP? Which song is your favorite? Am I onto something, here?”
Low-sung verses. Higher-sung choruses. Slow guitar strums with a fast beat. Or the opposite. Piano songs. Acoustic songs. Mix it up. Maybe a song entirely with bass guitar, sax, and drums (the band Morphine made a career of a similar sound).
4. Forget what you know.
Know a lot about music theory? Who cares? Forget about it, when you write. Detune your guitar into some weird altered tuning so you are forced to try new shapes with your fingers. Go into a sound in your keyboard that makes little sense. Don’t always run to the grand piano preset. Throw an effect pedal in between your keyboard and computer, and see what comes about. Experiment with a loop pedal. Take chances!
5. “I’m not as good as…”
Never compare yourself to others. Friends of mine are insanely talented. INSANELY. Their keyboard skills make me want to quit playing keys. Their singing voices are insanely trained. So what? I am not a trained singer, but I can sing, and harmonize. I can play basic piano stuff, but I cannot play difficult passages or songs. I can’t shred a blues solo, and my fingerpicking is capable, but nothing spectacular. Doesn’t matter. I focus on my strengths. Do the same for yourself.
6. Focus on the end result, the goal, the reason you do this.
Stop dissecting every step along the way when you’re writing and recording. “Too much string noise when my finger scraped the strings, there”… or “my voice cracked a little, in that part”…. “my harmony sounds a little weird, but ok…” Who cares?! Roll with it. Then listen to the song when it’s done, then make new decisions and choices. I wrote a song years ago. Recorded it in late 2014. It was cool, but I decided I hated it when listening to it again, last week. I changed the keyboard parts, and sped up the song while retaining the same key (thank you, computers). Now I love the song, and it’s infinitely better. Took two years to tweak it. Needed to give it a rest… listen, and then all the “here’s how I need to change it” brainstorming came out, within one listen of the song. I’ll release it soon… hopefully. End goal, right?
7. Be YOU.
Be yourself. Always. Stop singing like John Mayer or Ben Howard. Sing like YOU. I taught myself to sing listening to Green Day, Third Eye Blind, Ben Lee and Jimmy Eat World a lot in the late 90s. My voice is similar to theirs, and I love that. My songwriting style is similar, in some ways, too. It’s simple. It sounds like me. I can’t do Sigur Ros, and I can’t do Jason Mraz. I can’t do Bon Iver unless I’m playing with my vocal harmonizer pedal and lots of reverb. I fuck around, and roll with whatever sounds good to me. I love so many singers (and TONS of female singers, too) but I can’t do them. I can only do me.
8. Minimalist. Simplicity.
I saw an acoustic singer-songwriter a month ago. Too many fancy chords, rhythms, fancy-pants nonsense. His shit was forgettable. Then a few days later, I saw another dude. Lots of G and Cadd9 chords with a capo. His lyrics, delivery, and vibe of the song spoke to me way more intensely than the first guy.
Matthew Sweet wrote “Sick Of Myself” in 10 minutes. He thought it was a stupid song. Turned out to be one of his biggest hits, and he never regretted putting it on his 1995 album, “100% Fun.”
Jason Mraz… most of his really easy shit… A Beautiful Mess, I Won’t Give Up… SIMPLE AS HELL. And perfect. John Mayer’s “Gravity”? NO ONE CAN ARGUE HOW FUCKIN’ GREAT THAT SONG IS. Simple, and perfect. People like shit that they can just vibe to. They don’t need masturbatory musicianship. They want something that speaks to their souls. Make music like that, and change the world.
I can do shit solo. And often do. But I also come up with some great shit, working with people. Don’t be afraid to. It’s important.
10. Rest. Think. Watch TV. Read. Kill it, but chill, too.
Rest. Rest. Rest. REST. Stop working so hard. Hell, just yesterday, I killed it with my friend Mike. We tracked three new hip-hop songs to beats we threw together in a few hours. We shot a video session for YouTube. We shot video as he tracked vocals, so we can have material for YouTube. We ate food and talked about nutrition and working out. We took a break and hung out. But in 8 hours, we did a LOT, and killed it. Today, I plan on doing the same. But first, I needed four hours to chill, blog, and help all of YOU. Then I’m going to hit the studio hard and work on shit. It’s 5pm. I have til about midnight. I’ll get it all done, and I’ll take a break in between. Don’t forget to fucking REST. Seriously. Ok? Cool. Get to work. Or chill.
Have a tip to share? COMMENT!!! 🙂
Something that always bothers me about music in general is it seems to be divided up the middle: cool, and uncool music. Even in pop.
