Don Nelson – Songwriting Tip (okay, it’s an essay!)

We put out a monthly songwriting tip to all of our mailing list. I hope you will sing up for it (just go to the “sign up” link on this page). Sometimes we get lengthy ones that are too good to cut down. Here is a recent lengthy one:

I’m pretty sure I met Don Nelson at a songwriting group called “Fertilizers”. I was invited by my friend Rob Maccabee who I’ve known for years from New Basics Brass Band, All Right Now, and hearing him play his amazing songs out everywhere. So I run into Don here and now and he always has amazing insight on songwriting. In fact, I think this guy was BORN to write songs. I haven’t had long conversations about it with him but I think it’s safe to say he loves to read and absolutely loves words. Without further adieu here is Don:

Songwriting Tips – Back Story

So…. this is such vast a subject – the “what”, the “why” and the “how” of writing a song. But for right now let’s set aside huge swaths of that territory and just talk about songs that tell a story or contain some kind of a narrative. Certainly there are millions of perfectly good (great!) and legitimate songs that do NOT really have any kind of narrative arc whatsoever – but let’s stick to ones that DO for now.

So… Once upon a time I saw a painting done in what I think is referred to as “Primitive” folk style. It was a painting of the earth from space – from low orbit – painted in thick rich oils – maybe applied with a putty knife instead of a brush. The earth was heavy and swollen with great slabs of deep blues and plums and greens; with sheets of copper and saffron deserts and mountains; and with creamy bands of scud clouds streaking across it.

The orb of the earth itself filled up most of the canvas but, (in sort of a quintessential folk primitive touch) in the upper left hand area of the picture; (off-world in deepest darkest space), the artist had painted these words in bright mustard yellow against the blackness: “Something wonderful happened here” I saw that painting literally 30 or more years ago but I still remember it fondly.

So… what the hell does this have to do with songwriting?

Well for me at least that’s sort of what I experience when writing a “story” or narrative type of song – at least a successful one. The melody (on a good day) provides slabs of deep blue and plum and green and ochre – the underpinnings of oceans and continents on which the story can rest – with clouds of rhythm stretched and skittering above and across it. The melody traces out some part of the world – my world – real or imagined. It doesn’t have to be a complicated melody – it just has to be solid enough (with the occasional tectonic shift of a bridge or key change) to allow the lyrics to stand without sinking into a cacophonic quicksand. And hovering above it all – and embedded firmly within it and sprouting upward– are the lyrics – that story that tells you: “Something happened here”.

Something wonderful… or terrible… or funny… or heart-breaking… or transcendent. But something! But the lyric doesn’t just tell you ABOUT the event – the lyrics shove you into the damn landing capsule in low orbit over the melody and then drop you into the thick of it. Right in the soup.

You get a quick look at things from above – maybe in the first verse where the dilemma is presented – and maybe that hovering perspective is re-visited during the bridge – but for the main body of the story you’ve got a machete and some flints and a canteen and are hacking your way through the trail of the narrative. Or you’re in a suave rented convertible – sunlit and windblown; cruising your way across melting pavement through the decadent scenery of the narrative. Or you’re in a leaky boat on a foggy night – crossing an ocean of circumstance to a perhaps unknown destination – maybe just some light in the distance. Maybe shoals of destruction. I guess it depends on the kind of story being told – but the main thing is – you are in the thick of it! You forget you are an audience. You forget you are you. (at least in the best circumstances – in the best stories).

So – what is it that happened? What is the story that IS happening? What is the story you want to tell? Let’s say it’s a story about lost love (always a popular theme) – some kind of a lament or a prayer or even a rueful laugh about missed opportunities. The narrative’s introduction – the geometry of the story – hovers in space – where it says in brilliant yellow letters: “Something happened here”.

What happened? “I lost this lover”.

Why? How?

Who was she (or he or whatever) that you have now lost?

Who are YOU?

Why should I care?

Why do YOU care?

