The songwriting process

I’ve noticed I’m happiest when I’m given a) some lyrics to work with, or b) an assignment… like when someone says, “I need a song to meet these specific needs.”

Then I’m in heaven.

I’ve read advice from “experts” who recommend that the music absolutely MUST come first, then the words should follow to fit the mood of the music. I’ve experienced it both ways, and when I’m working solo, like on Call It Blue, Fancy Shampoo and Dragonfly, sometimes the music does come first. For some songs, the basic chord progression came together and then I went for a hike in the mountains with pencil and paper. A nice two or three hour hike can really help clear the mind and allow fresh ideas to surface. Or sometimes a piece of music will begin to reveal itself to me, and I reach into my drawer full of half-written lyric ideas and poems and just piece things together. It’s amazing to me how often seemingly unrelated writings can end up coming together to work magic.

For collaborations, like Trip to Pine and the current work in progress (both co-written with my brother, Chris Birchard), I find that things just seem to fall into place when he e-mails me a poem. More often than not, I’ll read it and immediately start hearing musical ideas based upon his word choice, the rhythm of his writing, and his phrasing. Which I love, by the way. Sometimes it strikes once and the song is done. Sometimes I let the lyrics set for a week, a month, or longer, before music sprouts. And sometimes I’ll rework a song two, three, or even seven times, trying to find the most natural fit. Sometimes the rewrites work. Sometimes not.

In the case of Songs for The Reverend, I was collaborating, in a sense, with the artist (Chris Chappell, Austin, Texas) that the album celebrates. I read entries from his blogs… I shared e-mail exchanges with him… I studied his artwork. In one case, I even quoted one of his blog posts, turning him into a co-writer of sorts. (All with his blessing, of course.)

Another “chicken/egg” issue is whether to record as I go, or nail down all parts THEN record the finished product. Honestly, very few of my songs are completely finished in my head when I hit the ‘record’ button. Almost always there will be SOME aspect of the song that changes or morphs into something else during the recording process. In this sense, the recording process actually becomes an extension of the writing process. I don’t use my recording studio to simply capture what is already created; I use it to help develop musical ideas. And capture happy accidents.

The canvas affects/impacts/influences the brush.

Really the only exception I can think of, in my process, is when I re-record a song that I’ve previously written to clean it up or make changes to parts that are bugging me. An example is “Airlock”, which first appeared on Fancy Shampoo.

Now that I’ve got the Mesa Boogie Mark V and the PRS Custom 24, I really felt like I could do better than my initial version, in which I relied on my acoustic run through one of GarageBand’s distortion units. There truly is nothing better for me than honest distortion. Honest tone. Honest tubes.

Right now one of my biggest struggles is identifying and acknowledging what sounds to me like a distinct difference in “style” among the songs on the album currently in progress (working title is “A place of my own”.) Two of the songs were recorded a couple of months ago, and they share some commonalities in flavor. The newest three songs, however, were written within the past few weeks, and while each sounds unique to me, there are common threads that run through these latest three. So a challenge for me is figuring out how to think about these songs… do I put them on separate plates and call one ‘dinner’ and one ‘dessert’, or do they all go one the same platter? (We’ll find out.)

So at the end of the day my songwriting process is about as clean and clear as mud. What works one day may not work the next. I do notice, however, that the more I play, the more I write, the more I struggle with chord progressions, the more I go back to the guitar, piano, bass, ukulele, microphone and just about anything else I can get my hands on, the more songs I complete. And the more my style seems to be evolving; the better I understand the need to cut away fat. Basically, the more I do it, the more I feel like I’m approaching my goal of writing “just one good song”.

What is your songwriting process? What works best for you?

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