Timmy Riordan is a songwriter who runs "The Fearless Songwriter Challenge," an online songwriting challenge where the idea is to write one song a day for seven days. After participating in the February 2013 Challenge I wanted to talk with him about where this idea came from as well as his own songwriting process.
He is a master at writing songs quickly and in a disciplined way. Any songwriter who regularly gets stuck should listen to what he has to say. I was intrigued that some of his advice was ideas I already used (his example of Gilda Radner and Bill Murray, and placeholders, are two such examples) while many of his ideas had never occurred to me (doodles, changing your location and more.) I believe that even the most seasoned writer can incorporate some of his ideas to good advantage. You're never too old to learn new tricks.
You can check out his CD "New York's Ignoring Me" at CD Baby right here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/timmyriordan
So what got you into songwriting in the first place?
The short answer is I was about 3/4s of the way through a creative writing class, having spit out another page long story that I couldn't figure out how to grow into the 20 or 30 pages and basically thinking to myself, if I could only make this rhyme I'd have written a song.
Okay, you just woke up, you have an idea for a song in your head--what happens next? Give us a little bit about your songwriting process?
The fastest road to a song for me may not be enlightening for anyone. I sit down, muddle out some lyrics in 10 to 15 minutes. Grab a guitar, fire up my recorder and sing. Many shambling, rickety songs are born this way, as well as a few where-did-THAT-come-from-in-a-good-way!?! songs. I think of this as "party" songwriting. It's the type of song that gets made up when sitting with a bottle of wine and a few friends messing around. It's engaged, exciting and risky songwriting, which makes it fun. It dispenses with all the fat and chaff of the process. No staring into space for "The Line" or "The Note." It's aimed at getting into "the zone," or "the flow" where we do our best work. When I'm fully engaged, this is the approach that pushes me to my edge, sometimes beyond it. It's how I write better than I can.
At times I'm more deliberate--and then I use the tools I've learned from Pat Pattison. His "Writing Better Lyrics" is essentially my bible. Object writing is great for priming my "writer's brain." Putting together a worksheet of possible rhymes can give me an arsenal to build my stories from (and it helps me come up with rhymes more extemporaneously later). These approaches are both kind of technical and tend to wake up the critical thinking part of my brain though so they can be dangerous for my creative process.
Brainstorming worksheets, or word maps where you write a word in the middle of the page and then build a web of connected ideas out from that word is probably my go to for priming my songwriting. I like like these webs because they're great for creating similes and metaphors. I also love this process because it invites or tendency to create connections between any two things it sees together. So if the you have "zebra" and "cruise ship" on a piece of paper your brain will figure out a way for those two things to make sense together. Heck, Lyle Lovett's already written a song about horses and boats: "If I had a Boat."
Are you a "words first" or a "music first" type of writer?
I veer straight towards the words, though I'm aiming to work on music first more. The last time Peter Mulvey spoke about his process he said, he had stopped writing words first. He made a good argument for music first, after all, it's songs we write. I love great lyrics but it's striking to me how fast I'll dismiss a song if I don't enjoy the melody.
If you're stuck on a song what do you do for inspiration? Do you ever get writers block and if so how do you deal with it?
I don't believe in writer's block**, as such. There are times when I feel unengaged, indolent, and just plain bored with everything I've ever written, or ever will write, ever. But if I've committed to write a song, that's no excuse for not writing. Elizabeth Gilbert says in her TED talk that her physicist father never got Physicist's block.
But just because I should be professional, have grit, and keep writing doesn't make it easier to face the days when writing is eating paste followed with refreshing Robitussin. Dry spells happen, plateaus happen. Sometimes that means it's time to find something else to focus on for a while. As long as I'm not committed to writing at that point, I'll do something else. Find a new hobby. Ideally see some new part of the world--which doesn't necessarily mean traveling to Paris or Siberia.
What's harder is being 'stuck' in the middle of a song. The 'next' line isn't coming. Sometimes, since my thoughts are a bit repetitive, that means I need to write down whatever thought is in my head and create space for the next thought. Common reasons for not writing a thought down include, nausea, embarrassment, the conviction your mom, friends, girlfriend, sister, boss and personal trainer wouldn't like it (or would think it's stupid), that creates issues you don't want to deal with, or that your thought is "this sucks" or "I don't want to do this" I write it down. I feel better. I create space for different thoughts.
