Musings from David Nash

On Songwriting: The Oohs, Lalas, and the Blah Blah Blahs 

I was watching the recent Beatles documentary, “Get Back” which gives an in depth look at the two weeks or so the Fab Four spent reuniting, writing, and rehearsing what would be their final live performance not to mention the Let it Be album. 

It’s a LONG documentary. Eight hours or so. There are some magic moments. Some boring. Some insightful. Depending on where you stand as a Beatles fan, I’m sure this documentary could mean many different things to you. Similarly, and what I like most, is viewing this through the lens of a songwriter. 

Per usual, I’ve got a disclosure. I’m coming at this from the standpoint of a solo singer songwriter and not a bandmember, which can complicate things but also, I assume, add depth and multiply creativity. To be clear, I'd love to be in a band some day, even just for a year or so :)

When I watch these four musicians come together, I see a lot of playful musical behavior and pulling threads to see where songs go next. Most notably, I hear a lot of utterly nonsensical lyrics

It felt like half the time John and Paul had one main approach to songwriting. Strum a bit to find a melody you like, then mumble until a word fits, and finally sing it over and over with nonsense sounds. Worry about the words later. That’s it. That’s how a hit is born over and over again.

Watching these musicians who made an immeasurable impact just shout gibberish in songs that millions have come to know and love was oddly freeing for me. It was a great reminder that ,when you are creating a song, its okay to let yourself go a bit. Gibberish doesn’t need to rhyme. You can flex the melody and bend it in ways that might surprise you. Starting a song with gobbledygook is fair game. The words will come when they need to. 

Last month, I spent a lot of time working on a new story idea. My first novel, The Man in the Pines, was published a year and a half ago, and I have another that will be coming out in late 2023 or early 2024 with Unsolicited Press, but I've been ruminating on a new idea. 

I was working on this idea for the Nanowrimo challenge, a goal of writing 50,000 words (technically a novel) in one month. To reach that goal, you need to have a lot of time, or be willing to just get words on the page, 1,667 per day to be precise. Often times, that means being okay with things that just are not perfect. They are place holders for later ideas and development. It is essentially gibberish. The same tactic John and Paul were were using in the documentary. I didn't come close to 50,000 words last month, but I came away feeling great about the start I had in the new project and okay with the fact that I would have to edit later. 

I simply wanted to share that I think this concept can be a freeing tool when everything you are trying to say feels forced. Cut yourself some slack. Focus on the sounds and not the words. Those will come later. Who knows, maybe you’ll tap into you subconscious and a word will unintentionally slip out leading you to the lyrics you really wanted to write. Maybe a hit song will be born. 

So, go forth, write some nonsense, and have fun!

Expanding Ideas from a Song to a Novel 

Several years ago, I wrote a song about a legendary folk figure of the north woods: Paul Bunyan. I wanted to see what kind of story existed besides the silly cartoon I'd grown up with. So I conjured the rhythm of a swinging axe. I strummed the guitar and the words flowed like a river at ice-out. My song "Paul Bunyan's Lament" was born.

I was listening to an interview with Josh Ritter about his book "Bright's Passage." In the interview he mentioned that his novel stemmed from a song he had written. My mind was blown. It had never occurred to me that the story written out in a song could extend after the track ended. And why not? I had just done the exact opposite, hadn't I? I had taken a well known and explored story, re-imagined it, and condensed an entire plotline into a three-and-a-half-minute sound bite. 

So, the opposite must be true.

That night, I sat down with my laptop, and imagined how I might tell the story in prose instead of lyrics. I wrote a lot that first month. The song expanded like a bellows inhaling the room. It was only when I started sharing my story with my wife when she helped slow me down and provide some good advice. 

To really do the story justice and let this new literary world unfold, I needed to have a few things figured out.

First, I needed to have an outline. This was pretty easy as I had the song to get me from point A to Z. But what about all of the other stops in between? I began creating a more detailed sentence outline that gave me structure as I wrote Paul's journey. This was so helpful in keeping me on course.

Secondly, I needed to be accurate. I began doing my research. I searched the web. I read first accounts of logging history. I took notes, and added the depth and intensity of color to my story that made all the difference. 

Lastly, I simply needed to understand the characters and what I wanted their journey to look like. I had to spend a little time asking what was the purpose of each event in the book. I found I had a tendency, primarily out of my new found joy or writing, to get lost in describing minutiae. Staying focused on the motivations and path each character was walking was helpful for me  

A challenge with prose compared to songwriting is also the appeal. With a song, you have to be concise due to the short window you have with the listener. With prose, the pages can keep turning. There are many doors in a hallway to explore. However, concision is still essential. If I found myself getting board when writing a chapter, I knew my reader would be as well. 

Slowly but surely, by asking myself what happened between each line in the verses and choruses, a story unfolded and a world came to life. Turning a song into prose was as exciting as running through a corn maze. Sometimes you hit a dead end, but then you just back track, and enjoy the twists and turns until you see the ending. Then you sprint out of the field. The end result was a novel called "The Man in the Pines" which was eventually published by Ten16 Press

Not in any of daydreams did I ever imagine myself becoming an author. I've always thought of myself as a songwriter. As it turns out, both seem to feed each other. It's a relationship that I've continued as more ideas enter my orbit, and I remind myself that ideas don't need to be closed circles. They can open and expand if you are willing to do the exploring. 

