Fabrizio De Andrè, one of my personal heroes and my favorite Italian songwriter, wrote a lot of amazing songs. Yet, when a journalist asked him: "Which do you consider your best song?", he simply replied: "My best song is yet to come."
To give you some context, he was already at the end of his career (and unfortunately, of his life) when this happened.
There's no doubt: songwriting requires a lot of skills, self-discipline, and imagination.
There is a lot to learn. A lot to weigh in. A lot to assess.
That's why the path towards writing your best song could be very, very long. It could last years or even decades. In fact, it could cover a lifetime.
Even some of the greatest songwriters, like Fabrizio De Andrè, never settle. They keep experimenting, aiming at writing something better each time.
But if years of experience can be helpful in this process, what can we do to improve our songwriting skills now?
As a not-so-young songwriter, with about fifteen years of experience, I have seen it all. I had creator's blocks, I wrote ugly songs, I released tunes I am frankly no longer happy with, and a lot more struggles. But I also learned so much along the way, while striving to become the songwriter I aspire to be.
I hope these five tips will inspire you to sit down, grab your guitar, and start working on your next song.
Tip#1: Expand your musical horizons
This tip is pretty straightforward but so underrated!
It is essential to study different music genres and styles to keep improving your songwriting skills.
Let's make an example. You might be a folkish singer-songwriter type. That's great! Now, take the time to listen to some jazz or blues.
You don't need to become a proficient jazzist. You just want to pick the elements you feel you might make good use of in your own songwriting. Is it the melodic structure? Or the improvisational approach? Is it a certain recurring flavor in the melodies?
Now blend some of these elements into your songwriting and see what happens.
Let me warn you, though: sometimes the result, at least at the beginning, is not thrilling. Don't worry about that! Just keep going and trust the process.
Keep track of your ideas, your successes, and your failures. You'll always have time to get back to your experiments with a fresh pair of ears and edit yourself then.
Tip#2: Create your world
This is something I am actually working on right now.
Very recently, I stopped thinking about songs as "material for albums". I started thinking about songs as stories in themselves.
I guess it is because this is the general shift the music industry is making. We are more and more encouraged to release singles rather than albums.
This is something I have always looked at with extreme suspicion. In my idea, songs had to sit well in an album, for one reason or the other. Whether it is for their sound, or an overall story told throughout the record or a general theme.
While I still think albums are great, I am trying to push my limits and challenge my old beliefs.
And, in doing so, I discovered I could actually write better songs if I focused on the world, the story I create for each and every tune.
I guess I am a bit behind in this conception. A lot of great artists adopted this approach way before me. A lot of them already experimented with the different mediums we can use today to tell the story behind our song. Videos, above all.
So, right now I am experiencing this new way of making my songwriting better. Instead of thinking: "What song should I add to the album, I am working on?" I think: "What would be a great story?"
And I indeed start writing the story, sometimes even before writing the song. Sometimes it is all in my head, sometimes it gets down on paper. Whatever approach I use, the story has priority.
The takeaway here is: create a whole world around your song. Picture the characters, the places the story is set in, imagine how you would direct a movie based on your song, and so on. You get the idea, I hope.
Tip#3: Experiment with discipline and inspiration
What kind of songwriter are you?
Do you stick to a writing schedule, embracing the idea that "perspiration is more important than inspiration"? Or is it the other way around?
The truth is that sometimes we get trapped in our own habits, no matter how good or bad they are. And things get a bit dull then.
I won't even tell you what I think about inspiration and perspiration. Let me just tell you this: whatever your approach is, try to flip things around for a day or two.
If you usually write on a schedule, stir things up and let the inspiration guide you. If you usually wait for the inspiration to come, sit down now and write anything that comes to mind.
What is the result? Is it better? Or worse?
Songwriting is often a matter of self-assessment. But first, you need to change what you do if you want to see a change in the results.
Tip#4: Let it go
One of the main obstacles we face as songwriters is our tendency to judge our work while we are at it.
That's wrong because the perception we have of our work in progress is, 99% of the times, biased.
More often than not, we simply stop writing the song we are working on because we think it sounds stupid or dull or not good enough.
What if we just let it go and keep writing, no matter how bad the song sounds?
I don't mean to say we have to release it as it is. All I mean to say is that it could be a precious exercise. It could be an experiment that helps training your songwriting muscle, no matter what.
You have no idea of how many songs I wrote and never made public. Even if they are stored somewhere, very far from human eyeballs and ears, and I'll never publish them, I am so glad I wrote them. They helped me find my voice too. They were a safe ground to experiment on, especially at the very beginning of my songwriting journey.
After all, when you're fifteen you don't really care about "pleasing the crowd" or "selling out your next record". All you do is writing from your soul.
Writing from that place of purity was extremely important for me. And even if I can no longer find that innocence I had at fifteen, I still try to give myself permission to write something bad.
After all, I still have a lot to learn and to experiment with. If I didn't allow that, I would just keep repeating myself over and over again, probably losing interest in my own songs, at some point.
Don't let that happen to you.
Tip #5: Analyze the songs you love
This is a more technical concept, but it is very useful if you feel you need a songwriting boost.
Take your favorite songs and analyze them.
What are their structures? What different sections can you spot in the song? How do they relate to each other? How did the songwriter organize the passages between these sections? What keys are they in? What chord progressions are they based upon? How does the melody change between the verse and the chorus? And how about the lyrics? What is the point of view in the story? Who is the main character? How is the story structure organized?
You get the point: there is a lot to analyze in a song. And sometimes the best way to become a better songwriter is to take some inspiration from who can do it better than us.
By doing this, somewhat overwhelming, but extremely useful exercise you might end up with some incredible ideas and some new skills.
That's the experience I had with Joni Mitchell's music. I basically learned how to play the guitar in a more interesting and complex way just by trying to play her songs in the right tuning. And from there, I started writing some songs in those tunings. Or I started trying to recreate that sonic environment even when I used a standard tuning or the piano.
Try to do the same. Pick your favorite artist, analyze their songs in a detailed way, and see how that will influence your own songwriting.
So, have you started composing your next song already? Remember: it does not have to be your best one. Your best song is yet to come. Just have fun with it!
Alright, guys - I hope you found these five songwriting inspirations useful!
Happy songwriting...and rock on! Ciao!