If you play local shows, chances are you’re familiar with a really boring local band. Maybe they're motivated about booking and serious about rehearsing, so they sound fine and play all the gigs, but their material just doesn’t do anything for you. From song to song, these guys don’t have much variety. If you’ve heard one of their songs, you’ve heard them all. You don’t want to be that band, am I right?
When a band’s original songs are homogenous, that’s on the songwriter. There’s a good chance the band’s main writer always writes on an instrument, and his or her songs are limited by that. Falling into ruts as a player will keep your songwriting stuck in those same ruts. Fortunately, there are simple practices you can establish to keep your ideas fresh and avoid becoming That Band.
1. When an idea strikes, write it down
Moments of genius permeate our lives, especially when you’re hanging around with creative types. Your best source of inspiration could be your bandmates and friends and the conversations you have. You’ll also come across amazing phrases, words, and ideas just going through life. They could be spoken, they could be on church billboards, they could be on special weather announcements. When you hear these magical phrases, you start thinking like a songwriter, with thoughts like, "That reminds me of the time when…" These moments need to be memorialized and stored away for future use. Use a notebook, text them to yourself, spray paint them on the wall of your practice space – just don’t let them slip away.
2. Write your songs backwards
Many songwriters write from the instrument first, adding lyrics later – especially when they’re new to songwriting. This limits you somewhat to the facility you have on your instrument. Writing your lyrics first will add a new perspective and change the way you write your music. It may feel awkward at first, and you may not be sure of the quality you’re producing, but isn’t that where songwriters live each day? At worst, you’ll be taking a new angle and will produce something different from your norm. You’ll also become a stronger lyricist, since initially your words will need to stand on their own.
3. Make sure your band jams
Does your band regularly improvise as a group? If not, you’re missing out on a chance to capture wild ideas as well as improve everyone’s skills and teamwork. Make a point of improvising. If you’re not used to it, you can always start with an easy, prearranged form like a 12-bar blues. When you start jamming, have some form of tape rolling so you can capture the best moments. From there, it’s not hard to turn those moments into new songs (especially if you’ve followed my first two suggestions and have a backstock of cool lyrical ideas and potential song titles). Memorializing awesome grooves and moments of melodic inspiration will give your band a fresh sound and the sense that anything could happen at any time.
4. Relax the control
Songwriters, bandleaders, and creative people in general tend to be control freaks. This isn’t a bad thing. It takes some confidence, perfectionism, and even a little arrogance to make the musings of your imagination into reality. But for every headstrong songwriter, there’s another musician in the band who wants to step into the songwriting role and shyly approaches his bandmates with an idea for something new. If these players are good enough to be in your band, they’re good enough to help write the material.
It’s time to engage your whole band in the songwriting process and let all those ideas cross pollinate. Your drummer’s new beat could be the missing ingredient to that song you’ve been struggling with. The keyboardist’s solo idea might be the intro to your next great song. Free your bandmates from the songwriting backseat, and you’ll all be more invested in creating great music.
Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.