My favorite songwriter Carole King is famous for saying “Song Form is Limitless.”
I am famous (among my students anyway...) for adding to that quote in my lectures.“Song form is limitless. BUT…The more you understand about what's been done/happening with different components of song structure in popular music, the more tools you have in your tool box, and the greater ability you have to be intentional with every aspect of your songwriting.”
I know it’s long winded. And truthfully a big part of that quote existing, is that it’s fun to share a quote space with Carole (I like to pretend we are on a first name basis). But I believe that. Yes, music and writing at the end of the day can be whatever you want. You can scream one word for 3 and a half minutes, and rightfully call it a song, or record yourself throwing rocks at a piano keyboard and put it up on Spotify. However, just like learning foundational techniques in painting, such as creating lines, and using certain brush strokes, the more knowledge you have of form and techniques in songwriting, the more you have to draw from to create incredible, compelling, and connecting music of your own. And it is from this perspective that I approach teaching songwriting.
The main things I focus on in my songwriting teaching are the following:
1. Exploring what has been done before in popular music writing, along a variety of topics.
2. Trying new techniques for generating the great song ideas that are inside of you.
Here’s how that breaks down in an actual lesson:
Show and Tell:
I provide space at the beginning of each lesson for ANYTHING a student wants to show me that they are working on. And because songwriting is so subjective, my role is not to judge whether a song is good or bad. Instead I try to provide helpful feedback, and ask questions, (for example: “what’s the main point you are trying to communicate with this song?”) to help the students decide what might be best for moving forward.
After the sharing process, we dive into a slide show and lecture on a more focused topic within songwriting. Topics like “generating ideas,” “the art of writing duets,” “vulnerability in songwriting” etc. tailored to the individual or class level.
Throughout the lecture, there are discussion questions, and song examples (both that I come up with, and the students come up with), and on the last slide, are the assignment options that relate back to that topic, as a chance to explore it further. For example, one of the assignments for “the marriage of lyrics and melody” is a melodic or lyrical switch up, where you take a song’s melody and give it new lyrics, or you take a song’s lyrics and give it a whole new melody, in order to experiment and see how they sound divorced from the original marriage of both.
My goal in teaching songwriting is to provide tools for student to further find their own inspiration and processes for creating original music. The topics break down songwriting into understandable bite-sized components, and the assignments give students the chance to stretch and explore the topic for themselves in a very meaningful creative way. I LOVE teaching songwriting, and watching my students grow in their own unique way through this incredible art form!
My just turned four year old daughter is crying in the bathroom singing “my mom is so mean…I’m so mad at her…” And as much as I don’t like hearing songs about how mean I am…(even if it’s for not letting her eat chocolate for breakfast), I can’t help but laugh and smile, firstly because of how silly the situation is, and secondly, because it seems like she has the “songwriting gene” after all. This is a gene that seems to run in our family that compels you to instinctively put your feelings to lyrics and melody as soon as you feel them. I didn’t teach her to do this. My son who is older, (though ridiculously in tune with instrumental music) doesn’t seem to have this same inclination or “gene.” This is why I think it is so interesting. It seems to just naturally be a part of her, just like it’s naturally a part of me. Something in our DNA, leads us to process the world in this way. The same way someone else naturally might want to take objects apart only to put them back together to understand how they work…for my daughter and for myself, we have the natural habit of turning what we are experiencing into song long before we can put together the conscious thought of, “I should make this into a song.”
It’s not as unique perhaps as some forms of synesthesia (like hearing in color, or tasting and sensing geometric shapes), but watching my daughter experience the world in a way similarly to me, brings me a deep sense of connection to her and great joy in recognizing what a gift this has been in my life.
I wrote a song a while back called “Thank you music.” This is a love song that I wrote to the music inside of me and all the happiness and comfort it has given me over the years. In the song I talk about how sometimes I can get caught up in the prestige of what my music can do for me, and how it can make me more successful etc. These thoughts aren’t crazy, as creating music is truly a means by which I bring home money to help support my family. However, the point of the song was taking a moment to recognize the gift that music is in it of itself, whether or not it leads to to any notions of “fortune” or “fame.”
Seeing that same gift come out through my 4 year-old takes me back to this perspective. Kira is not singing songs about how mean I am, because she thinks it will land her a record deal. She does it because it makes sense to her to do it and express her feelings. Because it is fun to make music out of little moments. Because she loves to sing and she loves to talk, so why wouldn’t she be combining the two every single day? This doesn’t mean she has to follow my footsteps and pursue any of this professionally. It does mean that music is likely to follow her all of her life, as an outlet for all of her feelings and hopefully a source of comfort and joy that she can carry with her always.
