My Songwriting Process

My Songwriting Process

“It’s fine to break the rules, but first, you should learn what the rules are. Then you’ll be breaking the rules intentionally.”

This was the advice my songwriting friend had received from his guitar teacher. He knew how to sing, how to write a song, and how to play a bit of guitar. But his theory knowledge had yet to be developed.

When he relayed these words to me, I had my own breakthrough. Because I started to see that music isn’t all about staying within comfortable theoretical limitations. That music has been done. And it’s often boring.

Preferably, you want to listen to your intuition, and find an expression that’s true to you. Listeners identify with your uniqueness, not your sameness.

Here are some thoughts on my songwriting process.

(For more context, refer to my companion piece on my songwriting journey.)

Early Recordings

My early recordings were intentionally anti-typical.

In the early to mid-00s, my stance was that most mainstream music was uncreative and artistically lacking.

So, whether I was working with Lightly Toasted Touché or engaged in solo work, I sought to go against the grain, even if just in subtle ways.

A i – III – iv chord progression is relatively common in rock (think AC/DC’s “TNT”). But turn each chord into a dominant 7th, and you end up with a bluesy sounding progression that tweaks the ear. That’s exactly the style of progression I employed on “Six Sides” on my first solo album, Shipwrecked… My Sentiments.

While being folky, “Six Sides” ultimately turned into an Eric Clapton style blues-rock song.

I could offer an analysis of each song and talk about how they are just a little outside the box (most of the analysis is on the page I linked to). But you can hear many of these influences in my early music:

  • The Beastie Boys
  • Eric Clapton
  • Collective Soul
  • Remy Shand
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Van Halen
  • Extreme
  • Harem Scarem
  • The Mourning Widows
  • Population 1
  • And so on

I’m reiterating myself here, but the goal was always to craft music that deviated from the norm (even if just a little).

For example, “Human” from Shipwrecked… is almost like a fast-paced Police style song. But it features an “outside the box” chord in the chorus.

That gives you a bit of an idea of what my musical approach was like at the time.

Lyrically, though, Shipwrecked… was mostly feeling led. And the predominant feelings of the time were loss and grief.

The greatest loss I’d experienced at that time was my cousin taking his own life and the band breaking up.

Back on Solid Ground

In 2007, I went onto write 365 songs in a year. Most of them were terrible, though two songs written during that period became staples in my live set. Even so, I grew frustrated with songwriting, and I was suffering from a bit of a creative block.

“Wonderfully Dysfunctional” was one of the songs written in 2007 that became a fan favorite:

In 2008, I would have my heart broken. And just like that, the creative dam was broken.

I wrote a full album’s worth of material, and just kept writing until I felt I had exhausted all ideas.

My songwriting approach changed considerably at this point.

For starters, I started reaching for clichés, like “All or Nothing,” “Everything Reminds Me of You,” and “Every Time I Turn Around” and turned them into the titles of the songs.

People often ask musicians whether music or lyrics come first, and it largely depends on the song. But when it came to Back on Solid Ground, the titles came first.

Writing a song around a cliché became like child’s play to me, because I could so easily relate to the emotions people said they experienced in relationships – love, infatuation, frustration, confusion, anxiety, and more. These were mostly foreign to me until I had fallen in love in 2008.

The lyrics for Back on Solid Ground weren’t innovative by any means. They were just straight from the heart. They expressed longing, sadness, loss, as well as hope.

Musically, it was meant to be a stripped-down acoustic album, so I leaned more heavily on typical chord progressions and riffs.

But the defining sound of this collection of songs would be suspended and slash chords.

My friends would say, “all those chords sound alike,” not realizing it was all quite intentional. I wanted the harmony of certain chords to be heard against different bass notes. I’ve always found this to be a great way to evoke emotion, whether on rhythm or lead guitar.

I began working on Back on Solid Ground in 2008 and it was meant to be recorded the following year. I worked with a producer who ended up bailing on the project, so all I have are half-finished demos.

Angels Breaking Silence

The members of Lightly Toasted Touché would reunite in 2008, along with a new lead singer who was in high school at the time.

The band drew upon punk rock, emo, and post-hardcore influences, as was in vogue to do at the time. That said, our music wasn’t about the breakdowns. I think we only had one song that even had a breakdown. And unlike most other bands we performed with, our songs had guitar solos.

Although I wrote a couple of melodic rock style songs for the band, most songs were collaborative works, with me writing the music, and the drummer and singer writing the lyrics.

The band was so busy rehearsing and performing that we only ever had a few demos recorded (posted to MySpace), and one song contributed to a compilation. At shows, we sold merch – buttons, T-shirts, and posters.

