How To Write A Song (Part 1)

“Either you karate do “yes” or karate do “no.” You karate do “guess so”

Welcome to another edition of BSCBT. This is part one in a two part series on writing, specifically songwriting. This one’s for all of you but the next one is gonna be some classic members only style elite decadence. YOU can read it for less than it costs to get one cocktail a month. You do you, as the VIP section really truly gets the good shit. Okay, let’s get to it.

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Good morning everyone! It’s another beautiful day in the After Times. Thanks for being here with me beyond the thunderdome, looking down upon the smoke rising up from the ruins of a once great society. I’m assuming that at this point we’re about a year or so, tops, away from the restructuring of society based on strength and skill, as opposed to whatever it’s based on now (racism and being born rich, maybe?). However, as bad as racism and generational wealth have made everything, I’m still not looking forward to the impending new world order. 

This transition will probably be good for a very select few people, but will almost certainly be terrible for me, as I have no life skills whatsoever. The idea of me somehow blogging my way out of a bear attack or into a sturdy shelter where my family will be safe from the fire-rain, while exciting to imagine, does not seem like a likely scenario at all. Likewise, I’m not about to soothe a band of brutal hooded predatory sodomites with my singing voice (at least not in a way that’s gonna get me out of what I assume would be some pretty gnarly sex slavery), nor am I gonna probably still have a guitar to play around the fire for my new sex masters, as I will probably need to burn the ones I currently own for firewood and/or trade them to get my kids back. These are just guesses of course, but the long and short of it is that I’m fucked.

I can’t really run very fast or very far. I have no ability to fix anything. I’m smart but only in a really useless “that was a pretty interesting metaphor” kind of way. I can’t hunt. I can’t build. I can’t aim a gun. I can’t kill anything. I sure as shit can’t skin anything. I have no ability to sew, build fires, discern the difference between the poisonous berries and the non poison kind. I get cold. I overheat. I’m not strong. My reflexes are subpar, I have no sense of direction whatsoever, and I get very squeamish at the sight of blood and very overwhelmed at the thought of anything being hurt.

In short, the one skill that I’ve really kinda honed over the years, which is songwriting, is gonna be completely fucking useless very soon. And as goes the utility of songwriting, so goes your beloved narrator. So, with my last gasp, I’m gonna pass on to you, my only friends, how to write songs. So strap in. This first step is particularly important:

Very important first step:

Never listen to literally anyone else tell you how they write a song as an instructive tool. It’s too personal of a thing and if someone’s methodology on how to write a song happens to work for you, that’s more coincidence than anything else. When I explain the basic way I write songs to some of my friends who also write songs, the most common response is “whoa. I could never write a song that way. It’s crazy,” but it’s literally the only way that I can imagine writing a song. I just read this back and there are so many variations on the phrase ‘write songs’ that I’m not even gonna edit it. It’s poetic that I can be this inarticulate in an essay that’s ostensibly about how to best articulate yourself through music and poetry. Sheesh.

I’m gonna try this again:

It’s interesting to see people’s creative processes, and there’s no harm in going, “wow, okay. If Kieth Richards slams a bottle of Jack and stuffs a goldfish up his ass and then starts just jamming on his unplugged electric guitar into a running dictaphone every time he sits down to write a song, I’m gonna do that too,” but chances are very good that your ideal process is something you’ll have to discover through trial and error.

It literally doesn’t matter if you get drunk, stay sober, write in the morning, write at night, start with a riff, start with a melody, type things out, never write anything down ever...whatever. The order and details of what you do aren’t important, and at some point if you want to write songs as a sustainable kind of hobby or artistic outlet, you’ll need some sort of template. Keith Richards’ butt goldfish may not be for you, but it’s an okay place to start just in terms of actually witnessing your own reactions to trying to go through the process. I don’t know if this makes a lick of goddamn sense but I think it will all become clear by the end.

The main point here is that little things like the order in which you do things or how you put your thoughts down all boil down to personal preference and there’s no real right or wrong way to get into that stuff. I’m gonna talk about how I do shit, and it should be clear pretty quickly that there are some things I believe that every songwriter needs to do in order to be good and some things that are more arbitrary. 

So let’s start with an example of something that I feel is absolutely crucial when it comes to ANY writing: 

Feed Your Brain

How you do this is totally up to you but doing it is 100% crucial if you’re gonna create anything worth a shit. What you put in your head can even be trash. I don’t know if y’all remember the ‘knowing is half the battle’ PSA’s at the end of the GI Joe cartoons, but there was one where the member of GI Joe who was a giant Native American guy tells this kid he’s gotta eat before he goes to school and hands him a sandwich. The kid is incredulous. “A cheese sandwich? For breakfast?” and the mildly racist caricature of a Native American guy says “breakfast is more than just bacon and eggs,” and thereby teaches that kid an important lesson about feeding yourself. At the end of the day, it’s more important to just eat, even if it’s trash.

