songwriting

Five words per song

Seth Godin has an idea called “Ten Words Per Page.”

He says that readers only register “ten words per page” when they are “reading” a text.

“Which means,” he says that in “your memo, your ad, your announcement, your post–you get ten words” to make an impression on them and cause them to want to engage (i.e. keep reading or take an action).

I’d posit that as songwriters, we only get five words… or less. And we only get the five melody notes that go with those five words.

(Of course, I am purposefully NOT talking about the groove, tempo, sound-scape of the song here. These matter too, but let’s take them off the table right now.)

Five words to make someone listen longer, hit repeat, send the song to someone else, talk about it with another person.

So… about that new song you’re working on:

Where are your most important five words?

What are your melody notes for those words?

Are they the most important melody notes in your song or are they just like all the others?

Maybe you have to write the song to find your five most important words. If that’s the case, then you must rewrite to make sure they are where they need to be (in the chorus, probably) and highlighted by the five most searing melody notes.

And as Seth points out, “If you can begin with the [five] words and write around them, you have the foundation for an effective message.” If you already know what your five most important words are … you are WAY ahead of the game.

Don't stop at 20

If you are struggling with something, say coming up with a title for a book or a blog post or a song, don’t do the minimum amount.

Don’t come up with one title and think you’re done. You’re not. You’ve not even started.

Come up with 20 titles.

And if 20 is hard, do 30.


To come up with 30 ideas you won’t self-edit. You won’t have time to. You need to get to 30 so that the ideas flow.

And that’s the point: find the killer word or phrase that would’ve never been found if you’d stopped at 1 or 5 or 20 or 25.

My song isn't really mine, it's yours

What if me writing a song wasn’t about me. What if it was about you.

It seems strange to say this, because of course the song is about me. It’s my song. I was moved to write it about something I care about.

But what if, once I wrote it, it wasn’t about me anymore. What if now that I finished it, it became about you. It helped you understand something, it changed you, it healed you, it helped you. Maybe “my” song set you free, or made you cry, or had you pick up the phone and call a friend. Maybe it helped you deal with what you are going through. Maybe it gave you a little more strength, a little more faith. Maybe it helped you feel understood.

The song’s no longer mine, really. It’s yours.

BAMA Kids 2017

Here's what we -- you, me, Zara Aina, and the BAMA Kids created -- in May of 2017.

You made all of this happen. Every single smile, dance, hug, and cheer you see in this video is because of you. You generously gave $4750 to get the Zara Aina crew of actors down there to create a totally original, mini-musical in less than one week with these adorable, fierce, fiery, and talented kids!. 

Thank you. I am so grateful for your support of this little homegrown, I'm-gonna-do-this-no-matter-what idea of mine. 

And, yes, I am doing it again in March of 2018! The folks at Zara Aina and I are already planning. 

Please make a donation here: http://zaraaina.org/donate/bama/

"Working with the kids at BAMA Kids was a reminder that everyone needs a chance to shine and be seen. These kids are flooded with ideas and creative talent. While watching one of the kids work I literary caught myself thinking “I’ve never seen that kind of talent before.” - Todd Estrin, Zara Aina actor

My 3 Things - May 2017

(The My 3 Things FAQ.)

0. Update: THANK YOU for helping me fund the theater workshop in Alabama
You did it!! 

In last month's My 3 Things, I told you about the work I am doing at BAMA Kids, an after-school program in Wilcox County, Alabama.  I'd already raised $2750 and needed an additional $1250 to send seven New York actors from the theater outreach non-profit Zara Aina to work their story-telling, confidence-building magic for a week. 

You generously gave $1775! 

Wow! Hell yes! 

You are making a direct impact on the lives of these kids. Because of you, they will create and perform an original piece of theater and through that creation develop crucial life skills like determination, self-confidence, and cooperation.

I met with the actors last week! A cheeky, cheery crew ... right?!