Again, the band only lasted about a year and a half and that feels like a blip on the radar compared to the many years I’ve been active as a solo artist or session musician.

You would be hard pressed to find any trace of the band or its material on Google now, except on Wayback Machine and maybe on one of my blogs.

Demos 2010/Fire Your God

In 2010, I would go onto record a handful of demos that would become Demos 2010, and later, Fire Your God.

At the time, I was experimenting in the studio quite a bit, and it felt exhilarating.

I was introduced to the world of free VST plugins – effects, synths, virtual instruments, and more. I felt like a kid in a candy store.

2010 was a busy year, and I never had the opportunity to turn the demo recordings into fully fledged songs. Songs like “Fire Your God” and “Summer (I’ll Be Waiting)” are missing drums, and the songs that do have drums on them, like “Fear No Longer” and “Something to Say” were just prefab beats included in a guitar effects unit.

I spent the final days of 2010 mixing and mastering these demos myself, learning a lot along the way.

What’s interesting is that my fans ended up liking the raw, unfinished material, and to this day, I still get a lot of compliments on it.

The songwriting might seem all over the map, but I can put it into perspective by grouping the songs together.

“Fire Your God,” “Razor Man,” and “Risen from the Ashes” represent the instrumental tracks of this collection, though each of them is different.

“Fire Your God” was basically a series of guitar riffs. The song kind of wrote itself.

“Razor Man” was influenced by early Nintendo video game music. I’ve always been a fan of video game music.

And “Risen from the Ashes,” like a few other songs on the list, carry a little bit of the Angels Breaking Silence flavor.

“Summer (I’ll Be Waiting),” “Fear No Longer,” and “Something to Say” are all in a post-hardcore, emo vein. These were my answer to the band breaking up, though “Something to Say” was written for my cousin and his band.

“Not Forgotten” is a ballad, but I would say it’s very much in the same style as well.

Then there are some other fun songs on the list, like “Digital Audio Workstation” and “Spark Vinyl,” which are podcast themes, and “There’s Only One Boss,” which is reflective my early songwriting efforts (before I could even play an instrument), when I used to fill binders with rap lyrics.

The “In Between” Years

Mounting financial troubles would have me looking outside of music (besides teaching) for additional income sources in 2011.

Eventually, I would be introduced to the world of entrepreneurship. Once I saw the kind of lifestyles people were creating for themselves, I got hooked.

Drawing upon the training material, I was inspired to transform my music career and entrepreneurial efforts as well. In 2012, I would invest in a music industry tech startup. It tanked in 2015.

After selling my house in 2012, I began working on my book, The New Music Industry, which launched in June 2015.

The New Music Industry paperback

During these years, I would still write songs, attend open mics, perform with bands, go on mini tours, and more. But I was largely inactive as a musician, as I felt torn between music and business (while looking for ways to merge the two, which I did).

In addition to the music tech startup, my network marketing efforts also led nowhere after three plus years of effort. Which is to say nothing of networking marketing itself but suffice it to say it was not unsustainable for me.

So, while I continued to take risks in 2014, ultimately, I made the choice to approach my life a little more pragmatically. After all, dreams had crumbled, and bills had to be paid.

Beginning fall 2014, I began engaging in a variety of work – ghostwriting and freelance writing, music instruction, theater tech work, community work, and more. And the community work would draw me back into the world of music in a meaningful way.

2016 – 2018

10 years after the release of Shipwrecked… My Sentiments, in 2016, I finally released a new solo instrumental single called “Fragments.”

In my early work, I drew upon R&B and jazz influences quite a bit, and “Fragments” was very much in keeping with that style.

Even while I was getting started in business, I used to engage in a project I called Sunday Compositions. The basic structure of “Fragments” would be written on one of those Sundays.

I followed up “Fragments” with “City Lights,” “Don’t Wait Too Long,” and “Hope” in 2016.

At the time, synthwave (80s soundtrack influenced music) was booming, and “City Lights” was my answer to that.

If I’m not mistaken, the framework for “Don’t Wait Too Long” also came together during a Sunday and was influenced by an over the top They Might Be Giants tune called “Man, It’s So Loud in Here.”

“Hope” is a straight up pop tune influenced by EDM. In the early 2010s, EDM was quite good, and I often found myself listening to EDM mixes while working.

2017 would see the release of “Waves” and “Your Eyes Give it Away.”