Cool (yesterday and today): Joy Division, Chvrches, Hozier, Dance Gavin Dance, Wilco, Alex G, Turnover, Wet
Uncool: John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Alex Goot (not Alex G), Ida, Twenty One Pilots, Billy Joel
In local scenes… you have the acoustic/folk singer-songwriter people, and the hipster/punk/DIY bands. I’m friends with people from both scenes, and always have been. Both are making listenable, cool music. But god forbid you’re on the opposing team, and you find yourself at one or the other shows. What would everyone think?!
I see this on social media all the time, too. It bugs me. A lot.
There’s a level of songcraft that artists who truly don’t give a damn and are really all about the music (and put in their 10,000 hours), always seem to strive for. And then there’s an (admittedly) lower level of songcraft, from artists who exist mostly to please their popular friends, in a scene. They might also enjoy music and the art of making it, but for these artists, it’s more about the immediacy and the lyrics carrying the music, and less about the total package.
Take for instance, local hero (at least to those of us in Philly), Alex G. Alex G is an artist whose music I don’t entirely enjoy, though I also don’t entirely dislike. By and large, it’s not that musically interesting or listenable. But it’s got that certain something and anyone who’s a huge fan of his can understand the appeal. He’s insanely popular. Insanely popular. He’s got 77,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. Seventy-seven thousand! It’s only going to grow.
On the flipside, let’s take Ida. A band I worship (and always will). The level of songcraft is much, much higher with this band. They released their first record in 1994. Their best record is 2000’s Will You Find Me (Tiger Style Records). Carefully-thought-out harmonies, interesting guitars and arrangements, and an avant-garde sensibility, shared with Alex G, who also has a huge avant-garde sensibility in his pop writing.
But… why does Ida only have 2,800-ish monthly listeners on Spotify, whereas Alex G has 77,000? Part of the reason is that Ida never has promoted themselves, nor has toured much. And they haven’t released any new music since 2008. But… the craft. My god, the craft.
Alex G records all of his music from his college dorm (or friends’ houses). And it’s lo-fi as FUCK. Ida records in professional studios, or sometimes at home, but again…. it’s a higher level of craft all around. Again, let’s compare.
Why is one cooler than the other? Why does one have thousands and thousands more listeners?
More importantly…. what do YOU do when you feel you’re making the best music you possibly can (and when you listen to it, you realize… “This is damn good!”) and like, no one… NO ONE CARES. You see all these mediocre bands from your town or city get all the press and all the shows… and not just press, but multiple press, weeks or months down the road…. and you read about bands you feel your music is better than… everywhere you look. What do you do? Do you refine your craft? Do you change your sound to become more lo-fi? Do you throw a little bit of “phony” in your genuine sound? Do you let the lyrics be 85% more important than the music, itself?
I feel this is an important discussion, and something so many artists are afraid to publicly discuss, or honestly admit to other artists, or themselves!
Recently, I purchased the $30 (one-time fee) for Speedsongwriting.com, by Graham English. His site promises an easy, fast way to write good songs. I know how to write songs (and occasionally good ones), but I wanted to sign up for this, to try and get better habits… and songs written faster… I mean, this is what his “course” promises.
I enjoy some parts of it, but I think a lot of is upselling scam crap. His most recent email to me is asking me to join his “Songwriting Bootcamp”, at about $200. “With this, you’ll get… blah blah blah ($197 value).. blah blah blah ($197 value)… blah blah blah”….
I didn’t sign up for that. Mainly because I’m not entirely impressed with the “value” of the stuff I’ve watched/listened to, and read, since signing up.
I’m seeing a lot of repeating things in every new thing he adds, weekly… a lot of repeated powerpoint presentations (made into streaming videos), just a lot of repeating.
I’m wondering if, at the end of this course, that I will be more pleased with my purchase.
He offers a full refund, no questions asked… if you’re not fully satisfied. I won’t do that, but…. I think a post like this might be more helpful, in not losing your money. I’m more interested in trying to help people in a legit way, than offering some “too good to be true” thing.
I’m not a stupid person….. I didn’t “fall” for his course… I decided “ya know… I’ll give it a try. I might learn something new.” But I don’t know… lots of blah blah blah, and lots of repeated stuff…. and upselling. Nothing I hate more than someone trying to upsell me, when they haven’t offered much substance, with their main thing.
I’m sure eventually Graham will find this entry. If he does, cool! Maybe it will inspire him to make a better, more helpful offering, songwriting-wise. Again, as of this moment (two weeks into the course), I’m not very impressed.
