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.
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.
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.
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:
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.