“Waves” came together after I watched the 2015 Amy Winehouse documentary simply titled Amy. I asked myself, “what would it sound like if I combined jazz with synthwave (i.e., jazzwave)?” The answer is “Waves,” which sounds like it belongs on the Sonic the Hedgehog soundtrack more than anything.

My friends tell me “Your Eyes Give it Away” sounds like a Hall & Oates tune, which I honestly take as a compliment.

It was more influenced by circumstances and people in my life than it was by a specific artist or band, but again, I seem to recall that it was EDM-inspired.

In 2018, I re-released Demos 2010 as Fire Your God.

For every song released, there are probably half a dozen if not more that just didn’t work on some level and have sat on my hard drive until such day I see a way forward with them.

Recent Work

In 2019, I released two EPs – No Escape and Nowhere Even Near.

I’ve always been a big fan of funk, or what Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt called a certain “funk metal,” and the title track on No Escape reflects this. It’s still funk rock in my own style, though, and the song was driven by events in my life more than anything.

I released new versions of “Don’t Wait Too Long” and “Hope” on No Escape, and these probably don’t need much of an explanation.

I had written “Sleepless Blues” around the same time I was working on Back on Solid Ground, though, and it’s just a simple blues instrumental. But a big part of my early guitar education was with the blues.

Finally, we have “Grace is Bittersweet,” which might be my first real acoustic song. I don’t recall exactly when it was written, but likely in the mid-2010s.

No Escape features polished production, so it kind of shares a yin-yang relationship with Nowhere Even Near, which featured all-new material. But in the tradition of Fire Your God, it’s a collection of rough, unfinished demos.

If I had spent any more time working on these demos, though, my perfectionist side would have taken over, and Nowhere Even Near would probably have never seen the light of day.

“We Could Only” is like a re-imagining of “Six Sides,” and meh… I don’t know if it totally holds up.

“From the Ashes” is a dose of worship fromage… I’m not putting myself down, but it follows the Lincoln Brewster/Hillsong formula almost to a tee.

I’m still quite proud of Nowhere Even Near. “Why Should I Believe” is a like a 90s rock tune. “Feeling” is a pop tune, not unlike the ones I used to write in my early days as a solo artist. “Letting Go” is totally unfinished, as the keyboard part is meant to be played on guitar, and there are lyrics that go with the song too. And “Dagger” reflected my growing interest in hard rock, especially in 2017.

Most recently, I wrote a song for my grandma who passed, which I plan to release alongside another song – a popular hymn reimagined.

Final Thoughts

Even though I’ve given songwriting workshops in the past, it’s harder to write about the songwriting process than I thought it would be.

In many ways, I feel like I’ve just recounted my songwriting journey all over again.

But it truly is the events of life that inspire you. Music is a skill, and you begin to find your way as you gain more experience and continue to stretch your boundaries (which is what I did).

When you focus on the emotion of it rather than the “rightness” of it, your music becomes an expression of life’s events, rather than a hollow imitation of some artist you were inspired by. And that’s where you find your voice, just like in writing.

For more inspiration, be sure to sign up for my email list.

My Songwriting Journey

My Songwriting Journey

As I lay in bed, I started to hear a melody form in my mind.

Having just returned from Japan, I couldn’t express myself as eloquently in English as I could in Japanese.

So, I hurriedly jotted down lyrical ideas – in Japanese.

I didn’t understand music either. But at 13, I had written my first song – melody and lyrics.

Filling Binders with Song Ideas

I was never one to pay much attention in school. I wasn’t a bad student (not a horrible one, anyway). I was just more interested in my own creative ideas.

My grades always reflected it. I had my share of Bs, Cs, and Ds – rarely As.

So, my jr. high and high school years were spent filling binders with ideas – song ideas, lyrics, doodles, drawings, graphic novels, Sci-Fi novels, mazes, video game concepts, satirical newsletters, and so on.

At 15, I performed in front an audience of the first time. And then and there, learned the thrill of performance.

That’s about the time when most of my creative energies started being redirected to writing lyrical content – mostly rap songs, but some punk rock and hardcore songs too (The Beastie Boys were a big influence).

I still didn’t know how to play a musical instrument.

A Guitar from Across the Pond

One of my father’s coworkers had lost her son. And she promised to give her deceased son’s guitar to me.

She was not able to deliver the guitar while we were still living in Japan. So, she came all the way to Canada, and dropped off the guitar at my grandparent’s home in Drumheller, AB.

It seems someone wanted to ensure that guitar made it into my hands.

The classical guitar sat in my closet for a year or two.

But then one summer, I was at youth camp and my friend started playing the popular tunes of the time on his guitar – Green Day, Blink-182, Matchbox Twenty, stuff like that.

