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.)
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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