So… for me at least – to help answer those kinds of questions and bring some life to the story – I almost always have some kind of a collection of found objects and artifacts  that create for me a Back Story. This is not necessarily a “hook” or any kind of a phrase I may actually use in the song. It’s the staging, the scenery, ambient lighting, and the player’s psychological report – that develops in my mind before and during the actual lyric writing process. The lyrics coalesce around that back-story. For me – the Back Story is the touchstone – that part I can go back to again and again to help navigate my way through the thickets of the narrative. It should be reliable – like the North Star. It should have its own integrity. It can change – but at least at the start it shouldn’t flicker around too much (unless perhaps THAT CONSTANT CHANGE – that flickering – is the point of the story – is at the root of the intention of the song.)

So… almost unconsciously I find that I think about all the small incidentals that surround the protagonist in the story, that lead up to or away from the event itself (a breakup or whatever) and the incidentals that surround the narrator of the story too – the “me” in other words. Am I lamenting? Am I waiting to be hanged? Am I just tired? Am I stupid and obviously not understanding some salient point that the story is conveying to the listener – in other words is the “joke” on me? Have I moved on to a new love? Will I make the same mistakes again and again? Have I learned something? Does anyone learn anything? The back-story floats in the back of my mind and inflects how the actual lyrical story transpires.  Again, I may not incorporate much if any of these tidbits into the song’s actual lyrics – But that’s not really their purpose. For me their purpose is to keep me true to the story – to guide me so I don’t wander off somewhere in the telling of it. These little bits of information help add dimension in the telling of the story – they help but make it more real for me – and hopefully more real for you too. The back story may contain minutia like: The lost love’s name – or her pet name (“butterfly”)  – or particulars about her appearance – especially some slight flaw or imperfection – (for it’s our flaws that give our characters more dimension – that make them more real – more believable – perfection is kind of boring).

Incidentals like: what kind of car she drove (hatchback? Beater? Alpha Romeo?); what’s spilled on its upholstery; where did she leave her ratty old forest green wool coat with the hole in its left pocket that’s filled with flecks of tobacco? What about the smarting hopeful smell of fresh paint on the porch; the sad sepia-yellowed lampshades in the dim living room where you and she used to make love; the dishes in the sink… Maybe there’s something she wrote in the dust of the mirror in the hall – something happy or sad or something about goodbye…. the catch in her voice… the face of the calico cat who stares up at you while you read the lover’s farewell note… the ticking of a clock. Cars and traffic washing by in the street outside. Your own breath. You are building a moment – an event – unfolding an event of some kind. It should feel as if it is occurring for the very first time in that moment of telling it – in this moment – it should be real and immediate and whole for you – no matter where in time the actual story takes place – the past – the present – or some distant future.

In the telling of the story it is happening RIGHT NOW! It’s happening to YOU right now – right as you tell it – right as you sing it – it’s as big a surprise to you as it is to anyone else – and with a little bit of luck it is happening right now to your surprised listener as well. So… sometimes that’s the goal. You are creating (for three minutes or whatever) an entire world where something happened – where something IS happening. You are plunging, immersing yourself and your listener into the atmosphere and immediacy of a real world, no matter how fantastic a world it may be – submersing into that world’s weather – its terrain – its topography – its flora and fauna – its emotions – its uncertainty.

You and your listener are going on a journey. It may be into outer space. It may be around the block. It may be to your lover’s red hair or the back of her neck. The minutia of a coherent back story can really help you paint that picture – replete with its oceans and canyons and dry, dry deserts – that picture that says “Something Happened Here”.

© 2017 Don Nelson

check out Don Nelson’s SoundCloud page here.

Thank You!

23331277_1422661977851110_5395978313469090643_oFirst of all I’d like to say thanks to all the participants from the October Columbus Songwriting Workshop!

I recently was asked what the classes were about from someone that did not know much about our workshop. I want to work hard this next time around to make sure I really push out the classes that our great instructors are putting out there really just to educate everyone about what we are doing.

Here’s a small re-cap of what you missed if you did not attend.  Jon Elliott and Nick D’Andrea (aka Doc Robinson) lead a great workshop on Co-Writing and talked about how they came up with some of the songs on their record Deep End which is available on vinyl to purchase here. I liked the idea of, and I am paraphrasing here, “the song is the winner” in a co-write. In other words, take all ego out and allow the song to be the thing that prevails out of the session.