When I was in middle school, I wrote a song worried about the fact that we are going to “run out of songs to sing” and that basically every topic has already been covered in music. The song ended with the hook “but we’ll never run out of love…” It wasn’t my catchiest song in the world. But, as it popped back into my brain recently, I realized that I was both right in some ways and in many ways, very wrong.
Obviously it’s true that the world has not run out of love. So, nailed that idea (haha!). But despite the fact that we have library upon library of music from way back when, artists and writers have kept on creating and we have more songs to sing than ever. Especially love songs. You would think that we have covered it all. And yet somehow, we find new things to say about these familiar topics. Or find a new way to say something that has been said over and over again throughout time (you know, like, “I love you”). Instead of putting a giant check mark next to the love song category, this topic persists as one of the biggest themes in music creation time and time again, as we add our own spin, our own perspective and our own experience to the concept. Whether it’s about longing for love, falling for someone, losing a great love…as you change stations on your car radio or let your Spotify play at random, there’s no denying that ideas of love are propelled in every genre of of music.
When I first heard “I love you like a love song” sung by Selena Gomez back in 2011, I thought it was kind of…lazy? I felt like they couldn’t think of an original way to say ‘I love you’ in a song of their own, so they just borrowed the idea that other songs say it better…so, I love you like a different song, that’s not this one, because I couldn’t think of how to say it. But having heard it again recently in line with these thoughts I have a whole new appreciation for it. It starts with this same idea (as stated earlier in this rant) saying that “every beautiful thought’s been already sung…” and yet “here’s another one.” Followed by the hook in the chorus “I love you like a love song baby.”
How beautiful is it that despite the fact that love has been covered over and over, we keep coming back to it? As if our nature calls us to explore this topic for ourselves. That even in our awareness of “this has been said before…” we say, well, “here’s another one” and try our hand at adding to the love song collective. Most of us understand that we cannot live through the love that others experience, and must experience love for ourselves to truly know it. And I think truly experiencing love, with the good, the bad and the rollercoaster that comes with it, it can’t help but bleed into the art, and especially the music that we create, as long as we are still creating. And if anything is going to inspire you to break out in song…it’s love.
I guess I’m writing this all to say—I LOVE that. You can call it cliche when you hear another love song on the radio and think “how unoriginal.” Or you can join me, and let it make you proud to be a person; proud to be connected to a humanity that never stops coming back to love, no matter how many times it’s been said and done before.
Can I tell you a secret? I write a lot of sad songs (sorry if you were expecting a juicier secret!). I’m even working on an album called “Quarter-Life Crisis” to showcase some of the harder things I have been working through over the past few years (for me, a lot of it has been related to my experiences in motherhood). And though I have never personally been diagnosed with depression or anything like that, I have always been a person with a lot of feelings, and making music out of these less happy experiences and thoughts, has been an incredible journey for me personally. And because I love writing sad songs…I would like to make a case for why sad songs are so important. I recognize that this isn’t a controversial topic by any means, and there is not an active anti-sad song movement for me to rebel against with this statement...Nevertheless,
I want to share some of my thoughts on the importance of sad songs.
1. Sad songs provide a space for your own sadness.
Sometimes you just need to fully feel the feeling(s) that you are in. And music can help you do that. Music can give your sadness a space. A place to sit for a while, while you process whatever it is that you are going through. Blasting out a song about loss or heartache that resonates with what you are feeling (or have felt) can be extremely cathartic, and help to carry some of that emotional heaviness. Is there anything worse than hearing an over-the-top happy song when you are sad? When something is hard, you are not ready to have musical sunshine shoved down your ears. Sad songs show us that we as human beings have depth, and are not just one thing. Sad songs can sort of give you permission to be exactly where you are, whatever emotional state that is.
2. Sad songs help you know you are not alone.
There’s a reason that support groups are a thing! When you know you are not the only one that has ever gone through what you are going through, or felt the way you have felt, this plugs you into your humanity, and brings an important sense of connection. The fact that other people create art that echos feelings you feel yourself means that there are other people that understand. And for some reason, that fact alone can be like a giant hug of healing. Other people thought the same (or similar) topic was worth singing about, validating that what you are going through is real, and matters. Sad songs say we all face hard things. We all cry. We all feel something more through the act of just being alive.
