I am not any superior authority on the music business, and for that matter on music leisure. I don't know a lot about music history or music literature. But, over the course of writing this column, the subject of songwriting has come up often, and so I thought it would be pertinent to offer my guide on how to write a song. I think you will find this information informational and informative whether you've never written a song (in which case-- congratulations! Send help for the rest of us!) or you've written two thousand songs and won't let anyone listen to nineteen-hundred and eighty-seven of them.
I don't offer these steps to say that I'm an expert at writing songs. Let's think of it this way. Let's say that there's an Asian grocery store downtown that sells delicious Banh Mi sandwiches for $2.25 and I've been there and you haven't, and the route there is a little complicated, so I write some directions out for you on the back of an envelope. If you don't follow these steps precisely, you will be forever lost in Chinatown. That's all. But if you think you can get there on your own, by all means...
How to Write a Song
1. Pick a key. Be considerate of your bandmates' wishes: Keyboardists like to play in C. String players like to play in G. Horn players like to play in B flat. So. Let's make it in C sharp. (It's important to stick it to people who want everything to be easy.)
2. Have some novel musical idea, please. Some basic germ of a whim. Now, there are only twelve different notes, so this can be hard. In fact, when you put it that way it seems almost impossible that we're not just writing the same song over and over again. But make sure to come up with something at least vaguely interesting. (Completion of this step puts you miles ahead of Nickelback. Gotcha, Nickelback!)
3. Now. Put your instrument down. Lay on your back and stare at the ceiling for three hours. Three and a half hours. Don't time it either. Just stare at the ceiling.
4. Buy a Greyhound ticket. Make it the longest possible journey. If you live in Florida, buy a ticket for Seattle. If you live in Texas, make it for outside of Texas. Sit on that bus. Don't bring an iPod or any music to listen to. Don't bring any books to read. Stare out the window at America. Try to sleep on the metal bar near the window that shoots out cold air. Use your coat as a pillow, even though this will make you cold. Try to not extend your body at all beyond the immediate area of your seat so as to not make any contact with the person in the seat next to you. Wherever your bus goes, make sure to get off in Knoxville, Tennessee. Walk past a laundromat that doesn't look like it's still in business, but is. Walk past a Popeye's Chicken. Go back to the Greyhound station and stare at the tile grout in the bathroom. Get back on the bus. Ride it to your final destination. Stay at a friend's apartment in that city. Be broke. Buy a can of beans, but don't buy a can opener. Try to figure out how to cook beans without opening the can. Give up. Starve.
5. Pick a subject to write about. There should be plenty of things to say by now. Filter it into one of the following subjects:
a. Falling in love.
b. Falling out of love and tearing up photographs.
c. Being in love with someone who doesn't love you and running through the rain in slow motion.
d. Being in love with someone who recently fell out of love with you, sitting in an apartment with no furniture.
e. The fact that there is rain and that you also feel pain.
f. The fact that you have a desire that is burning like a fire.
g. The fact that you want to find some kind of peace of mind.
h. Actually, none of these are good subjects. Forget about all of these.
6. Find a canal and walk along it until you reach the end.
7. Write out all the lyrics to one of your favorite songs, including all the repeats, the yeahs, the come ons. Throw this away. This is embarrassing.
8. Go for a walk.
9. Take a shower.
10. Turn off the computer. Turn off every appliance in your house. Unplug them all. Take out all the batteries from every electronic device. You want to be the only source of energy in the room.
11. Leave conversations in the middle. Walk away from dinner while you still have macaroni on your fork. Leave civics class before the end of the semester. Leave your softball team before the last game.
12. Look at a map and wonder what's going on in Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Realize that your imagination will come up with something far more fascinating than the truth. Think about truth maybe not being all that important.
13. Open to a random page of the dictionary. Szygyzy. Okay, you can't SING that but maybe you can THINK it. And keep it to yourself.
14. Fall in love. Did we not do this already? Fall in love. Make a mistake. Go down the wrong path. Sell out your friends. Embarrass yourself. Burn bridges. Turn yourself inside-out.
15. Make yourself dinner. Use a type of mushroom you've never tried. Think about the Earth, how dead bodies decompose in the ground and nurture the plants which we eat and how this makes us all necrovores. (That's a word, isn't it? Necrovores?)
16. Pretend you forgot how to tell time.
17. Write a song from the point of view of the main character in someone else's song. Write a song as Jolene. Write a song as Joe. Write a song as Jude. Write a song as Driver 8.
18. Write a song from the point of view of Santa Claus, but don't give any specific details that would identify yourself. Write a song from the point of view of Snoopy. Of Superman. Of God. Describe what you see, how you feel. Describe your relationships, how you're misunderstood.
19. Write a song from the point of view of someone in an extreme situation. In the Spanish War. In the XYZ Affair. In the Enola Gay.
20. Think about the sun, and how it burns but doesn't burn up. How it's violent and destructive, and yet the most calm and even part of our lives.
21. Make a list of miracles. That ice floats. That giraffes exist. That we are born with organs on the inside of our bodies. That hair grows out of the top of our heads and can be soft and delicate. That sound can be encoded on to vinyl and plastic. That cells have a memory. That water is a liquid. That Buddy Holly got to live at all. That grass is green and the sky is blue. That the moon is the same size as the sun.
22. Write a song not for musicians but for lovers of music. Write a song for the nineteen-year old girl sleeping in her attic room, her record collection small but lovingly assembled, brushing her hair after a shower, unable to tell when someone loves her and when someone just desires her. Write a song for people who don't care about key changes or snare sounds. Write a song for people who need a reason to climb into an icy car at seven thirty in the morning.
23. Fail at things. Fail at math and science and history. Fail at putting out the garbage, at bringing in the garbage. Fail at giving your dog its medicine. Fail at turning the headlights off. Fail at describing to people what it is you're doing with your life. Fail at asking the cafeteria worker if there are onions in the soup. Fail at removing your shoes in the Chancellor's house. Fail at calming down, keeping your hands steady, standing straight. Fail at taking care of your health. Fail at failing.
24. Take things too far. Miss the sarcasm. Shoot a dead horse. Make too many lists, with too many items to ever get through. Drown yourself in thoughts.
25. Decide that it's all wrong. Everything. Your email signature, your general wardrobe aesthetic, your favorite Woody Allen film, your openness to French symbolism, your support of socialized health care. Throw away all your possessions. Make people start to worry that you're going to commit suicide.
26. Do nothing. Lay on your bed, on top of your covers. Process everything in your mind.
27. NOW you can write a song. What key did we choose? C sharp? Write a song in that key. Or any key. The good news is that the song you write will always mean more to you than it will to anyone else. That's also the bad news. But it's also the good news. Nobody is scrutinizing it. It can be whatever you want it to be. Just don't make it boring. Or: make it boring. Make it the most boring song ever. That would be something.
28. Don't ask for feedback. Don't poll everyone. Just make a mistake. Make it wrong. You're not running for president.
This is how I know how to write a song. There is no shortcut. Yes, every time I write a song I go through every step of this process. If I could remove one of these items I would, but then it wouldn't be a song worth singing.