Writing a Song: The 1-2-3 Immersion Method
When my brother, John, moved here to Chattanooga in 2008 one of the super-big excitements hinged on the idea that John and I had dreamed about for many years. We began to believe that if we were just able to live in proximity to each other we could form that ever-elusive thing, a band that would stick.
We were brothers. We knew each other’s style. By then, John was a multi-instrumentalist with electric and acoustic, hand-made eight-string guitars. He’d spent the last decade playing in a number of bands in Boise; had tried the home-studio recording thing in earnest for a number of years; had to leave behind one of the best drummers he’s ever played with in Sean Gallagher, also a close friend. In the meantime, I’d taken major hiatuses from music altogether; played bass in a heavy metal band in high school; I’d played guitar for basically a 60s-cover band in college. What do you do when you’re drummer can’t keep time? Sounds like the beginning of a joke. We played at a single fraternity party. I sang “Jumpin’ Jack Black,” a song I never really liked. We stunk. I’d struggled with writing songs in a kind of binge-and-purge approach for the rest of my life. I was playing a lot now. So what that I also now had three kids, taught in a tenure-track position some 40 minutes away, and had little equipment.
What could go wrong?
It’s not like we weren’t aware of these things. But we had a magic card up our sleeve (and I really don’t mean this facetiously). John and I could write a song. In fact, we could write lots of songs in a short amount of time. Things more sophisticated than half the stuff you hear on the radio. At least, we’d like to think so. Okay, so as you may have guessed, the band thing didn’t turn out quite like we’d hoped. The dream still lives on…In the meantime, as I dust off the old ax and start conjuring up mayhem again, I’ve been thinking about songs and how it’s always easier said than done. John brought his approach from Boise, and I will say it produced a lot of fruit. A lot of rotten fruit, too, but no one ever has to hear that. Rotten Fruit! Band name?
First, I don’t even count this one: declare a free day–or, more realistically–a free morning (morning’s are, of course, best) and commit to the following:
1. Quit jamming and give something structure. Jamming is always fun but rarely leads directly to a developed song. Give yourself an hour per song. Say 5 hours total. Tell yourself (or a partner if you think you can work with one), that you’re going to write five songs in five hours win-lose-or-draw. You simply have to create something. You have nothing to lose. Five songs in five hours? Tough, and okay, so some of it will stink. Who cares, right? It was five hours, and chances are you’ll have something to show for it!
2. Scratch out some lyrics. Can’t forget the lyrics! This may be a bit of a gray area when it comes to how strictly you follow the one hour method. John and I would always work hard under the pressure of the time, pushing to get out more than just a concept but actual verses and chorus and whatnot. I will admit, however, that virtually every song that ever made it off the cutting room floor had lyrics that were wrestled into shape one way or another later on.
3. Record the song. A vital, if easily overlooked, part of the process. When you throw yourself into an immersion like this as a writer you’ve already “recorded” the material by the act of writing. Same with painting. Music floats out there. You simply must–within the allotted hour–record the song. Garageband here you come. Even a field recorder or microcasette recorder. Anything. It must be as easy as clicking it on and recording it.
That’s it. Oh, then do it again and again until you’ve written like 30 or 40 of these things, then choose the best 8. Something like that. Let me know how it works for you.
This one in particular, Reno Always Follows Me, came out pretty nice on our first CD, Migration. John wrote the lyrics, sings and plays bass. I play guitar. Alan Dixon on drums. Incredibly, the One Shoe Untied blog site is still up–whereupon one can find the entire Migration album for FREE!
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