Songwriting is not like most things. You can be a successful songwriter and still have no idea how you do it. Leonard Cohen said it best: ‘Being a songwriter is like being a nun. You’re married to a mystery.’
There’s a magical quality to songwriting for sure. You can’t just fill in the blanks like a Sudoku puzzle and voila. Successful songwriters – whether they’re aware of it or not – have learnt to put themselves into a mental state where they can tap into this magic. It’s a magic that lets them bare their soul and, when it’s done properly, connect with the people who hear their music on a deep emotional level. And emotions being what they are – instinctive, irrational, mysterious – it’s no wonder that songwriting doesn’t have to involve our rational and conscious brains.
So why bother engaging our rational and conscious brains at all?
In an important lecture he gave in the 1980s, British writer and comedian John Cleese identifies two modes of thinking that are essential parts of how we make new things: an open mode, and a closed mode. As you might guess, they’re polar opposites. The open mode is an anything-goes process of letting out all possible ideas without judging, editing or questioning them. It’s a great way to churn out radical new ideas, but it’s also a great way to churn out lots of terrible and unworkable ideas. That’s where they closed mode comes in: it’s a rational, analytical, discerning state of mind that’s very good at differentiating between great ideas and not-so-great ideas. But on its own, it doesn’t produce much that’s daring and original. The key is that to create bold and original work, we have to let these two states work together.
Songwriting works exactly in this way. We might also call it head versus heart. A song can’t succeed without heart. No chance. But without the head to guide the heart into expressing itself clearly, there’s nothing to stop the heart splurging emotion as a stream-of-consciousness jumble. An emotionally charged jumble, but still: great songs have great structures, rhymes and metre patterns that are easy on the ear, and lyrics that sparkle with well-chosen, picture-painting words. We depend on the head to let the heart do its job properly.
That’s why we have a double job as songwriters. One the one hand we have to be really smart emotionally. It’s our job to understand how we feel, how other people feel, and how to express all of that in words. On the other hand we have to be really smart technically. It’s our job to understand the craft of how songs work, how structure can take our audience on a journey, how technique can help us express ourselves clearly.
I’m lucky to have had a first-class education, and it’s that training that’s allowed me to express what I want to express in my work in a clear and concise way. Along the way, I’d learnt that knowing songwriting craft is not about learning and obeying rules, it’s the complete opposite: craft is freedom. When your craft becomes developed enough to become second nature, you can focus on what you’re trying to say and not on what you’re trying to say it.
That’s one of the reasons I founded a website called The Song Foundry. I’d learned a lot along the way and decided it was time to start sharing what I could. Most of all, I’d learnt that being an educated songwriter wasn’t at all mandatory. Lots of writers had success without necessarily being educated. But I’d realized that the more I learnt in my closed mode, the better equipped I was to harness what my open mode churned out. I realized that songwriting knowledge wasn’t necessary – some people play it as potluck and do very well. But the more I knew about writing, the better my work became. The more it became Chippendale furniture and the less it became Ikea flat-pack. And I wouldn’t change that for the world.