songwriting-habits-acquired-over-the-years

Songwriting Habits I’ve Developed Over the Years

artist, music, productivity, songwriting

My dad was one of the first people to start a blog. I think he started it in the early noughties, and it was called ‘Me and My Lada’ because we lived in Russia, and he owned a Lada. He wrote in it regularly, posting once or twice a week, but sometime after our move to Belgium, he stopped. I remember scouring through his blog a few years ago, and stumbling upon an article he wrote about how to write a song. It was the most popular article he had ever written, even though he’s not strictly a songwriter.

He disconnected the page a while ago, mostly because the number of comments on the post was overwhelming. Most of them seemed to be written by people who were disappointed that songs didn’t write themselves. That’s why I’m wary of writing articles like that, because no guide can guarantee you’ll get a song out of it, let alone a good song, but also because songwriting is highly personal. So, instead, I thought I’d just share some of the habits I’ve acquired over the years, and how I write songs. I don’t think I’m sharing anything particularly useful, but it might be interesting nonetheless.

1. I write about everything

My friends write very differently from how I write. I spill out onto the page – anything goes, no thought is too embarrassing and no confession too private to be made into a song. I process things quickly. After what turned out to be a traumatising date experience a few weeks ago, I woke up in the morning to pen down lyrics in bed, getting down a melody before brushing my teeth. That means that everything I write is constantly being worked into songs – things my friends say become notes on my phone when I go to the bathroom, if I have a melody, I’ll hum it into voice memos on my way home. I never sit on a lyric for more than a day or two. I don’t attach myself to my songs because I’m writing all the time. A lot of what I produce is utter shit because there’s so much of it. But I don’t take any of it personally, and none of my songs are special, even though all of them are

Other musicians can take weeks to write a song. One of my friends has a list taped to the wall above his bed with songs he has yet to finish, and some of them have been up there for months. He changes lyrics around, plays the songs until they jump off his fingertips. He never writes about things right after they happen – he gives his music breathing space so that the songs can come to life without being stifled by sentimentality.

2. I write regularly to fight writer’s block

I write regularly, aiming at one song per week. I have a friend who writes a song a day, although that sounds like complete insanity, and most of my friends write only when they feel they have something to say. I always feel like I have something to say, which I guess is the joy of being 22. But when I don’t write for a few weeks, coming back to an empty page feels much more daunting, like there’s a lot more at stake. This is why I sit myself down a few times a week, and this is why I write about everything – not enough earth-shattering stuff happens to me to write profound songs every week. I write regularly to keep my fear of failure at bay and to prevent writer’s block. The more I write, the surer I am I’ll still be able to write the day after.

3. It doesn’t matter whether I write lyrics or melody first… but I write lyrics first

Another question I often get as a songwriter is whether I write melody or lyrics first. This has changed several times throughout the years for me, and I think it’s nice to experiment with these things. I started writing songs when I was twelve and my English was pretty poor, but since I wanted to make it big and become world-famous, I refused to write in Dutch. At that time, nailing a good melody was much more important to me than having lyrics that made sense (and more often than not, they didn’t). Now, I know that writing is one of my strengths, and so is my urge to overshare, so lyrics have become increasingly more important, and I often write them first. When I’m having an emotional breakdown and want to process something in real-time, though, I grab a guitar and hum lyrics over a melody, doing both at the same time. In other words, the order in which I write is irrelevant. I have, however, been told that I should stop cramming so many words into my songs, and that good lyrics don’t make up for shitty melodies, which gave me some food for thought regarding this.

4. I always write songs down on paper

I never write lyrics on my phone, although I know that a lot of musicians these days do (although I’ve never met a folk musician who did). There’s something about writing on paper that I love, and I like that you can’t erase lyrics that don’t fit or move words around quite so easily. When I start singing the song, I always end up using some of the lyrics I had previously discarded. I also like seeing the process on the page, the struggle of my thoughts fighting their way out. I write down the chords I play, and if I don’t know the names of the chords, I’ll sketch the fretboard and write tabs. When I don’t do this, I can spend hours trying to remember what tuning I wrote something in, or what weird chord I used where.

5. I finish songs once I start them, even the ones I think are bad

I always finish songs once I start them. Some of my best songs I thought were average or even crap when I first wrote them. Had I decided they were worthless after writing the first verse, I never would have finished them, so I try to hold off judgement on my songs until I’ve sat on them for a week or two. I don’t know any musician who disagrees with me on this – we have all walked away from a songwriting session thinking we’ve written a hit to then listen back to the song and hate it. The opposite has also been true. I just know that when I don’t finish a song in one sitting (or at least its skeleton), I usually abandon it altogether.