Sometimes writing the word, "deeper" or a blank piece of paper and starting anew can help.
Sometimes a fresh piece of paper can help all on it's own.
A change of venue or perspective can help when I get stuck. I feel like often getting up and moving around will help shake something loose from my mind, even if that walk is as mundane as a stroll to the bathroom. Sometimes I can be too tired or need a break, so I quit for a little while. (I mostly try to write in the morning so I shouldn't be tired but it can happen).
Sometimes it's helpful to start drawing whatever is on my mind. Doodles or sketches--mapping out the images related to the song can give me new perspective.
Sometimes stealing a line from somewhere will do the trick.
Another, important trick is leaving a place holder for what I don't know want to continue with what I do know. I think of this as the Murray/Radner method. Supposedly Bill Murray and Gilda Radner did this when they were writing for SNL leaving notes in the script like "GIlda does something funny."
Sometimes making something bad happen in the story helps--one of Kurt Vonnegut's story telling rules is something to the effect of: do mean, awful, cruel, rotten things to your characters.
Inverting/reversing a concept or line of the song will work wonders. (Once I was writing a song about a bank robbery and the characters just refused to get in the car with the robber--making that character the robber instead fixed everything).
After all these years, my most important tool is a commitment, and accountability to finish songs I start. The accountability has to be exterior to me, I can rationalize blowing off any commitment I've created alone. But if I've promised a friend I'll deliver a song by the end of the day and we're both working from the same prompt I'll write and record a song by midnight.
**I also don't believe in monsters under my bed anymore but until I turn on the lights, I am nervous when I wake up at night.
How much time do you generally spend on a song? Do you tweak a song for weeks or give it a day and then stop?
Pat Pattison says "90% of Dylan's best writing is not his best 10%." It's something Dylan and I have in common. I write a lot of songs fast with the aim of getting at my best 10%. For the most part, there's sense futzing over the other 90% so I don't.
The songs that are already 90% or more finished also don't necessarily require a lot of work tweaking to get them performance ready so I'll start to perform them out. Performance tempers a song. Lines change and disappear. What's working or not working becomes obvious, and gets changed. It's often my perception that a song I've been singing for a year appeared in the world exactly as I'm singing it. Then I'll look back at an initial recording, or set of lyrics and see how much things have changed.I'm at a point where I "wood shed" my songs more. I Labor over them and see how I can mess them up and maybe make them better. "Better" is an imprecise word , what I mean by better in this case is focus more on interior rhyme, work on creating melody's and rhythm's that are outside my habits, and to reveal unexpected moments that serve the arc of the song. My impression is the way to get at this is through craft, a labor, and a willingness to look stupid.
Can a song change after you've played it in front of an audience?
Yes. I feel like that's part of my process and it's usually not conscious. Things sing differently than I write them down. Mary Gauthier speaks of audience response as a measure of a song; she's looking for awed silence. But then, equally important is your own reaction as a performer. Are there lines you shrink around or blush over when you're singing them to the audience? Those need to be changed. I do think it's harder to change a song after it's been recorded, but my favorite artists approach many of their songs in much the way a jazz musician approaches a song, they always play and explore.
Can you name a few of your favorite songwriters, why they are important to you and what you have learned from them?
Peter Mulvey is probably the first Singer Songwriter I fell in love with. Uber-smart, existential lyrics, a great guitarist, and one my favorite live performers. I think my favorite lesson from him had to do with Shooby Taylor--which boiled down to, believe in what you're doing and make mistakes. He also mentioned a quote from Ani Difranco which I can't find anywhere and he no longer has any memory of repeating--supposedly someone asked her what song she'd keep if should could only keep one; her response? "Fuck it. I'll write more."
They Might Be Giants I've loved since about the 6th grade, long before I started writing songs, but I think their eclecticism and absurdity is often reflected in the way I approach my writing.
Jeffrey Foucault puts together some of the most poetic lyrics I've found in the world today. He also turned me onto John Prine.
John Prine makes the absurd profound like no other songwriter, ever. (Well, maybe Randy Newman). He bends language in unbelievable ways--"he was just a good-ol boy, a real florescent light/ Cried pennies on Sunday morning, laughed nickels on Saturday night… " from "Billy the Bum" is a great example. How do you describe a character as a florescent light and keep it? And it works! I'm in awe.