Just a heads-up, peeps…
I had a lesson with one of my students Zoe, who is exceptionally talented, intelligent, and cool. She’s been writing songs as long as she can remember, and asked me how to vary her latest song, as she wanted to get out of the rut she was in. So I wrote down a few things for her and demonstrated each thing… and then I photocopied the page, because I knew what I wrote down was pretty helpful.
Here it is:
1. Chord Substitution with complimentary chords
if you have a progression with Am, try FM7 instead, on the second pass (all of the notes from Am, plus F)
2. Chord substitution with out-of-key chords
If you have a progression with Am, try A or even B7, instead
3. “Walk-ups” or “walk-downs”
C, to G/B, to Am (think Landslide by Fleetwood Mac) or G, D/F#, Em
4. Chords higher up on the neck
Think triads, or open chords beyond fret 12
5. Repeated motif over the chord progression
You’ll need recording software for this… or a 2nd person. Have the 2nd person/track just arpeggiate a complimentary triad over your chord sequence. Easiest way to add texture to a song, and give it an extra boost of cool.
6. Changing the chords more frequently
This was Elliott Smith’s go-to thing, especially if it’s “much more frequently.” Almost all of his songs have a chord change every two beats, and sometimes even every beat, or every other word. Difficult to develop, but can really add sophistication to a song.
7. Adding a well-placed “gross” chord
Such as diminished, augmented, m7b5, or something completely unrelated (or hell, even just a simple dominant 7, if you avoid them in 99% of your songs).
8. Stay on a chord longer, but keep the same progression
Say your progression is Am / F / C / G. And each chord plays for a bar. Try staying on the Am for three bars, and then change to F / C / G on each beat of the 4th bar, and staying on G for an extra bar or something). This is a great technique.
9. Play the progression as triads, instead of open chords
Simple, but could be exactly what the song needs.
10. On the third line of your chorus, make an entirely different progression
Again, say your chorus is Am / F / C / G…. maybe on the 3rd line, use this progression instead: FM7 / FM7 / Cadd9 / Em7
Go write! And something I don’t say enough (or practice enough) that was coined by my good friend Mike “Wolf” Benson– “STAY CREATIVE AS ALWAYS!”
an experimental hip-hop album Mike and I released in 2013 (I did all the music/production… Mike is the vocalist/lyricist):
With the ever-emerging popularity of sites like Bandcamp and Tumblr, more and more indie artists are releasing stuff at a rapid rate. Most of these recordings I come across are of the lo-fi variety.
What’s lo-fi, you ask?
Well, it’s a recording style (or hell, maybe even a genre of music, if you want to get analytically snobby about it) where you just record whatever you want, with whatever resources or equipment is around/available (yes, cheap equipment, and friends who might not be able to play instruments proficiently, but enough to get the job done). You might go “into the red” while tracking a song, and you might have the absolute worst guitar tone ever, but you do it all in one take, and make it the best you can.
Now, I’m not going to be snobby about the lo-fi thing, at all. No fucking way. If anything, songwriters and bedroom recordists who put stuff out there with cheap, crappy-sounding equipment is some of the most inspiring music I’ve ever heard (from the time I was in high school, to today).
I have grown insanely tired of over-produced, sparkly, extremely-well-performed music… even though I was into it for a bit, when I started teaching music. Nowadays, I just don’t care. I want good lyrics, good melodies, and music that comes from the heart, or obviously wears its heart on its sleeve. Nothing sounds better to me.
Here’s a great post by someone at Gearslutz.com, defending lo-fi… and someone who responded right after him…. notice the two polar opposites of opinion. I completely am on the first guy’s side, not the second.
The original lo-fi artists were lo-fi for pragmatic reasons and they preferred the freedom and spontaneity of using, say a 4-track in their bedrooms to having to spend loads of money and work in a really restricted way in order to get hi-fi studio recordings. Lo-fi sound is really about freedom and spontaneity more than it is about sound quality. When people speak nostalgically about lo-fi records, theyre nostalgic about the spontaneous, wildness of those records more than they are about the crappy sound. Although the fact that these records avoided the lamer side of modern hi-fi (over-compression etc.) may also be a factor.
Lo-fi sound is all about the front end of recording. It’s a situation that enabled artists to experiment themselves with sound by messing about with gtrs and mics. It seldom had anything to do with big mixing desks and expensive monitor systems. If they wanted a certain sound they would have gotten that during the recording stage. Also it seems unlikely anyone would hand you a record for you to make sound crappier than it already is. I say assume that they already have the sound they want (lo-fi is about front-end, not mixing) and just try to do a good job of what theyve given you without polishing it too much. Pan, balance, ride levels, maybe a little corrective eq-ing is probably all they want.
