Guest Post by Casey Parnell
Casey Parnell is the Executive Director of The Well Conference, and has been instrumental in making this conference happen from the very beginning. He's also the Creative Arts Director at Westside Church, and filled to the brim with creative mojo. This guest post is from his blog and is an excellent resource for all you pastors, leaders, authors, musicians, mothers, fathers and children. Enjoy!
Songwriting is often a mystery. More like a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a Taco Bell Crunch wrap Supreme. People have asked me throughout my life how to write a song. How do you put the melody together? Do you start with lyrics first or music?
I often reply that there’s a bit of magic to it. Not the Harry Potter kind, more like the Orlando Magic when Shaq was playing. The moment where the big idea comes crashing through the odds for a slam dunk. Where the song is coming and you have to take it down as fast as possible. It is a very interesting study when it comes down to it and although I haven’t had a ton of success in songwriting, I’ve written a few and learned a lot along the way.
1. Write the Good Songs and the Bad Songs
My brother Corey often mocks my very first song. Oddly, it was a Christmas tune that I wrote in July. The title will probably knock you flat, Peace in the Air. The concept was simple, on the night Jesus was born, with stars in the sky, Shepherd’s kneeling and angels singing, there was peace, and this peace was so transcendent, so marvelous, so powerful, it was thick in the air. Like fog in San Francisco, you could cut this peace with a knife.
The song sucked, seriously. Still, in all it’s glory, it had the basic elements of what it takes to be a song. The melody was there, a sort of middle eastern haunting folksy thing. There was a verse, chorus, even a pre-chorus! Lyrically it told a story and had a theme:
“As I watch the stars and the light that they bring, I sing a song to the newborn King.”
Just a little taste for you there. Christmas was in the air, and it was so, so peaceful. Just like when all babies are born into this world, it’s just calm, quiet, and oh wait… no it’s not! Away in the Manger, with its “no crying he makes” line is a complete hoax. I fell right in line with the great Christmas songwriters of old, just lying and everything. Sorry if my theology is off, but I think Jesus cried when he was born. He came on the scene like the rest of us did, in the flesh, and then saved the world. But that is another post entirely.
When you write, it’s good practice. Often while songwriting I find myself saying, “This is the 2nd worst song I’ve ever written” but I finish it. It’s good practice. Just like anything else, practice makes perfect. So finish that super bad song, I dare you. Plus someday it might be on the radio!
2. Have the Write Tools
I record song ideas everywhere I go. I’ve recorded ideas in coffee shops, at stop lights, on mountain tops, at family BBQ’s, everywhere! Inspiration comes at the funniest times so make sure you have the right tools with you. My iPhone voice memo recorder is my best friend (make sure you back it up!). It’s great for collaboration as well. I email ideas to my band straight from my phone.
A Moleskine journal, Evernote app, or a collection of napkins from local restaurants are also a good addition. Whatever works for you, make sure to capture it while it’s happening!
Aside from having good recording and writing tools, your instruments matter as well. Life is too short to own bad gear! I know being a musician is an expensive hobby (especially for how much $ musicians make!) but I’d highly encourage you to save whatever you can, and buy the gear you really want. It doesn’t have to be super expensive, but it needs to inspire you. Good gear that you love will take your tunes to the next level. One time, I walked into a studio and the guy had an old vintage Guild acoustic. It made me want to rewrite the whole album! If you don’t know what to buy, I’ll help you, just leave me a comment.
3. Be Brave and Share
I wonder how many great songs have been locked away in the vault of fear. I get it. Singing your songs for others is completely vulnerable. It’s sharing your art and your heart all in one sitting. For a while, a few of my friends and I were doing a songwriters guild over coffee at my house where we’d go around the circle and share a song. I’ve been in numerous circles like this and I still get nervous!
The times I’ve received honest feedback and not flattery have mattered to me the most. Others have changed a key word or melody line and made the song skyrocket! Collaboration hasn’t always worked for me either. Often our band will get together for the purpose of writing and everything falls flat. What we found is that each of us should write the core of the song on our own, then bring it together to add creativity. People have different preferences, styles, and tastes, but good feedback will make you better. Period. Don’t let the fear of sharing make you miss out on making a song the best it can be.
4. Kill em’ with Content
A songs theme is very important. This is what makes it memorable. Start with a power phrase or key concept. Just like stories have a thesis, starting with a song thesis will help! Great writers are readers. They draw from the inspiration and phrasing of others. A true wordsmith finds new and fresh ways to say something.
One of your first responsibilities as a songwriter is to stay inspired. So do whatever it takes, take a class, read something, go sailing, but keep the spark of your life alive. Your life inspiration will leak onto the page.
5. Embrace the Magic
Bottom line, and this may rub people the wrong way, some people have this gift and some people don’t. Some have thought they are a true songwriter for years and they actually aren’t. Giftedness in songwriting is what makes good songwriting period. You can work at it, be persistent, and dig (and this helps) but at the end of the day, great songwriters have that something special that make them a great songwriter. It’s God’s gift. Shaq had a gift for basketball in his wiring and makeup. He was bad at free throws, so he worked on it, but what they really needed him to do was get the ball and dunk on people’s faces.
Hard work at the basic fundamentals will sharpen your game, but in the end, you have it or you don’t. It’s okay if you don’t because there are many other ways you will change this world through your gifts, but stay in your lane, and let the magic flow.