Songwriting Prompt No. 5: …is not a prompt

Songwriting Prompt No. 5: …is not a prompt

Songwriting Prompt No. 5: Not a prompt, just an observation: Some of the “demos” you’ve decided to release during this time rank among your best work, in my opinion. In fact, some of these “demos” are suspicious—suspiciously awesome, and suspiciously ambitious. Don’t forget, I listen to a lot of demos, and these? These are not demos. They aren’t Voice Notes of you on the side of your bed with your inconsiderate roommate washing frying pans in a nearby sink. They get me wondering: Are these “demos” really songs you wanted to put out but didn’t because you felt they were “off-brand?” Does it take a pandemic for you to admit that MAYBE you don’t know what your brand is? Or better: that your brand is YOU and you’ve been amputating parts of yourself in order to appear orderly? Because that’s nuts. Are you slapping the word “demo” on a track as if it’s a “might delete later” post, or an admission you’ll be able to deny? Well, fine. If that helps for now, knock yourselves out. But know that the sharing you’re doing is not only helping others, it’s maybe helping you to widen your definition of yourself. So keep on doing it. And what a great opportunity to retire two jerseys to the dust bin of your personal histories: #0 “DEMO;” #00 “BRAND”...
Songwriting Prompt Four: Shhh

Songwriting Prompt Four: Shhh

Songwriting Prompt Four: Shhh You’ve heard that “music is the universal language.” That’s false. Music has never done the job of being universal, and in fact, it does the opposite. It groups subsections of people together; it accessorizes a particular aesthetic; it excludes. Writers antagonize each other via dis tracks. High schools have battles of the bands. TV networks pit musicians against each other in competition shows where contestants try to…what? Out-music one another? So, what is universal? Silence. It’s our resting state. It’s a consensual act that can be broken by any individual. Silence is where we came from, and it’s where we’re going. How does this apply to songwriting? 1) What almost always improves work is editing, which means the elimination of parts of the song. More silence. 2) Feedback like “your song is so short” can be seen as a compliment—the listener wanted more!—whereas “your song is so long” is never good. Ever. Why? Because it implies you left in stuff that did not improve upon silence. So: If you don’t have something to say that improves on silence, don’t say it. Revise by adding silence. Produce by framing silence. Write by writing as little as possible. Consider that maybe we already have it all, and that our real job is to lose as little of it as...
Songwriting Prompt Three: Kick the Bucket

Songwriting Prompt Three: Kick the Bucket

Songwriting Prompt Three: Kick the Bucket Genre is a method of file management. It’s marketing. It’s not writing. And yet, you might think of yourself as a specialist in one, to the exclusion of others. You may have conjured a barbed wire fence that separates “pop” and “R&B” in your mind. By now, you’ve even adapted to the surrealism of Spotify’s utility-based playlisting, and see yourself more as “Morning Coffeehouse,” but probably not “Evening Coffeehouse.” You’ve been trained to find your lane. Your brand. That word, “brand”—it makes you sound like you’re expressing a personal style, but are you? Or are you expressing the bucket you hope to be dropped into? I mean, let’s be honest: Getting on “Morning Coffeehouse” or “Caviar Bedtime Toothbrushing Ritual” or whatever means you go from >1000 streams to 500k overnight. So what do you do? You write for the bucket. The bucket starts writing your songs. Is the bucket writing your songs? The most maligned track I’ve ever played in class, by a long stretch, is “Meant to Be,” by Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line. The song spent a year on the charts, but that did not impress. Together, we watched the video through tears of laughter: she’d never work in a roadside diner; she’d never hitchhike in four pounds of makeup; she’d never hitchhike anywhere, ever. She’d ping an Uber or summon her helicopter, and poof. End of country-pop nightmare. Consider this: Bebe was down for the challenge of writing outside her pop specialty, and Florida Georgia Line pulled from outside of their country specialty. It’s almost as if “specialization” is...
Songwriting Prompt Two: Finish What You Started

Songwriting Prompt Two: Finish What You Started

SONGWRITING PROMPT TWO: FINISH WHAT YOU STARTED So much taking stock going on out here. So much reassessing. So many projects put off for a thousand years finally getting done. I think it’s time to open up that “UNFINISHED SONG” folder and just…listen. Maybe some time has passed and you can hear the tracks a little differently. Maybe two of them are really parts of one song you conceived at different moments. Maybe it’s time to stitch them together, finally. So: Sit back and listen to what you have, and move one (or more) of them to the “FINISHED SONG”...
Songwriting Prompt One: Let it Snow

Songwriting Prompt One: Let it Snow

Some students asked for songwriting prompts to get them through this time and keep them inspired. I’m going to add them here, hoping they help you, too. NOTE: They don’t have to be for songs. I’m sure you can apply them to other creative projects. SONGWRITING PROMPT ONE: I’ve always loved the fact that Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne wrote the classic “Let it Snow” in the middle of a hot July summer. The song provided what their actual circumstances did not. (Snow.) I’m hearing some you are writing songs that reflect our current reality, which is great, but what if you could provide what our actual circumstances do not? We’re isolated; write about being together. We’re freaked out; write about resilience, or confidence, or add some anger and write about defiance. I’m not talking about drugging us with sunshine and rainbows, or living in denial of what’s going on. I’m talking about putting yourself in the listener’s place and thinking about what they need from you as a creator. It’s probably not news headlines, and maybe not a mirror to the moment, either. They’re getting plenty of that. This prompt is about providing them with a tool they need to see past it. So: Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne made it snow in July. What’s our version of that? THAT. Write that. Feel free to post drafts, if you like. I hope you’re all...
Special Thanks: Producers Ben Mink and Michael Beinhorn

Special Thanks: Producers Ben Mink and Michael Beinhorn

Thanks to Ben Mink and Michael Beinhorn, brilliant producers who came to my class at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute to discuss their creative roles in the recording process. Michael told us how he had to send Soundgarden home to write more songs, pushing them to a career high with Superunkown. Ben played us traditional klezmer music, which influenced him early on, and drew a direct line to the chorus of kd lang’s hit, “Constant Craving,” which was then co-opted by the Rolling Stones in their song, “Anybody Seen My Baby?” It pained me to tell them we were out of time. Ben Mink http://www.benmink.com Ben Mink’s wide range of recording collaborations includes Feist, k.d. lang, Rush, Alison Krauss, Daniel Lanois, Roy Orbison, Elton John, Heart, the Klezmatics, Wynona Judd, Method Man, and many more. He has been nominated for nine Grammies, winning twice for his work with k.d. lang. In 2007, he was co-nominated for his work on Feist’s 1234, which gained global popularity in the rollout campaign for the iPod Nano. In 2011, the TV series Glee used Ben’s composition “Constant Craving,” performed by Chris Colfer, Idina Menzel and Naya Rivera. Mink has lectured on such topics as “The Music Business vs. the Creative Process,” at the University of British Columbia, Western Washington University and Simon Fraser University. He has also worked with students as an associate of UBC’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (robotics) and is an associate member of the Institute for Computing, Information & Cognitive Systems. Michael Beinhorn http://michaelbeinhorn.com/ Michael Beinhorn’s production has played a primary role in creating career-defining records for artists including Marilyn Manson,...