Finally if someone comes to you talking about lo-fi and you don’t know what theyre on about it goes without saying that you should check some source recordings out. The earlier recordings of sebadoh, the mountain goats, daniel johnston, pavement and elliott smith are all great records and defining sources of that lo-fi sound.
and the other guy……
Personally, and obviously in art it’s all subjective, but I think that bands who WANT a “lo fi” sound lack either material or chops or both. They are using the production style to make interesting what is inherently musically not.
Wrong. To me, it’s about passion, immediacy, inspiration, and simply “getting it down.” The songwriting quality always matters more than the production. Always. Take Hank Williams’ earliest recordings, and Elliott Smith’s first record… and compare them to the over-produced/over-engineered Nickelback and Taylor Swift stuff. The new shit doesn’t even compare.
Food for thought.
Every week or so, I talk to my cousin on the phone. He lives on the Jersey shore, and I live just outside of Philadelphia, PA. I’m about an 80-minute drive from him, and vice-versa. We see each other about once every two years. That’s not enough.
Let me tell you a little about my cousin.
He’s a genius. He can play guitar decently, can sing anything, can freestyle rap and make anyone piss their pants who’s within earshot, and he can write great lyrics that actually say something (or nonsense) and it always grabs everyone’s attention. That’s just the kind of guy he is. Everyone says he’s got the gift of gab, and he does. I’d kill to be as insane, and magnetic as he is.
But he talks shit all the time. “I’m gonna be the best damn producer ever” or “oh yeah man, when I make that first million….”
He’s 38 years old. I’m 37. I don’t think anyone gives much of a damn about our artistic endeavors anymore (or if they ever did). But…. my cousin’s the type of guy that if he really put in the work, he COULD be a millionaire. He could be the next ANYTHING…. Eminem, Ray William Johnson (the YouTube personality), ANYTHING…. he’s just got that “IT FACTOR.” I don’t have that It Factor.
I can’t count how many times we talk on the phone and say the same crap all the time… “let’s do this… seriously, we’ve got to do this… man, I’ll visit you… you visit me, we’ll really grind stuff out… put these wheels into motion.”
And yet… it never happens.
A year and a half ago, I made the drive (and I HATE driving, believe me)… and set up his computer, tweaked it, let him borrow some great recording equipment, a great mic, a MIDI drum pad, you name it… tons of sample loops, etc. We played guitar and sang songs and he showed me some ideas he had, which I thought were genius… Johnny Cash-ish country underdog tunes, and Social Distortion-ish rockabilly awesomeness.
Almost ten years ago, my cousin recorded 7 rap songs (produced fully by him, after training from me) and they are STILL the coolest things I’ve heard in a while. They’re cocky, confident, original, and completely my cousin. And if he re-recorded/tweaked them a bit, and put them on YouTube, the world would be at his feet. No shit.
But he hasn’t done anything yet.
Our conversation tonight began.. “well, I gotta upgrade my computer… I think it’s slowin’ me down…” (it’s a quad-core with like 12GB of ram, but yes… it’s only running XP, but that doesn’t matter, because all of my recording programs and stuff are still 32-bit, so they don’t use anything more than 3GB of ram, and I’ve never run into problems when tracking… even after 24 or 25 tracks with a lot of effects plugins like reverb/compression, etc). But this is kind of how he operates. There’s always an excuse or something holding him back.
But nothing should be holding him back. He’s got a gift from God or whatever you believe these gifts come from… he needs to be “out there” and making at least tens of thousands of dollars from his amazing ideas.
There’s one thing I never want to see (but I’m afraid it’s inevitable)… it’s turning 60, and my cousin turning 61, and him saying the same damn shit he’s always said since his mid-20s…. “yo, man, when I make my first million…. shit man, I just need a Mac with 64 gigabytes of ram, and a double-octacore Intel i700 processor… and I gotta have that EXACT bass sound that Rhianna used in her song from way back when in 2014….”
All of you reading this— get the fuck to work. NOW. Before you know it, we’re worm food. What do YOU want to accomplish as an artist? Whatever it is, get the fuck to work.
And no one needs this advice more than ME right now, too. Thankfully I have some people who love me and always encourage me to keep going and get shit done. Laziness, fear of rejection, and bullshit excuses always hold me back. Don’t let that shit hold YOU back. Get the fuck to work.
Much love to all of you,