Now, I’m no big city nutritionist, so I have no idea if that’s actually a good dietary plan, but I can say with authority that this is true with your brain. If you’re smart and intuitive, you can even read Q Anon threads and get something out of it (if you’re stupid, you should probably stay away from that shit because it seems to be like catnip for dumb people). I know the traditional notion of feeding your head involves the New Yorker and Proust and shit like that, but that’s nonsense. 

Ben Stiller tells a story about how, since his dad was in show business, the TV in his house was always on. He watched TV from morning to night, all day, every day. This is, some would argue, a terrible way to feed your brain. However, does Ben Stiller seem like he’s got a bad brain in his head? I’m actually not a huge fan of his, but it’s fairly undeniable that he’s an accomplished director, he’s a wildly funny comedic actor, a wonderfully nuanced dramatic actor, and he’s a writer as well. He may very well love Little Women and Othello, but his output is, at the very least, clearly reflective of what went into his brain from his TV, namely, timing, pacing, the basic artistic constructs that create watchable television. And that’s fine. 

You just have to feed your brain. It doesn’t matter what it is. Scroll through comedy websites. Read young adult novels. Watch Maury Povich. Mix it up. Check out poetry. Read biographies. Read the Tin Drum. Watch a bunch of different types of movies. It really, truly doesn’t matter as long as you mix it up a little. Speaking of...

Mix It Up A Little

I have friends in bands who tell me that when it gets to be time to start writing a new album, they put on their old albums to get inspired. To me, this is ridiculous. This is straight up like eating your own turds for nutrients. If you’ve already done it, there’s no inspirational ‘ah ha’ moment that’s gonna come out of your own output. You know all about it already, and the only result is diminishing returns. 

Obviously, since we’re talking about songwriting, listening to music is a crucial part of feeding your head, but let’s say you want to be a band that sounds like Bad Religion...if all you listen to is Bad Religion, you’re just gonna be a worse Bad Religion. Their template (which is, presumably, the basis for your own band’s theoretical template) is set, but you’re gonna have the EXACT SAME template if your only influence is something that you’re trying to sound like, and you’re gonna do it worse because you have one influence, them, while they have myriad influences that they distilled into creating their thing. 

I think I didn’t explain that very well so let me try this tack: If you only listen to Bad Religion but you want your band to sound like Tribe Called Quest, that would be really interesting, right? It may not be GOOD, since that’s dependent on a lot of factors, but you can see how right there you’ve already got a cool tension in place, right? Fugazi says they got Guy in the band because they wanted two singers in order to be more like Public Enemy. Whether you like the end results or not, you can’t deny it makes for a much more interesting vehicle for your songs. You want to write punk, listen to country. You want to write metal, listen to punk. I’m not suggesting that you avoid the type of music you want to make, but make sure you’re seeing what people in other genres and eras are doing too. Turning the vibe of the verse of King Kunta into the outro of a metal song could wind up being a terrible idea, but it’s gonna be an idea that you’d never have even considered if all you and your Bad Religion worshiping bandmates ever listened to was Bad Religion. 

This goes for non music consumption too. It’s cool to read comics and watch Ducktales and shit. It’s also cool to watch old documentaries and read novels that were written on prison toilet paper by African political dissidents. I love to read vacuous nonsense all day, every day. I also like reading essays that display critical thinking and challenge my point of view. You need it all. If all you do is read grocery store paperbacks and watch sitcoms, you’re probably not gonna be all that fascinating. HOWEVER, if you don’t understand grocery store paperbacks and sitcoms because all you do is read Kant and watch kabuki theater, you’re probably gonna be equally un-fascinating. You just have to mix it up. You can decide if you want to be a champion of the lowbrow (if you are, you’d be best served reading and consuming more highbrow shit) or a champion of the finer things (in which case, the opposite. Go watch Howard the Duck immediately). Because the one thing you absolutely have to do is...

Develop a Point Of View

This is tricky because it’s not really a thing that I can tell you to do or that you can do consciously. This is just gonna be the result of feeding your head and switching up your input. You put enough ideas in your head, eventually, whether you like it or not, you’ll develop opinions on lots of things and these opinions are the rough outline of your larger point of view. Your point of view doesn’t even really have to be something you can articulate, and it probably shouldn’t be, but it is so crucial to the creative process that I’d even say it’s the secret weapon of the whole process. There’s not much more to say about this in the abstract, so let’s move on to the next step:

Trust the Process to Reflect Your Point of View

Are you heartbroken? Like really, truly heartbroken? Do you want to write a song about how someone broke your heart? Well, you can have that in your head as you sit down to write the song, and you will turn out with a cheesy, overwrought song about how “you broke my heart you fucking bitch” or whatever.

