Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 4

downloadHad Carole King not moved to L.A. to become part of the early-70’s boho-hippie musicians’ enclave in Laurel Canyon, her output in the 60’s with then-husband Gerry Goffin would have been enough to afford lifelong accolades.  The first #1 single by an African-American “girl group,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” was the first of a slew of Goffin-King hits emanating from the songwriting factory that was NYC’s Brill Building.  And had King not recorded a single solo album other than 1971’s Tapestry, her place in the pantheon of influential singer-songwriters would be secure.  “I Feel the Earth Move” showed King could add a bit of r ‘n’ b grit to her songs, while the oft-covered “You’ve Got a Friend,” sung here in 2010 with James Taylor, whose version (partly because King allowed him to release it first) was even more popular than King’s, became a pop-music standard.

Paul Zollo’s chapter with King in Songwriters on Songwriting is shorter than some, but King waxes philosophical over several paragraphs on a couple of key issues for songwriters.

On the dreaded writer’s block, notice the third paragraph’s encouragement:

If you are sitting down and you feel that you want to write and nothing is coming, you get up and do something else.  Then you come back again and try it again.  But you do it in a relaxed manner.  Trust that it will be there.  If it ever was once and you’ve done it once, it will be back.  It always comes back and the only thing that is a problem is when you get in your own way worrying about it.

I’d like to say that I almost never have worried about it.  Because when it seemed to be a problem, when . . . the channel wasn’t open enough to let something through, I always went and did something else and never worried about it and it always opened up again.  Whether it was an hour later or sometimes a few months later, I just didn’t worry about it. . . .

Another thing that I do is I might play someone else’s material that I really like and that sometimes unlocks a channel.  The danger in that is that you’re gonna write that person’s song for your next song.  It’s just sit down and, again, if you’re a lyric writer, read something that you really like, enjoy something that you really like.  Or sometimes I’ll play something of my own that I really like, something that is already existing that is fun.

I’ve harped numerous times on the predictable harmonic structure of so much of today’s contemporary worship music, so King’s thoughts on finding variety in her songwriting caught my attention.  I love the first sentence, and, if I’m honest, I guess I’m advocating for a bit more perspiration in our cwm songwriting efforts.

Once the inspiration comes, that directs where the perspiration goes, where the work goes.  I don’t mean to sound like it’s some hippie philosophy of you just sit down and it’s all flowing through you.  Because there’s a lot of hard work involved in songwriting.  The inspiration part is where it comes through you, but once it comes through you, the shaping of it, the craft of it, is something I pride myself in knowing how to do.

I like to be unpredictable.  For my songs on my album City Streets, the A&R man looked at them and said, “Each song has a different structure.  And not one song has a structure that is recognizable.”  There isn’t one song that’s AABA or ABAB.  They all turn left somewhere.  And that’s something that I work at.

I do not like to do the predictable thing.  That’s not to say that’s it’s invalid to do that.  . . . Because one of the things that I try to be conscious about in writing a song and crafting a song is the concept of bringing it home.  That is, there’s a beginning to a song, and there should be an end of a song, and of course there’s a middle.  And I like to take the middle any place it wants to go.  But whenever I take it to the end, I like to bring it somewhere familiar, someplace that people feel it’s resolved, it’s settled; it comes back home at the end, whatever home means.

I’ll close with a quick case-in-point, re: harmonic structure, though I run the risk of appearing self-serving.  When I was a weekend warrior, I tried as often as possible to add a harmonic twist to the congregational singing, especially on weeks when I had players who could handle it.  For example, I led Chris Tomlin’s “Jesus Messiah” in G (down from his original B), which already adds a ii7 chord (actually, a ii maj. 9 at the start of the measure, given the melody) to cwm’s typical four chords, but I spiced it up even more.  In the twelfth measure of the chorus, where (in G) the harmony has landed on C the measure before, I had the band play an E-flat chord (flat-VI, which turns into a iv with the third in the bass once the melody comes in halfway through the measure) before landing on the G/D and finishing the chorus.

A huge deal?  Of course not.  Something to provide a change of pace, evidence of a little perspiration in the creative process?  I think so.

The Lord be with you!

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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