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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.