T.Wong led a multi faceted discussion on songwriting, producing, stage presence, and even went into some music business. The class was really well thought out and the take away for me was to know who you are, and know where you want to go, and that will take you far in this line of work. I also liked that he talked about allowing your energy to dictate how you are going to write. Don’t write a love song if you’re just not in that mood. Check out T.Wong’s latest project The Upside Down along with his many other projects here.

Bringing back a favorite class was Billy Zenn. The “Making the Best out of your Open Mic Experience” class went through all aspects of the open mic experience and even included a real PA, mic, and. monitor set up so people could get tips on the spot on how to dial in their sound. Check out Billy’s sounds at a show soon and on his website here.

I want to really ask people what they want to hear from us, because with out YOU we would have no us. What instructors (locally/nationally) would you like to see? What classes would you like to see? Be detailed in your responses we really want to hear from you. If you are not getting our mailers (including our monthly songwriting tip) please sign the mailing list here to stay with the community.

March 24th is the next workshop with featured instructor Megan Palmer. Right now we have a super super cheap early bird discount here. Also, we will be having an informal Song Sharing Circle not unlike the one we did at the recent workshop. This will be December 5th at Andy Shaw’s house and it’s completely free to attend. Please RSVP on our Facebook Event here.
Thanks again!
Chris – Columbus Songwriting Workshop founder

–Thanks also to Donatos, Six String Concert Series, Songs At The Center, Columbus Reggae Alliance, The Jazz Arts Group, and all of our partners!–

Chelley Tackett on Songwriting

Hey everyone! Today we wanted to leave you with some quick songwriting inspiration from Ohio’s own Chelley Tackett. She lives in Nashville now and works as a songwriter and was nice enough to chat with us at the taping of the Songs At The Center. Check her website out here. Without further adieu here she is. And don’t forget to Pre-Register for the October 28th workshop for that discounted rate.

CSW October Promo Video 2017

If you have never come to a Columbus Songwriting Workshop please check this video out it will give you a great idea of the community and culture of our bi-annual workshop. Please feel free to share this video. The youtube link is here.

October 28th 2017 Next Workshop

We are gearing up for the next workshop. Check out the updated Instructor and Classes pages. If you would like to be a sponsor of our event please email c(.)topherjames(@)Gmail(.)com. Stay tuned for more! Also, we were previously having issues with PayPal so if you tried to sign up recently and it did not work please try again today on the Pre-Register page. As of now, the front page Pre-Register button still does not work so please go to the Pre-Register page to sign up.

Film Forge

We wanted to give a special thanks to the team over at Film Forge. These guys are super nice and talented and we’re working on some video with them currently. If you are in need of great video work please check them out HERE. Also they have a Facebook Page.

Thank You Thank You!

Thank you to all who came out to our most recent workshop on March 18th. The quality of talent was immense, the focus and drive from attendees was prevalent, and the community was really strong. We love seeing people connect and that’s what this workshop is all about. The workshop is not only about writing better, getting better business sense, but about the people involved. Relationships are a huge part of what makes this music thing work and we want to be facilitators of that. That’s one reason we are putting on our Columbus Songwriting Workshop Open Mic April 19th at Rambling House 6p-8p. This open mic will help re-connect the community around the workshop as well as be an open environment where people can share what they’ve been working on. Instructors, attendees, and people interested in attending can come to this informal (and FREE) event to check out what we’re all about. Again, thanks for coming out and we hope to see you again. Also thanks to our partners below.

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Bejae Fleming Songwriter Tip

I met Bejae a few years ago and we’ve crossed paths a ton in the songwriting scene ever since. She’s an amazing writer and performer and has many accolades but I will get to the point. So we’re doing monthly songwriter tips and typically they are short, but sometimes songwriters have more to say. I wanted to start including those on our website. Without further adieu here is Bejae:

Maybe I should start by telling you where I’m coming from as a songwriter. I’ve always been a performing songwriter, so my goal is to write songs that I like. I’m not trying to write pitchable songs or any of that, I’m trying to write songs that I like enough to play a lot, songs that speak to me, songs I can feel. I think it’s important, both as a songwriter and as someone evaluating advice about songwriting, to know who you’re writing for and why.