The actors will arrive at BAMA Kids in less than one week! I can't wait to share more pictures and lots of stories with you!!

 

1. LISTENING: The Stanley Turrentine Sextet on "Sugar"
My first guitar teacher -- the late, great John Dougherty of Wilmington, Delaware -- loved this song and it was one of the very first he taught me when I began lessons with him at age 11. These laid-back, bluesy, triplet-y burners were right in his wheelhouse and he had me playing them before I played anything else.

For the past week, I've been transcribing saxophonist Turrentine's solo on this track. So much tasty goodness in every bar! And not just from the saxophone. The other musicians on the track (Freddie Hubbard - Trumpet, George Benson - Guitar, Lonnie Smith - Electric Piano, Ron Carter - Bass, Billy Kaye - Drums) are killing it too. Enjoy! 

 

2. SEEING: Kinyatta A.C. Hinkle's show "The Evanesced" at the California African American Museum
Akimbo. A-swirl. Asleep. Aslant. A-sway. A hundred notebook-sized drawings of a hundred missing African American women doing everything from sitting, to stooping, to flying, to falling, to flapping, to being bent way beyond backwards, to cowering, to careening. These aren't portraits, they are gestures of emotions and expressions. There is pain here, but there is also joy. 

1 of 100 of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle's ink drawings of 100 missing African American women

Hinkle's deliberate choice of simple materials -- uniformly sized recycled paper, India ink, and a brush she created from bits of Spanish moss -- give these "un-portraits" incredible power. They represent every woman and no woman. “I wanted to make this kind of being that is flesh and not flesh,” Hinkle told the Huffington Post. “Becoming and unbecoming, defined and not defined. There is this push and pull between both worlds.”

In creating these drawings, Hinkle wanted to highlight a terrible erasure: "missing black women in America and the African diaspora, historically and to the present day." Her mark-making imagines the every day narratives of thousands of black women who have disappeared due to homicides, human trafficking, colonialism, poverty, and other forms of going unseen. 

Hinkle is one to watch. The show is on through June 25, 2017.  If you are in or near LA, it is a must-see. We often talk of an artist's body of work. Here, Hinkle's body of work is quite literally a collection of work made of women's bodies. It feels familiar and intimate, often devastatingly so.

 

3. GEEKING OUT: Tabata Songwriting aka using a Tabata Timer for focused periods of songwriting
If you know anything about me, you know that I am an athlete, through and through. Even now, when I don't have to, I work out at an elite level.

Wanting to shake up my songwriting practice, I decided to try an experiment: I took something from my workout routine and tried using it in my songwriting routine.

I used the Tabata Timer on my phone to increase my focus and output when writing a new song.

Huh? 

In the fitness world, a Tabata is a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that last 4 minutes. Work out as hard as you can for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, complete eight rounds and you have done one Tabata. (Read more about Tabata workouts here. There are lots of Tabata timers in the app store. I happen to like this one because it's fully customizable.)

So how did I adapt this to songwriting? Did I work as hard as I could for 20 seconds on lyrics, then rest for 10 seconds, then repeat eight more times, and in four minutes I had the perfect pop song?

Not quite.

I set my Tabata Timer to do four rounds of 12 minutes on, two minutes off.

For 12 minutes, I worked on accomplishing a very specific songwriting goal, for example: "write a rough draft of a first verse, lyrics only." During the two minutes off, I documented the result of that work, noting if I achieved the goal or not and if not, why not. I also -- in that two minutes -- set up the specific outcome for the next 12 minute burst of activity.

Screenshot of my Tabata Songwriting notes 

Why this works
In short, my Tabata Songwriting method works because it forces me to focus and to commit to accomplishing a clear goal in a very short period of time.

With the timer counting down, I immediately drop into state of deep focus; I don't have the luxury of letting my attention waiver. I had to iterate song ideas faster, even really bad ideas. This helped me to create and work with a "good enough" idea sooner than I would if I had unlimited time.