You can do that. It will stink, though. Do you want to write a song about how you don’t like authority? You can sit down and write a song specifically about that. You can literally make the song say and do whatever you want. “Fuck the cops, Authority sucks” can be your chorus. It will not be good. 

However, you’re broken hearted, you say? Like for real? How about you just sit down and write about your commute to and from school or work. Or how about you write about a party or about halloween, and why don’t you see if the fact that you’re broken hearted just seeps into those lyrics anyway. Chances are that they will. If you’re frightened of the police state or furious about the feudal system that is your job, write a song about a circus or start the narrator off as a party animal on the morning after a bender and your anti authoritarian bent will shine through in ways more interesting than you could possibly anticipate. This, friends, is point of view. 

It’s very hard to explain abstractly, but once you develop POV, everything you do is colored by it. Your perspective becomes part of anything you create. It’s the part of the song that’s MOST you, actually. If you sit down and write a song about the fourth of july and then you realize at some point that it’s about your dead dog and there’s a loss of innocence that sort of is reflected in America’s descent into this Orwellian fact-free nightmare, um, whether it’s good or bad, that’s quite a nuanced thing to do. Now, if you sat down now to specifically write that song on purpose it would be heavy handed dogshit. There’s no question about it.

Point of View is really the combination of two things:

  1. Feeding your brain with enough disparate material that it must organize and make sense of all the information in its own unique way

  2. The realization that you need to just fucking START WRITING and stop worrying about what you’re gonna write about, because your internal point of view will handle that. 

Okay, now, Start With The Writing

If you want to write, you should do it every day. It’s like a muscle. It gets easier and easier the more you do it. I find that when I’m writing for a project, I don’t need to schedule a specific time because I just compulsively return to my journal every free chance I get but some people who are less out of their minds prefer to set aside a specific time to write. You really only need to write like five minutes a day in order to really flex and build that muscle. A really good time to do this is first thing in the morning, just because you still have a little residual fluency between your conscious and unconscious minds but it really doesn't matter. 

I know what you’re thinking: The fuck am I gonna write about every day? That’s the best part: It doesn’t matter at all. You just need to get used to writing and writing and writing. Write about what you want for breakfast. Write about how much you hate Caitlin or the Chiefs game or whatever the fuck is on your mind. Don’t go back, don’t cross anything out and don’t stop until you have a page done. This is stuff that is JUST FOR YOU, so you don’t have to worry about it being stupid or anything like that. No one will ever see it but you. Hell, you don’t have to ever go back to it even. You need to do this to get your brain to the point of just flowing somewhat unconsciously through your pen. Once that’s a reflex you can get down to more specificity. But first:

Yo! What do you mean by writing? How exactly am I…

Lemme stop you right there. It doesn’t matter. Every element in the writing process will change something so figure out what works for you in the moment and go. Personally, I like the way my actual penmanship inspires what I’m writing and vice versa, and I like little unruled notebooks, so that’s how I tend to roll. However, I type faster than I can write and that changes everything. On one hand, when I type, I can get my thoughts out more quickly, before they morph or fade too much, but when I write longhand, sometimes my brain arrives at a new conclusion of the thought by the time my hand can get there and it switches for the better. If you’re writing in a cold room, that’s different from a hot room. Are you lounging or sitting up straight? Are there lines on your paper? Are you in a public area or by yourself? Is there music on? Etc.

If you ever find yourself in a rut, you can switch up any number of things and you’ll find that the whole process changes so much that sometimes it’s enough to snap you back into it. 

Next, What’s your instrument?

You can write a song on any instrument, including just the human voice (there are incredible demos of Michael Jackson doing multi track a cappella renditions of all the instruments that make up the beginning of Beat It. That’s how he wrote songs, because he didn’t otherwise play an instrument), but you need some kind of instrument or you’re not writing a song. 

I have no data to back this up but I’m guessing that probably 95% of western contemporary music is written on either some sort of keyboard or a guitar (and yes, I’d classify something like LOGIC as some sort of keyboard). So you have to pick an instrument and at the very least learn the barest minimum about how to play it. What chords fit together? What chord do you use if you want it to sound sad and which do you use to make it sound triumphant? This is stuff you can just fuck around and figure out, but I’m sure that if you don’t have that kind of time there are plenty of YouTube tutorials about this (and if you’re a pretty girl, there’s a line of dipshits with guitars just waiting for the opportunity to teach you how to play). 

But yeah, this seems obvious, but you gotta figure out what instrument you’re gonna write on and get the basic fundamentals down. 

Okay, check you out! You’ve fed your brain and developed a point of view, you’ve written enough that you’re not afraid of it and you’ve got a rudimentary grasp on your instrument. This seems like a good place to stop for today. Part 2 of this will delve specifically into my songwriting process and, like I said it will be only for the VIPs so if you haven’t, sign up and get saved with Bad Sandwich Chronicles Beyond Thunderdome!

Love y’all!