I’ve been writing songs for over 30 years now, not many, what you’d call “hits” but enough to keep my passion alive.
A few years back I came across a book called “Writing Better Lyrics” and I must say it turned me around on the subject of songwriting quite a bit.
You see, I’d been a writer for whom writing songs came somewhat naturally, and having listened to and studied many songs from a variety of writers, I thought that I had a pretty good idea of what went into writing a great song. I didn’t really want to be pushed out of that comfort zone. After all, I’d had a couple of major label recording deals and a few songs placed with other artists. What could be the problem? But I did want to go deeper into the craft and this led me to Pat Pattison and his books. I think it was the way he presented his ideas that grabbed me.
He says, “This is songwriting. It’s a creative process. There are no rules only tools”.
And he does supply a very comprehensive set of songwriting tools that I have found extremely useful. You know when you get to that second verse and it all just gets stuck? Or the chorus’s just aren’t lifting the song up and taking it into the stratosphere? This stuff helps with all that.
Why You Need a Songwriting Instructor
There are a great many songwriting instructors around, some very well qualified and with a lot to give. If you’re serious about taking your songwriting to the next level and seeing results, it wouldn’t hurt to seek one out and have a go. Even sitting around discussing your songs structure and ideas with a bandmate or another writer can give you ideas that can improve a song.
After all, we all want our songs to be the best they can be, to have the best chance of connecting with our listeners – don’t we?
The Pat Pattison Seminar
I recently attended one of Pat’s Seminars in Melbourne, Australia. Here are my impressions…
Melbourne is cold this time of year and kind of grey.
So when Pat started this weekend songwriting seminar off by saying how much he liked being in Melbourne, I just had to ask him why. “Because people here are eager to learn, to extend themselves, to push back the walls”, he eyeballed me.
OK so not for the weather.
I can understand that, because, after attending several of his seminars over the last few years, I was undoubtedly one of the converted and wasn’t about to miss any of the pearls of songwriting wisdom he lays down over us.
He did push back the walls too, literally and metaphorically.
Pushing Back The Walls
At one stage standing up and announcing that he would move the wall back a centimeter, then leaning against it and grunting for a while. Coming back to his desk he dryly states, “Couldn’t budge it. But I’m stronger for trying”. His way of encouraging us to push ourselves a little further out of our comfort zones. He illustrates his tools and techniques by playing snippets of songwriting greats; The Beatles, John Mayer, The Cars, Irving Berlin and even torturing us with Katy Perry.
He is nothing if not a brilliantly engaging and entertaining instructor. He has little routines to underline his points. His Aunt and Uncle make an appearance, “You can’t take both routes”, bridesmaids and brides totter by, “Save something for the wedding night”, and little articles stand up holding signs while trying to elbow nouns and verbs. It’s Berklee writing via Boston and Nashville, with a dash of rock and roll charm.
The content, as always, is absolutely solid. There we were all chanting together, “Preserve the natural shape of the language” and getting scolded for putting “in” on a downbeat. “Strongest place is always going to be bar 1 beat 1, so you’d better shine that spotlight on something important or you risk losing meaning”. We were not about to risk losing meaning with Pat Pattison in the room.
The Moment of Truth
The second half of each day of the two day seminar was devoted to Pat critiquing our songs. Time doesn’t allow him to do everyone so the order of registration is invoked to create some sequence. Pat states his disclaimer with some gusto…”I do not care about the song you are presenting here one little bit, I have no interest except to use it to illustrate the songwriting tools we’ve been using. What I’m interested in is the next song you’ll write.” Hmmm…maybe I’ll send it to him.
Yep, I got summoned, willingly, to the slaughter. I played a song I had struggled with, got it it a reasonably satisfactory place, but knew there was still something missing. It’s not easy to play a song cold while Pat is pulling it apart in his head. You really have to ignore what your stomach and legs are telling you, grit your teeth and submit. There was a long pause after I had finished. A very long pause. I hoped I hadn’t put him to sleep but I knew that that was unlikely because I was singing a fast song in a high register, and unwarmed vocal chords aren’t the prettiest noise over a Maton Mini. Picture if you will an early morning Bruce Springsteen just woken after a heavy curry night. Still, it was all about the song, I wasn’t there to audition for The Voice.
“I would ask you to refer to the section in “Writing Better Lyrics” on travelogues”. His eyes are closed, I’m being Bostoned. That’s his first book, my first introduction to his songwriting teachings. I daren’t respond. I’m not interested in my point of view and I know damn well that he isn’t. We’re here to see what he says. “This section is in the wrong place. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have it here and let that sentiment drip down through the rest of the lyric?” Damn! In one foul swoop he has collapsed the house of cards my song was built on, there’ll be hours of rewrites, agony revisited. Problem is that he’s absolutely right! I was too close to see a misdirection in the road, leading the listener to a confusing path. He’s cut through the crap and made it seem simple. I’m speechless, stunned and grateful. He goes on, “Oh, and try singing the “Our Freedom” line with the stress on “free” not “our”, (and we all chant, “Preserve the natural shape of the language”, copying his Nashville/East Coast drawl now, half tongue in cheek, half in homage.)
Suddenly it’s sounding uplifting and just to prove the point he repeatedly directs me, “Now sing it the sucky way again”, and “OK, now sing it the good way”, until it is well and truly driven into my thick skull. All in all a bit like yoga or a visit to the doctors, “This may be a bit uncomfortable for a minute”. Yes Pat but I’ll be moving back those walls in no time at all, you can count on it sir!
Guest Post: Brian Baker is a singer/songwriter living in the Dandenong Ranges in Melbourne, Australia. His most recent CD is “Hard Light”. You can download 3 free songs from him at http://brianbakersongs.com