Music

It's Time To Say Goodbye: Have I Given Up On Songwriting As Well?

Back in June, I discussed why I decided to give up on writing a sprawling literary masterpiece (you can read it on Medium). And now I’m here to talk about my aspiration of writing a song album and how my views of it have changed over the years.

I’ve always been a poet and I’ve played piano since the age of 5. However, I never considered merging my two passions - writing lyrical poetry and composing a melody for it - until I started becoming a huge fan of John Denver and Taylor Swift (who still are musical and lyrical influences to me today). I listened to these artists and thought I could write something very aligned with my own perspective and merge the styles of these two seemingly different (and oftentimes polar opposite) artists.

After downloading Spotify, I discovered dozens of artists that immediately clicked with me. I’m a very selective person when it comes to listening to music, and for reasons unknown, I could tell if I would end up being a huge fan of an artist or not and if an artist has the “it” factor (a very elusive combination of natural talent, a resonant message, spot-on musical arrangements that match the lyrics, and a melody that sticks with you). There wasn’t any in-betweens. Listening to more artists inspired me to write more and become a more versatile songwriter.

When I was in college, I wanted to write a song album. I even have a copy of 14 song lyrics I wrote in 2014, which was my very first attempt at writing a complete album (now that I looked over it, it wasn’t that great at all and could’ve been way better). I arranged guitar chords for those lyrics. I even got to record one song at a music studio (after setting aside a certain amount every week from my leftover lunch money). In retrospect, even when my dream of having a song album on iTunes never came to fruition, I learned how difficult putting together a full album would be if you’re not signed to a record label, especially when you’re a no-name artist who’s just starting out and has never performed live before.

Point being, the song album was a significant part of my aspirations (possibly competing for the number one spot, against my dream of writing a 1,000-page modern literary fiction novel).

But after I graduated from college, my dream of writing songs grew weaker, until I stopped doing it altogether (because of, you know, real world adult problems). I never stopped writing poetry, but the goal of writing an epic song album didn’t really excite me the way it did back in my college days.

I realize now that it might sound like I’m talking about giving up on songwriting and putting my childish dreams to rest for good.

But that’s not the case.

What I’ve given up on is the false hope of gaining thousands of followers. Of performing live. Of being the next Maggie Rogers. Of going viral. Of making millions of dollars from song album royalties alone. Of having my face in a magazine and having articles written about me. Of setting up a home recording studio and learning how to produce something that’s radio-worthy.

I still like to write lyrics. I still like to write songs. It’s an art form that I’m still passionate about. But I’ve given up on the ideas and expectations surrounding it.

I realize that I’m not a good singer. I’m not a good audio engineer. In fact, I don’t know anything about how to use audio recording equipment or how to make recordings sound like what’s on the radio (and those skills definitely can’t be acquired in a few months).

I do want to make an album this year. But it won’t be slick and polished like radio hits. It won’t have a huge marketing team behind it or a very press-worthy story to garner the attention of millions of people overnight. And that’s okay.

I want it to be something simple. Just my voice and one instrument. From my heart. Recorded on an iPhone. Something like “His Daughter” by Molly Kate Kestner.

All I want for myself is to immerse in a state of flow when I’m writing it. And fully experience the internal feeling of creative freedom and complete resonance that no external rewards can ever measure up to. I am doing it purely for personal enjoyment and even if it never gets past my bedroom, it’ll still be a worthwhile experience.

Songwriting is still a very significant part of me. It’s something that has a firm grip on my heart and can’t be easily gotten rid of. But I’ve grown and realized that all along, I love songwriting and not having a professional recording or a solid reputation doesn’t invalidate who I am as a creative individual. If I write songs, I am a songwriter. If I complete a song album after many hours of honing in on my skills to make these songs the very best they can be, I’m a genuine songwriter that has the power to it happen.

My songs may be shared. Or maybe they won’t. Both are okay. But getting it done and creating it in a way that best reflects who I am is all that matters.

If you’re going to do anything, make sure it’s purely for personal enjoyment, and you’ll undoubtedly find a way to make it happen.

That’s the mark of a true artist.

Five Essential Elements of a Singer-Songwriter Album

For those of you who are singer-songwriters (or aspire to become one), your end goal is probably to create a soulful, raw, and earth-shattering masterpiece that reflects who you are as a creative individual, weaves in poetic symbolism with captivating storytelling in a way that no other lyricists can replicate, synthesizes a variety of styles into a sound that is distinctly yours, and could potentially leave even the most abrasive of critics shaken to their core with all of their usual negative comments, which they reserve for 99% of artists, pounded into dust. 

