Friday, December 31, 2010

Writing Tools - Audacity

Audacity is the basic recording program that I use on a daily basis. These are the things I love about it:

1. It's free
2. It's fast (you open the program and hit record, as opposed to setting up a Pro-Tools-like session in GarageBand)
3. You can compress and normalize any selected area
4. You can bounce (turn a portion of the recording into a stand-alone mp3 or wav file to import into iTunes) any area

There are plenty of recording programs out there, but in my experience nothing has been as easy and helpful as Audacity.

Download it here for free.

Keep writing (and recording),


Thursday, December 30, 2010


Yesterday my family had lunch at a little Cuban restaurant in Fort Wayne called "Caliente!" It boasts some amazing sandwiches and was started by a couple from Cuba. Halfway through the meal my mom basically said, "Did you know that the husband is a former journalist who was thrown in jail for what he wrote?"

It was a healthy reminder that I too often take freedom for granted. I can blog or write a song about pretty much anything I want to, without any fear of police showing up at my door. Like good health, we often don't notice it until it's gone.

Keep writing (and be thankful),


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Nurturing the Creative Soul

Creativity is organic. It needs to be tended to as if it were the most delicate flower in the bouquet. And here's proof that God invented Tie-Dye:

Mahabharatam Flower with kavuravas, pandavas and krishna
"Passion Flower" by Deepa Photography. Used with permission.

One of the important things I took from walking through The Artist's Way book (see "Reading" link above) was the fact that our creativity is a living thing. And that living thing deserves and needs to be taken care of. Protected, not neglected.

I tried my hand at gardening last Spring, and pretty quickly realized that tending to so many plants is quite a commitment. We only had two 4x4 raised garden beds, so I figured I'd better pack in the plants to get the highest yield. I didn't honor the fact that each plant actually needs its own significant space in order to receive its nutrients from the ground. Also, I didn't exactly give the necessary time to pulling weeds, pruning the plants, and watering that I should have. Some plants did fairly well, but the overall result of the garden was a tangled mess of half-grown vegetables.

Toward the end of this past year, I felt the same thing that the garden bed must have felt in August. With the good intention of being as productive as possible, I packed my schedule full and put my creative well-being in the passenger seat. My hope is that the quality of the songs didn't suffer, though that usually is the direct result.

One of the great things as we write more songs is that we learn how to read ourselves better. I know what it feels like to be creatively drained, and I know how pointless it is to try and push myself to write just one more song. Sometimes the best thing I can do for myself is stop. When we give ourselves the space to breath, freedom again shows up, along with the joy of creating.

Keep writing (or take a break),


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"Winter Light" by Tim Finn

Here is a live version of one of my favorite songs to listen to in the winter time. It's worth checking out the studio version (which was featured on Narnia's soundtrack a couple years ago). What I like about this song is the marriage of the music and lyric - the music feels like winter to me. Hope everyone had a blessed Christmas!

Keep writing,


Monday, December 27, 2010

Writing Tools - a Writer's Friend

There are two sides of the writing process - the actual art being created, and the way we capture and portray that art. Both sides of this coin are necessary. For example, the most beautifully written concerto suffers greatly if it isn't given a proper performance and recording. And what good is a great recording if the song is only mediocre?

Though tools are important in the writing process, it is essential to remember where new art actually comes from: inspiration. I am confident this inspiration is not found in digital 1s and 0s as much as it is found in nature's leaves and raindrops. As wonderful as the newest and shiniest recording program or studio compressor is, it will never provide the fuel for a fresh new song in the same way that organic life does.

Jatropha hybrid - Leaf detail (129 DAS)
Photo by Ton Rulkens. Used with permission.
I believe our tendency is to look to these tools for salvation when we create, rather than to be on the lookout for true inspiration. The result can often (but not always) be heard on the radio - a sonic masterpiece that wouldn't stand up on its own when performed solo on guitar or piano. Our challenge when it comes to writing songs is to always remember that the inspiration and the tools with which we capture this inspiration are separate, yet connected. The metaphor that comes to mind is this:

Songwriter = conductor
Song = train
Writing tools = tracks
Inspiration = coal/fuel

In the coming weeks and months I am going to talk in more detail about the specific tools that I have found helpful in my own writing process. And please feel free to clue me in on the tools you find useful!

