Songwriting Part 1 - Whipping the Muse

by SaskMusic

July 30, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

“I've been around way too long to let anything go to my head. This is just the music business. It's not like we're doing research for cancer here.”
- Matraca Berg in Music City News

Last month I sent a songwriting query to a wide assortment of accomplished singer/songwriters, hoping to glean some insight, inspiration and encouragement. Their candid comments were requested, and to encourage this I promised to print their responses “uncredited”. All have had their material released, and are great performers as well. I’d like to thank these fine songwriters who took the time to send me their comments:

Amy Sky (Iron/BMG recording artist, Juno Award nominee)
B.C. Read (Sask. blues artist)
Danielle French (Alberta pop/eclectic artist)
Dean Kush (Sask. country artist with Faster Gun)
Doogie Taylor (Sask. funk/acid jazz artist with Source Unknown)
Dwayne Helberg (Sask. blues artist with The Helberg/Warner Band)
Joel Fafard (Sask. acoustic/folk artist)
Nicol Lischka (Sask. rock/pop artist)
Shari Ulrich (B.C. folk/pop artist, Juno Award-winner)
Kathy Micheals (Sask. pop/country artist)

Describe your usual writing style: where, when, how


I find I write best under pressure. If I have a deadline to meet, I can usually blast off a lot of tunes in a short amount of time. I record ideas constantly, carrying a recording walkman with me on the road, and if I get an idea for a song I'll record the line or melody as soon as possible. Most of my songs come with the lyrics first, a hook line, or just an idea (subject). Then I make the chords and melody fit the lyrics or idea I have already written.

My usual method is to challenge another songwriter to a deadline two to three weeks away and then let pressure take its course. There may or may not be rules to subject matter.


I record everything, both on tape and paper. Those little micro-recorders are a gift from God!

Song ideas come from everywhere – conversations, TV, books and scribbled on a scrap of paper until I have time to work on the idea. The order varies - sometimes melody line first, sometimes the guitar part, and sometimes together. I need a quiet space to write.

I usually start with a title. If the title is strong enough, you know what your whole story is. Then I work on the lyric, which often comes to me with snatches of melody. If I can, I like to write big chunks of the melody away from the guitar or piano. If I can hum it walking down the street, and it hangs together, then it passes the "campfire test." If it would sound good with just a guitar and singing- then there’s something solid there!

On a break from practicing – I like to, “after necessary preparation”, write down roughly how the story will be told.I usually write an entire song at once (as opposed to a verse here, chorus there, over days, months, etc.) I generally start on the guitar, finding a chord progression, add melody, and then lyrics that fit the melody.

I pick up my guitar when I can't stand 'the urge' any longer. At this point, I may have covered and washed my entire hand (sometimes fingers too) three, four or seven times with "catch" snipits. Note: I have a rule…I don't wash my hands or have a bath until I have transferred all of my 'goodies' into my Snipit Book. Then, it's simple. I stir and write and invert and surf and stutter and repeat and stay in my playground until I know I have stretched every cathartic muscle I can feel. After that, I go to sleep.

It usually starts with a hook – melodic or rhythmic – and from there the song writes itself. I keep every line I’ve written, and pull them out from time to time. I’ve written a few of my favourite songs from leftover bits and pieces.

My methods vary depending on my time and how much time alone I get. Sometimes I just flirt with it - I'll have a few tunes in the works and just sit down at the piano, guitar or dulcimer a few minutes or half hour at a time as I go through the day and chip away at tunes. If I have a deadline of some sort I'll force myself to stay with it until I get tunes finished. I tend to start with music but the words come virtually simultaneously. In the beginning it'll be just sounds but as the emotion of the music leads me in a direction the words will start to form into what becomes the verse or chorus. Once those gel, then it becomes more of a crafting process to write the rest of the verses. I tend to write mostly on piano, but I try to change instruments regularly to keep from getting into melodic ruts.


I particularly like my bathroom because of the nice bouncing echo and its relative convenience. (And there are little or no distractions! Write wherever you feel comfortable.

I seize the inspirational moment (no matter where or when, if possible), and usually have a completed song somewhere between a ý hour and 5 hours. That “moment” may be a lyric, a melody, or both at once, and one thing leads to another. I pick up the guitar and let the flow of the creative process take over. I work until the juices run dry and then reorganize/pay attention to detail (past/present tense, flow).


I book songwriting time into my weekly schedule, at least a half hour a day. I also try abstract exercises in writing. I once entered a songwriting contest which required an entire song about a piece of clothing. It changed the way I approached my everyday writing practices. You sometimes need a creative push; writing workshops are also great.

