Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 10

Very rarely do the best baseball players turn into the best managers.  Sparky Anderson’s lifetime batting average was .218; Tony LaRussa’s, .199.  Mediocre numbers on the field didn’t stop either from becoming the only two managers to win a World Series title in each league.

cf495a3cI feel the same way, in some respects, about this post.  Todd Rundgren had one ginormous hit, 1972’s “Hello, It’s Me,” a delicious confection of pure pop sensibility, with intriguing chords and progressions and a lyric that serves as Exhibit A for introspective singer-songwriters.  Though no one refers to Rundgren as a one-hit wonder (to the contrary, his followers are known to opine that “Todd is God”), chances remain that if late Boomers and Gen Xers don’t know “Hello, It’s Me,” they (let alone Gen Yers and Screeners) don’t know him at all. (To his credit, Rundgren branched out into all kinds of styles across the spectrum–giving solo concerts accompanied only by his own voice and a computer adding bgv’s–witness “Honest Work”–or recording albums live to tape with no overdubs, to recapture the old-school appeal of musicians sitting around making music together–e.g., “The Waiting Game.”)

Nevertheless, Rundgren’s offerings in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting are as insightful as any other’s.  To wit:

On trying to write a hit:

I think, ideally, music is not self-limiting.  That’s the problem with [trying to write] a so-called hit record[:] you are trying to read other people’s minds and you’re not necessarily writing toward an ideal.  

On his particular songwriting process, one that, I think, would help broaden the landscape for writers of contemporary praise and worship music if they would give it a try.  He’s speaking in 1989, but his use of the adjective disposable could be deemed appropriate in 2020:

I’m looking for . . . a musical form in the underlying structure as [much as] I am in the melody and words that go over the top of it.  And once I have something and I’m satisfied with the infrastructure, that suggests to me a whole other range of things that I can do.  It also helps to constrain me in a certain way, to refine parts of the song. . . .

I think nowadays I’m spending a lot of time on that almost as a reaction to disposable music[, which] is what prevails generally in the industry.  But there are a lot of times when I just take an experimental approach and do things that I’m not absolutely sure are working but which help me to break out of crystallized thought processes about the way the music should be written.

On the industry (he’s speaking of pop music, but the few friends I have in the Christian music biz might be tempted to agree–at least in more cases than an idealist might expect.  If it walks like a duck. . . .):

My personal feeling is that a record company can break any record they want.  The record business is basically corrupt.  And they can make the public conscious of anybody they want if they spend the money to do it.  And it’s just who they choose.  Most of the people working in the record industry have no imagination or integrity.  And that’s why things are the way they are.  They’re looking for repeats of previous formulas. . . .

The point of being a musician is to go out there and create music and communicate it to people.  And it’s an illusion that the only way you can successfully do that is with the record companies.

So [becoming a success by industry standards] is one of two things: it’s either luck or prostitution.  You’ve got to decide, “If I’m going to be a songwriter, I’m going to have to devote myself to that craft . . . and not try to depend on making a living on it.”  Because if you depend on making a living on it, you have to do one of two things: You have to go out, find a connection, schmooze them, and try to get in that way, or you have to consciously prostitute yourself and write whatever is the currently acceptable style of music.

Guitar or piano for songwriting?:

Mostly I write on piano and occasionally . . . guitar.  I usually know which because of the kind of song I’m writing.  I’ll very rarely write ballads on the guitar.  Or those kind of harmonically complex songs; you can only get six notes out of the guitar.  It really depends on what you can do with your fingers and the tuning of the instrument.  The piano is much more flexible in that sense.  You have more options.

Favorite key?:

If I have a melody in my head, I’ll find the key that goes with it.  I have a tendency to go for keys that are easier to play for make, like C or F.  But if the songs demand that I start playing all over the black keys, that’s what happens.

I hope the musings of the past few months, though some are a little provocative, have spurred some ideas for contemporary worship music songwriters.  We’re in a hard season, and often great art comes out of coronavirus-type trials.  The Lord be with you as you write!

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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