6. I always record the songs I write on my phone

Once I’m finished, I record the song into voice memos on my phone. I didn’t always do that. I used to think that I wouldn’t forget the melodies to good songs. How wrong I was. Some melodies are good but not catchy, sometimes another song will worm its way into my ear, making me forget everything I’ve ever written, sometimes, the intricacies of a melody will be lost because I was too lazy to press record. So, now, I record it all. The bad and the good because you don’t know what’s bad or good until time’s passed. Some of my friends record a video of the song once they’re finished because it can also be used as song promo on Instagram later when you’re looking back to where a song originated.


These are just some of my songwriting habits, but everyone has their own way of doing it, and I’m sure you do too. Let me know if you have any questions, or if I’ve skirted over some important part of the process. I’d be happy to chat about this.

morning-routine

I Can’t Function Without My Morning Routine

artist, creativity, productivity

When COVID-19 hit, it was the first time in months that I didn’t have to jump out of bed in the morning, and didn’t have any structure imposed on me by the outside world. At first, I revelled in the freedom. I slept in, spent up to an hour in the morning scrolling through Instagram, washed my hair twice a week instead of every day. But after a while, I noticed my productivity plummet and my motivation wane. I spent hours reading books and watching Netflix, but little time creating. Then I stumbled upon the miracle morning routine.

Hal Elrod, the writer of ‘The Miracle Morning‘ – a popular productivity book – sets out these six steps to set you up in the morning: silence, affirmations, visualisation, exercise, reading, and scribing. If you do these things when you wake up (early in the morning!), he promised I’d feel happier and more energised throughout the day. Lacking any form of structure and being a big believer in the power of routine, I started building up my own.

Having a morning routine became a challenge, and I was set on keeping it fun. Whereas Hal Elrod’s system definitely works for most people, I adapted it to suit my own needs, and came up with a few extra ideas. If you’re getting sick and tired of this lockdown bullshit, you might get some ideas on how to spice up your life.


1. I set a challenge for myself



Firstly, don’t call it a ‘goal’. Calling it a ‘challenge’ tricks your mind into thinking you’re doing something fun and it reminds you you’re pushing your boundaries. Set a clear challenge for yourself of something you want to achieve, that you will steadily work on every morning for about twenty minutes. For me, it was writing 45,000 words. It has to be something that excites you and gets you out of bed. After writing for half an hour in the morning, I already started my day having done something productive, having worked towards a higher goal.


2. I write morning pages


Every morning, I need to do a brain dump and write down whatever pops into my head. Once I set all my concerns to paper, they stop taking up space in my head. It also helps to write down what I have to do throughout the day, set my intentions, and check in with myself.


3. I do yoga


I don’t always meditate in the morning, but doing yoga most days brings my focus back to the breath, gives me a break from my thoughts, and gets me moving. It’s also perfect for those who are working in a home office all day, so you get your stretches in before you sit down in front of a computer. Same for musicians who practice with the same posture all the time. While I wait for group classes to resume, I use Leslie Fightmaster‘s Youtube channel. It’s slightly more energetic than Yoga with Adriene, although she’s also class.


4. I visualise


For ten minutes every day, I visualise my perfect life while listening to a guided meditation. It helps me to stay motivated and focused, knowing what to focus my energy on, and what to-do’s don’t align with the bigger picture. It’s also a great way to start your day if you believe in manifestation.


5. I take a shower


Taking a shower is my quiet time. It’s time I use to reflect and prepare for the day ahead. In a time where many of us lack the motivation to go outside or put on pants, it helps to feel clean when you start the day and serves as motivation to change out of my pyjamas.


6. I eat breakfast and catch up on messages


After my shower, I make porridge or eat some yoghurt, while catching up on Facebook and Instagram messages. With most people communicating through social media during the pandemic, it helps to get this out of the way before I start work because otherwise, I spend hours obsessing about whether I forgot to reply to an important message. I never even get important messages, but it’s the FOMO that distracts me from getting anything worthwhile done.

deal-with-morning-pages

The Deal with Morning Pages

artist, creativity, music, songwriting

I remember the first week of my Songwriting Degree and my tutor saying: “Develop these two habits now: morning pages and artist dates.” At the time, I had never heard of Julia Cameron and ‘The Artist’s Way’ and didn’t have the slightest idea of what my teacher was talking about.

Artist dates seemed pretty straightforward. They were dates you went on with yourself, the artist. Like a trip to the cinema, or a stroll through the park. But morning pages had a much vaguer explanation. They were pages you wrote in the morning, but were they a diary? Were they lyrics? Prose? And what exactly were they supposed to help with? What was the best way of doing them?