3. Sad songs show that something beautiful can be made out of something difficult.
Sad songs are an incredible symbol of beauty from the ashes. People took their pain and turned it into music. Something ugly, something hard, was transformed into something bigger. It doesn’t mean the sadness necessarily goes away all together, but there is a hope in seeing pain pointed in purpose, becoming something more, something profound beyond a difficult thing stuck in your way. On a subconscious level, I think when we hear sad songs we can recognize that we can create something meaningful out of the difficult things that we experience. That although life will always have its ups and downs, and things that we cannot control, we do have some say in what we do with the chaos and heartache thrown our way. We can choose to see beauty, learn something, create meaning.
The book The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, has been a game changer for me on multiple levels. It’s so hard to explain until you read it….but I’m going to do my best to express a small portion of what this book has done for my life. The point of this book is to expand your creativity, and unblock whatever might be stopping you from living your most creative life. The phraseology of the book really resonated with me, and there’s key concepts and practices that I hope to keep forever because of reading this. Although I could probably write a book about how much I love this book...to keep it simpler, I want to talk about 3 components of my experience gained through the 12-week program of The Artist’s Way, that have become very meaningful in my own creative life, namely: Morning Pages, Artist Dates and My Artist Tribe.
The task of morning pages (assigned by Julia Cameron in the book) is to write 3 whole pages of stream of consciousness writing first thing in the morning. The premise is no judgement about what you are writing, and no rereading (until after several weeks of writing). This practice was so hard for me to become consistent at, but I saw the value pretty dang quickly, and this is something I work really hard to continue (even after the 12 weeks). Why you ask? Because for some reason they work, and just make my life better. Sometimes my pages have been filled with complaints or emotions or bad dreams. But what also showed up on my pages were meaningful ideas and actions for me to take to make important things happen in my life. My pages forced me to take time everyday to write out my thoughts, to be more aware of what was even going on inside my head, and more clearly recognize my own inner compass. I found that I could leave my frustration and work things out in my pages. I found that I could learn what lies I tell myself when writing them down and arguing with them. I found that inspiration started to come to me as to what do next in my creative passions, because of taking the time, three pages at a time.
The second task assigned via the Artist Way is a the weekly task of the “Artist Date,” which basically means doing something by yourself (for at least an hour) that makes your inner artist happy, and can sort of rejuvenate your artistic spirit (much like date night with your significant other can rejuvenate your relationship). If I thought Morning Pages were hard, they had nothing on how hard it was for me to do my weekly Artist’s Dates. This one is still harder for me to continue outside of the program, but when I do, I remember how necessary it really is. Everyone is different in terms of what experiences fill their soul. My inner artist loves standing in front of the ocean, exploring quirky antique shops, and letting myself go crazy at the dollar store. Probably my most “artsy” artist date was visiting an art gallery in Palm Springs (Which was amazing!). I would always come back from my artist dates refreshed and filled with new images to draw creative energy from, and just be more excited about life! Having such a hard time doing them, was also very enlightening for me! I’ve had to ask myself: why is it so hard to give myself one hour a week to do something fun just for myself? Do I not value myself enough to give myself one hour of alone time to enjoy something? I recognize that when I take the time to take myself out on an artist date, I am telling myself that I am worth dedicating time to, and I think that concept of worth translates into my artistic work, and life. When I follow through with these artist dates as a practice, I am saying that I am worth taking time to see beautiful things and experience small soul-filling adventures.
My Artist Tribe
The third aspect from the 12 weeks of the Artist's Way, that made a huge impact for me, was going through this process with a group of other artists via a “Creative Cluster.” With a group of about 10 other women, we started the 12 weeks at the same time, and met once a week to discuss our progress and the different things we were learning. The first time I went through this, we met Sunday evenings. Sunday evenings very quickly became my favorite. It was really interesting, because we were all aquatinted with the person who started the group, but other than that, none of us really knew each other. We were all different kinds of artists: painters, comedians, writers, musicians, decorators, and we were all at different phases of life ranging from college, to young motherhood to grandparent life. And every week we met and we shared. We talked about what was hard for us. We talked about creative victories. We talked about beautiful things we had seen that week, as well as painful discoveries that were difficult, but significant. Every meeting we laughed. Sometimes we cried. What ultimately happened is that we became undeniably connected. I found a group, that I opened up my heart to, that I let really see me, and I saw them. We got to root for one another, and we got to watch each other grow and see the incredible changes that were happening within each of us. It became the most beautiful support group, I never knew I needed. I loved so many aspects of this group's weekly meetings. The check-in aspect forced me to be more reflective and thoughtful with my week. Hearing these women's stories with all their ups and downs, magic and vulnerability, inspired me. But what it all adds up to, is what truly means the most to me: an artistic bond of sisterhood, that I plan to keep forever.
