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Before You Give Up On A Song…

When writing a song it’s practically impossible for me to tell if it’s going to be a keeper or not.

Naturally I’m excited about the song idea or I wouldn’t be spending the time developing it. But at some point I start to wonder… is this really any good? Am I just fooling myself? Do I even like this thing (forget about love)?

Unless I complete a song quickly (love those), it’s almost inevitable that I’ll go through this stage – the shoals. And this is where songwriting discipline becomes very valuable.

Unless I’m completely uninspired and am utterly convinced that ‘this stinks!’, I need to keep writing as if I’m just as excited as ever. Yes, I’m talking about faking it to some extent… also known as ‘being a pro’.

I once heard being a professional defined as – I’m paraphrasing – “Doing something well that you love, even when you don’t feel like it.” (I think it was Julius Erving – Dr. J – who said it).

When I’m losing faith I have to remember, as pros do, that my disenchantment is usually just a passing phase.

I have songs I’ve written where I was was excited all the way through the writing… and they ended up in the trunk. And I have songs that were a slog to write that ended up as some of my best-received songs, ones I’ve recorded, and that I perform frequently.

And that’s the point: Halfway through, I really can’t be sure if a song is going to work out or not. I’ve got to continue to apply as much energy as I can to the writing whether I’m in the groove that day or not.

It’s about pushing through the periods of ennui and discouragement, not about pretending all the time. If ‘faking it’ is all that’s happening, it’s a problem… maybe better to move on.

To me, it’s just important to remember that when I’m writing, my job is to write… not evaluate and compare (that comes later). My job is to just make this thing I’ve got here the best song I can get it to be. Later I can worry about how it compares and fits in… or not.

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4 responses to “Before You Give Up On A Song…”

  • Wally Stewart

    Thanks Tony,

    This may be the most helpful of your posts that I’ve seen. I now write poetry instead of songs, know how important every word is, and struggle with trying to express all that needs to be said but no more, in the best way I possibly can- which can bring the slog you mentioned. I’ve been stuck on one phrase, in a current poem, and just before reading your post think I finally came up with something that may work, so it was good timing for me.
    I always appreciate your posts, you come across as being someone who is down here with us and not above, which I appreciate.

  • Great points Tony! I’m all in favor of getting something written, even if some of the elements are “placeholders”, waiting for a better idea to come.
    One of my frequent jobs is to write songs in 12 song batches, organized around some theme, record and produce them. It is inevitable that some songs come easily and some are like pulling teeth. They can’t all be wonderful, but I try to make all of them have an engaging quality that I can get behind and avoid outright stinkers.
    Sometime, usually late in the production process, I will make work-in-progress CDs and listen to them in my car and various places, taking notes. I find this an extremely valuable way to review the work.
    Recently, when I was experiencing some pressure to get a project out the door, I bumped the evaluation CDs to an earlier point in the process, making sure to include all the songs in development as soon as possible, even if some of them were still in rough form.
    What I found was that it was much easier to zero in on the problem areas in the songs being able to hear them in context. It allowed me to zip through the finalizing of the production, either “making my peace” with the songs, or tweaking them to be more effective.
    This certainly beats the alternative, which for me would be to endlessly agonize over the songs one at a time in production, not being sure what the shortcomings are, and suspecting everything.
    So my advice with a difficult song would be to cobble something together by whatever means are necessary, and then look at it in a larger context. Hopefully you will be pleasantly surprised!

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