Gillian Welch, and Dave Rawlings write lean songs that feel old and worn like a blanket. Jeff Foucault turned me on to Gillian calling "Time; the Revelator" the bravest songwriting he knew.
Elliot Smith wrote some of the most achingly beautiful melodies and harmonies I've heard.
And I haven't even mentioned Tom Waits. Josh Ritter's another one, I could go on.
What are a few of your influences outside of songwriting--that is, who or what has inspired you to write songs that has nothing to do with music? (Film, books, people, etc.)
I love Tim O'Brien--"The Things They Carried" is one of the most simple, plain-spoken, and affecting stories I know. I've read it four or five times and new bits have jumped out at me each time. Different aspects of the characters. New Details I hadn't noticed. The way the story wrestles with the idea of "Truth" is right up my alley."
Comic books are a huge influence--they were nearly all I read from the time I was 12 to about 22. I often think of lines, or verses from songs as comic book frames. Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics" should be required reading for every storyteller. The theories and ideas he talks about can apply to any form of story-telling.
I just recently read "What Are You Looking At?" which is an overview of modern art movements from about 1850 on, (though starting a little earlier with Delacroix, for reference). The discussion of The Impressionists in that book makes me wonder how you would apply their loose, colorful brush strokes to songwriting.
Has your songwriting process changed at all over the years? Any surprises?
This a great question and I'm not sure if I have a great answer. I feel like there was the learning to write songs process which took maybe 5 or 6 years of just banging away and doing whatever I could to get something down on the page. I started a song circle early on to keep me accountable and that helped a lot to keep me working. That and the naiveté that anything I was writing was even vaguely worthwhile. During that period my focus was on writing a song a week, and discovering, mostly I wrote a song between the hours of 8AM and 1PM on a Sunday afternoon before the songwriting group started.
Then there was a good solid 2 to 3 year period where the group wasn't meeting and I wasn't writing.
Then I got fed up and around 2006 and challenged myself to 7 songs in 7 days, which would eventually become "Fearless Songwriting Weeks." Here I was surprised that I liked most of what I wrote that week, and was fairly blown away that I wrote one of my best songs ever.
I feel like right now I'm transitioning again. I want to focus on specific aspects of the craft and especially on melody and harmony and stretching away from the comfortable tire-treads of my writing habits.
The thing I'm most consistently surprised by is how important community and accountability are to my songwriting process. I don't write without them.
Any advice for new songwriters?
Write as much as possible, finish the songs you write, and join or start a songwriting community. Those are the things that have helped me a lot. The hardest thing about starting, to paraphrase Ira Glass, is that we have well developed taste when we start but our skills have a long way to go. Our tastes can make it hard to allow ourselves to write.** So the important thing is to allow yourself to write, a lot. You'll hone your skills as you go.
**This doesn't necessarily get easier. Once you've written something "good" it can be hard to allow yourself to write "badly" again.
What is the Fearless Songwriter Challenge? Can anyone join?
The Fearless Songwriting Challenge is open to anyone who wants to join in. The goal of the challenge is take a week to set aside whatever inhibitions you have and write a song everyday for 7 days. I aim to write my songs in 45 minutes or less. The time limit is important. It helps to give you laser focus on the goal rather than the writing. It's a training program to help you lean how to destroy your censors and gremlins and mean ol' voices in your head. Ostensibly, someone who's never written a song before could join in and benefit from the experience. Practically, I think it's important to have written a few songs and be relatively comfortable playing your instrument and singing at the same time. If you're willing to sing a cappella there's nothing to stop you from driving in as a complete beginner. There's always reasons not to do something, I encourage people to ignore these reasons.
And what is "The Song Bomb"?
For the Song Bomb I write 28 songs in February and invite 28 songwriters to pace me through the process by each writing one song using the same prompt I do on their own day. It's happened four years so far and last year we used it to raise money to start a Guitars in the Classroom program in Boston. It's been a really cool experience. Many of the songs on my latest album are from The Song Bomb. Ellis (Delaney) wrote Royalty to Me during the first Song Bomb. It's a song for her Grandmother and it's on "Evidence of Joy." The opening track from Girlyman's last album was a Song Bomb song. There' are probably half a dozen other artist's that have gotten keepers from the project which is very cool.
So what's next for Timmy Riordan?
I'm focusing in on how to make these projects and challenges more useful for people and looking for more secrets to help people find and surpass their edges. That and a lot more songwriting.