My love affair with The Artist's Way, is a love that is real. I love these practices of morning pages, artists dates, and taking time to reflect and connect with other people on various creative journeys. I love the new friends I have made. I love all that I have learned. And I love that I now have more tools to continue forward toward a more abundant creative life.
This week I am saying goodbye once again to living close to one of my favorite co-writing buddies, Eliza Smith. We wrote our first song together in our college songwriting class called “Live or Survive” that lead to the formation of our band TREN. I am going to miss living close to her, but history has told me that even when we are in different states, we will continue our teamwork to make good music together.
As we wrap up recording vocals in the same room (before she leaves) for our latest song, I can’t help but think of how grateful I am to have met her, and just how happy I am that I discovered the world of co-writing music. Songwriting on my own, is still such a love of mine, but getting to write with someone else that you really connect with, that is really something else. Which brings me to what I want to share with you: Three reasons I love co-writing music.
1. Two brains are more creative than one.
(Disclaimer: I don’t think any two writers can come together and make amazing work together. It’s a lot like dating in that there are certain people that you really click with with, and others that you don’t. But when I have found people that I personal click with musically (like Eliza), these reasons ring true.)
I have found this time and time again! With two people coming up with ideas, more ideas come. Which leads to more ideas building on those ideas. And it’s not just the quantity of ideas, but I believe the quality increases too, as you both have such unique things to bring to the table that join together to become something altogether new. As a writer I think it’s normal to have your own typical-ness or go-to’s either in melody or word choice (ex: One of my go-to words is “fight”). Collaborating with someone else to make something forces you outside of your usualness in the best ways. For example (speaking of Eliza...) for our new song “Movies Alone” I sent her a voice memo of a chorus idea, and she replied back with a verse idea that was so so different than anything I was originally thinking. This different, ended up making the song so much better! With our first song together “Live or Survive” I remember I started with a verse idea, and then Eliza came up with another verse to follow right after with a totally different melody. Meaning our song would have two verses (with different melodies) leading to the chorus. This is not a super typical song form! Up until that point I almost always stuck to verse, chorus, verse, chorus. Working with her helped me jump out of my typical form and made it a much stronger work.
2. There is joy in sharing a musical journey.
Aside from the end product being more creative because of extra creative juices being thrown into the mix, the process itself of co-writing is simply a blast! I know Taylor Swift in interviews about her co-writing talks about the sort of “girl talk” that she likes to have in the beginning of a writing session. I love this concept in my co-writing as well, where you just put stuff out there, in the process of figuring out what new thing you can say together through music. The process of brainstorming with another person is a really special experience, especially as you write with someone you trust on a creative level. You have to be willing to be vulnerable and share things when you don’t know if they are good yet, and be open to different ideas. I loved developing this connection with my brother Tanner Howe, who is also a songwriter. It sort of opened the door and got us talking about real things that mattered to us. Then once you get into a flow of back and forth, it’s just pure fun, as each “what about this…” brings a new wave of excitement. And it’s kind of like a rollercoaster. Sure, it’s fun to be on a rollercoaster even as a single rider, but how much more fun is it to look over at another person riding and screaming along with you. In my experience, co-writing can be a lot like that.
3. More writers = more love for your song.
People say your art can sort of be like your child. As a parent, I care so much about my two babies. And one of the coolest things is having someone to share that love with you. I have learned the hard way that random people don’t care about every little thing your child said or did that day. That kind of care and interest can only be found in the other parent of that same child (or the occasional grandparent, but I’m not sure how to tie that in…). ANYWAY, in terms of songwriting, when you co-write, you’re song then has two loving “parents” who care about all of the little things, and are invested in it’s well-being and success of your “song child.” This increases the likelihood of the song actually being completed, produced, and going somewhere professionally as both song parents are rooting for it. As I love all of my songs quite a lot (even the bad ones) it’s just cool to know that a song I love is loved by someone else too.
In conclusion, co-writing makes me happy, and so I wrote this blog about it! If collaborative writing in any form is something that interests you, I say go for it! It might take some time to find the right collaborative fit, but like anything that is worth anything, it’s worth the risk of trying and putting yourself out there, to find it.
Cheers to co-writes from my past, present and future. I’m so grateful that this kind of work is a part of my life.
Picture of me and co-writer Eliza Smith, when we filmed our music video for our TREN song "You're an Angel."