by Blair Packham, SongStudio Program Director
I recently ran into a songwriter who told me proudly, “I’ve written over a thousand songs.” This writer is talented. I’ve heard her songs, and I remember them as well-crafted and passionately performed. What I don’t remember are any of the actual songs. As I recall, her performance left me feeling vaguely impressed, but crucially, I didn’t feel moved, touched, inspired or any other emotion from listening. I didn’t feel like crying or laughing, and I didn’t connect with the songs, and I didn’t particularly want to hear them again. But—and this is also important—they weren’t crappy, not at all. They were pretty good ideas, executed quite well, with most of the “rules” of songwriting followed, and then they were sung with great emotion. In fact, the passion they were performed with seemed disproportionate to the things being sung about. In other words, the singer seemed awfully upset about that, I dunno, table or that cup of coffee or the fact that “you were late” or “the sky is blue,” or whatever it was…It just seemed to me, the (not-so-casual) listener, that the singer was trying to sell me something. She was trying to make me feel something that just wasn’t there in the songwriting and, ultimately, it felt somehow dishonest.
This songwriter, by the way, went on to tell me that she had a two-week trip to Nashville planned, where she intended to meet up with a bunch of other songwriters, and together, they were going to write “a thousand more songs!”
Now, I admire her work ethic, and her ambition, but…it seems to me that the world already has too many songs that no one will likely ever hear (no one other than the writers themselves, or their friends and families, or maybe other songwriters at an open mike).
If I had been asked for my advice, I’d say this: the only songs that matter are the ones that help people feel or think. Writing a lot of songs can undeniably help you become a better songwriter, but the quantity in and of itself is immaterial. (And it might even make you look bad: crowing “I’ve written a thousand songs!” to somebody who then thinks, “And I haven’t heard of any of them?!” can’t help.)
Further, if I’d been asked, I’d suggest that this songwriter take the best five or ten songs from that thousand, and really work them over. Make them say exactly what she wants them to say. Make them engaging. Find the best part and make more of it. Make them emotionally-rich, without vocal histrionics, self-indulgent imagery, too-long intros, trippy guitar solos, and so on. A great song should survive—and thrive—without any production.
Quality over quantity: it’s a simple concept that directly relates to what we do as songwriters. We are artists, not factories. We make something out of nothing.
Make your songs count.