Keep writing,


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Five Times

I recently wrote with a guy who had written a song that was recorded by one of the most successful female country artists of our time. We met at his place where he had a room dedicated to writing and recording. In addition to some family photos, I noticed a plaque hanging on one wall, congratulating him on the sales of over 5,000,000 records. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “What an accomplishment!”
Him: “Yeah, my wife encouraged me to put it up, but I think it needs to come down.”
Me: “But why wouldn’t you want to display that?”
Him: “Because it just reminds me that I haven’t done it since.”
You see, he had written that song about five years before the day we got together to write. It made me sad that he must come into that room five days a week to create, but immediately feel the pressure not to fail again.

Graceland Gold Records
Photo by rafaelmarquez. Used with permission.

I realized that it is my human tendency to always be looking forward to the next thing. I naturally am always focused on reaching the next mountain peak. But I believe the key to enjoying a career as a songwriter is to write songs because you enjoy writing songs, and for no other reason. Everything else is icing on the cake, including a big hit or a #1 song.

When I think about looking back at the end of my career, do I want to remember being happy five times (when I made it to the mountain peaks)? Or do I want to remember being happy five times a week?

Keep writing,


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Iiro Rantala New Trio

This is a pretty amazing instrumental performance by a group out of Finland. I'm fascinated by how many styles of music they incorporate into this single piece, and I've never seen anything quite like this before. Enjoy listening to the Finnish!

Keep writing,


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

10 Steps to Success...or Failure?

Photo by Kevin Dooley. Used with permission.
Possible Levels of Success:

1. Write a song
2. Get a songwriting deal
3. Demo a song
4. Get a song on hold
5. Get a cut on an unsigned artist
6. Get an album cut on a signed artist
7. Get a radio single on a signed artist
8. Get a song on the Billboard charts
9. Get a #1 song on the Billboard charts
10. Do it again

The inevitable truth is that every songwriter will achieve a certain level. However, most of these steps are only 1% of the life of a writer. 99% is the daily process of writing the songs. So which of the two should we focus on enjoying?

Keep writing,


Monday, December 20, 2010

Physics Meets Photography

Though on the surface physics and photography don't have much to do specifically with songwriting, inspiration to write songs can be drawn directly from them.

Here's something I found inspiring: photographer Caleb Charland looked at a common thing like a houseplant and used his imagination to show us that plant in a new and exciting way. And isn't that what we try to do as songwriters? We try to see daily occurrences with a fresh perspective.

Photo by Caleb Charland.

Here's the explanation of how the artist managed to create this image of a growing plant (as quoted in Wired Magazine):

The initial spark of a match. A nail as it jitters toward a magnet. A bud on a plant that’s poised to grow into a branch. These moments of inception are often ephemeral to the point of being undetectable, but Caleb Charland manages to capture them, turning those flashes in the mind’s eye into thought-provoking photographs. 

His latest endeavor (working title: Node Project) focuses on those points on a plant from which leaves and branches sprout. “Each of the little nodes—they just felt like they could be an armature for an image,” he says. To create the effect shown here, Charland spray-painted a shrub black, then highlighted each node with glow-in-the-dark paint. Next, he stuck the plant in a ceramic pot and rotated it under a black light, exposing a sheet of 4 x 5 film to an illuminated pattern of potential growth. As Charland puts it, “I like the idea of taking something simple and ordinary and making it mesmerizing.”

Keep writing,


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Stepping-Stone Songs

Why end every post with the sign off, "Keep writing,"?

The best education we can get when it comes to writing songs comes by writing more songs. We learn from taking chances and failing. We learn from trying all over again. Songs are stepping stones.

For my parents the hardest aspect of what I do is the reality that most of the songs that I write will never be heard by the public. The reason this is difficult is because each song any writer creates has a value worth pointing to that shows it is in some way special and unique.