You have grand dreams, and you think that those other singer-songwriters who merely put out trite bubblegum songs with not much of a fascinating backstory to them won't make it, and even the critics agree. Now before you ride off into the sunset on your high horse and claim that you are "deeper" than other songwriters who have either gone viral or keep putting out the same unoriginal fluff that is entirely forgettable, you need to remember that complexity and comparing yourself to other people will hold you back.

And I want you to succeed and genuinely enjoy what you’re doing without being dissatisfied with others around you. I want you to master the art of songwriting and create something so damn memorable and legendary that it gives me hope for the future of music. I'm waiting to hear you bleed your story and reveal your personal revelations through a collection of songs crafted in the most poignant way possible.

So here are the five absolutely critical essentials for developing, creating, and finally mastering that masterpiece that's just waiting to burst out of your heart and soar like that rare breed of bird that sings the songs that are both familiar and unfamiliar, with your signature style.

1. Profound lyrics that are neither too pretentious, nor simplistic - on a variety of topics (and not 99% love or break-up songs)

I watch a lot of reviews by music critics, and I can say for sure that not many artists can be so "on point" with their lyrics. Some lyrics are littered with clichés that make even the most happy-go-lucky of people cringe. On the other extreme, some lyrics are full of pretentious mumbo-jumbo written in such a clunky and convoluted way that they disrupt the whole song and make people fall asleep. You need to let go of the belief that you have to be "deep" songwriter because sometimes the most profound of messages can be written with simple words phrased in a magical sort of way that only you can craft once you've developed your writing style enough. You also need to push yourself and express ideas in an original way and think beyond the limiting confines of platitudes that we've all heard before in cheesy songs (and are not too keen about hearing again). And please do not write every single song about love or breaking up. Write about social issues, your personal revelations about life, feeling enlightened for the first time, the depths of your manic depression, reflecting on your worst and best memories, encounters with spiritual forces, your obsessions with paradoxes...whatever you want as long as you write about it in a lyrical way.

2. Brutal honesty and raw emotions that can be heard in your voice

The best singer-songwriters aren't the ones who are technically perfect (you  know, the ones who have perfect pitch and has a brilliant, rich operatic voices). The most distinct and memorable singer-songwriters have this raw and vulnerable quality in their voice because they sing with so much damn emotion that it makes you break down and cry along with them (or cry tears of joy, depending on the song and what it's about). These are the singer-songwriters that you think of as kindred spirits that always there for you both at the best and worst moments of your life. Evoking strong emotions within the listener is a surefire way to make you stand out and be more memorable than those who are merely good at singing.

3. Distinct melodies that instantly captivates the listener, keeps them in tune with the song, and delivers a sense of closure

There are many singer-songwriters in the world who have accomplished the art of writing lyrics and singing in a way that evokes breadth and depth of emotions. However, a lot of them have melodies that aren't very memorable and fail to stick out from the rest of the songs they've created and sound very similar to hundreds of other artists of their genre. You need to develop an ear for a good melody and ensure that the listener doesn't grow bored of the song within the first five seconds or thinks that you sound the same as other singer-songwriters. Though you don't have to be an expert in music theory, some intermediate knowledge and composing skills are essential for understanding the way a song is supposed to be structured.

4. A musical style that combines influences from a variety of genres that you like best, but rather than sounding like a jarring mishmash of everything you've heard before, it combines the nuances of each favorite genre in a delicate and seamlessly crafted way with laser-sharp and precise production

This is probably the most difficult aspect of songwriting - discovering your sound and transforming that idea of your sound in your head into something producible on music production software (and this takes time and a lot of long, sleepless nights). This is something that has to be individualized and only you can feel within you when everything you've been experimenting with finally clicks and resonates with who you truly are as a person and as an artist of illustrious mastery.

5. Marketability 

This probably most artists' least favorite part of crafting a song album, but it is absolutely critical and can make or break your musical career. A very eye-catching, aesthetically pleasing, tactful design, and distinct cover that reflects who you are as an artist is a must (because people do judge based on what you put on the cover of your CD and often choose not to buy it). And before you even create the album, you need to identify who needs to listen to what you have to say, which artist's fanbase is most likely to resonate with your story, and how you are going to deliver that story to them (social media, web design, and side projects that help them get to know who you are as an individual first and as an artist second). 

By combining all of these five elements of putting together an album from start to finish, you'll be a force to be reckoned with in the music world - but if that's not what you're aiming for, you'll become a brilliantly evocative artist that is able to heal those who are hurting and want to be understood. And regardless of whether or not you achieve any measurable end results, that's got to be the most worthwhile and fulfilling accomplishment of all.