Pretend You Don't Sing

I'm a songwriting consultant, and listen to hundreds of tapes a month, all of which come from songwriters and singer/songwriters, who seek my help in polishing and marketing their material. For the past year, I've been keeping a talley of where the best songs come from. Hands down, the quality of the writing by the non-singing songwriter is far superior to the material written by singers.

The reason for this is the songwriter who don't sing have to pass more judges along the way to a record. First, they have to get a publisher excited about the song. The publisher has to get the A & R person excited. The A & R person has to get the producer excited and the producer has to get the artist excited. Therefore, a song written by a songwriter who doesn't sing is scrutinized four times on the way to being recorded. A song written by a singer doesn't have to please anybody except the singer. If he/she feels good singing it, he cuts it. Period.

I've heard some sensational voices on the tapes my clients send me, and when there's a great voice and mediocre songs, I ask if that artist four questions. The conversation often sounds like this:

1. Have you ever studied voice? Oh yes. Absolutely. I've been working with a vocal coach since I was ten. In fact, I have a voice lesson twice a week
2. Have you ever studied keyboard or guitar? Absolutely. I went to Julliard, and currently study with the best pop teacher in L.A.
3. Did you ever work on your stage presence? Sure do. In fact, I go to that class on Wednesdays.
4. Have you ever studied songwriting? Nah - I read a book once but frankly, I just write what I feel.

There's the problem.

The song is the whole reason for the singer to be present on the record. Otherwise, he/she could be replaced with a saxophone. Interesting that of the ingredients necessary to make a successful performer, the one to which singer/songwriters pay the least attention is the one they should pay the most attention to. The buck starts here - with the song.

Do you think Michelangelo just woke up one morning and said "check this out, dude, - I feel like painting the Cistine Chapel?" I think he went to art school first. So did Leonardo da Vinci, Monet, Georgia O'Keefe, Van Gogh and David Hockney. None of them just became painters by osmosis - they all studied their craft.

Songwriting is a craft. If you want to be a hit songwriter, I suggest you study that craft. It will make a huge difference in the quality of the songs you write. Sure, write down what you feel - but that's just a first draft. Use the craft to finish the song - to polish it.

I tell all my clients that the best way to get an A & R person frothing at the mouth, desperate to sign them, is to make a tape with five hit songs on it - not just five great vocal performances of pretty good songs - five great songs with five great vocal performances.

So if you're a singer who writes, you don't have a deal, and you're maxed out on being almost there, I have an exercise for you. For the next five songs you write, pretend you don't sing and you're writing this material for somebody who does. Choose the artist you want to pitch your songs to, and ask yourself some tough questions:

1. Have I heard this lyric before? If so, can I make it a little bit different, and if not, can I write something else?
2. Have I heard this melody before? If so, can I make it a little bit different, and if not, can I write something else?
3. What is the persona of the artist I'm aiming at? Would he/she actually be believable singing these words? A lyric is dialogue for a singer, and if the lyric is weak, relying on the melody to carry the full responsibility of the song may not cut it.
4. What am I contributing to the literature of music with this song?

Those are tough questions, but they're the ones professional, non-singing songwriters ask themselves five times a day. They have to.

If you're a singer/songwriter with a deal, you're consistently platinum, and you haven't studied songwriting, fine - keep doing what you're doing. But if you're still so close to nowhere trying to get signed by a major label, and what you're doing hasn't worked, try the exercise.

Be very gentle with yourself when you do. Changing your creative process is uncomfortable. It's like someone who is right-handed switching to the left. You won't be as adept, certainly not right away, but know that and go with it.

The part of our personality that does the writing is a five year old kid. Keep your "kid" happy any way you can. Cookies, movies, Brad Pitt. Make the creative process playful and fun. For your first song, try something easy - perhaps a rewrite of "Mary Had a Little Scam" or "Ring Around The Lexus". As long as your "kid" feels patted on the head and rewarded in the short run, he/she will feel confident and willing keep going.

Even if you sit for an hour a day, every day, and the page is still blank, tell yourself you're doing a very good job, you're working on a new approach, you'll get it eventually, any minute your subconscious is going to erupt in magic. Tell yourself "good for you". Say it ten times a day. "Good for you". "Good for you!"

It works.

I bet you'll see a tremendous surge in quality of the songs you write.

Let me know when you do.

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Molly-Ann Molly-Ann Leikin