The incomplete songwriter: a self-critical look


the Previous, April 1996 (photo by Andrew Eckert)

Today, while I was playing guitar, I decided to fire up the old iMac** in order to see if I had any files of lyrics from the Previous, the band I was a part of in college. I had found a folder last week in the basement that contained some lyrics, posters, letters and such, and I wanted to see if there were any others on the computer. There weren’t, but I did have several years worth of my own attempts at songwriting stored there.

Sitting there with my guitar, I began opening files from as early as 2001. Some songs had chord notations, but most of them were just verse. I couldn’t remember half of the songs at all, and there were others where I could only remember how the chorus was sung. Most of the songs are incomplete.

* * * * *

Looking at those songs served as a painful reminder that, for me, songwriting has always been very difficult. I get a lot of pleasure out of being creative, but I’m rarely happy with the results. Off the top of my head, here is how I would grade myself on some random elements of the songwriting process:

  • Coming up with guitar parts: A-
  • Coming up with a melodic hook or two: B+
  • Coming up with a lyrical hook or two: B
  • Completing the first verse: C
  • Completing the chorus: B-
  • Completing the second verse: D-
  • Song construction/completion: D
  • Writing “good” lyrics: C-
  • Intros/outros: B

There are some interesting issues that I’ve been thinking about, relative to the subject of my own songwriting. I’ve always said that I felt confident in my ability to write music, but that I struggled with lyrics. However, looking at the list above, it’s somewhat obvious that there are a lot of areas where I’m deficient.

One major issue that causes a lot of problems for me is that I have a severely overactive internal censor. The censor works overtime in a couple of different ways. For one thing, I’m always wary of borrowing too many ideas from another songs. Sometimes I think that I’m too wary of this, and I think that it stems from the fact that, in the early days, I wrote music that was completely derivative of what was popular at the time. My guitar-playing (and songwriting) was in its infancy, and I didn’t have many musical tools to work with. As I began to branch out, with regard to both what I listened to and what I was able to do with the guitar, the need to censor myself began to lessen, but the habit of over-censoring myself is one that has been very difficult to break ever since.

The problem with too much self-censorship is that one begins to kill off ideas before they can be tinkered with, reworked, or fleshed out. While many great songwriters and songwriting teams record their ideas and jams, in order to cull the good bits and use them to write a song, I tend to try to work linearly; that is, I come up with an idea, decide if it’s “good,” and then work on it until I reach a stopping point. That stopping point may be time, frustration, fatigue, interruption, or something else, but it’s rarely because the song is complete. Additionally, I usually do not record what I’ve come up with – regardless of what I think about it – free of judgment. Over the course of an hour, I might have ten musical ideas, reject five of them, forget two others, and run into a brick wall with the other three. In the end, I have a fraction of the material that I could have had. I’ve lost many potentially good ideas this way, and regretted it later.

Some of what I’m writing here is about not recording my ideas, and that is simply laziness and a lack of focus. However, it ties in with the self-censorship issue, because it’s all part of an even larger problem.

* * * * *

The major problem that I have with my own songwriting is a lack of confidence in my abilities. I also do not like my own voice, which has killed a lot of recordings for me. The lack of confidence leads directly to several behaviors that are detrimental to my songwriting process and my enjoyment of the experience:

  • Over-censorship.
  • Not taking the time to record my ideas, either through written notation or via a sound recording.
  • Giving up on a work in progress before it’s finished (and never picking it up again).
  • Periods of dormancy, where I don’t try because “I’m not a good songwriter anyway.”
  • Attempting to write more interesting and challenging music to make up for my struggling lyric-writing skills. Most of the time, this only increases the level of difficulty for writing lyrics that work with the music, and usually ends with an incomplete song.

If I am going to have any success with, and enjoy the process of, songwriting, I need to address some of these issues. I need to work smarter. (I also need to “lighten up” a bit.) It is my hope that having a dedicated workspace for writing and recording music in my home will make it easier to reverse some of my mental and behavioral inhibitions about the songwriting process.

* * * * *

** Note: I recently set up my old iMac (2006, duo-core processor, 150GB hard drive) again. It has been largely neglected since I bought my new one last December, mainly because it was suffering from terrible performance issues.

Earlier in the summer, I was toying with just wiping the hard drive and reinstalling the OS. However, a week or two ago I decided to try removing some files and programs, with the idea that it was simply bogged down with (what is now) unnecessary stuff. So I trashed World of Warcraft and all of my addons, about 50GB of music, and some other files that I no longer need. When I was done with that, I started up a couple of applications, Safari and Microsoft Office, that had been giving me problems. I didn’t expect too much – these are applications that had taken a minute or more to open previously, but lo and behold, they opened within a reasonably short time!

I would like to continue to record music with that computer. While my new iMac is in the main part of the apartment and gets the bulk of my attention, the old one is in a back bedroom along with my guitars and amps. It’s a relatively quiet area, and I am trying to get it organized so that the environment is more conducive to playing and recording.


One Comment on “The incomplete songwriter: a self-critical look”

  1. Ryan says:

    Got the same problem, man. Start playing for people, and if they think you’re good, it’ll help you get over yourself : )

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