I remember the shock when I heard this talented young musician say he doesn’t have any interest in writing music. I didn’t even play an instrument yet, but I’d been writing songs since childhood, and it felt almost offensive that someone so gifted would have no interest in playing songs of his own. It felt like a betrayal. I was in mourning.
Twenty years into my musical career, the only thing that’s ever mattered to me as a musician was writing and playing my own songs. I’ll do covers. But when I really come alive is when I use music as the medium to express the depths of my soul.
If you aren’t writing your own stuff yet,
I hope I can convince you to try
I assume I’m writing to someone who can play but hasn’t yet broken into the songwriting stage. I figure anyone who’s ready to try has already made it this far. So let me share some of the hard skills you need to take your songs out of your heart and into the air.
Breaking through: Your first whole song
I’ll never forget the first whole song I wrote in my head (“Angie,” couldn’t yet play). I’ll also never forget the first whole song I wrote with my guitar: “Washed Away,” which I bizarrely wrote using an electric guitar with headphones plugged into the amp. I’m still proud of it. It’s my keepsake from when I broke into songwriting. I felt so wealthy, having this whole entire song in my possession that belonged to no one but me.
Your first whole song should probably be one that comes together quickly. That’s rude to say, I know, but here’s why: Any time you’re working on a song that takes a lot of time, you have to be working on other songs too. Eventually you’ll find a whole song ready to go. The odds are you’ll find one this way – by accident, when you aren’t even trying to write, long before you finish that frustrating masterpiece of yours.
This is not about finishing a song. You don’t have to finish anything! You just need something to show for your work. Something you created, and maye something that makes you feel wealthy to have.
Which comes first: The lyrics or the melody?
I do believe this is the most common songwriting question people ask me. The answer is both and more. As you get more into songwriting, a chord progression might hit you in the shower. You’ll rush to play it (and invariably change it, because it’s impossible not to), and before long you’ve got lyrics. Or you’ll be in the shower and a set of lyrics with a melody are right there. You’re singing it and feeling really good about it, so you hit record on your phone and then you’re off.
(Just know this: all songs are partially written in showers.)
When am I ready to share my song?
Ah, this one’s tricky. You’ve got to factor in your own bias, the supportiveness of the people who’ll hear it, and more. Record yourself and listen honestly. Don’t be too harsh or too generous. Be honest. Will sharing this song give you what you’re looking for?
The biggest “when” question comes down to the biggest “how” question.
How will you be sharing?
— Live on stage at an open mic?
— On a chair with a loved one?
— Strictly digital, with a video or audio clip you post online?
Each venue has different standards, but I recommend you aim for an in-person performance with someone who respects you. Someone who can be genuine and encouraging, who will keep teasing to a minimum.
Or consider this. One of the scariest performances of my life was when I went to a public park to sing and play. It was so thrilling! For a guy who doesn’t like rollercoasters, I loved the rush I got from putting myself out there like that. It worked for me, so if that’s what you need, go for it!
Promise me you’ll try it!
Actually, don’t promise me anything. Promise you.
Promise you that you will take all of your musical talent and at least try to write a song of your own, with or without lyrics.
When you feel what it’s like to play your own song, you’ll be so glad you did.
And don’t worry about your age. Songwriting feels great at first, and it keeps feeling great for as long as you do it. No one is too old or too young to write a great song.
The happiest person on earth is the writer of songs.
— J. Rogue