I think “being a songwriter” has become too easy. I feel that most of us take ourselves too seriously, and shouldn’t consider ourselves “professionals,” until we take the steps to become a professional - developing our skills through practice, ongoing study, and networking.

What characteristics do your “favourite songs” have in common? (i.e. creative lyrics which avoid clichÈs, repeated hooks, certain chord structure)

And the winner is: Lyrics

A good lyric. They are usually about a subject that I can relate to, and almost always have great musicianship involved in the execution. By great execution, I mean “feel, groove, energy” - a song can be simple but still have these.

“Inspired” lyrics – coming out of nowhere (almost channelled or something!) The song itself has elements that push creative boundaries or challenge me as a songwriter.

Unexpected lyrics – as soon as I hear predictable rhymes, I lose interest. Beautiful melodies.

I always look for an inventive, original lyric, one that expresses a familiar sentiment in an original way. I like accessible chord structures, but with a twist.

I don't care how it's done, but anything that moves me is going to be one of my favourite songs.

My favourites seem to be the ones which draw the comment, “I’ve never heard anything like that before”. It also seems to be good if it can’t be described by mere words.

They sound “real”, not contrived; a little window into the human condition/thought process.

I could say all those things, but basically I like simplicity and great lyrics - well crafted - unique subject matter.

Expressing things that are universal in a way no one else has.

I certainly and definitely avoid clichÈs. As for what my favourite songs have in common - I am not aware of any definitive pattern. I am far too disorganized to develop or advocate any kind of order of creativity. If I have however, arrived with order, it is purely coincidental.

Intelligent lyrics with creative structure and melody lines. Very often you have to know the rules to break them. I favour women writers.

What are some points that you keep in mind when structuring your songs or targeting them for a specific market?

I try to write about things I know; my experiences. It's hard to sound convincing singing about something you know nothing about.

I like the idea of instant gratification. I like to get to a major chord, the chorus, or the next level as soon as possible. I am, however, very intrigued by songwriters that are able to hang you for a very long time and bring you along with them. I used to always choose the strongest lyric in the song (often times in the chorus) and use that for the title. Now, I like to move laterally with the title because it can be an opportunity to add a square corner to a piece of work. That's fun too.

I don't target market my songs, so this is not a consideration. I do try to keep in mind the studio and players I'll be working with on a piece. I try to enter the studio with a very basic arrangement and song structure. Sometimes I'll make lyric changes on the spot depending on the way the band plays it. I have lots of faith in my band and the studio players I hire, so that affords me the luxury of being able to arrange in-studio. Plus, I like the spontaneous feel and sound that come from keeping things open and letting the players play.

I don’t usually approach songwriting with these points in mind – I let it flow from the creative “source”.

As long as I keep typical song structure in mind, I try to steer away from it. A truly good song should be allowed to be born and evolve, free from the confines of specific markets or target audiences.

I like to repeat the title at least twice in a chorus, so people go away knowing what they've just heard, if I’m trying to consciously write a "hit " song. If I’m just out to express something, I don’t pay as much attention to repetition or structure.

I’ve learned to write a bridge or some sort of diversion into songs, as it seems publishers expect to hear these.

Length –my “best song” is getting turned down simply because it’s over four minutes long..

An A and R man once said to me, “there are three things that make a hit song - Structure, structure and structure.” A hit song is a series of ear pleasing events that unfold in a satisfying manner with a well constructed arc - introduction, build, climax and resolution.

I start repeating the title when I’ve run out of ideas for verses, then reorganize if needed and place the chorus appropriately. A song is finished if I am finished.

I used to be very conscious of writing for AM radio - now I tend to be as uncontrived with my writing as I can. There's certain elements that are instinctive as far as writing what I feel is a GOOD song, but otherwise I try to be as open as possible.

The main focus is that the song is single minded, focused on a particular theme. Taking unnecessary edges off becomes easy when this is kept in mind.

What are some methods you use to combat writer’s block?

I dig through the old stuff. I have books of lyrics & tapes dating back 20 years. If that doesn't work, I try writing in the third person. "He" instead of "my". I'll listen to some of the great songwriters that I like and try to get an idea from them. I remember reading some where that "it’s OK to steal an idea, but if a good songwriter steals it, you know it was stolen. If a great songwriter steals it you don't know." So, I borrow from them all.

I usually get writer’s block when I am drained or working too hard on less creative things. So, I will listen to music or try to learn other material which may inspire new ideas.

I don’t force it, but I try to find other creative outlets.

Get in the practice room and woodshed on your instrument. Go out and obtain or witness new music for personal inspiration. Break up with your girlfriend or boyfriend (that’ll get the ideas flowin’!)