I’ve been writing morning pages on and off for over two years, and have explored different ways of doing them. I want to share some of my experience to help you understand what they are and why they work.


What are morning pages?

Morning pages can be whatever you want them to be. It’s three pages that can be a diary, a poem, anything. But they must be written while your mind is still wandering through that morning fog that keeps your inner critic from judging your writing. It’s stream-of-consciousness writing that no one will ever see. It’s a place where your secrets will be safe, and so will your terrible writing. You can use it to reflect on your goals or to try something daring that you won’t have the courage for anywhere else.

Get a morning pages journal that’s dedicated entirely to morning pages. Don’t use your computer to type them out – write them out by hand because it’s only then that you feel that connection with the words you’re writing. It’s so easy to type away mindlessly. I know very few people who write by hand mindlessly. Oh, and don’t show your morning pages to anyone. Ever.


“Pages clarify our yearnings. They keep an eye on our goals. They may provoke us, coax us, comfort us, even cajole us, as well as prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. If we are drifting, the pages will point that out. They will point the way True North. Each morning, as we face the page, we meet ourselves. The pages give us a place to vent and a place to dream. They are intended for no eyes but our own.”

Julia Cameron, ‘The Miracle of Morning Pages: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Most Important Artist’s Way Tool: A Special from Tarcher/Penguin’

Julia Cameron is not the only one who advocates this practice. Natalie Goldberg talks about a ‘writing practice’ in ‘Writing Down the Bones’, and although she talks about writing in general, at any time of day, there are clear similarities with Cameron’s morning pages. She also advocates writing them out by hand and says that you shouldn’t think too much about what you’re writing while you’re writing because you might censor your most energetic, most alive writing.


Don’t try to control it. Stay present with whatever comes up, and keep your hand moving.

Natalie Goldberg, ‘Writing Down the Bones’

Why write morning pages?

I have asked myself that question many, many, many, many, many times. Especially when my alarm would go off at half six in the morning so that I’d have time for my morning pages before dashing off to work or uni. Unfortunately, there are many good reasons why, so I always ended up dragging myself out of bed anyway.


1. They get you thinking creatively at the start of the day.

You start your morning by filling a blank page. That sets the tone for the rest of the day – your mind enters the creative mode early on, making it easier to create throughout the day. It’s hard to even contemplate writer’s block when you’re writing three pages of something every day. Pat Pattison, the writer of ‘Writing Better Lyrics’ supports the idea of writing in the morning. He writes:


Always wake up your writer early, so you can spend the day together. It’s amazing the fun the two of you can have watching the world go by. Your writer will be active beside you, sniffing and tasting, snooping for metaphors. It’s like writing all day without moving your fingers.

Pat Pattison, ‘Writing Better Lyrics’

2. They hold you accountable.

When I first started doing morning pages, they frightened me. I genuinely dreaded writing them. Not because I couldn’t come up with anything to write about, but because of what I was writing. The longer you keep up the practice, the more honest with yourself you become on the page. And when I started being honest with myself, I started realising things about my life I would have preferred to stay in the dark about. My relationship, my career, my studies, my friendships – morning pages scrutinised everything. But two years later, I can say that I should’ve trusted the words I was writing down. Without a filter, our mind tells us what we want more clearly. Morning pages help us figure out what we want to do and who we want to be.


3. They help you take control of your day.

Morning pages are not just about reflection, which is why you can’t write them at the end of the day. They’re also about setting goals and understanding how you want to live your life. By writing them in the morning, you start your day knowing what matters to you. And even if you don’t use morning pages as a diary but as a writing practice, you are setting out your priorities by making writing the first thing you do. You are claiming your day.


4. They offer you a safe space for your ideas.

No one else will read your morning pages. You can do whatever you want on the page. Write about your wildest dreams, your deepest secrets, or try writing a weird, experimental poem that will suck. Let your writing guide you. Natalie Goldberg thinks of it as a place where we let our wildest selves be free.


It’s our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden, write our fine books and novels.

Natalie Goldberg, ‘Writing Down the Bones’

What’s the best way to write morning pages?

If you’ve read all this, you probably realise that there is no best way to do it. Your way is the best. The only rules are: write three pages longhand and don’t think too much about what you’re writing. Everything else is up to you. I recommend you try out different things – a diary, a writing practice, a mix of the two – for at least a couple weeks to see what works best. As Julia Cameron wrote: “Do not overthink Morning Pages: just put
three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.”