I’ve been writing songs for 40 years and have written or co-written over 500 songs that have been released in some way. I don’t consider myself, really, a great musician, a great drummer, a great singer, but I do cling to the idea that songwriting is the core of who I am. even if it doesn’t love me, I love it.
I wanted to maybe list 5 super simple tips for songwriters. I know there are a lot of musicians here and I hope there is value here for some of you:
1. Write at least one song every day. Even if you think it is terrible. The only way to get good at this is to get crazy at this and do it a lot. You can start thinking of songs as throwaways, as ideas that sometimes stick and sometimes get thrown away. Once we stop getting so protective of them, we can let them die, change, grow, or be replaced by something better. I like to write new theme songs for tv shows, local colleges, superheroes, anything. Most of the songs I write are just for cannibalizing for pieces. “Cause I’m the Spiderman, I like to swing, impossibly high cause that’s my thing, Got spider bulge and 6 pack abs, realistic webs come out of my ass” had 14 verses and I have actually used some of them.
2. Conversely, Record everything you do. Writing down notes is helpful. Having a voice recording app on your phone you use constantly is better. Every idea, every riff, every bassline, every small chunk of vocal. Keeping a google doc open ton your phone, too, where you write words you like is great. I refer back to mine all the time. It’s now hundreds of pages and full of lines, rhymes, chorus ideas, etc. Entire verses that I liked have come from it. I wrote a song in the 90s called “Pussy Maybelline” for a friend of mine who admitted she put lipstick on her genitals for a date once. I wrote literally hundreds of verses about what other insane things she could do. That song has really delivered, even though it never came out. If you like a meter, write as much as you can in it. Many songs I’ve put out have had 12 verses written for them. I used the best ones.
3. Find different parts of you I have a habit of splitting myself into different people when I write. I have a person inside who writes dirty songs, one who does mean, angry ones, one who is super political, etc. They have names. It helps when you imagine how someone else would say something. Talk in funny voices, mispronounce words. Try to do something at the top and bottom of your range. Sing at different times of day, find every weirdness. I sometimes walk around talking like a different person, looking for a voice. I wrote a song called “Light it up” trying to channel this guy who comments on my feed who made an allusion to blowing up the middle east. I couldn’t sing that as me. (Maybe you can see | how hard it is for me | to be one voice in a system when it used to be all me | I want the same thing everyone | wants and will not say | to be in the majority, but that just slipped away, so I say Light it up.)
4. But Don’t wait for words and melodies are different. I hum simple melodies all the time and then sometimes match them with words. I sing to things. It would be embarrassing to explain which song I released started as “I love you, spaghetti” Remember that some of the greatest songs ever don’t have words that make sense. Phl Collins was going to replace Susudio, but couldn’t find a word he liked, Maurice White left “Bah-de-dah-de-dah” in “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire, because that’s just how he liked it.
5. Write over other people’s songs and rhythms. I worked with a really good songwriter once who used to just sample other grooves from songs she liked, loop it, tape the key down, and sing her own songs over it. When you listen to music you like, sing your own song ideas over the songs. I mean, not at the show or anything. But when you are alone. Once you have a good song, you can replace the music under it with anything. The world is full of rhythm, chord progression, etc. And all of it is there to inspire you.
Jim’s newest single in case you had any doubts of his stellar credentials 🙂
An album is a multi-faceted piece of art. There’s the lyrics, the music (instruments, vocals, effects, mixing), and then there’s the visual side of things. Today, we’re exploring some great pieces of cover art shared in the Sound & Shadows group.
To start off, this is the cover to Automata by Confusion Inc. “The artwork to my Automata album is special to me, because the original image used was a photograph of my mother’s artwork,” Colin Cameron says. “She’s an abstract expressionist – life long painter. I love the stone-looking background here, as well as the several dimensions of glitchy-ness added over it. This is an elegant cover with a heart-warming backstory.
Next up is the cover to The Fire Within by Vaselyne. This piece is a self portrait by Yvette Winkler. The photography here is excellent. It is still, yet in a day dramatic and dynamic. I love how the picture fades so seamlessly into the black void background. It altogether creates some emotion I can’t quite name.
