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.