What I Learned from Writing a Song a Day

This is the last part in a four-part series on my “write a song every day in April” project. To read the previous installments, click here!

So, folks, I did it. (“I Did It” was actually the title of my song for April 30, because sometimes I like to write with all the subtlety of a cartoon anvil.) If you read my last post, and if you want to get technical about it, you’ll know that I didn’t actually write a song every day in the month of April. But I did write 30 songs, which is still a miraculous feat by any metric. The final week was, as I knew it would be, a mad dash to the finish. I wrote three songs a day for the last three days because I had fallen behind. If the goal of this project was to abandon my perfectionism, well, I certainly did that and then some during Week 4. In fact, I more or less abandoned any standard of quality. But that was the point!

It’s easy for the rational part of your brain to accept an idea as true. There’s a different kind of knowledge, though – a deep, full-body-and-soul kind of knowledge – that can only come from personal experience, from having actually dug your way out of that particular pit with your own hands. When my songwriting professors at Berklee told us “You need to let yourself write lots of garbage in order to get to the good stuff,” I thought, “Yes, that makes sense.” Many times I’ve read a great Ira Glass quoteexpressing that same idea, and I thought, “Yes, that feels true.” (Incidentally, you should read the quote.) The rational part of my brain was fully on board. But then the rest of me proceeded to blithely ignore all that good advice and carry on banging my head against the wall because my musical ideas weren’t perfect. The rational part of our brains is not always driving the bus.

I’ve written about this before, and it’s exactly what drove me to attempt this song-a-day project. And I’m thrilled to report that it might have worked. I say “might have” because I don’t yet know how this project will affect my songwriting in the long term, but I’m optimistic that I’ve rid myself of at least some of my harmful perfectionism. I reread that Ira Glass quote just now, and it hit me harder than it ever has before because I now know from experience that it’s true. I know on a physical, molecular level that when you’re tortured by the knowledge that your songs aren’t as good as Gillian Welch’s or Bob Dylan’s or Anais Mitchell’s (or, worst of all, your best friend’s), the only way to fight through that is to stop caring about it and start writing.

Even though the majority of the songs I wrote last month are not great songs, or even good songs (again – that’s the point!) almost every one has a redeeming quality – an evocative lyric, a memorable bit of melody, a catchy guitar line, an interesting chord change. A lot of my favorite things I came up with during the month sort of appeared by accident when I thought I was writing a throwaway song. Once I’ve given myself enough time to recover, I look forward to digging back through all of those songs, revising the decent ones, and harvesting the things I like from the mostly-bad ones to reuse them later.

I also learned a lot about my own writing process last month. I can’t remember who it was, but someone once told me that “you never learn how to write songs, you just learn how to write the song you’re writing.” Though the original source probably phrased it better than I just did, I’ve really found that to be true – there’s no one-size-fits-all process for every person or every song. In my growing desperation to come up with something, anything, each day, I tried a lot of different avenues and methods. I was able to relax and follow my ideas wherever they led me, simply because I didn’t have time to come up with another idea and start over!

So, with that in mind, here’s a list of helpful techniques that I accidentally stumbled upon during the course of my song-a-day project. Some are specific to songwriting and some are not. These worked for me, and everyone is different, but maybe some of you songwriters out there will find them useful too – if you do, let me know!

  1. Create time constraints and accountability. If you accept the premise that you have to generate a lot of material, knowing that a lot of it will be garbage, to get good stuff, time constraints are your best friend. If you need accountability for your deadlines, make a pact with a buddy and don’t let each other back out.

  2. Play and sing separately. I often found myself starting my songs by noodling around on the guitar until I latched onto some figure, riff, or chord progression that I liked, and then I would repeat that over and over and over again, singing nonsense, until some lyrics or a melody presented themselves to me. Then I had the idea to record my guitar part, looping the chord progression for 5-10 minutes, and then play it back and sing along with it so that I could focus on one thing at a time. That helped free up my mind and my voice to come up with better lyrics and melodies.

  3. Embrace thievery. It’s not plagiarism unless I actually want to record or perform the song! Sometime last month I became obsessed (like, listen-multiple-times-every-day obsessed) with a song by Joanna Newsom called “Good Intentions Paving Company.” Great title, right? I listened to this song so obsessively that bits of it started appearing in my songs – the octaves in the bass, an ascending arpeggiated vocal melody, the idea of summoning the will to stay. Eventually I just decided to go with it, knowing that if I liked my song enough to let it out of the house, I would change the obviously stolen bits in the editing phase. In the writing phase, though, sometimes the best way to generate material is to imitate. Figure out what exactly it is you like from another song and see if you can adapt that idea in a new way for your own song.

  4. Give yourself unfamiliar assignments. Limitations can be helpful in that they can direct your writing down a different path than the well-worn ones you’re used to. I (like many people) tend to gravitate toward certain keys and guitar voicings over and over again, so once in a while I’d say something like “Okay, I’m going to put my capo up high and play in A position” or “I’m going to write a song on banjo in this funky F tuning,” both things that I wouldn’t usually do. I would force myself to write in an unfamiliar musical place because it would suggest melodic routes that I hadn’t traveled before.

  5. Follow a seemingly bad idea. You truly would not believe how many of my songs started with an expression of frustration with the song-a-day project. A quick sampling of first lines: “I’m getting real tired of this.” “I’m full of bad ideas and my internal clock is f––ked.” “I didn’t do everything I should have done, just sat on the couch.” “Wouldn’t be the first time that I let myself down.” “Watch the clock, one by one.” “I don’t have time and I don’t have money.” I could go on. I could have thrown all of those away, but to continue the previous metaphor, I saw all of those lines as pathways and I followed them wherever they led, and most of them did end up leading somewhere interesting. I can always go back and change the first lines later.

  6. Improvise! During Week 3, I had fallen off the wagon and was struggling to catch up. One night, after drinking and karaoke with some friends, I returned home and was alone in my living room. I saw this tiny cello (like a child-sized cello) on the couch that my roommate had rescued from the street. It was horribly out of tune, the tuning pegs didn’t work, and it had no bow. So, naturally, I picked it up and started noodling around, plucking bass lines on the two functional strings and singing whatever came into my brain. I opened my voice memos and hit record, and ended up with three short, very bizarre, improvised songs. They fall into the “one redeeming quality” category, but I certainly would never have come up with those redeeming ideas any other way.

Overall, the song-a-day challenge was everything I hoped it’d be. It was a huge learning experience that helped me move past my writer’s block in a serious way. It was a bit extreme, yes, but I look forward to adapting this idea and doing similar challenges in the future. It feels like the beginning of a new chapter in my songwriting life.

Artist Isa Burke

thanks for the article, isa. i found it most interesting. what you learned along the way should be invaluable for you. i write songs as a creative hobby for myself. i love the process. you never know what will come up. the music part for me seems to flow,but i found the lyric part hard because of expectations for quality. once i let go of that and realized they don't all have to be great it became easier. i now use writing lyrics as an exercise to keep the juices flowing. also i don't use them all for songs,just practise. the better ones will stand out. i think john fogerty once said" you have to write 10 bad songs to get one good one". every once in awhile the gift shows up in bunches though. the wait is worth it. happy songwriting!