In the world of producers, labels, lyricists, and lip sync—it’s hard to discern what truly comes from the heart versus what comes from the wallet. When the band I led in college quit school and went to New York to try and “make it”, I had this glorious notion that the adventure would involve playing showcases for major labels and packing out clubs on the merits of my songwriting talent. Then, our manager told us that he had arranged a meeting with a producer who could change our lives.
I’ll never forget his words: “This guy is going to make you. Do what he asks! If he says ‘jump’, you jump. If he pulls out a handle of vodka and says ‘drink up’, you drink—because your future is riding on it!” Needless to say, my band skipped the meeting, ordered Chinese food, watched a Ben Folds DVD, and fired our manager, soon thereafter.
Here’s the point: Don’t buy what this world sells. Don’t pass the buck on your own story. It doesn’t take talent to be honest. It demands integrity. This blog post is my attempt to convince you that no one else in the world can write your song better than you.
“The more you read—the better you write.”
This quote is the mantra of creative writing teachers everywhere. I had this drilled into me during college, and for good reason, because it works. Tolstoy claimed that sincerity holds high rank in aesthetic virtue. I believe sincerity comes from understanding; and, I urge you, writers, to be intentional about understanding this world you live in. Listen to the stories of existence—people you do life with everyday. Worship leaders write for faith communities. Bandleaders write for instrumentalists. Friends write for friends. There are so many songs just waiting to be written. Claim them and give life to a story.
Find space to create.
My friends refer to it as “the cocoon”. I simply call it “the studio”. It’s a room where I play the piano and sing as loud as I want. Here, I hang up art, write on mirrors, wring my hair, and renew my strength.
Of course, this is not the only place I create. I keep a digital piano within ten feet of my desk at work. I also determine North, South, East, and West, by the proximity of local coffee shops in the area. Why? Because these are the spaces where I feel most comfortable to create.
Creativity is a hard thing to schedule. So, whether it’s in a voice hall or on a voice recorder, find spaces where your imagination will flourish and pour your songs into it.
Write and edit as you go.
Don’t over-think the song. So many people I talk to expect a masterpiece out of their first creative effort. This is possible, but highly unlikely.
I wrote my first song when I was seven. I would love to tell you that I was a prodigious young talent, but that would be a lie. I could barely find enough words to rhyme myself out of the first verse; and even then, everything I wrote was sung to the melody of a Boyz II Men song.
Flash forward twenty years—I make a living doing music and writing blogs about it. The only reason I can call myself a musician is that I was naïve enough to never give up. I’ve made peace with the fact that there will always be someone better than me, but I rest in the knowledge that no one knows my story like I do. So, before you worry about rhyme or rhythm, let your initial goal be to capture your story. I have journals full of lyrics that have yet to be sung, but I know that when the right melody finds me, I’ll have pages upon pages of ready material.
Embrace a song; then, let it go.
In the beginning stages of writing a new collection of songs for my band, Beggars Made Believers, I tried to pull from disjointed thoughts and scribbles in my journals. I remember being driven by a strong desire to say something—anything—of worth, but nothing seemed compelling. Finally, out of artistic desperation, I simply penned a plea for true inspiration. I had no intention of making a song out of what I wrote, but a few days later, a melody came to me and brought new meaning to my prayer. I edited what I had originally written to fit the cadence of the tune and came up with something that felt authentic to my experience. I named the song "Inspire the Words".
Here are the lyrics:
Oh, come fill my soul/ and overcome the world that tempts my heart/ Oh, come make me whole/ restore, renew the patterns of my thoughts
Because it’s taking every part of me/ to find the words that say something/ about who you are and not just me/ Love come down
You are my solid ground/ firm when everything around me falls/ You are my strong reward/ worth everything and so much more
So overwhelm every part of me/ inspire the words that say something/ about who You are and not just me/ Love come down
The video above was shot right before my friends played this song for my brother's wedding. The song meant so much to him that he used it to soundtrack one of the most important days of his life.
When you write a song, you have to be willing to open your words up to wide ownership. This is different than selling your art to some “puppeteer of industry".
Songwriting means connecting your voice to the culture of being. [TWEET]
Now, I realize that the words were never about me, but about the “catch-and-release” of an idea. True inspiration is always shared. So, give yourself the time and space to claim your own story. Write a song. You never know who you'll inspire.