5 starting points for songwriting (with advice and anecdotes from Joni Mitchell, John Fogerty, Rodney Crowell, and more)

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[This post is an excerpt from The Complete Singer-Songwriter, written by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers and just published in an expanded second edition by Backbeat Books.]

It’s such a subconscious thing. It’s like this little song part of you fills up over time. It’s like a well, and then you just put your dipper in and dip it out. When you’re a songwriter, at least a songwriter like me, you have to work hard on your craft—if you hear something, you want to be able to figure out how to do it. But the songs themselves, I don’t know where they come from or where they’re going or why they picked me. They really are presents, and your job is to receive them and pass them on.

—Greg Brown

Ask songwriters where their ideas come from, and they grope for the right words or image to explain the essentially inexplicable: Songs just appear out of the blue, like lightning on a sunny day. They are forever floating past us, available to anyone who’s listening. They spring from interesting mistakes and lucky accidents and, of course, from private pain and emotional turmoil. They are like fish down in the dark waters, sometimes taking your bait and sometimes not. Inspiration is a mysterious thing, and oftentimes songwriters don’t even want to penetrate that mystery—they fear that if they understand what is going on, they won’t be able to tap into it anymore.

Inspiration may be impossible to define or control or predict, but that doesn’t mean that we have to just sit around idly waiting for it. There are many ways in which we can make ourselves more receptive to inspiration and quicker to recognize it when it comes. Over the years, scores of singer-songwriters have shared with me the approaches and tricks that help them find new songs and break through those dreaded periods of writer’s block. Here are five ideas from those conversations.

1. Babble.

If you ever write music before words, chances are you sing nonsense phrases or just raw sounds that fit the melody and rhythm. Usually you need to get rid of these placeholders and write “real” words (we’re all glad that Paul McCartney came up with “yesterday” to replace his original words, “scrambled eggs”), but pay attention to your spontaneous utterances. Sometimes they’ll point you in an interesting direction, and besides, these words or sounds are beautifully matched with the music—that’s why you sang them in the first place. Run your recorder and just let the sounds flow without editing or filtering. You can look back later for usable ideas or just toss out the whole thing.

The process for me is usually sitting down, hitting the chord, starting to throw my voice into the chord, keeping a recorder going the whole time because I get into a sort of trance where I am stumbling around in melody land. I don’t know what I’m doing. I just start singing nonsense syllables, and a word will form. Later on when I finish the song, I can go back to that work tape, and nine times out of ten the vowel sounds have already started to become what ends up being the line a month later or two months later. I really believe that there’s this subconscious soup that everything is formed in, where there’s a greater wisdom than my pea brain can offer me.

—Beth Nielsen Chapman

I often feel most fulfilled by my own things when I don’t know what I’m writing about at first. I just get something that I believe in enough to sing to and mumble into a Walkman, and listen back to what I’m trying to get at without deliberating words. And then you start getting an idea. It comes around to making beautiful stuff out of junk, out of nothing, something Zen-ish.

—Chris Whitley

Many of my own songs arrive like this. I happen upon a guitar groove that catches my ear . . . find myself singing the words “turn away” over it plus a bunch of gibberish . . . record myself making all those sounds and listen back . . . and eventually start thinking, “Hmm, turn away. From what?” That one phrase and the feeling of the music points me in a direction for completing the lyrics and, in this particular case, results in a song called “Turn Away” that’s about moving on from struggles of the past. I never set out to write about that topic, though. I discovered it, which, for me, is a much better way.

2. Make mistakes.

Many guitar-playing songwriters have gotten hooked on using alternate tunings because a new tuning undercuts what they know how to play and creates an environment for weird and interesting accidents. That’s just one example of how mistakes can generate great ideas and why they are worth cultivating.

If you’re only working off what you know, then you can’t grow. It’s only through error that discovery is made, and in order to discover you have to set up some sort of situation with a random element, a strange attractor, using contemporary physics terms. The more I can surprise myself, the more I’ll stay in this business, and the twiddling of the notes is one way to keep the pilgrimage going. You’re constantly pulling the rug out from under yourself, so you don’t get a chance to settle into any kind of formula.

—Joni Mitchell

I use keyboards, which I can’t play to this day, as a way of defamiliarizing myself with my musical medium. We’re all trying to do this in one way or another: shake yourself loose from the pattern that your fingers are used to following. That’s how you come up with something that might have a unique quality. Good things do come out of throwing yourself off the cliff one way or another.

—John Sebastian

3. Collect titles.

Many songwriters keep lists of potential song titles. Woody Guthrie was an avid collector. His manuscript “How to Make Up a Ballad-song” (in the Woody Guthrie Archives) describes how he spent hours thinking of song titles and had thousands of them “laid away like postal savings bonds.” John Fogerty has kept a title book for his whole career, and told me about its auspicious beginnings.