I had a good friend in college who was intent on perfecting his songs. Rather than calling a song finished and moving on, he believed that the original idea that spurred his song was worth spending multitudes of time on. He spent a couple years focusing on the same eight songs, and has since told me that he wished that he had written more.

A publisher told me once that there was a writer who showed potential, but just didn’t quite yet have the right caliber of songs to get any cut. The advice given to that writer was, not to go listen to a certain song or to specifically work on his rhyming or music, but, to come back after they had written 200 more songs. 200!

As crazy as it sounds, I think the publisher’s advice holds water. Over the past few years (after writing 200 more songs myself) I’ve realized that I've grown more from just writing more and more songs than I have from anything else. Only by writing more songs will I grow out of my mistakes. Rather than over-analyzing each and every song I write, I along with my publisher leave room for mistakes, which in turn spurs my growth.
On a side-note, I am more than excited that my alma mater is now offering a major in songwriting. My only concern is that students could enter and exit the program with a false assumption that earning a degree with the word “Songwriter” or "Songwriting" printed on it will translate into a publishing deal and a long career. If you go to school to become an accountant, you can go into a financial management company or a bank with somewhat of an expectation that you are qualified for a position. However, when it comes to songwriting, there is no conventional path to becoming a professional. I know plenty of writers who never went to college. In songwriting, every writer earns their degree from experience.

In addition to writing songs, however, I’ve found it incredibly valuable to be reading different books on the craft of songwriting. Here are some of my favorites, some of which I believe you would find valuable (there are links to purchasing these books by clicking on the "Reading" tab above):

          Modern Rhyming Dictionary - worth it for the 60-page introduction on how to rhyme.

          The Artist's Way - most effective way to get in touch with your creativity.

          Songwriters on Songwriting - a great compilation from great writers on great writing.

          Writing Better Lyrics - good, applicable exercises.

          The Future of Music - a speculation of what to expect as music hits new waves of technology in the coming decades.

          All You Need to Know About the Music Business - exactly what it claims to be.

I believe passion paired with enjoyment of music will be the cause of growth. So keep reading, and keep writing!


Friday, December 17, 2010

Who is Harry Nilsson?

Over the past couple weeks I've been listening to Harry Nilsson's greatest hits. Who is Harry Nilsson, you ask? I wondered the same thing, and really enjoyed the documentary with the same title (watch it on Netflix here). I figured if The Beatles claimed him as their favorite artist, then I should probably check him out.

Listening through his career's work, I feel like I'm hearing a songwriter's catalog rather than that of a boxed-in, formulated artist. What I mean is that he goes from singing "Everybody's Talkin'" to "Coconut" to "One" (which Three Dog Night made famous) without blinking an eye. He also does an amazing version of the standard "As Time Goes By" with Sinatra's orchestrator.

And one of my all-time favorite YouTube videos is from Hungarian Idol where a woman phonetically butchers Nilsson's hit "Without You" (also made famous by Mariah Carey).

Below is Nilsson singing a live version of his song "Without Her." I love how his phrasing sounds so conversational and syncopated, similar to the style of "The Girl From Ipanema."

Keep writing,


Thursday, December 16, 2010

From the Writing Room to the Studio

I had someone ask me recently, "How does a song get from the writing room to the radio?" Well, the most important step in that process is the song's transition into the studio. In my experience, only about one in every 8-10 songs written makes it from the lower-quality GarageBand version to the full-band studio version.

Here's an example of a song that made the jump from the writing room to the studio:

          "Breakthrough" (Ben Cooper/Jenn Schott) ©2010

          Exhibit A - Writing room version, immediately after finishing the song (Jenn singing):

          Exhibit B - The full-band demo recording (artist Mallory Hope singing):

In the course of three hours (the length of each "session"), a band of musicians will usually record five songs. Broken down, that's a song every 40-45 minutes, at a quality that sounds like something you could hear on the radio. The way this proficiency is accomplished is by having the songs mapped out ahead of time by the session's lead musician (here is an example of a chart written using the Nashville Number System).

