It’s September, and we all know what that means for most people under the age of 18: back to the books, sitting at your desk, studying in the library, and lots more time spent researching on Google and Wikipedia. And also, new clothes, seeing old friends, making new ones, and so on.
For our songwriting and composing SOCAN members, we’re going “back to school” as well, with some curated tips on songwriting, touring, and your career, from the likes of Serena Ryder, Laurence Nerbonne, Kardinal Offishall, and more.
Touring with a band
- Pay your fellow musicians and crew more than you yourself are getting paid. If you’re making more money than they are, give them a raise. Especially your drummer.
- Always play solo. But if you must form a band, only play in bands with your closest friends. You’ll find it exciting to make music if you love the people you’re making it with. Make sure one of your closest friends is a great drummer.
- Don’t tour. But if you must tour, tour Italy and Spain.
- Write with a pen on paper! It gives you ideas that maybe you might erase when you’re writing on a computer.
- Picking another instrument you don’t usually play can be really fun. You won’t go to what your sense memory knows, so you’ll find a new place to start from. If you play guitar, sit down at the piano and see where it takes you. The chords will be totally different, and you’ll play different melodies. That has worked for me before.
- If you haven’t got something really solid within 90 minutes, don’t bash your head against the wall. Inspiration is a gift and you can’t force someone to give you a gift. As soon as you start thinking too much and trying to grab and hold onto it, it’s going to die. That’s like love.
- You can revisit a stalled song idea later. You might have a new perspective on life a couple of years later that means you can understand the song in a way you needed to in order to finish it.
- Try reading a book, a novel idea! I always get inspiration when I read a good book.
- Find a dedicated physical space in which you write consistently, whether it’s a room in your house or a certain desk.
- Do it regularly. When I come into this room at this certain time, I am here for one purpose, to write. That helps train your mind.
- Always serve the song. Don’t be too specific in your goal. Let the moment take you. Once you feel you’ve uncovered a seed of an idea, let it be what it needs to become.
- See Opportunities: There are opportunities out there, it’s just a matter of having the lens to see them. I joined the Canada Council for the Arts jury to better understand how the grant system worked. I worked in a music store to understand how music pedals work, and met with industry folks for coffee to hear their learned experiences, and maybe work/volunteer for them.
- Be Your Unique Self: Your authenticity has value: There are a ton of people in this world, some are smarter, have more talent, and have more money than you. What will set you apart? Your unique experience, your unique style, and your unique perspective.
- Use Contracts: Contracts must be clear and concise, there’s no room for assumptions. I book, pitch, collaborate with many people, festivals, and venues. There can be a lot of miscommunication and assumptions. Best to draw up contracts… With contracts, it’s clean and clear; job description, term, and payment.
- Save Money: I’ll always try to invest in projects I believe in, and take more financial risks. It seems daunting, especially if you don’t have money to begin with. I started a savings account for artistic/hobby endeavors. It’s amazing how much money I can spend on materials that don’t bring meaning or substance into my life. Prioritizing has been helpful. For each gig I get paid, I put a little of that into that savings account even if it’s a small amount.
There are two rules of thumb that I live by:
1) You have to care. You and only you can make it happen. Read Winston Churchill’s words again. You have to live and breathe, eat and sleep and care uncompromisingly, no matter what the challenges are, no matter what the naysayers around you say, or tell you differently.
2) You and only you, have to do something remarkable in order to make them care, or at the very least “somewhat” remarkable to at least make them sit up and take notice.
My advice to any artist seeking to “get into the game” is to make sure you take note of who you are before you enter. It will change you (anyone who says otherwise is a liar). The challenge is to let it change you for the better. Learn from it, and take every obstacle as a lesson that you can springboard from to become more savvy, while you maneuver through the snakes and ladders.
Think about writing techniques, how a good chorus should summarize the issues brought up in the verses, the various shapes a song can have – all that allows you to highlight your inspiration, and make the result of your initial idea clearer for the listener. It’s like visual arts: Picasso had to become a master painter before he could start de-constructing everything. Picasso was in top shape! So, to write a good pop song, you need to be in top shape, because it’s a lot harder than it seems to arrive to such essential clarity, and pour emotion into it so that it’s not too clinical.”
- Write everything. It doesn’t matter if it feels uncomfortable, doesn’t matter if it’s outside of your genre, just write everything that comes to you.
- If people don’t respond to what you’re creating, keep creating. They will respond, at some point, if it’s honest.
- Before you write your songs, have ideas written down, and make sure you’re editing, and editing, and editing… You can always write something better.
- Self-care. “Eating healthy, I do a lot of yoga. You can go on a treadmill every day, even if it’s just for five minutes.”
- Packing cubes. “I just discovered these! They organize your suitcase [in little sections]. It’s important to be organized.”
- “Lots of it. And no drinking on show days.”
- Write with people that don’t write the same style/genre that you do; the variety is good.
- Collaborate with people you enjoy working with, and write with people that challenge you. That’s a big one. I love working with people who are better and bigger songwriters than me. You can always learn. I’m learning constantly.
- Every session is different. The more you write with people, the more you understand their process. Still, there’s no magic formula. You need to continue to work at it, and be 10 per cent better than everyone else all the time… that’s what I strive for.
THE BEACHES’ JORDAN MILLER
- Don’t be discouraged when you get stuck. Don’t force yourself to make an idea work. If you have a good idea for a chorus, or for a verse, but for some reason you’re not able to finish it, you can always just keep it in your back pocket and use it later.
- Be open to collaborate. I have a problem finishing things, so it’s really great to have a band. When I get lazy, and I want to give up on an idea, they’re always there to offer me help. Then someone might have an idea that will inspire you, and you can figure it out together.
- Always change the way you look at writing a song. For seven years, I would never write about my own personal experiences. I would just write from stories I came up with in my head. When I changed the way I approached songwriting, and started adding my own personal experiences as the basis for my songs, my writing really matured. I would encourage people to challenge themselves.