I glean ideas from movies, books, friends’ stories. Sometimes an interesting scene is enough to spur an unusual plot for a song.

I have two things…one, leave your house or apartment and go and have tea with someone that you like. Two, GO TO THE MOVIES!!!! Songwriting is simply tabulation of intensities - emotion is necessary.

Try to get a deadline - even if it means creating it for myself! If I'm working on something, I find it a great tool to play it so it's in my head, then go for a walk or a bike ride and make sure I concentrate on it as I go. I can write several verses or work out a bridge that way.

I go for a walk, work on a painting or a poem that is in progress, or start one. Play some other song I know so well I could sing it in my sleep; and meditation.

How seriously do you take comments, either negative or positive, made by publishers/industry professionals/competitions? Do you value comments from your fans more or less?

I value the comments of almost all the people involved in the business. Do I take it to heart? No. You have to be yourself and you can't please them all.

Comments are good to find out what each industry person is drawn to, but I don’t like to analyze what I write too much, because I trust the muse. Still, to go from trusting the muse to a career as a songwriter, there needs to be an audience. I value the fans’ comments overall because, outside industry or not, there seems to be a fan base for my music which I can pursue independently, still make a living, and keep being creative and producing music.

I like to try my songs on someone musically responsive – a brother, neighbour or fellow musician. I work to finish songs, but keep in mind that I have the right to change them at any time. If you write a good song, it will be popular. Regular people, not critics, will determine what a really good song is.

Never give up on a song that you really believe in, even if others don’t agree.

If you’re the workhorse type of musician who’s deal is to emulate, take it with a grain of salt but listen and understand. If your gig is to write original music, listen and understand the comments, then have your brain shove this info out your butt, and follow your heart.

If I hear the same comment over and over, I take it into consideration. But at the end of the day, I’m writing for me and won’t change a song unless I agree with their comments.

Industry pros are wrong as often as they are right. I try and listen to how I feel about a song - I write to please myself. Songs I’ve written to please others I inevitably dislike, and they tend not to do very well either. You’ve got to do what you do best, and keep doing it until your time arrives. It can take one year or twenty. But if you give up, you'll never know.

Negative comments from the industry hurt, but they can fuel your next revenge song. Comments from fans: I probably couldn't continue without the support I get from my audience.

If I like it, I don’t care if anyone else does. I do appreciate fans who compliment my work, but that’s not why I do it.

The only comment I might get from "industry professionals" is...."I don't hear a hit". I take that with a grain of salt now. I tend to take my cues from my audience and fans.

I only listen to my inner voice – it knows if I’ve done my best or need to fix some part of a lyric or whatever. There is a market for everyone – you just need to find it.

When I was first started songwriting I had a lot to learn. Because there is no instruction manual for songwriting or the music industry, the only method of learning is through other songwriters. Although it's good to recognize that it is difficult to judge a piece of art, it is also possible to model a great artist.

How frequently do you work with co-writers?

Quite often.


Never, as in never so far.

Quite often.


I very much enjoy working with co-writers. Quite often.

I very rarely work with co-writers. The few times I have, it's been on the musical part only. I have never worked with another lyricist.

I am co-writing more than ever now, and enjoy it a lot. You have to develop a bit of your own style in order to contribute to a co-writing session. You learn to be diplomatic about others’ songs. Go with your gut regarding who you feel comfortable writing with.

Even if you don’t co-write, you should have someone who is more experienced to help you fine tune your songs.

Co-writing is awesome if you can do it and still have your dignity!

A few changes suggested by co-writer can make a world of difference…but make sure the subject of royalties is clearly worked out ahead of time.

Having another set of ears is useful, even if they’re just throwing out ideas that restart your own creativity. Sometimes it takes an objective person to tell you what the song is about, or if you need to be more direct in your lyrics.

Virtually never. I really like working on my own and seeing what I'll create alone. However, I have often thought I'd be much more prolific if I co-wrote with others. I admire the people I know who are focused on writing "hits" and are fearless with exploring working various writers.

Additional comments…

If you say you are pitching songs, then you better have a demo tape ready to pass on. If you’ve written a song suited to a particular artist, do your best to get a package to them – via their bus driver, manager, whomever. Keep your eyes open for artists who are planning new albums. And don’t be afraid to let your songs get recorded by “lesser known” artists.

Live well, take chances, fill your soul and then express it. Don’t look over your shoulder at someone else’s accomplishments- look into your heart and express your specific experience. If you are honest, then the sentiment will be universal. Tell the truth – and if it gives you goosebumps, it will do the same for others.

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic. Originally published December 1998.

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