When the time comes to begin recording the next song on a session, the players all congregate in the mixing room to hear the songwriters' rough recording (Exhibit A). They follow along on the charted road map, jotting notes along the way. After hearing the song only one time, the players take their places in the soundproofed tracking room and run through the tune. Then after a little banter about who should take the solo and when and where each player should come in, they play through the song for the final pass (Exhibit B). Generally the final demo version of a song is literally only the second time these players have ever attempted the song! After the band's tracking session, a demo singer or artist will come in and overdub the final vocal, and the engineer will mix the songs, sometimes even the same day.

These session players and singers are some of the most talented individuals I have ever been around. I wish I could bring everyone into the studio on days that we are recording, because it is such an amazing process to see. I believe that the most "Nashville" thing that a tourist could ever experience is not walking down Broadway through honky-tonk bars, but rather sitting in a studio while a song comes to life before their ears. And this is an experience that I hope you are all able to have someday soon.

Keep writing,


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

NSAI - Nashville Songwriters Association International

The Nashville Songwriters Association International, or NSAI for short, is an incredible resource for songwriters. Though there are many benefits, I'd like to focus on its legislative role.

This morning my publisher brought in Bart Herbison, the Executive Director of NSAI. He informed us of some shocking statistics regarding the breadth of copyright piracy in the world today. Here are a couple quick facts:

  • Only 1 out of every 30 songs downloaded is actually paid for.
  • Every month there are 3,000,000,000 copyrights downloaded or shared illegally.
  • In a 2008 case, the NSAI's $25,000 annual lobbying budget went up against a $65,000,000 record label lobbying budget...and won. 
  • NSAI has successfully passed 54 pieces of legislation.

Currently, there are two bills concerning piracy that are making their way through Congress and the House of Representatives that could benefit songwriters. First, the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement focuses on the global aspect of curbing websites that act as highways and channels for the illegal transfer of copyrights. The second is a bill that would allow ISPs (Internet Service Providers, e.g. Comcast) to monitor and notify users who frequently download copyrighted materials. If the user does not cease and desist, the US Attorney General Office and FBI would take action.

Our hope is that these bills ultimate discourage the illegal downloading of our songs. Even if the number went from 1 out of 30 to only 2 or 3 out of 30, the number of opportunities for publishers to hire songwriters would go out the roof. And that's a worthy investment if I've ever heard one.

Keep writing,


Words & Music - Channel 5

Yesterday Gordon Kennedy and I were honored to have the opportunity to be guests on Nashville's Channel 5 (CBS) program, "Words & Music," hosted by Harry Chapman. Here are the times this show will air:

Jan. 16th@7:00pm
Jan. 18th@1:00pm
Jan. 30th@7:00pm
Feb. 1st@1:00pm

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Congrats to Ricky!

Ricky's recent album Mosaic has been nominated for two Grammy awards - Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album of the Year, along with it's song "Return to Sender" (written by Gordon Kennedy) for Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Song of the Year. We'll find out if it wins February 13th!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Welcome to The Songbird Project!

So, this past week I was lying awake in bed thinking about what it means to write songs. The truth is, it means something different to each and every one of us. And that is a gift in and of itself.

I've heard songs over the past few years that have brought me to tears, made me jump up and down out of excitement, make me shake my head and praise God for letting "that" song be allowed to be written, and on and on. Songs are alive.

I have certain songs that take me back to the first day/place I ever heard it. When I'm in Chicago, I have to listen to "Real Love" from the Beatles' Anthology. When I'm in Birmingham, I have to listen to Elbow's recent album "The Seldom Seen Kid." I could keep going. And no matter where I am I always want to stand up when Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" blesses the sound waves.

Back to lying in bed. I couldn't fall asleep because I kept wondering what it'd be like to be able to talk to and dialogue with other songwriters (or anyone who loves music, for that matter) about what songwriting means to them.

So I jumped out of bed and created this blog called "The Songbird Project." My hope is that, together, we could further the craft of songwriting. If one of us helps another writer want to keep writing songs, even when they may feel discouraged, then we have done our job. With a lot of little steps, we could make large strides.

I look forward to learning with you.

Keep writing,