 

Songwriting and Parenting: 5 tips for stoking the songwriting fire 

What’s that you say? Yes! I did write a blog about Parenting and Songwriting. It was inspired by a late-night conversation with Annie Mack after her closing, Saturday night performance at the Great River Folk Festival in La Crosse, Wisconsin. You can read it here

I know this sounds the same, but I swear, this post is different. It is about Songwriting... and Parenting. Last time I was focusing on keeping the balance. We talked about how find a way to keep writing while still recognizing your important role as a parent. This time it’s all about business. How do you keep that creative songwriting muscle going when are also juggling the responsibilities of a parent? With kids in the house, the days of staying up late working on songs while tipping back another beer are fewer and father in between. Quiet mornings with a hot cup of coffee, your guitar, and a pad of paper on the porch are basically non-existent. So how do we as songwriters keep finding time to chase that song and feed our creative soul? 

We do it intentionally and with a few tricks up our sleeves. I tried to narrow down my top five tricks and hacks for keeping the lyrics flowing and the creativity candle burning. 

1. Make/schedule time – I feel like this is an oxymoron when you have children. I mean, essentially, your time is their time, right? Early mornings? Nope, the kids wake up early and are jumping on the bed. Nap time? Maybe, if you have littles, but mine are older and they just get grumpy at about 3pm but don’t sleep. Even if they did nap, I’d probably be napping too at that time. Or catching up on dishes, laundry, or toy cleanup. On the potty? Nope. The kid’s fingers are practically reaching beneath the door.  So when the heck will you be able to carve time out of your day to write poetry, prose, or music? If you are struggling with this question, here is the key: Do an inventory of you time. I think most of us have some time during the day that is being occupied with something elective. Streaming a show? Social media? Podcasts? Staring blankly into space as you eat lunch? If you are missing songwriting, I’d suggest finding something to cut. Maybe the thing is sleep, and this means waking up 15 minutes before the kids usually do. Maybe you don’t really need to watch the 20th season of the Great British Baking Show. Try to look at how you currently spend you time and see what can give and swap it with you art. After a few weeks, if you really miss your old ways of doing things the old way, then you have your answer. Songwriting isn’t as much of a priority at this time in your life, and that is okay too. 


2. Write, discard, and write again – We are already acknowledging free time is a luxury that leaves us when kids are in the house. When free time returns, you’ll probably want the kids back, so for now, I think there is much value in writing just for the sake of writing. If you sit down once a week for a year, you’ll probably get 40 crap ideas, 8 ones you kinda like, and 4 you’d play in public. And I, for one, think that ratio is pretty darn phenomenal. As such, don’t be afraid to write and toss. Of course, there is something to be said about persevering and finishing a song, but with kids, sometimes just finding a nice melody worth humming is a win. Don’t get discouraged by songs that don’t fly. The  simple act of writing is valuable. Write a bit. Trash em if you don’t like it. Play with your kids. And write some more. 


3. Keep the recorder handy – I already touched on this, but having a recording device handy (ie. Phone) is key. That and a pad of paper and pen. Keep one in your bag, car, purse, bike satchel, whatever. Let your mind wander and capture those little golden nuggets as they come to you. It kinda comes back to seizing the moments as they arise. If you have something handy to write down the lyric or record the melody, you’ll be ready when the muse dances through your window.  


4. Find a prompter – Social media has light and dark sides, we all know this. One of the gifts is the networking in song groups. I like to jump in and out of these from time to time as they add some extra nudges of pressure and encouragement when I need to write. Additionally, many of these groups come up with prompts for you to practice the craft of songwriting. Though I love to write from moments of pure inspiration and personal experience, the ability to just work on song structure, style, and practice new things has been so important as I strive to become a better writer. Groups that encourage me to write around a prompt have be great for me. My favorites: Fearless Songwriter: a quarterly group on facebook that asks you two write a song a day in 45 minutes for one week straight. It is a difficult task, but it jumpstarts your creativity button. I do it after the house is asleep. The other has been a great group that started this year called Mulvey’s Elephants – a weekly group started by the amazing writer Peter Mulvey (find the group here on his patreon page) where we are given a weekly prompt and all share songs and provide feedback. It was a great group to belong to during this pandemic year. So there you go. When you feel stuck, find someone to give you a nudge, or in this case, a prompt. 


5. Find a friend – this is the last tip I have for the songwriters who are also wading the high waters of parenthood. I love songwriting. But when it is just me late at night, and I find a song I’m totally excited about, I often have to find someone to share it with. If I try to play it for my kids in the morning, they ask me to be quiet and leave. They don’t have any interest in it. I don’t blame them. I’m not that interesting unless I’m being silly. As such, for me, writing songs can quicky become a lonely task. Music is mean to be heard and shared. I want to tell stories and engage with others. So, what do it do when I don’t have weekly gigs to whine and moan and shout out lyrics? I send drafts of my songs to friends. I’ve systematically blasted folks enough to have figured out which ones come back at me with a good mix of critiques and criticisms. Sometimes I send one out just to share, but finding a pal who really enjoys editing and working on a song is super valuable, and I recommend you find a few folks like that. Having someone respond to your latest effort with encouragement can help fight off the “what’s it all for?”-voices that creep into your tired parent mind from time to time. 

So, I don’t know if this is helpful, but as you fight to keep that songwriter alive while reading Frozen for the 30th time or giggling at Captain Underpants jokes (they are pretty funny, afterall), employ some intentional techniques to set yourself up for success. Be loose with your lyrics and let go of the bad ones. Keep the recorder handy and do an inventory of your time to see when you’re most likely to give your craft attention. Join a group where others provide inspiration, and find someone thoughtful to be your audience. 

Parenting is hard. Songwriting is hard. But they are also fun and awesome. You can’t always do both, but there are ways to keep the muse close enough to grab when the time presents itself. 

Good luck. Now go enjoy your kids. 

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Next up: Prepping for Nanowrimo2021