Did I write the greatest song ever using this method? No. 

Did I write a finished song? Yes.

In a shorter amount of time than usual? Hell yes.

I finished a song in two hours and twenty minutes. That's pretty damn quick for me.

(Because I am dead serious about songwriting, I keep track of these things. Most songs take me between four to eight hours to write. Some songs have taken me as long as two months, some as long as two years.)

Will I always use a Tabata timer when writing songs? Hell no. There are currently a couple of songs on my "to write" pile that I know would not benefit from this approach. I want to take more time with them; I want to luxuriate in the infinite possibilities of lyrics and chords. 

The point is I don't want to be precious about writing songs. I used to be that way and it sucks. Over the last few years, I've spent considerable time, energy, and thought creating new ways of being around songwriting. Now, I am free and getting freer. 

Inventing this new and (let's face it) ridiculous way of songwriting is evidence of that freedom. And I am thrilled about it. It's just one more arrow in my songwriting quiver. Watch out!

 

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OUTRO: I'd love to hear from you

What do you think of these 3 things? 

Leave a comment below and let me know what you're listening to, what art shows you're seeing, and what tools you're using to get your art work done. I read every comment!

My 3 Things - March 2017

1. LISTENING: “I Told Jesus” by Roberta Flack (aka “If He Change My Name”)

Looking across different versions of a single song is one of the best things about recorded music.

In last month's My 3 Things, we listened to Marian Anderson’s fine rendition of this gospel tune. Now, we turn to Flack’s take on it. Entitled “I Told Jesus," it appears on her magnificent debut album First Take, released in 1969. (I am forever indebted to my friend John Ellis for telling me about this album and insisting I check it out.) 

Her arrangement is slow and brooding, a string section quivering from the start. It patiently builds, almost coming to a stop once or twice in the beginning. Flack gazes inward, the lyrics performed sotto voce. Momentum gathers as the song moves on, and the hushed restraint gives way to defiance by the end (marked by her powerful vocal cadenza starting at 5:24). 

Now that we've heard Anderson and Flack, spend some time with these two takes by Nina Simone: Live, Village Gate 1962 version and Live, Paris 1968 version.  Simone is mercurial as ever. You won't be disappointed.

 

2. READING: Arguably by Christopher Hitchens
Reading the final few pages of this provocative, breathtaking, and immensely satisfying collection of essays was a sad experience. Turning the last page, I had to face the fact that I’d never be able to open one or more of our important newspapers or magazines and read Hitchens on, say, President Donald Trump, to pick a single spring-loaded topic.

Arguably was Hitchens’s fifth collection of essays. Published in September 2011, he died in December of that year. More than 780 pages long and containing 107 essays ranging from literary journalism to political commentary to cultural criticism, his writing here is vital, his thoughts and opinions as relevant today as when they were written. 

When I availed myself of the critical reviews of Arguably (after I had finished reading it), I found I wasn't the only person saddened by this book. When the book came out, Bill Keller of the New York Times wrote: "This fifth and, one fears, possibly last collection of [Hitchens's] essays is a reminder of all that will be missed when the cancer is finished with him."

All that will be missed is a shatteringly tremendous amount.

Was there ever a US President — much less a US politician or, let’s be real, a single person on the face of planet Earth — more in need of one of Hitchens’s blistering tear-downs than this orange-tinted man-baby? #seriously

Where to begin? Let's start with language itself.

Hitch would be having a f-cking field day with Trump. Studies put Trump’s vocabulary at, variously, third- or fourth-, maybe (if the linguists are being generous and he -- for once -- decides to stick to a script) a sixth-grade level. 

Hitchens’s vocabulary? 

Nothing short of jaw-dropping. Reading Arguably, I looked up more than 60 words I didn't know or didn't know well enough. And Hitchens’s turn-of-phrase is masterful, delightful; I found myself highlighting passages just so I could return to and revel in his language not to mention his argument.

