10 Thoughts on Songwriting from 40 Years of Experience

We are pleased to offer you 10 thoughts on songwriting from someone worthy of learning from.  Ian Tamblyn won 2010  English Songwriter of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards.  He has been songwriting for 40 years which have resulted in 32 albums.  If you’d like to be as successful and prolific, read on (in his own words)…

1.  Songs are kind of out there in the ether; dial into the signal reception.
2.  Songs are also gifts that can simply arrive, however it is best to attenuate yourself for the reception of those gifts.  Be ready. Be prepared.   As part of being prepared I think the songwriter must become a very astute observer. This may be part of why or how a person takes on the conceit of becoming a songwriter in the first place.  If the gift should arrive, honour it, don’t ignore it, fall back to sleep, or say I’ll get back to it later. The bearer of the gift, perhaps called the Muse, is moody, and if you slough off the gift, the Muse will be less likely to offer the gift as readily the next time.
3.  Craft the gift. It seems to me the bearer of the gift also appreciates hard work and a dedication to craft.  Part of the attenuation to receive the gift the song, is to spend time on the craft of songwriting even when the Muse is elsewhere. At some point the craft driven song and the Muse gift song will dovetail with each contributing to the detail of the song.
4.  Set your song free by freewheeling. Once you have the nub of the song , set it free in your freewheeling mind , let it tumble around , let it find the best expression , the simplest , clearest way to express itself. In this freewheeling state you may find the best perspective, point of view and the balance between vagueness and specificity, the right words.
5.  Keep it simple stupid. When you come to actually write the song, you will have done the distillation of words in the freewheeling state, now write simply and clearly to the subject and emotional centre of the song. Don’t try to be smart- serve the song, and serve the story. In some cases, keep yourself out of the way.
6.  Complete the song. The creative act is like some other acts, once some part of it satisfied, it can often be abandoned. But getting off on a good first verse is not a complete song. When you have the musical form down, finish the song if you can because the state of mind you are in at the time will affect the story you are telling and the way you are telling it.  I think of a song as an illusion, the combination of words and music should intertwine and in some ways become invisible to each other and doing so take the listener and the singer of song to another level. How this happens remains a wonderful mystery, very much like the gift itself. However, it is the songwriter’s responsibility to perfect this illusion.
7.  To that end, balance vagueness and specificity. Don’t overwrite. Don’t use words that can break the illusion, words that are not musical, sonically dodgy, or not within the rubric of the song.  If you use the wrong word you are in danger of breaking the illusion of the song. I think the same applies musically. Of course there are exceptions but I think it is important to know the rules before you break them.
8.  Sing it in. When you have finished the song, sing it in. The process of singing in a song may bring out a smoother way of expressing a line, the simpler expression might come from the lizard brain, or it might come from the catalogue of songs that is already in your head. Let that happen and adjust.
9.  Take another look at the song. When you have served the song as you can ask yourself in all honesty, does this song give me energy or does leave wanting to find the nearest bridge? If the song lacks energy it is best to reassess. If you think the idea is good, regroup and come back to the song with a different take on it. Courage.
10.  Don’t worry if you find yourself writing the same song, work on the craft and the Muse will take notice.


Visit his S.A.C. Profile and listen to one of his beautiful songs: Click Here.


A song resurrected, “At the End of the Day.”

When I first heard the news that the Cherry Suede song “At the End of the Day” would be the latest featured video on the SAC homepage, I was both grateful and a little amused.

You see, this is one of those songs I like to call a “problem child”. For whatever reason, it was trouble from day one. But, both my co-writer Randy Scott and I feel that if we’re irresponsible enough to start an idea, we should be responsible enough to finish it. We do our best to complete most of the songs we begin. Not to mention the fact that it may have seemed a bit hypocritical to abandon a song whose focus was on commitment and devotion.

The ongoing struggle with this song began with its influences. I’m a big fan of Country music. At the time, I had been listening to both “Woman in Me”  and “Come on Over” by Shania Twain, repeatedly. One listen to title track from the former and “You’re Still the One” from the latter – and I was hooked. I wanted songs like that of my own. So the idea was born and I cut a rough demo.

RS, who is not the biggest fan of the Country genre, wasn’t as enthusiastic. “Isn’t Cherry Suede supposed to be a rock band? guitars, drums…”, he reasoned. But after a bit of a debate, we both agreed that a good song will win out, and we should give it a shot. So he began to write…and write…and write.

He first locked in on the title. “At the End of the Day”, an expression a good friend of ours often used. We are huge on titles. The sooner we come up with a title, the sooner a song starts to feel real. The rest of the lyric wasn’t so easy.

“I literally went through verse after verse, chorus after chorus, and nothing felt right” RS explains. “Once I had the idea in my head about commitment and devotion, I would think about relationships like my parents, who were, and still are together … I wanted to write something worthy of that, so I became very hard on myself … and my writing.”

Once we finally had a draft, we recorded the song at Le Studio, in Morin Heights, QC. Although the facility was probably most famous for a string of Rush albums, I was intrigued by the fact that much of “Woman in Me” was recorded there. That studio was truly a magical place and I miss it dearly. ( It also had fantastic coffee! )

Of course the first recording of the song was a false start. We couldn’t get the feel we were looking for and the melody just didn’t sit right. The sessions were scrapped and we put the song away for another time. It was only by chance during a later session that RS took a whole different approach to the melody. Suddenly, we felt like we were on the right track. A final demo came out of of those sessions, but, in the end, it still lacked finesse.