Matt Monta wrote, in a previous newsletter, about the importance of writing your ideas down so that you don’t forget them, which is about the best advice anybody could give. I write my ideas down for another reason, too. For me, the hardest part of writing, really the hardest part of most any project, is starting. If I already have a place to start, I’m so much better off. It’s easier for me if, when I sit down to write by intention instead of inspiration, I start by looking through my fragments until the part of my brain that does the writing sees something it likes, something it finds interesting, intriguing.  There’s my place to start and, for me, it’s much easier than starting from nothing. I’ve sometimes developed fragments that are years old. I don’t know where they came from, what I was thinking about or referring to at the time, but if the part of my brain that does the writing finds a fragment it likes and finds relevant somehow, and if I intentionally work on that fragment a little bit, sometimes my writer’s brain feels like it just takes off without the rest of me. My partner/bass player, Jackie, tells me that I get a faraway look on my face, that I seem to be distracted and not fully present. She has learned to recognize what’s happening (and to put up with it). Whatever else I might be doing, whatever else I’m supposed to be doing, the part of me that writes is busily working to solve the puzzle of what happens next and how to say it.

“What happens next?” is the question the writing part of me seems to like. I was telling my friend, TJ George, about this and he told me that the question the writing part of him likes best is, “What happened before, how did I get here?” This was a revelation to me, that someone else asks a different question. I think you get a different result, go in a different direction, when you ask a different question. It shakes things up, gives the writer-brain a different puzzle to solve, and that part of me really likes to solve puzzles.

A songwriter friend in Iowa once gave me this piece of advice: Don’t sit down intending to write a song, sit down intending to write a line or two.  Set aside ten minutes to write. Sitting down to write a song can be daunting; sitting down to goof around with words for ten minutes is not.  Most anybody can find time for that, even if you have a busy schedule. It’s even easier, even less daunting, if you have that batch of fragments on little scraps of paper that Matt Monta talked about. And, sometimes, ten minutes, a line of two, is all it takes to fire up the part that writes and makes it eager to answer the right question.

 I moved to Cbus not knowing anyone. I felt uprooted, isolated and not at all creative. I met the Shaws at a venue in my neighborhood and started an email conversation with Andy Shaw about songwriting, performing, gigs, gear, all sorts of things.  That led to my song Hotwired, one of my favorites of my songs. It was the interaction with another very good and very kind songwriter that brought me that song.

Jim Shaw asked me to write a song for a website he was working on to enable young kids to learn elementary facts more easily.  I was very quick to respond, “I don’t write children’s songs.” And, I don’t, at least I never had before. I didn’t even think I wanted to write a children’s song, it’s not my thing, you know? But, I asked myself this question: “What would I write about if I did write a fact-based children’s song?” And, before I knew it, the part of me that writes was busy figuring that out. I wrote a song called Third Planet from the Sun. I’ve never performed it, but I like it and it’s very much in my style of writing and playing, though it is much more playful than what I usually write. It was useful for me to discover/remember that playful part of me as a writer. I just have to ask myself the right question. Sometimes I do that by accident.

 I went to a songwriter group that Rob Maccabee hosts once a month at the Tree Bar. Zach Whitney was there and played a song he wrote that day. That day! He wrote it and played it on the same day! I tend to be slow and plodding as a writer and even slower when it comes to working up new songs. But, Zach did all of that in one day and I asked myself the question, “Why don’t I do that?” And the next day, I did. I didn’t finish my song in a day, and I still haven’t really worked it up, but I got a good ways through it on that first day, way far enough along that the part of me that writes didn’t want to let it go.

I tell you these stories of my interactions with other songwriters as examples of how important community is for my creativity. We’re lucky in Cbus to have lots of opportunities to hang out with other songwriters, to hear their songs, to share our own, to talk about songwriting, to be inspired. I’m grateful to all the people who take the time to organize and host these events. These opportunities are hugely important, very useful and I feel like I always leave with more creative energy than I came in with.