The essay "Words Matter" (from Slate, March 3, 2008) gives us a clue as to how outraged Hitchens would've been by Trump's abuse of language. Hitchens is heartbreakingly prescient:

“Pretty soon, we should be able to get electoral politics down to a basic newspeak that contains perhaps ten keywords: Dream, Fear, Hope, New, People, We, Change, America, Future, Together. Fishing exclusively from this tiny and stagnant pool of stock expressions, it ought to be possible to drive all thinking people away from the arena and leave matters in the gnarled but capable hands of the professional wordsmiths and manipulators.”  

He nailed it, I’m devastated to say. 

(It is beyond the scope of my endeavor to imagine how satisfying it would be to hear Hitchens parse the incongruous word pairings “alternative facts” and “fake news” with which we are forevermore saddled. And Trump’s banning of major respected news outlets from the White House daily briefing on Friday, February 24?? I imagine Hitchens would’ve been apoplectic.)

There's so much in this collection of essays that I could go on and on about, but I'll finish by saying that Hitchens’s respect for the reader is a tonic. 

I felt revivified and renewed reading each of these essays, as well as challenged and occasionally maddened (his piece “Why Women Aren’t Funny” isn’t funny, in more ways than one).

Agree with him or don’t, either way this book is a riveting, important read. 

 

3. UPDATING: Death, a reading list - Part 2 … revisited for the making of the Death Album
Way back in December of 2013, I wrote a blog post called “Death, a reading list” in which I shared a “list of the books about death and dying that I find worthwhile, thought-provoking, gut-wrenching.”

The post was a snapshot of where I was then, what I was thinking and learning about.

At the time, I didn’t know how long my Mom had to live or what work she and I would be doing to bring her to a “good” death, by which I mean a death she had chosen, was at peace with, a letting go that felt true and right to her being.

Turns out, there would be more of ... everything: chemo, cyber-knife radiation, hormone therapy, and hospice. And that was just the medical / physical part of it. 

There would still be more of the entire range of her spiritual / psychological reckoning with cancer and death that we both felt was as important (if not more) than any of the miracles her doctors could perform.

I am talking about the deep conversations we were to have, the many Joseph Campbell videos we were to watch and re-watch, the half-a-dozen sessions with a wonderful and caring oncology psychologist, the dedicated trips to visit (in the words of Campbell) her “bliss stations” or favorite places, and the specifically-planned but wonderfully-unstructured time with dear friends and closest family. There would be many more walks in nature, much more time with her dogs, and hours of feeling good and not-so-good, and hours feeling she was ready and yet not ready to die. In short, there was so much more life to be lived between that blog post and her last day, October 13, 2015.

I've been living and wrestling with her death ever since. But then you know this: you've been following along.

The two great commitments of my life since she was diagnosed in October of 2011 have been: 1) caring for her from diagnosis to death (and beyond); 2) writing songs about that journey.

I’ve written well over 20 songs and this year I'll be making something of them — an album, more than a few concerts, collaborations with other artists, etc.  I lovingly and tongue-in-cheekily refer to this project as “The Death Album.” 

Recently, I’ve played some of the songs on Facebook Live; maybe you’ve watched. (If not, this is one you should watch because I lay it all on the line.)

Since that "Death, a reading list" blog post, I’ve done a lot of living, reading, and songwriting.

I thought, on the eve of making the Death Album, it would be appropriate to update the original post. For your consideration: Death, a reading list - Part 2.  

What follows is only an excerpt ... 
"This list is certainly not a “best of," nor is it in any particular order. You have to find your own way through this topic, as we all do. And just because a book appears here does not mean I loved it and would necessarily recommend it. These titles have shaped my thinking about death, but that shaping may have taken the form of a single sentence or two, one chapter, or a particular stance toward mortality more generally.

I've only carried one book over from the original list ... and that is Christopher Hitchens's Mortality.