Here’s the art for Plague Garden’s upcoming album. The piece was done by Albie Mason. I’ve got several aesthetics on the tip of my tongue while looking at it. It’s visually striking. There are many elements at play here, but they all form a wonderful cohesion under the vintage-feeling grain. It reminds me of browsing the sci-fi section at an old bookstore tucked away somewhere.
Inertia by We Are Parasols is coming in hot with this rainbow orb! The art was created by Daniel Kopton . This feels like something I could see in a museum. It would make a great desktop background, too. A poster, even. Basically what I’m trying to say is that I love looking at this. The choice of using a bar code instead of text is bold, but I think it works well.
Changing gears a bit, let’s take a look at Sea Lungs. This art was done by one of the band’s own members. It has a slight comic book cover vibe to it, I think, in how perspective and action are both played with. I’ll admit when I first glanced at it, I thought of astronauts due to the suits, the crater-like ground, and the star-like bubbles. I think this ambiguity adds to it, though. After all, space exploration and deep sea exploration are both equally terrifying intrusions into the harsh unknown.
Here’s a shocker. The album cover to Batavia and Their Friends by Batavia. No, you didn’t suddenly get transported back to the 1970s. “Nobody we showed this to thought we would actually use this and risk losing 200% of our goth credibility,” says band member Ed Cripps. “Risk is the spice of life.” That it is, Ed, that it is. I applaud this bold stylistic choice and devotion to an artistic direction here! I love it.
Another strong artistic direction is shown here in the album Leyendas de las Almas Perdidas by Valentina Maurino. “Endăley (fairy of the souls) is the one I portrayed here, the one who tells the stories of the lost souls behind each song, and these lost souls are represented through objects on the little table (it’s a telephone seat), some of these appear in my music videos too, I love symbolism,” Maurino tells me. I absolutely adore the whimsical handwritten wording. The broom-like hands, the table ornaments, the lighting…it all comes together and, I agree, tells a story.
“I wanted to convey the question that was arising for so many women at the time, myself included – is our sexual objectification and submission hot, or is it violent? Does it depend on who’s doing the choking? How can we be sure of the person’s intentions? Are we getting off, or are we endangering ourselves? As it turns out, in the following four songs on the EP that I would write between 2016-2017, I ended up unearthing and purging all my relationship trauma, and recalling a memory I’d suppressed – one where I was choked in anger by a dominant male partner I’d been financially supporting as his submissive. Through the course of the album writing and recording process, I answered the question “who can you trust” and I learned discernment. When the EP was released in early 2018, we were four months in to the crest of the #MeToo movement, and it was right on time.”
More information about Arden and the #MeToo movement can be read here.
Lastly for today, here’s the cover of Nervous Prayers by Sweat Boys featuring the logo work of Jim Marcus. This piece is serene yet dangerous. The imagery is drowning and, yet, reaching for help all at once. I am reminded of the hand of Adam reaching towards God as the Sistine Chapel.
Shit man… you old…I started this whole music thing way back in 90, when I started DJIng at clubs before I could legally be in them at 19. I stated my first band in my early 20s and didn’t start Ego Likeness until I was 28? or so. At the time I thought I was too old to really have much of a career doing this. In August I will turn 50. And the record I will be dropping this year is the most fully realized thing I’ve ever done. I remember reading that Michael Gira didn’t start The Swans until he was 30. And there are plenty of new and old scene artists, some in this group that are 40+.“Ok, so, what’s your point? This music is for old people?” No, don’t be an asshole. The point is that it’s never to late to do the thing you love. And if anything, starting later in life gives you a bit of an advantage in that you have a much more mature (hopefully) outlook on life. Which goes a long way when it comes to writing lyrics and how you deal with the professional aspects of the whole thing. There’s an old saying ,”youth is wasted on the young.” I’ve never been fond of it, because I feel like I did a lot of great shit when I was younger and used the time to develop skills I still use. But there really is a lot to be said for the sense of self and… “I don’t give a fuckness,” that comes with time and perspective. I am in no way saying one is better than the other. Each side of the coin has a lot going for it. But for those of us rapidly aging it’s easy to dismiss the desire to do X thing as childish. And it’s easy for young people to look at older musicians and assume that they aren’t able to bring new elements to music, or that it won’t speak to them. Which is a shame on all accounts. Personally when I was a kid, I never listened to music aimed at young people. And as an artist I couldn’t write for kids if you put a gun to my head. Make what you make, keep it honest, put it out into the world, repeat, and eventually it will find an audience it resonates with.