Prior to that moment, I had no idea you could even learn popular songs on your instrument!

Immediately after summer camp, I started messing around on my guitar, and that’s when my mom started seeking guitar lessons for me.

Connecting the Musical Dots

Apparently, I had a knack for the guitar. My guitar teacher told me I surpassed him within a few lessons!

I showed him one of my rap songs, and he helped me write some funky guitar parts to it. That was a lot of fun.

Once I started connecting the musical dots, I began writing my own songs too. But they were quite disappointing at first.

I was excited about the guitar, so I kept on. I became somewhat disillusioned with it within 18 months, when I started to see that most songs and riffs were easy, and if they weren’t, there was usually a way to simplify them to make them more playable.

An odd thing to be disillusioned about, I know. Fortunately, it didn’t last, and I would go onto jam with my drummer friend and play in bands.

All the band’s songs were either written by me, my drummer, or by the both of us.

I slowly started moving beyond power-chord pounding and open chord strumming. I started to play riffs, mimic the melody, and bust out solos, even if I didn’t know exactly what I was doing at the time.

By that time, though, my drummer friend and I were much tighter than anyone else we brought in to play in the band. So, we needed to go about finding band members differently.

I only went to college for a year, but it had some perks because I ended up building some connections. And it just so happened that one of my friend’s roommate was a bass player. So, we started jamming with him, and the chemistry was obvious from day one.

We formed a band, and as our first order of business, started working on a couple of songs for a Daniel Amos tribute compilation.

Lightly Toasted Touché

The trio would come to be known as Lightly Toasted Touché. We were a jam band. We wrote some original music, and learned some covers, but wherever we went, we also improvised instrumental music in a variety of genres (metal, reggae, blues, etc.).

How did the name come about? Well, one day, while taking a break from rehearsals for a bite (as we always did), we were making sandwiches. And the drummer asked the bassist how toasted he wanted his bread. “Lightly toasted,” he said.

Our bassist was also in the habit of saying “touché” all the time (as his roommates were also prone to doing). And so, Lightly Toasted Touché was born.

The name was probably reflective of the transient and improvised nature of the band more than anything. We certainly weren’t stoners, and I’m not sure any of us were fully convinced. But we also couldn’t come up with a better name.

One day, we recorded several improvised demos and posted them online. Keep in mind, this was in 2003. We broke the internet, and because we had so many downloads, we ended up having to move hosts.

In our relatively short history as a band, we gained a small cult following, and even got “scrobbled” quite a bit on Last.fm.

Our last order of business was to record and release an EP, A Tale of the Coming Together and Murder of My Heart in the Golden State.

This EP captures a little bit of what it was like to come to a Touché show, with an eclectic mix of originals and improvised instrumentals.

 

I co-wrote “Today’s Creed,” “End of the Day,” and “Foundation.” The title track was written by the bassist, and everything else was improvised.

The band imploded shortly after. We attempted to bring a talented singer into the fold, but him and the drummer did not get along, and that was that.

Going Solo

Any band I had been a part of to that point was short-lived, with Touché being modestly successful. So, I thought to myself, maybe it’s time to go about this music career thing a little differently. If I can’t depend on others, maybe I can depend on myself.

Around that time, I ended up renting an acoustic guitar and wrote a couple of songs. The songs were reflective of the raw emotions I felt after my band had broken up.

The acoustic guitar felt right somehow.  So, I kept writing and came up with eight songs. My drummer, who was still collaborating with me at the time, encouraged me to make it an album rather than an EP. So, I wrote 11 songs altogether, though one of them never quite worked. It was dropped.

During this time, I would come to learn just how undependable I was. Because sometimes weeks would go by without making progress on the album, and my friend told me it was because I failed to take initiative. I took that rather personally, as I was prone to doing at the time.

The album, Shipwrecked… My Sentiments, ended up taking about a year to complete.

Being my first solo album, it was not perfect, though it certainly had its moments.

Looking back, it was written in response to the boring and formulaic music of the time. A reviewer called it “an experimental approach to conventional rock,” and he could not have been more spot on.

Back on Shaky Ground

Those early years playing in bands and going solo felt tumultuous to me (is it any wonder my first album was called Shipwrecked?). I was overcome with a sense of loss. One, because of the band and friendships that had been impacted as result, and two, because my cousin took his life while I was recording.

It was time to begin work on my next project. But I wasn’t ready. Material wasn’t forthcoming. Having spent 2006 working on my album and writing 365 songs in 2007 (one song per day), I was spent creatively.

It turns out I just needed to live.