I got a little plastic book, and somewhere along the way the very first thing I wrote in it was the words “Proud Mary.” I had no idea what that meant, but after that, every time I had an idea, I’d write it in that book. What I discovered was, if I had a title that sounded cool, then I’d try to write a cool song that fit the cool title. That’s how “Bad Moon Rising” happened. I had written that in there, and at some point later, messing around with some chords and kind of a story, as I went through what was only a few pages then, I saw the phrase. “Yeah—that’s what this is about,” and I went off in that direction.

—John Fogerty

A good title can give you a big head start in writing—it can suggest a mood, an attitude, a groove, a character, and much more. A title idea might just pop up in your head, or you might overhear or see it somewhere. My own songs “Stop, Drop, and Roll,” “The Day After Yesterday,” “My Life Doesn’t Rhyme,” and “Enough About You (What About Me)” all started with their title phrases coming up in conversation. With a title, your songwriting job is about fleshing out an idea rather than pulling something out of thin air.

I like it when I get a title. Then I know, this is what it is. Generally speaking, I have to say those songs tend to be more commercial, for lack of a better word. You know, Vince Gill and I wrote “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long.” Well, that’s a big old title and it’s a joke, and you know what that is. I certainly appreciate the big title that comes to me, because those songs are easy to write.

—Rodney Crowell

4. Arrange and rearrange.

If the silence is deafening and you’re tired of staring at a blank page, try working with existing material. Write lyrics to a favorite melody, or set some lyrics or poetry to a new melody. Or simply take a favorite song and change it a little; that’s how Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff, like many other songwriters, got started.

When I was traveling and I first met [fiddler] Yosi Perlstein, who plays with me, we would play some old folk songs together, like “Worried Man Blues,” and he would change some of the lyrics around so that it could be not just about men—it could be about women too. He liked to play with a simple word or something to make it more universal. That really struck me. I was very new to writing songs, probably about eighteen, and I loved that idea of taking folk music and continuing the conversation, making it new, and making it something for my generation.

Sometimes I [rework an old song] just because I’m creatively blocked and I need a point to start from.

—Alynda Lee Segarra

If you hope to use your adaptation commercially and don’t want to get involved with licensing, stick to public domain sources. But it can still be a great exercise to rewrite a pop hit or otherwise mess around with copyrighted material for your own amusement. The process of adapting forces you to stretch outside yourself and solve problems creatively. Here’s how Duncan Sheik described the process of setting poetry to music for the album Phantom Moon.

Usually I write music first and then words later, whenever they come to me. So it was a little bit of an adjustment, but once I got into the process it became very natural. In fact I really enjoyed it, because it becomes this kind of fascinating puzzle, how you can make a line of text work as a musical phrase, and how you can take the structure of the given text and make that work as a musical structure in terms of the whole song. It became its own little adventure each time.

—Duncan Sheik

If you have trouble breaking free from one particular version of your source material (say, you’re trying to write new words to “Man of Constant Sorrow” but can’t get Ralph Stanley’s voice out of your head), try speeding it way up or slowing it way down, transposing it to a different key or to another instrument—anything to make the familiar seem strange and new.

5. Use a template.

Another way to write without starting from scratch is to take the structure of an existing song and fill it in with your own words and music. In terms of lyrics, for instance, the song can provide you with a template for the number of lines in each section, the number of syllables in each line, and where the rhymes fall.

Once I was sitting in the van very late at night in Spain somewhere. I suddenly got this great idea for some lyrics and I was like, oh dang, what are we going to say, pull over? But they really were good lyrics, and it was something I’d wanted to write about for a long time. So I got out my pen and my pad in the dark, and I thought, if there’s any way to do this, I’m going to have to use a template. So I took “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan, and I just wrote the song to the tune of “Desolation Row.” And when I got back to England, I picked up my guitar and I wrote a completely new tune that wasn’t at all like “Desolation Row” but had the exact same scan to it.

—Billy Bragg

You can find all sorts of interesting song templates in traditional songs. David Wax (David Wax Museum) has written many songs by working with the structures and cadences of Mexican folk songs.

A lot of times what I’ve done is I’ve taken a traditional song and tried to unlock the verses and the way that the lines repeat. Lyrically, it’s great to have this interesting template that you won’t have used previously. Any kind of new structure feels like a great tool. It can inspire the writing in a way that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

—David Wax

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For more songwriting tips and lessons, visit completesingersongwriter.com.

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is a grand prize winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and founding editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

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  • Sean O’Neill

    Arllo Guthrie talks about songwriting being like fishing and waiting for an idea to come floating along – sometimes you catch them but sometimes they float on by – or you just let them go.
    He also warns against fishing downstream from Bob Dylan.

  • Lydia Walker

    Great tips! I’ve noticed some of the same things in my songwriting. Passing this info on… Thanks!