Don’t Limit Your Creativity

I’ve been learning some things about the creative process recently. And it has to do with limitations. Or the lack of them.

creative process
image via The Virtual Instructor

Here’s my thought: only place boundaries on yourself for specific creative reasons, not to fit a certain genre or to be the artist others expect you to be.

I did that in my earlier music-making days — like with Thank God They’re Wrong, Four Sons, and Let’s Get On A Boat — and my music suffered for it.

I was a “folk” musician so I would only use “real” instruments (no keyboards, only pianos; no drum machines, only live drums; no electric guitar, only acoustic).

I think I was actually condescending about it.

I limited my options just to fit a pre-determined box of a genre, making music that people expected a folk artist to make. But genres change and evolve, so why try to fit the definition of today’s “folk” music?

Think about it — “pop music” literally means the popular music of the day. Popular music changes over time (I mean, The Beatles were pop in their day). And any change within a genre happens because of artists who don’t try to fit into any of the current boxes, artists who stretch the boundaries.

Basically, I don’t like genre labels.

So with the album I’m recording now, I have no boundaries and I’m recording everything I hear. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But at least I tried.

And it’s been so worth it. I think this is the best music I’ve made so far and, more importantly, it’s the most meaningful to me.

All this to say, don’t limit yourself unless it’s for a specific creative reason, to see what you can do with less.

Otherwise, let every idea out then sort through the good and the bad later.

A great app that has helped me organize my creative process is Evernote. I literally do all of my songwriting on it.

And you can use my referral link to get a free month of a Premium account (although the Free account is awesome too…I use it).

How To Avoid These 3 Songwriting Mistakes

I’ve made a lot of songwriting mistakes.

songwriting mistakes
photo via Diona Devincenzi

Here’s how I know: I’ve been writing songs since 2005, and I think I’m nearing 100 total completed songs.

And anyone who does anything for a long period of time will make mistakes.

Not only that, but I’ve had lots of professional songwriters and music critics give me feedback on my songs (or should I say bash my songs over the head), thanks to places like NSAI and SubmitHub.

They pointed out my pitfalls.

So here are just three common writing mistakes I’ve made (or almost made) that we all should avoid.

Writing A Song That’s Not Authentic To You

I’m currently a member of the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), and they offer lots of things to help songwriters get better. And one thing they offer are one-on-one mentoring sessions with a pro songwriter.

In one of these mentoring sessions, I asked the pro songwriter about today’s music publishing trends. He said songwriters who get signed to music publishing deals are mostly in country music (and even the number of those deals are declining).

But I don’t write country songs.

I didn’t grow up listening to country music. I grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania where my dad was a computer nerd and a pastor and I spent most of my time reading and playing Jack Johnson songs on the guitar.

So for me to write country songs would be like putting on a mask.

I’d be writing songs that aren’t authentic to my upbringing, my personality, or the reality of my life.

Yeah, I’m not gonna do that. The songs would be terrible and people would see right through it.

Losing Focus

In a NSAI song feedback response, the pro songwriter gave me this tip on my song “Burning Like Chicago“:

“You have such a cool title here but I see no lyric that supports it!! Be writing more to your title.”

Here are the lyrics:

My iron fails to sharpen
my guards have all been shot
and I fully deplore myself
19 years should have been enough
19 years should have taught me well
you would think

I’m burning like Chicago
please put me out
my crimes could fill a prison
my Good could have no worse a posture

If you and I could follow
our second intuition
we could be like a Rubix cube
turn and shift ’til colors meet
fully whole and made complete
only if, only if it were

If you have a face for me just call me up
and if there is a way to fix me, fix me up
Let the rainstorm be
let it rain on me

This is what I mean by losing focus. Write to your title.

Focus on just one idea for each song and say it in a different way throughout the song.

Writing In Multiple Time Zones

Something else I accidentally do is switch time zones. Meaning I use both the past and present tense without realizing it.

Here’s something a pro songwriter said about “The End Of Tears“:

“Starting out with the ‘I died’ is a bit strange. It’s past tense but within the line, it goes to present tense and then the song goes back and forth.”

Here are the lyrics:

This is the day I died, when the sky is fading away
This is the day that I have lived for all my life

I hope that I have been like the moon shining the sun
my light was not my own, my stars were just a gift

And oh!
Running hurts so we will fly to escape
and when we get back home we will see
the end of tears now

I smell the creep of Death but his smell is sweet to me
after these pilgrim years we will finally see the King

It’s all come back around for the ground has found me twice
my eyes grow weaker still as I look for one last time

Stay in one time zone for the whole song.

Unless you’re writing a song like Lukas Graham’s “7 Years” where your characters pass through time within the song.

I use Evernote to do all of my songwriting. It helps me stay organized, which means I can be more clear-headed for better writing. Oh, and you can get a free month of Evernote Premium right here.

Why My Home Recordings Really Stink

Let me be self-deprecating for a moment — the quality of my home recordings (all made from various bedrooms and basements) really stink.

Home recording studio
One of my many recording setups

I mean, I’m happy with the music I’ve made. But sometimes the engineering could use some work.

So hopefully, these three home recording tips will help you avoid going through the whole trial-and-error experience like I did.

1) Tuning

It’s simple, but tuning is crucial. Case in point, my song “Let’s Get On A Boat.” The G string on my acoustic guitar is ever so flat. Bugs me every time I listen to it.

2) Production

When I recorded “Burning Like Chicago,” there was no cello in it. Can you imagine how boring the song would be without it? Fortunately, my friend and the guy who mixed/mastered the album, John Behrens, has a fantastic ear. He told me “something’s missing.”

3) Performance

On the song “Trust In Your Brother,” I’m singing slightly ahead of the beat, which makes this song non-listenable for me.

I’ve made mental notes of these three shortcomings in hopes that I can improve my engineering skills.

You should do the same.

Why Sad Music Warms The Musician’s Heart

Finally, an explanation for why my full-length album is so depressing.

It’s because I subconsciously knew it would make me and everyone else feel better.

“It seems that expressing sadness makes a musician feel good.”

– Discover Magazine

Stavin' Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad "Batson," Lafayette, La. (via Library of Congress)
via Library of Congress

In a recent study, researchers found that “expressing sadness activated the reward center of the brain while playing happy music did not.”

Basically, playing sad music causes a certain area of our brain (the area that makes a musician feel immersed in the music) to release dopamine when happy music does not.

Now, both sad and happy music makes the musician feel good, but just different kinds of good. Sadder music can cause a deeper feeling of good.

RELATED: 3 Ways Music Can Help Your Brain Function Better

And think about it: when you’re feeling low, you want to be around other low people and listen to low music.

If you’re low and you’re around happy people, they’d end up being annoying and you’d feel even lower.

So here’s to all those sad songs and sad musicians out there — we need you.