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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. 


Parenting and Songwriting: 5 tips for keeping the balance 

Last weekend at the Great River Folk Festival in La Crosse, Wisconsin, I was talking with Annie Mack, an amazing performer who had just finished a spectacular closing set following performances by Chicago Farmer and Greg Gilbertson. Somehow we stumbled onto the fact that we both had energetic 4-year-old children waiting for us back at our homes. We shared a moment of understanding at the duality of magic of parenthood as well as struggle to find time, energy, and inspiration while still being a good parent to young children.  


Our conversation got me thinking. What are the most important, big-picture things I can do as a parent, songwriter, and author to keep the creativity flowing all the while being the best dad I can be? The list below are 5 thoughts I had that are more “parent focused.” I’ll try and come at this from a “songwriter focus” next. Additionally, these all come from the mindset of a cis-gender, straight, white male, married father of two children less than age eight…. So I get that this won’t apply to everyone. Lastly, I have another job that gives my family financial stability. Our rent and food doesn’t rely on the income from books sales and spotify streams (thank god). If nothing else, this article got me thinking about how I balance both roles, and maybe it will for you too. 


1. Avoiding resentment - this is SOOOO important. Everything competes for our time and attention, and your family and writing are no different. They are naturally at odds with one another because writing requires us to be internal and focussed on the task while parenting requires a selfless focus on others. Therefore, you have to be intentional about not blaming your children for interrupting your train of thought. They are doing what kids do. They are asking for help. They are asking for attention. They are asking for love. Relish in it. If you aren't intentional about enjoying it, it is so easy to blame them for the interruption. The stage of parenting children who actually want to hang out with you will go soon enough and you'll get your "me-time" back. For now, when you kids come looking for you, leave whatever you are working on with a grateful heart and go to them. If you go with bitterness and resentment, it will taint the time spent with them and poison the artwork when you return. If you aren’t mindful about resentment, it’ll sneak up on you and the game is lost. That's when the trouble really hits, because neither of your roles will be fulfilling. The balance will be off. 

2. Rest – I’ve always prided myself in my lower need for sleep…. But, time is catching up with me. I’m finding it harder to burn the candle at both ends. Over the last couple years I started to realize a pattern between my patience as a husband and father and my lack of quality rest. As such, I’ve had to be more disciplined about my sleeping/rest routine. I wish we could all get drunk late into the night and wake up ready and refreshed to crack out a few lines of prose and finish the last song all while flipping a stack of pancakes and delivering breakfast in bed to my wife, but who am I kidding? If I’m up until 1 am, the kids don’t care and they are up all the earlier. If I was up finishing off a six pack of whatever high alcohol content beer it is I’m enjoying lately, I’m pretty worthless. It is difficult to be good at anything (in this case, a parent and songwriter) and be chronically tired, operating at less than 100%. Know how much sleep you need. Fight to maintain a schedule that gets you there. Limit the rock n’ roll lifestyle if it is coming back to bite you. If you are rested, your writing will be better and you'll have the patience needed when the shape of your pancakes doesn't fit the criteria for your 4-year-old food critic.

3. Seize the quiet hours – If you are following the advice above and are well rested, then you are ready to seize those precious minutes to hours of quiet time. Josh Ritter spends his Sunday mornings (up by 5am or so, eeesh) writing prose and the quiet moments after all are asleep songwriting. We all know we have different preferences for how and when we write. Some don’t like to plan it. Some do. Some like music on. Some want to write in the car or at a coffee shop where college kids get to fit in and practice being themselves without the a-holes of their high school judging them. Some want complete silence in their favorite chair. For me, I need to seize the moment when the kids are occupied or asleep. Asleep is the safer choice in our home, but of course you never can never tell when a night-terror or bed-wetting scenario will pop up. If I’m on my game, I like to quietly get a little done before they day begins. My kids are usually up by 6, however, so night time is where I go more frequently. After the hour-long (or more) bed-time routine, I try to do some dishes or something to switch my mind-mode… Currently, it is watching an episode of Ted Lasso with my wife (It’s Roy Kent!). Then I pick up the guitar and start getting into the writing zone. 

4. Keep the phone handy – This may be another obvious one, but the notes app and audio recordings are essential for catching the tail of the muse as it sores by while folding laundry or picking up legos. To help save the moment of inspiration and hopefully return to it later, I try to capture not only the idea, but also some of the feelings and other vague thoughts that swirl in my head so as to anchor myself to that moment of inspiration. I have a hard time jumping back into an emotional song I’ve only partly written, but if I’ve got a few more tidbits of storyline tying me to the space I was in while writing it, it feels easier to return and pick up where I left off. Whether it is a pad of paper or your phone, keep something handy to jot down the inspired thoughts. 

5. Forgive yourself for not always being awesome – Being a parent is hard. I fail daily. (I’m starting to get it, mom and dad. Thanks for doing hard work.) Being a good parent while doing anything else well, songwriting included, is also hard. Don’t be too hard on yourself when either one doesn’t feel like it is meeting your expectations. The words and songs will come if you keep your pen handy and your mind and heart open to the muse as it zips past. The kids grow up. They fly away. Its best to keep that in mind while they still come running to your side. Though it won’t always be possible, I do think you can set yourself up to maximize the songwriting moments you get, so that you can be the best parent you can be while your little ones are still little and require more of your attention and love. Forgive yourself and take the pressure off when you don't finish the song. If you can't get back to the space you were when you left, the song probably wasn't your next big hit, and that chapter wasn't the correct storyline. Consider those false starts and half-finished choruses as the prep-work to the next great idea waiting for you around the corner. 


So there it is. Is this helpful? What has worked for you to balance your role as a parent and songwriter? What hasn’t worked as well? Stay tuned for a few thoughts on my specific songwriting tactics while being a dad to two very energetic littles at home. Until then, feel free to check out any of my music on Bandcamp, spotify, etc, follow me on social media (facebook; ig: nash_david_), and go check out my novel The Man in the Pines, a reimagination of the story of Paul Bunyan. 

And most importantly, thank you. 

*** the photo is of my two crazy kids who give me more writing material than I could imagine.