“At the End of the Day” laid dormant for years. That is, until one day, film director Sean Michael Beyer in Hollywood heard the demo buried on Myspace and insisted he licence it for his movie “Resurrection Mary.” We worked out the details and got to work.

Because of the film’s deadline, we had to move quickly. We produced the bed tracks via iChat in Ottawa while they were being recorded in LA. Once the basic tracks were cut, the guitars and vocals were finished on the road in West Virginia. The final mix was done at The Barbershop Studios in NJ by Jason Corsaro and the song was mastered at Sterling Sound, NY by UE Nastasi.

Total turnaround from locking in the deal to delivery of the song was about a week to 10 days.

The song ended up in both a dance scene and as final credits in the film.

We’ve since included the new version as a bonus track on our limited edition re-release of the first Cherry Suede album and it has become an audience favourite. We have countless stories of the song being used as a wedding song, along with heaps of other positive feedback.

“At the End of the Day” has seen yet another “rebirth” with our recent acoustic version. The “featured video” on the SAC page, was part of the development for a Cherry Suede: Up Close and Personal acoustic live show and web video series. The video cost us about $39 dollars to make (rental of 4 lights) and was edited by 16yr old filmmaker Andrew Barrie.

The spread of the acoustic version of “At the End of the Day”, along with our free music downloads, and the Cherry Suede: Up Close and Personal series has already led to talks of bringing the show to the UK in May.

It’s nice to see a song that, at its core, talks about commitment and devotion, prove it’s own message to us time and time again. Had we walked away from it and not finished the song, we would have missed the beauty of the whole journey. And in the end, isn’t that what all this is supposed to be about?

Thanks for listening.


Carmel Mikol says she found inspiration “In My Bones”

Canadian singer/songwriter Carmel Mikol is a storyteller, crafting songs with a provocative blend of truth, fiction and wit. The title track of her debut album “In My Bones” took First Place in the Folk Category of the Great American Song Contest, and is a testament to her mature, literary songwriting. Her songs have also been honoured in the International Singer/Songwriters Association Song Contest and Unisong Contest.  Here’s what she had to say about the award-winning track:

“As a writer I look out at the world from somewhere behind myself. I filter my work first through my personal experience, then through what I observe in others. I’m most interested in how people suffer – how we live through loss, fear and uninvited change. In My Bones, the title track of the album I released last year, discusses the negotiation between love and loss, two elements that seem to constantly accompany one another, tugging at us in opposing directions.

I wrote In My Bones while living at my family home on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. My father was dying of cancer and I was home to be with him. Facing a loss like that made me re-evaluate my core beliefs on just about everything. And In My Bones came out of that process. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever written to an Artists Statement and one of the few songs I never tire of singing.”

We asked Carmel a few questions about the song:

1.  It was very courageous of you to tap into such a fresh grief for this award-winning song.  How does it impact you when you hear it and when you perform it? Sometimes this song brings me directly back to those last days with my father. But usually I think about the broader perspective of the song: the idea that grief and loss of all kinds are a part of my life that I must accept and strive to understand.

2.  Did you ever get to play the song to your father?  If so, what memory do you have of this? Me father did get to hear the song when it was still new, although he never heard the album. As he was my first songwriting teacher (he helped me pen my first song when I was seven and worked through many more with me after that), his opinion of my work was very valuable to me. In My Bones got his nod of approval and that’s one of the reasons it became the cornerstone of my album.

3.  What do you hope listeners of this song will walk away with for their own life journey?
Everyday we are faced with decisions which will result in some measure of pleasure and some measure of pain. But there is so much wonder to be found in a life that is lived bravely, without inordinate fear of being hurt. I hope In My Bones inspires this kind of courage. And it’d be sweet if you walk away humming the melody too!

4.  What advice would you give other songwriters tapping into painful moments in their life for inspiration?
Don’t be afraid. Write through every stage. And get to the other side where you’ll be able to write other things again.

Hear the song and buy the album at www.carmelmikol.com/buy

Visit Carmel Mikol’s profile, read her bio and hear the song:  www.songwriters.ca/member/CarmelMikol

What comes first– the music or the lyrics?

Bryan Adams keeps a journal of lyrics.

On behalf of the Songwriters Association of CanadaHappy New Year! To kick off the new year, we thought we’d start a discussion to get your creative juices flowing.

Do you begin with music or lyrics when songwriting? The song “Yesterday,” by The Beatles began as a melody in Paul McCartney’s dreams.  It  then became “Scrambled Eggs,” before reaching it’s finished form.

For some, coming up with a melody is easier than the lyrics and vice versa for others.  We interviewed some esteemed Canadian songwriters and discovered there is no rule, only preferences.  Join the conversation by adding your preference below.

Bryan Adams: Usually it’s chorus or a verse idea. i keep a journal of lyrics which i go to occasionally when I’m stuck. sometimes there is a line in there that can inspire something, generally it’s from jamming, just jam a few cords and sing something over it…it seems to work for me.

Joan Besen: Different every time.

Blair Packham: Ideally, both at once. Failing that, lyrics first. I WISH the music came first and then brilliant lyrics followed but it doesn’t work that way for me.

Greg Stephens: Usually, the music.

Marc Jordan: Music.

Joel Plaskett: A little bit of both.  Usually a phrase and melody appear at the same time and I get rolling from there.

Ron Hynes: For me it’s almost always the lyric. Sometimes I’ll get both at the same time but mostly It’s lyric and then the struggle to find the melody.

Jim Vallance: For me, the music comes first, although occasionally I’ll start with a fragment of lyric, like a title or phrase.

Emm Gryner: Music slightly before the lyrics. or all at once!