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:

V1
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

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

V2
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

OUT
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.

How To Write Songs That Think Outside The Box

There are millions of songwriters out there. So how can you make your songs stand out?

songwriting
photo via Lynda.com

Now, I am in no way claiming that any of my songs think outside the box.

But below are some methods I’ve picked up from other songwriters, and these seem to help with my songwriting.

Write From The Opposite Perspective

I wrote a song called “Step Right, Step Left,” in which it appeared I was scathing somebody else for not speaking their mind or communicating clearly.

“If you’re gonna step right, step right / If you’re gonna step left, step left / I can’t keep up with you, no”

But I realized the song was actually about me. I was scathing me from the point of view of someone else.

Try it — write a song from someone else’s perspective and see what happens.

Write About A Situation In Which You’ve Never Been

Writing about something you have no experience with can easily come off as fake, especially if your listener knows your backstory.

But it’s your job to make it relatable, both to the listener and to yourself.

For example, I can’t really write about a bad breakup because, well, I’ve had one girlfriend/wife in my life. But I can tap into the feeling of tension because (as any married person will tell you) disagreements happen.

So try writing about a foreign situation but find a way to make it relatable to you and the listener.

Become Another Character

Sometimes it’s fun to pretend to be someone else. I mean, actors do it for a living every day.

I’ve written a handful of songs (especially in my earlier days) where I’m singing from the perspective of a character.

I wrote a song called “Northbound Trail” where I’m apparently a slave escaping to the North.

I wrote a song called “Davy Jones” where I’m a third party witnessing Long John Silver challenge Captain Smollet.

I wrote song called “Son of Sin” from the POV of God.

Give it a shot. You might be surprised.

Use Your Second (Or Third) Choice Of Instrument

My first instrument is the acoustic guitar, but I also own a piano, a banjo, an electric guitar, and a ukulele. If I want a change of pace, I’ll go to one of those other instruments.

Doing this can lead to a totally different type of song. A few examples of that:

My point is, you can get a very different song depending on the type of instrument you use.


I love Evernote, the app/website I use for all of my songwriting. Get a free month of Evernote Premium right here.

My Favorite (Cheap) Recording Programs (DAWs)

If you’re like me, you want all the good things for free, or just super cheap.

And as cool as ProTools and Logic Pro are, my bank account is already breaking a sweat trying to keep things together.

With that in mind, here are my favorite free/cheap audio recording programs for making music.

Reaper

Reaper

This is the one that holds my audio engineering heart (however small).

It’s easy to use and has built-in presets and effects for mixing. It’s similar to ProTools, but fit for paupers like me. The cross-fade is brilliant, and it makes precise editing simple. Plus, it works with my Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 interface.

The cost is based on the honor system; it’s a free download and the price tag depends on whether you’ll use it for personal or commercial purposes. I got the personal use license for $60.

via www.softpedia.com

GarageBand

I used GB for my early music, namely Iron Sharpens Iron and Thank God They’re Wrong. It’s perfect for beginners because of its simplicity, Apple’s forte.

If you’re a Mac Head, it’s your best option; it comes pre-loaded on every Apple computer and has plenty of pre-recorded instruments that are easily customizable.

One downside is that crossfade didn’t exist when I used it, and it still seems to be user-unfriendly, from what I’ve read online.

via musicandcomputerscience.wordpress.com

DAWs To Keep An Eye On

Soundtrap is an online recording program I just came across. I haven’t had much time to play with it, but it seems promising.

A con: it seems to allow one-track recording, but not two tracks at a time, which is a major downside if so.

via www.chromegeek.com

Soundation is another online recording program that I’ve tried using. It, too, doesn’t seem to allow multi-track recording, so this one may be good if you’re looking to keep it simple.

via oddnumbersonly.wordpress.com

And that’s my list. Give ’em a try and let me know what you think in the comments…