I don’t know how anyone finishes, really finishes, a song without having a deadline of some sort – a writing job, recording session, rehearsal, gig, workshop… Without some kind of some kind of performance or presentation looming, I often find it very hard to make the final decisions that render a song done.
I should note that I have finished quite a few songs without a deadline. I work at them, they take a shape that feels ‘finished’, and they don’t change much after that.
But more often I get songs to the 1/2, 3/4, or 7/8ths point… and stall there. For me, a very true songwriting truism is that it’s easier to start a new song than to finish an existing one. What makes me finish songs is often having to play them for other humans at a certain point – that is looming – in the near future.
Otherwise, writing is open-ended – and a lot of times that’s good. Some ideas need time – they have to marinate to get interesting. Some need to be rewritten multiple times to find the right form, tone and balance. But for me, the pressure of some kind of deadline is what pushes me through to the end on many songs.
I was reminded of this again recently. I have a gig coming up with my band in a few weeks and we had a rehearsal scheduled for a few days ago. I’d been working, in an open-ended way, on a bunch of new songs. Some of the songs required only a little bit more to finish – a line here or there, a decision on a phrase of melody, putting in or leaving out a certain chord…
By rehearsal time, because I knew I had to present them to the band in a playable form, I’d made enough of those decisions and we were able to rehearse the songs. But how long would I have taken to make those decisions if I didn’t have the rehearsal and gig? Probably much longer; possibly forever.
Even though something can be lost from having to make decisions ‘before their time’, even more can be lost from never making them at all. I left the rehearsal feeling grateful for the ‘pressure’ – it forced me to make a choice for every word, melody note, and chord in the song. All of the decisions didn’t work out – some of those choices will change before the gig. But now those songs are either pretty much done or I have some indispensable info about what does or doesn’t work in them.
Without the deadline, the songs would would most likely still be the way they were and I’d be starting another song – which I’ll do anyway. But finishing what I have is at least as important.