I am never not reading Mortality. I finish it and immediately begin again. I've given away my own copy so often -- at gigs and to friends and acquaintances -- that I now keep a stack on my desk for just such occasions. It is the keystone of the Death Album; it is the touchstone of the songs about death I have written and am writing still."

THE LIST:

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life & Nothing To Be Frightened Of

Astrid Lindgren, The Brothers Lionheart

Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary

Max Porter, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

Edited by Kevin Young, The Art of Losing: Poems on Grief and Healing

Complied by Yoel Hoffman, Japanese Death Poems

Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Lapham's Quarterly: Death, Volume VI, Number 4, Fall 2013

 

Death, a reading list - Part 2

Back in December of 2013, I wrote a post called "Death, a reading list."

So much has happened since then, not the least of which was the death of my Mom, I thought it was time to update the list.

As I embark on recording my next album -- lovingly nicknamed "The Death Album" for now -- I wanted to lay a trail of breadcrumbs between the worlds (and words) I've been immersed in and the songs I've been writing about my Mom, our time together, her living and dying, and my own living and dying ("you are dying everyday").

As with my original post, this list is certainly not a “best of," nor is it in any particular order. You have to find your own way through this topic, as we all do. And just because a book appears here does not mean I loved it and would recommend it without reserve. These titles have shaped my thinking about death, but that shaping may have come in the form of a single sentence or two, a single chapter, or merely a stance toward mortality more generally.

I've only carried one book over from the original list (go back to that post if you want to see the others) and that is Christopher Hitchens's Mortality.

I am never not reading Mortality. I finish it and immediately begin again. I've given away my own copy so often -- at gigs and to friends and acquaintances -- that I now keep a stack on my desk for just such occasions. It is the keystone of the Death Album; it is the touchstone of the songs about death I have written and am writing still.

THE LIST:

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life & Nothing To Be Frightened Of

Astrid Lindgren, The Brothers Lionheart

Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary

Max Porter, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

Edited by Kevin Young, The Art of Losing: Poems on Grief and Healing

Complied by Yoel Hoffman, Japanese Death Poems

Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Lapham's Quarterly: Death, Volume VI, Number 4, Fall 2013

 

 

A cold reading of the Death album

Cold reading is a term used in theater. It means "reading aloud from a script or other text with little or no rehearsal, practice, or study in advance" (Wiki). 

A playwright schedules a reading so she can get a feel for how the play is working as a whole, so she can hear the rhythms of the language of the play in the actors voices. It allows her to see the play from a distance, usually for the first time. It's an integral part of the creative process.

On December 11, 2017 at my apartment on the Bowery, around 35 brave and generous souls gathered to listen to me "read" through nine (out of the 25) songs I have written for the Death album. 

The questions I wanted to answer by staging this reading were these:

  • What is the best way to tell the story of my time as my Mom's caregiver from her diagnosis to her death? What songs? In what order?
  • What is the narrative arc that is most powerful to a listener?
  • How do I talk about these songs as I am performing them? What is the stage banter, if any?
  • How do I keep the show from being too sad? My time with my Mom was filled with happiness and joy, so how do I show the full range of that experience in a set of music?
  • How do I end the show?
  • In general, how did these songs work? What feelings, conversations, and moments did they create?
  • Playing these songs, creating this event, am I any closer to my goal of changing the conversation -- or lack thereof -- around death?

Here's a picture of the set list from that night ... 

If you were there that night, thank you for coming. It was quite an evening! There were more than few tears and more than a few laughs -- including a hilarious prank pulled on me during the show by my dear old Dad!!

I'm so grateful for your attention, your openness, your willingness to cry, laugh, and share yourself with me and my family and friends. We created more than a few moments that night, didn't we?

If you weren't there, I'll be doing more of these evenings at my apartment in NYC.

Don't want to miss out? Make sure you are on the NYC concert list, otherwise you won't get the details about the house concerts and other gigs around the city.

Don't live around here? Let me know in the comments below if you want Facebook live concerts of this music and the album as it takes shape.