This is less of a rant and more of an observation. A while back I was on a thread with a musician and they were complaining about people asking what gear they use. And someone piped up “don’t tell them, it’s trade secrets.Which to me, and hopefully to you, is just silly. Because as we all know, it’s not the gear, it’s what you do with it. Garbage in/garbage out and all that. Each of us probably has a couple of tricks, or pieces of kit that they use that others might not, and it may solve a specific problem for them. Which is fantastic. But in the end it all comes down to the ideas. I started thinking about this because I just saw a thread here asking how music reviewers do their thing, if they have a system for it. And I’ve seen a few others asking how to do X or Y thing and the people who know about that are more than happy to jump in and get into an otaku level of detail about how it works.I’ve been also thinking about the small but aggressive backlash I’ve gotten on some of these posts, and I think I figured out something that those people might not get. I do it for the same reason so many people here are willing to help and be transparent with their shit. *Sure you don’t like the way I word things, too bad, be the change you want to see and write your own column.*It comes down to love. The people who want to share their information with you, myself included, LOVE what they do. They have poured themselves into learning how to do it. And they want others to get just as much out of it as they do. In the end, that’s the entire motivation. Also, there a couple of simple facts that everyone should keep in mind.1. Ain’t none of us big enough to worry about trade secrets. We are in a tiny corner of a genre that the mainstream world doesn’t even market to anymore.2. When you raise the water level for one person it raises it for everyone. Let’s say someone you help becomes the next Nine inch nails. And suddenly the spotlight is back on this style of music. Well, that’s fucking great for all of us. Because that means the available audience is much bigger. TL;DR: help others when you can. Trade secrets are bullshit.
Steven Rants: you’re a superhero get your shit together….Superpowers. All of you are superhero’s you just don’t know it yet. (Some of you may, but then you won’t need this.) My hope is by the end of this you will see and understand what I mean. And this is a big ass hall of justice. Here’s what I mean. We are all different superhero’s with different powers. Some are Superman, some are the green lantern, some the wonder twins, and there are a few, but not many Batman’s… batmen? Battsmen? Batmens? Now, your superpowers… they ain’t all that compared to being able to fly. (If you can fly drop me a line, we should talk.)So the first thing you have to figure out is what your super power is. Here, let me give you some examples.*im picking people that I feel comfortable making statements about. I’m not picking favorites.
1. Ken, Super-Kens power is that he’s really good at social dynamics. He can get along with most people, and he can get people from all over the place to support his ideas, join a group like this, and out of respect for him and each other, not act like dicks.
2. My buddy Ian who just joined this group, one of his super powers is he knows synths inside and out, literally, he tears em apart, puts em together and brings them back to life.
3. My wife Donna, if you need to know anything logistically about touring in a van, she can tell you how to deal with any situation that comes up. She can do a 12 hour drive, set up, play a show, be nice to people, sell Merch, crash for four hours and do it again day after day, all while not letting her fibromyalgia keep her down. When we take big bad industrial bands out as our opening acts I sit then down and say ,”look I get that you’re tough as shit and all that, but you need to understand that D has bigger balls than all of you put together, and if you forget that, or don’t jump when she says jump, you’re going to be in for a bad time. Because if she tells you to jump, there’s a real good reason that you probably just don’t see.