In 2008, I ended up burning myself out and experienced a panic attack. I spent the next five months or so recovering. In some ways, though, I’m not sure I’ve ever fully recovered from that.

I also fell in love only two months later. And only three months later, I was given the silent treatment.

Heartbreak is unpleasant, but one thing you can count on is that it will give you something to write about. That summer, I wrote my next album, and so, the concept of Back on Solid Ground was born.

Back on Solid Ground was written as a stripped-down, simple, heartfelt acoustic album.

But I ended up getting caught in the tides of chaos before the project could ever be completed.

Breaking the Silence

I had begun work on Back on Solid Ground with a new producer. But after a few months of working on it, he pulled the plug and said he couldn’t spend any more time on it. We’d captured some amazing drum and cello performances from local musicians, so this could not have been more heartrending.

To be fair, nothing was in writing. And I learned a lesson there.

In due course, I did recover the tracks. Only, many weren’t properly labeled. So, I didn’t know which track belonged to which song, never mind the fact that I would have had to manually align all of them.

Amid all this, the members of Touché were reuniting. And this time, we had a young singer interested in fronting the band. Angels Breaking Silence was born.

Touché always had a bit of a punk vibe to it, and with Angels Breaking Silence, we started embracing the emo and post-hardcore flavors of the time.

Unlike most bands, though, we didn’t write songs around breakdowns. To be honest, we only had one song that had a breakdown.

The band got booked all over – skateparks, summer festivals, camps, churches, pubs, and more.

We were so busy performing and touring that the only merch we had were posters, buttons, and my first album. We only ever recorded a few demos for MySpace and a compilation.

You’d be hard pressed to find our music anywhere online.

As with the previous incarnation of Touché, this one didn’t last longer than 18 months. Personal tensions flared, and two members were in serious relationships that likely would have prevented them from serious, committed participation.

Taking Creativity in New Directions

For the rest of 2009, I started getting into new media in a big way – blogging, social media, podcasting, making YouTube videos, composing for video games, and more. So, I did quite a bit of composing for my own videos too.

There are multiple compositions like this one on my YouTube channel (“Power Propeller” is probably one of my favorites):

I didn’t have much of an income coming in, though, so I knew in the back of my mind that I would probably need to become more pragmatic at some point (I only started learning how to be more pragmatic in 2014, by the way).

Maybe tired from all that had transpired, 2010 sort of ended up being a ”nothing” year for me. The most memorable part was travelling down through Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and later California with my mom and stepdad. Although I seem to recall making some important connections that year too.

I also recorded a handful of demos through the year, which I first released in January 2011 as Demos 2010 and later as Fire Your God.

To this day, fans still enjoy the rawness of this music. Go figure.

Once again, I found myself going at it alone, trying to learn the ins and outs of music production. That said, I’m glad I got into it, because I found I was better able to make my musical visions a reality. I struggled with previous producers, especially when it came to getting guitar tones I liked.

Economic Collapse, Roid Rage & New Frontiers

As 2011 rolled around, things became more desperate financially. And timing could not have been worse since the world was very much in “recovery mode” after the financial collapse of 2007 – 2008. I started pulling 50-hour weeks at multiple part-time jobs that paid peanuts.

The first six months of the year were terrible, not just because of the mounting financial pressure, but also because of an unruly, emotionally unstable roommate, who was prone to roid rage.

My friends didn’t exactly support my decision to get into network marketing. But honestly, it was something I needed to go through at the time. My life started changing rapidly for the better, as I started engaging in business training materials.

I still don’t know how I managed to pull all of this off, but that summer, I performed at the Calgary Fringe Festival daily. I also went on a mini tour with new collaborator Jonathan Ferguson and a vacation shortly after.

I don’t want to say that the next four years, from 2011 to 2015, were irrelevant to my musical journey. They weren’t. I kept writing and podcasting about the music business. I invested in a music industry startup. I kept writing songs. And I even wrote a book.

But my life was mostly swallowed up in the world of entrepreneurship. And I would go onto learn some crucial lessons there, too.

The startup I invested in tanked, and I could no longer financially sustain my network marketing business.

Recent History

I was busy in 2016. But I made it my goal to record and release monthly singles.

I didn’t quite reach my goal, but I did write and release some great music. It felt great.

I released a couple of singles in 2017 (including this one)…

And a couple of EPs in 2019.

As result, I wound up contributing to another compilation project in 2020 (created by one of my mentors).

It seems strange to say, but I have many, many more songs I have yet to record and share with the world. God willing, they will see the light of the day.

For more inspiration, be sure to sign up for my email list.