Friday, November 14, 2008

Writing Tips from Nashville

Back in the day I fancied myself a songwriter. And a rock star. Needless to say, these aspirations didn’t come to fruition. Much later when I met my husband, our shared interest in music led us to collaborate on songwriting, but eventually his other interests and my moving on to writing prose caused us to drop that and concentrate on performing jazz standards for our musical fix. After all, these songs were a lot better than anything we could conjure up.

Fast forward to the present and now my husband is back into the throes of producing his own music and writing songs, mostly in the electronica/dance vein, something we both love. And he recently re-joined a songwriters association we had belonged to years ago where you could bring a demo in to be evaluated by a music biz person looking for hits. Back then they called them demo derbies and now they call them song screenings.

When we were on vacation in Southern California recently we found out that a country music song screening was taking place in Hollywood. On a whim we decided to go, just to see if these screenings were like the old demo derbies. My husband doesn’t write country music and had no demo to share, but it wasn’t necessary to have one to attend. A song plugger with his own publishing company based in Nashville was evaluating the songs. We sat in a large room with about a dozen hopefuls who had brought their demos and printed song lyrics for the evaluator to read along.

As the evening progressed I couldn’t help but be struck by how much this song screening resembled the many writing workshops I’d been in for the past two years in my MFA program and others before that. While some of the demos were quite polished with catchy melodies, the place where most fell apart was in the lyrics. They were often heartfelt but mundane, and too personal and vague to resonate with a listener. They needed to tell a story.

The evaluator explained how the songs had to have relatable characters, had to offer a story with which a listener could identify. They also needed dazzling imagery. And, of course all this along with a great musical hook—not an easy task. As he gently but very competently criticized the participants’ songs he also played examples of current country hits that fit these criteria. One was about a woman near death in a nursing home, reflecting on the love of her life; a faded rose in a vase was a memorable image. Another was an amusing story with a beginning, middle and end about a singing cowboy in a bar trying to woo a woman away from the rich banker man who was monopolizing her attention. Another tune was about a man who had recently lost his factory job in the United States to Mexico, now on his way south of the border to reclaim his job and earn some pesos. If you haven’t listened to country music for a while or ever, you might want to give it a shot; the good songs relay some pretty stellar, funny, or heartbreaking stories, often with a big dose of cleverness.

The Nashville guy didn’t take any songs with him that night and it was clear why. Besides the music, it was all about the story. And these demos lacked that focus. And that’s something I had never thought about when I was writing songs. All the elements of a great short story are the key to great song lyrics as well. Write a story first, the song plugger said. See what develops. Then turn it into a song.

That song screening inspired my husband and me. Now we’re working on a few country songs and I’m back to attempting to write lyrics for the first time in years. They may not be ready for Nashville yet, but it’s always fun to write a story.


Jana McBurney-Lin said...

An interesting post. Still, I think that a great beat/guitar riff can overcome a lack of lyrics. I've noticed my children---who love the golden oldies (70's, 80's) are often listening to the guitar or the drumbeat. "Come on," I'll say, "All he's crying out is 'Roxanne.'" I think this "great beat"can extend to other mediums..books, tv, movies without any strong story but with famous actors or unique ways of filming.
Still, as the evaluator and you point out, it's always great to strive for the ideal--a great story to go along with everything else. Good luck with your music.

Wendy Tokunaga said...

Jana, Thanks for your post. You are quite right -- there are many hit songs where the strong point is a beat or riff and the lyrics are almost throwaway. And there are many niches of music todau where this is the case. But to sell a song to mainstream Nashville to artists who don't write their own material (unlike the Police who penned Roxanne) you need more than a catchy beat. :-)