Getting Started – What will I write about?

Getting started with a new song can be daunting.  I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration though, so I rarely experience writers block.  My first composition instructor back in high school made me write a new song every day. Even though most of the songs were terrible, it got me over the idea of waiting for inspiration.  Writing, it turns out, is a craft.  90% of what goes into a song is the work. The inspiration may make up the last 10% (which is really important, don’t get me wrong), but without doing the work, you won’t be able to turn inspiration into a great song anyway.

I started with asking myself why I wanted to write songs.  I found it came down to this:  I want to write music that communicates things I care about to a broad audience.  I want to express myself, but I also want other people to listen and enjoy my music.  I don’t want to just write songs trying to have a hit, but I also don’t want to write songs that nobody but me likes.  I need to find where those two things overlap, and write about that.

So what do I want to write about?  I could write about literally anything, but I needed a better grounding than that.  So I made a list of things I wanted to write about.  When I need an idea for a new song, I come back to this list and decide what feels right at that moment.  Here is my list:

  1. Life events.  Someone you know is going through some life event right now – falling in love, struggling with bills, having a baby, getting or losing a job, changing careers, moving, getting into or out of a relationship or losing a loved one.  Love songs, breakup songs, I hate my life songs, being friends, not being friends… these are common experiences that everyone has, and make great songs.
  2. Dreams and Goals.  Not everyone has the same dreams and goals as me, but everyone has dreams and goals.  Also, these tend to be happy subjects, and people like hearing happy things, even if it doesn’t happen to be about them.
  3. Being an imperfect human.  Not everyone will admit that they have flaws, but everyone I know has them, and most people are afraid of them.  I like to write about the darker side of life sometimes, and writing about my own fears and flaws is a good way to do that without being mean.
  4. Morality.  I have beliefs that may not be universal, but I want to use my music to communicate ideas, and sometimes that means taking a stand.  This can go both ways – I have written songs about tolerance (which I support) and domestic violence (which I oppose).
  5. Humor.  Writing funny songs is a challenge that I enjoy.  I know that these songs won’t resonate with everyone, but if I can bring a smile to someone’s face I take great satisfaction in that.  It also keeps me from taking myself too seriously.

I occasionally write about something outside of this, if I get an inspiration – I don’t limit myself to these subject.  But when I feel uninspired, it helps me to go back to this list, and remember why I am writing.  If I get a flash of insight, then awesome!  But if not, I have always been able to inspire myself by coming back to this list.

The final step is deciding what I want to write about.  I come to this in any number of ways.  I might hear a song and think I have a different take on that subject – Carrie Underwood’s ‘Before He Cheats’ inspired me to write ‘That’s the Truth‘ – a song about a man who’s ex keeps harassing him, even though he believes they have broken up.  I may be experiencing something myself, or know someone who is going through something – ‘She Needs to be Free‘ is about my daughter deciding to spend a year abroad after finishing college.  I may hear something in the news that fires me up – ‘America‘ is about tolerance and love, in response to Donald Trump’s campaign message of hatred and bigotry.  If I open my eyes and review my list I can always find something to write about.

Once I pick a subject to write about I have a starting point.  The next blog will discuss how I go about writing lyrics.

Getting Started – Equipment

Step 1 was just getting getting off of my butt and getting started.  That was surprisingly hard.  It is a lot easier to think about being a success than it is to actually be one.

There were two parts to getting started – I had to start writing (of course), and I had to start recording.  This blog is about getting my equipment set up.  You may not need this – you can compose on paper just like everyone did before computers. But as a songwriter you will eventually need to make demos of your material if you want to get your music heard.  That means either getting your own recording equipment, or access to someone else’s.  I decided to set up my own.

I am primarily a keyboard player, and I had some recording equipment from ‘the old days’ so I had to set up a place to write and record.  My original setup looked like this:

  • A PC (nope, not a Mac) with a single monitor, a medium sized hard drive, and decent specs for memory and CPU speed – Not a powerful machine at all.  Eventually I upgraded my computer, but more on that later.  I was able to get start with a pretty low end machine.  A modern laptop would probably work.
  • Pro Tools Professional for doing my recording and mixing.  Just the basic package at first, and no extra plugins.  Like my machine, I eventually started adding plugins, but I got by for a good while on just basic Pro Tools.
  • A keyboard.  I had an old Matrix 6 from the 80’s, and I pulled that bad boy out of storage.  I used the sounds that came with Pro Tools rather than the dated sounds from my keyboard.  I eventually upgraded to a keyboard with weighted keys, and have been learning to play simple rhythm guitar, but I got started with what I had.
  • A microphone.  I had some old mics from my band days, but I didn’t like the sound so this was the first thing I upgraded.  A nice mic really helped the quality of my early demos (a nice voice would have helped even more, but hey, I wasn’t blessed with one of those).
  • A sound card interface, so I could plug the synth and mic into the computer.  This was the main thing I had to purchase.  I went for an M-Audio 610 interface (http://www.m-audio.com/products/view/profire-610).
  • Studio Monitors (speaker).  I had some old speakers and an ancient power amp that I pulled out of storage.  I am still using them, though they really aren’t accurate.  This is the next thing I will upgrade, and I will likely go with powered monitors instead of a separate amp.  and if I was starting fresh, the mic and monitors is where I would put most of my budget.  They really matter.
  • Cables, a mic stand, a keyboard stand, monitor stands, headphones, a chair and a ‘desk’.  It’s surprising how many peripherals you need to make all of this stuff work together.  It took more of my budget than I was hoping it would, but luckily these things rarely need replacing.  I built my own ‘desk’ out of my monitor stand and a 4’x 12″ x 1/2″ piece of wood.
  • A place to work.  Right now I am set up in the corner of my bedroom, taking up a total of about 4′ x 6′ of floor space.  It is very compact, but works just fine.

I will post some pictures, along with my budget and current setup in the next blog.