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.

Quotes on being brief

  • “It was a delightful visit;—perfect in being much too short.” —Jane Austen

  • “My liege, and madam, to expostulate
    What majesty should be, what duty is, Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
    Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
    Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
    And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
    I will be brief.” ― William Shakespeare, Hamlet

  • “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” —Thomas Jefferson

  • “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” —Blaise Pascal, Lettres Provinciales, 1657, (translated from the French)

  • “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.” ―Friedrich Nietzsche

  • “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.” ―George Burns

  • “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do —not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less bullshit." —Stephen King, On Writing 

  • “Be sincere, Be brief, Be seated.” —Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Blog posts and habit math

I’ve been attempting to write a post a day for about two weeks now.

I’ve missed a few days.

What have I learned from making the commitment? And — more or less — sticking to it?

I’ve fallen in love with the math of compounding, of watching tiny habits practice day after day build up a level of success and confidence.

As author James Clear points out in the opening to his book Atomic Habits:

“improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable— sometimes it isn’t even noticeable— but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. Here’s how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more.”

I’m staying focused and concentrating on my process, not my outcome.

Staying with the process and not becoming fixated on the result is the heart of habit and, ultimately, identity change. Clear puts it this way:

“It doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path toward success. You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.”

That’s what I am doing — staying fixated on my trajectory.

When I miss a day, I’ll get back at it the day after that. I’ll not let two days go without a writing a post.

In this way, I learn — bit by bit, day by day — to make change and trust the person I want to be: a notice-er, a thinker, a compassionate witness-er, a person who makes time for public (and private, too) writing and teaching and learning.

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.


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



My 3 Things - January 2017

1. LISTENING: Simply the Best way to start the new year -- Tina live in Barcelona

2016 took Prince, Bowie, and Leonard Cohen.

Even the New York Times admits it was a tough year for pop music: "Death may be the great equalizer, but it isn’t necessarily evenhanded. Of all the fields of endeavor that suffered mortal losses in 2016 — consider Muhammad Ali and Arnold Palmer in sports and the back-to-back daughter-mother Hollywood deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds  — the pop music world had, hands down, the bleakest year."

Tina is 77 years old.

I cringe at the thought of reading the tweet that tells me she's dead.

And yet, I am acutely aware that she is dying every day. So am I.

One of my secret dreams is to bring Tina out of retirement.

I envision collecting a handful of songs that are undeniably good and from realms other than straight-up pop. Her voice, a killing band, restrained arrangements, the effect would be startling and stunning. If you're familiar with Joni Mitchell's song Edith and the Kingpin Tina sang on Herbie Hancock's The River album, then you get where I am going with this. 

Akin to the album legendary producer Rick Rubin made with Johnny Cash near the end of Cash's life, my project would cast Tina's voice and artistry in a whole new light. Rubin said he wanted to work with Cash because it would be an "exciting challenge to work with ... a legendary artist who might not be in the best place in his career at the moment. The first person who came to mind was Johnny, in terms of greatness and in terms of maybe, at that moment, not doing his best work."

Why a producer with major connections and chops isn't doing a project like this with Tina is beyond me. It is such a slam dunk! She's been out of the picture for long enough that her return would be triumphal. She is beloved by all. Vocally no one can touch her.  And the culture at large is overripe for everything she represents -- attitude, mature sexiness, gravitas. If in 2016 we remembered that "the future is female," who represents female feistiness more than Tina Turner? 

Maybe Tina is in a studio in Switzerland right now, doing just this type of project with some hot shot producer. I hope so!

I'm not attached to it being me who makes this dream real. To paraphrase the Cult of Done Manifesto, if publishing something on the internet counts as the "ghost" of it being done, then I proclaim this project done. I set this idea free.

Take it, run with it, make it real. Please.

What I am attached to is Tina being back in our lives, fully, richly, and with a set of songs that matches not only her moxie but also her maturity. 

Maybe she doesn't want to be out there doing this kind of thing now. Maybe the time, money, people, or songs haven't been right so far. Maybe she's over it -- all of it.

Who knows? 

What I do know is that her music changed my life.

And while she and I still have lives, I can hope and dream.

(It goes without saying, if you want to help me make this dream a reality, please be in touch. I am dead serious about it happening before it's too late.)


2. LISTENING: The Podcast On Being with Krista Tippett
If you don't already know about On Being, then get ready to go down a rabbit hole of nuanced, thoughtful, deep conversation about what it means to be human and how that question is lived out. On Being explores "these questions in their richness and complexity in 21st-century lives and endeavors. We pursue wisdom and moral imagination as much as knowledge; we esteem nuance and poetry as much as fact."

The host Krista Tippett is a gem. She's created a home for the knotty issues and ideas about living and how we do it. She lets silence do the work. She's unafraid of the meandering thought. She allows her conversations go where they need to and, thus, her show is filled with moments of delight and wonder.

Here are three interviews that are not to be missed:

Yo Yo Ma - Music Happens Between the Notes

Ann Hamilton - Making and the Spaces We Share

Gordon Hempton - Silence and the Presence of Everything

[Pro Tip: I prefer -- in almost all cases -- to listen to the unedited version of her interviews. There are so many diamonds left on the cutting room floor.]


3. LISTENING: The talks of Tara Brach
The eminent psychologist Carl Rogers wrote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

More than a year ago I committed to meditating and practicing my guitar every day. In case you missed it, I wrote about that decision and the journey in a post called "401 Days in a Row."

I'm still going strong and one reason why is because of Tara Brach's podcast.

Tara has a PhD in psychotherapy, lived for ten years at an ashram, and trained for five years at the Buddhist teacher training program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. In 1998, she founded the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, DC, now one of the largest and most dynamic non-residential meditation centers in the U.S. She's a broadminded, uniquely talented spiritual leader. 

Her biggest gift is the way she combines psychology with eastern spiritual ideas, weaving the two traditions into something she calls radical acceptance -- "clearly recognizing what we are feeling in the present moment and regarding that experience with compassion." 

She's got a great sense of humor and a relaxed, comfortable intensity about her. She doesn't take herself too seriously even as she asks probing questions about our habitual actions and reactions and uses moments of silence, reflection, and meditation to nurture change, wholeness, genuine acceptance, and inner freedom.

A few of the talks I return to again and again (so much so that I can recite her jokes along with her) are:

Stress and Everyday Nirvana - Part I and Part 2

Your Future Self

Loving the Life Within Us

The Bird Got My Wings

[Side note: Since this M3T features podcasts, I'll double down and include an interview with Tara on Tim Ferriss's wildly popular podcast.]

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I'd love to know what podcasts (and a favorite episode or two) you're listening to. Let me know in comments below.