4. Myself (I get to be in this list because it’s my damn list and I came up with the idea. Bite me.) I’m ridiculously tenacious, and I have total faith that the things I make are good and matter. Once I have an idea I will do anything I can think of to bring it to life, learning new skills, putting the time in to make it happen, because I have always been poor and have never been able to afford to pay people to do them for me. Also, possibly my best superpower, and one anyone can learn to do… I have no shame. None at all. I will pull every available string, and use every available connection to push my agenda. Because I believe that strongly in the quality of my ideas and work. “You think you’re that great huh?” No, but I’ve busted my ass, I’m good at what I do and I think it’s interesting. There are tons of people better than me, which is one of the reasons I’m willing to be so shameless trying to get my shit out there. Because doing this is *all I know how to do* I have no fall back plan. I get that attitude puts some people off. But fortunately not having any shame, I don’t really care much. “Ok, cool Steven, so what?” Chill. I’m getting there, relax, put your feet up, and most importantly, stop interrupting me. So, let’s step back and look at the big picture. You make this shit that you love, art, music, whatever and you want to disperse it to the widest possible audience, because otherwise what’s the fuckin point, right?This is where knowing what your powers are comes in. Purely from a marketing standpoint point, look what Ken has done in, what, two years? He’s put together a great blog, he’s made this group come together from all over the world. And consequently, because he’s a good guy and is putting all this work in, his market share, his “Ken” brand is skyrocketing. And because of all of that, when he wants to put his band on the road or get some remixes, or even just ask for help he’s already got his foot in a shit ton of doors. Just by doing what comes naturally to him. Because NETWORKING, BRAND RECOGNITION and your brands REPUTATION matter as much if not more than actually being good at what you do. (Kens good, natch)I mean shit, how many people do we know that are really good, but no one knows them, and how many horrific acts are out there playing garbage music for people? Once you figure out your superpowers you can use them to jumpstart your career, or at least keep it moving. For instance put out just a stupid amount of material over the last year and a half, along with 19? 20? Videos, a book, and however many paintings. And each of those helps get my projects in front of more people. It also helps showing people further up the ladder that I’m active and keeps people aware of my shit. I was speaking to someone recently who said ,”when I got back into doing X thing, you were one of the first people I ran across because you can’t *not* run across you.” So, for good or ill, my whole brand or trip is here for all to see. And if people don’t like it, so be it, it’s me, and I accept that result. The point is this. There’s a good chance that you have one or two things that you are really good at. In some cases you might just have a great personality, some of you might be batman and have just a shit ton of money, use that shit to buy promotion, or whatever. Know how to fix synths? Make sure everyone knows, maybe you can help an artist you like in exchange for an opening slot on a tour or a remix or some shit. Because one thing about super powers. No matter what you can do, there’s always someone who can do some shit you can’t. Figure out how to leverage that to your advantage, make yourself available. Because to the person who *can’t* do what you can… you really are a fuckin superhero. And that shit fuckin matters.
Today I got thinking hard about Fugazi “Repeater“. I have never really associated with punk rock music much. When I was young, impressionable, and full of anger it was Industrial that filled that void for me. Generally if I found myself drawn to punk it was the style with glib humor (Dead Milkmen, Dead Kennedy’s, The Clash, The Dammed). Surely never the post hardcore scene. This was the exception though. I bought a cassette of Fugazi Repeater when I was 15 and I played it until the tape wouldn’t play any more. Sometimes we find a record that transcends genre. Those that read this page (I’m making a big assumption that many people do) know the real focus is on new albums specifically in the dark genre. Today I want to step outside of both constraints and pose this question.
When thinking on this question, what checks the boxes for me? Because it is a big question. I hope one worth thinking about.
What was my criteria?
Is it real? When I, a white boy from Velveeta Valley Clarkston hear gangsta rap can I comprehend or relate? Not really. However when I hear Biggie Smalls, do I know real from an image when i hear it? Maybe. That is what Iam MacKaye and Fugazi was to me. They truly embodied the concept of anti consumption punk rock. They didn’t just say Anarchy in the UK. They lived it. They would only do shows for $5 and lived the ideals they preached.
Did it stand up? So I spun this album 3 times today after not thinking about it for a decade. It still stands up. The music embraces the spit and vinegar of The Stooges, while showing the complexity and expertise not associated with peers in this style. The lyrics were thought provoking and hit you on a different level today then they did the last time you listened. Like a great book. I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy 7 times in my life. 14/17/24/29/32/36/41. Every single time it has held a new meaning and an new weight. That’s how i felt while spinning Repeater today.
Did it change me? This aspect goes to impact. I have a lot of records in my top 30 albums in any genre. They all had a big influence on what music means to me. I do think with a good portion of them you could group together these 7, these 5, these three. Repeater is really outside the box for me. Yet it still told a story about who I was. About who I would become. About how I saw the world differently because I had opened my eyes to something I didn’t associate with my self concept. People are not just one thing. We are complex creatures made of a lot of parts. Sometimes the smallest parts have a lot to say about shaping the core of who we are.
So I am very curious as to what is the album that changed you, but is totally outside of the genres you usually listen to? Tell us in the comments below. I will choose the entry I like the best and send you a special prize and publish your answer in Sounds and Shadows.