Break the Barrier
The Nitty-Gritty of Songwriting
I was thinking about Jackie Robinson recently because a composer I was playing golf with in an ASCAP tournament had a grandfather who was part of Robinson’s legal counsel. It reminded me of a song I wrote with Jonathan Sprout called “Break the Barrier,” which was about Robinson’s becoming the first black baseball player in the major leagues. I had to break a few barriers to become the first professional songwriter in my family, many of whom looked askance at my pursuit. I drove a truck for 38,000 hours with a guitar and small keyboard in the jockey box before I became the songwriter I needed to be to succeed. My brothers and sisters were distinguishing themselves in white collar careers and had letters after their names on their business cards as I got up at 4:30 in the morning with my Teamster’s ID in my wallet. It never occurred to me I might not succeed, but I was surprised it took so darn long. This surprise was due to my inflated opinion of my craft. I’ve heard that you can get smarter by exercising your brain. I believe that happened to me. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that may help you break a few barriers of your own. Some of this is an analog for life.
- You have a song idea you’re crazy about, you’ve started writing it, and you love what you have so far. You keep going, trusting your muse. After a while you realize you don’t have a compelling “hook” (usually the title).
This is not a death knoll, but it’s usually not a good thing. There are many winning songs, and by that I mean artistic successes, not necessarily commercial successes, that have no hook per se. The song “The Rose” by Amanda McBroom and “The Connection” by Randy Sharp and Jack Wesley Routh come to mind. But even with these two, the songs build in such an incredibly dramatic and lyrical way that it would have been absolutely wrong to have a chorus/hook. (Their titles evoke the hearts of the messages—these are great titles.) For the vast majority of songs that please both the writer and the audience, a strong hook is a big plus. If you’ve determined that your song falls into the needs-a-great-hook category, do what you have to do to make this happen. This may mean starting over with your initial idea, finding that hook, and letting everything set it up. This hook may be an ordinary word or phrase that becomes memorable because of the story that supports it. Or it may be a clever sounding or more original sounding word or phrase.
- You get the feeling the song is not a winner.
Just start over. If you’re not feelin’ it, no one else will, either. And “polishing a turd” in the production will not save the song. It just hides the smell.
- You notice that some of your verses set up the chorus better than others.
You need to rewrite the substandard verses. If the verse does not make the listener hungry for the chorus, you have failed.
- You notice that some lines don’t develop the story very well, but they sure rhyme nicely, the beats fit perfectly, the poetic devices flourish, they sing well, and you’ve grown very fond and proud of them.
Rewrite these lines. If a syllable, word, phrase, sentence, or section does not earn its keep, it’s gotta go. You have only a few minutes to tell your story. Don’t squander the beats.
- Midway through, someone informs you that the kind of song you’re writing doesn’t sell and asks you why you’re wasting your time.
If the song rings true to your thoughts and feelings and tells a story you want to tell in a way that pleases you, it’s worth writing. Chasing the marketplace, chasing trends, and trying to please segments of society can really mess up a worthwhile, profitable songwriting experience. Think of some of the best songs of all time, especially the ones that are kinda odd. Can’t you just hear the voices saying to those writers back then, “You’re making a mistake, nitwit”? Now, I’ve heard some crappy songs in my day, and I’ve been one of those naysayers when asked what I think. And I do think some ideas are better than others, and blah, blah, blah. But my point is, if someone else’s negative opinion is stopping you from pursuing a song you believe in, keep your sovereignty. A life spent trying to please others when doing so violates who you are is pathetic.
- You’ve been seeing evidence that you weren’t born a genius, you have a burning desire to prevail as a songwriter, and you sense your craft isn’t up to professional standards. You keep cranking out songs that have some great parts, but you know the songs aren’t quite nailin’ it.
These are probably your practice songs, the ones you write as you’re putting in your 10,000 hours.* Remember, practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. Get a mentor who’s worthy of your muse and who can guide you in turning those good songs into great songs. If, however, you sense that you’re getting there on your own, go ahead and press on without a mentor. But stop periodically for a reality check. Are you really clever enough to figure it out alone? I would guess that most of the best songs of all time were written by persons without a mentor per se. This does not speak against my point. The day I got a mentor was the day I really got on my way to success. If you don’t need a mentor, you don’t need to read this essay, and I recommend you stop reading it right now because tutorials like this become rather laughable to someone like you.
- You’ve hit a dead end on having subsequent verses be as brilliant as your first verse.
Try “writing backwards.” That is, write the end of the verse first, then write the lines that set up that last line. I do this frequently. I can remember spending hours alone in the dark, frustrated, with a deadline looming, so tired I can hardly stay awake, all the while forgetting this simple technique. What the heck am I going to say in the second verse? Well, what does that last line have to do? Set up the chorus. Okay, so what’s the rhyme scheme? What words evoke the story points and the emotion? Make a list of those words. Say or sing them out loud. All of them. The good ones and the bad ones. A bad one can lead you to a good one. Once that last line is in place, the herculean task of getting that verse at least as strong as the first is not so daunting. Writing a winning song is not for sissies who believe in writer’s block; it’s for those who are tough enough to buckle down and keep working in a sensible way.
- Your friends are getting their songs recorded left and right, and some of those songs don’t seem as good as yours do to you. You’re kinda mad.
First of all, their songs probably are better than yours. The cream tends to rise. Or maybe they have an open door you don’t have, or maybe their type of music has different standards of excellence that are inscrutable to you. Or maybe their grooves are so infectious their crummy lyrics just kinda go along for the ride and this irritates you as you cling to your old-school sensibilities and flip burgers for a living. What did Popeye say? “I yam what I yam.” If you wanna change your style, there’s no shame in that, but it can be perilous to your artistic integrity. It can also be liberating and exhilarating. This essay is about getting to that great song that’s inside you whether or not that song has commercial viability at the time you write it. As your fellow human being who wants you to be healthy, significant, and satisfied, I hereby submit that your best bet is to write the very best song you can and let the chips fall where they may. A truly great song will likely sound wonderful whether it’s produced country, pop, disco, rock, jazz, R & B, neoclassical, Latin, or anything else. A memorable melodic and lyrical story is a prize all its own. Please yourself. Good luck.
Jonathan Sprout and I pleased ourselves with this lyric:
Break the Barrier
words and music by Jonathan Sprout and Dave Kinnoin
© 2000 Kanukatunes (ASCAP) and Song Wizard Music (ASCAP)
from Jonathan Sprout’s More American Heroes CD; used by permission
I’ve got my bat. I’ve got my mitt.
I’ve got the skills. I’m physically fit.
So what’s stopping me from walking on in?
There’s something here I cannot see?
A silent code about people like me.
I’m not welcome ’cause of the color of my skin.
It shouldn’t have to be this way.
All I want is a chance to play.
We gotta break the barrier.
Come on, everybody, one and all,
We gotta break that wall.
There is a fire in my soul.
Sometimes it’s hard to keep control.
I have a plan that’s gonna work out.
With every hit and stolen base,
With every catch, I’ll make my case.
Before I’m done, the fans will shout.
In this democracy,
Nobody’s free till we all are free.
Jackie, you know how to play the game.
Baseball is never gonna be the same!