I used to crank out songs. I had a method and a formula and I could apply it over and over, nonstop. There were thousands of riffs and chord progressions and dumb ideas that died on the vine but I had a decent success rate.
Here is how I described my method 6 years ago:
I don’t ever want to put the guitar down while I’m writing. I work out chords, lyrics, melody and rhythm all together. If one of those things isn’t working, I’ll change it on the fly. Sometimes I know what I want to sing about and I get the music together first and then work on the lyrics. But usually it all comes together.
My old school methods for making notes are a pad, pen, and tape recorder. The pen and paper is actually optional. I bring them out when I have the music done and have to finish the words. I should probably always use them but usually I write on my feet while pacing around and I don’t want to stop to write things down. I just punch record on the tape and record snippets. I’ve gotten pretty good about not being precious with the recording. It’s literally an audio notepad on which I’ll scribble ideas, cross them out, and rework them. So yes, I have tons of tape of me just humming notes trying to find the right one or saying “I don’t like these chords” into the tape recorder right after I play them.
Then a couple of years ago, I just stopped writing songs.
There had been a ton of upheaval in my life around the time the songwriting waned. So when I’ve dug back through the circumstances surrounding the drop-off in songwriting, I usually ascribe it to life changes. But last week, I came home from an open mic and started banging around with a bunch of chords and improvising lyrics and felt this brief moment where I could have applied a little more effort and had a finished song.
What I realized is that, in addition to whatever else was happening in my life that made me not care as much to write songs, I didn’t want to revisit the old methods. They were still there, like a sleepy muscle that hasn’t been exercised in a while, but I haven’t cared to stretch.
Our methods for how we get a song finished are probably more important than our ideas or our chops. We have to have a way to finish writing songs in order to keep writing songs. If your method varies song by song, it’s probably really damn hard to get anything done and put to bed. But if you’ve got a practiced method — say, pacing around your apartment making up lyrics and melodies together, recording incrementally — then you’re going to develop those songwriting muscles. Each time you go back to the exercise, you’ll be a little stronger. You’ll get less precious with the mediocre stuff.
I was listening to Weezer’s Pinkerton yesterday — a seminal record in my musical canon for sounding exactly like I wanted all music to sound — and I felt that old kick of wanting to write songs again. I also realized that I know how to write songs…I just don’t want to write songs that way right now.
So either I find a new method that fits with how I play guitar these days (no pick, nylon strings) or I forget about writing songs completely or I go back to what works. But just knowing that I know how it used to work lets me know that it isn’t necessarily a case of all inspiration leaving or having nothing to say anymore. It may just be that I’m shopping for a new method.
Find your voice. But also develop your method. That’s what will sustain your songwriting.