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.

why-i-procrastinate

Why I Procrastinate

artist, productivity, self-love

I just spent all morning scrolling through Instagram, and my only achievements of the day thus far include: an Insta Story, commenting on a friend’s post, sharing a new song I’ve listened to. I also had breakfast.

Mornings like this make me feel guilty and useless, and I often end up overcompensating on other days, crashing late at night with a headache and back pain after sitting in front of a computer a whole day. Wouldn’t it be nicer if I could plan my days to be structured, if I went for walks in the middle of the day after having a productive morning, instead of wasting it all away on social media or staring into space? Yes, it would. And I know it would. Yet I still do this without fail, procrastinating into oblivion.

We all know why we procrastinate: to put off something that stresses us out (like emailing blogs about my upcoming single out of fear for rejection), to put off something that’s plain boring (like starting an essay about the Lydian Chromatic Concept that’s due in April), or because deep inside, we’re convinced that what we’re doing won’t lead to anything anyway, which means that procrastination will lead to the abandonment of the project altogether.

I’m a fairly organised person – I love my morning routine, I have a bullet journal with daily, weekly, and monthly to-do lists. I clean my room at least once a week. But I’m also addicted to my phone, I wallow in self-doubt at every given opportunity, and I have no curtains in my bedroom, which means that I often wake up sleep-deprived if I’ve had a late night. All these form a perfect breeding ground for procrastination, and I’m currently on a journey to learning my triggers.

There are other reasons for people to procrastinate, though. My dad called me last weekend to tell me he started learning shorthand. Why he’d ever need shorthand is beyond me, but he has talked about writing a book his whole life. More so, he’s been writing every day for the last month, actually coming close to achieving his goal. And all of a sudden, he starts learning shorthand. When I pointed that out, he waved me off, saying he has a right to enjoy his life occasionally, which is true, only I don’t buy it.

Humans tend to self-sabotage. I know I do, anyway. Procrastination is the main weapon in our battle against ourselves. When we don’t believe we deserve something, or we don’t think we’re up to the task, or any other reason we’ve convinced ourselves something is not worth trying, we procrastinate. So, next time you watch Netflix instead of working on your new song, ask yourself: what are you afraid of?

I noticed that I procrastinate when 1) there’s an external reason for why I don’t feel capable of doing my best work, or 2) I am scared shitless of failing at something. These days, when I notice I’m procrastinating, I ask myself why first. Identifying the cause quickly leads to solutions. Here is my little list of things that I do that help me keep procrastination at least somewhat in check.


When it’s an external thing


1. I go to bed early


When I’m sleep-deprived, I can’t get anything done. At all. Sending an email will take me hours. Now that I know that, I don’t spend the night with other people before a big day, I value my routine even more and try to go to bed at regular hours, I go outside every day so I can fall asleep more easily. When you’re procrastinating because you’re tired, there’s nothing you can do until you take a nap, sleep it off, and recharge.


2. I put my phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’


I’m horrible with my phone. I check it all the time even when I know I have no messages, and when I do, I often don’t reply to them anyway. It’s a tic – I just want to hold the phone in my hand. So, now, I’ve started putting it on airplane mode not to give myself an excuse to look at it. I have specific time blocks when I check my phone – after breakfast, after lunch, but not during the hours I’m supposed to be getting something done. I say that. I don’t always do that. (But I should.)


3. I take breaks and dance around my bedroom


Sometimes, I start procrastinating just because I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for hours. Everybody needs breaks, and it’s recommended to have a break every hour. With the weather now, my hands freeze after an hour of typing anyway. So, every once in a while, I turn on Frank Zappa and dance around the room, hoping the school kids outside my window won’t look. It gets my blood pumping and my energy levels up, so I can sit back down at the desk feeling motivated.


4. I try to avoid sugar during the day


When I start my day with a croissant or a doughnut, I feel energised, for sure, but it’s scattered energy that doesn’t allow me to focus. Despite what some people assume, sugar slows down our cognitive function. It doesn’t help us get into gear, it holds us back. So, I try to be a healthy, mature grownup and have porridge for breakfast or yoghurt with fresh fruit. Whenever I do that, I feel much more productive during the day and it’s easier for me to stay on task. Of course, I’m not perfect. I make up for it by binge-eating chocolate before bed.


When it’s an internal thing


This is much harder. When it’s not a physical factor holding you back, but a mental block, you need to identify it first. Recognising it is the first step, though.


1. Affirmations


I often find myself watching too much Netflix, waking up late, and shirking all my responsibilities exactly when I need to get a lot done. I find it much easier to show up when I’m sure I can handle everything that’s coming my way. When I’m filled with self-doubt and anxiety, I just want to run in the opposite direction. Writing down affirmations and saying them out loud throughout the day helps me to stay motivated and battle the fear of failure that often keeps me from doing what I need to do.


2. I protect my time and energy from the people who don’t respect it


It may sound harsh, but I’ve started spending less time with the people who leave me feeling drained. Sometimes, our limiting beliefs come from internalised comments from friends and family, and I have enough of my own insecurities not to add other people’s to that list. When I set out to do something and feel like a friend might disapprove or think I’m dreaming too big or being too reckless, I tend to make a mental note of that. Difficult discussions are part of every relationship, and I always want my friends to be honest with me. At the same time, friends and family are supposed to be a support network, and when that’s not what it feels like, I feel justified taking a break from them.


3. I journal it out


Again, I’m a massive fan of morning pages. They hold you accountable. I can’t lie to myself every morning, that would just cost too much energy. Even if you don’t do this every day, journalling once in a while will help to know when you’ve picked up a new hobby just to avoid working on a project that really matters.


4. Visualise and remember why you’re doing it


It’s hard to stay brave, or motivated or focused when you don’t know why you’re doing something or what you’re working towards. A quick visualisation exercise, or making a Pinterest mood board (which I guess is also a form of procrastination) is what usually gives me the motivation to get going again.


These are the things that work for me, but different stuff will work for different people. There are also two great talks about fear of failure and procrastination for those who want to dig deeper into this.

Also, my new single ‘River Water’ came out today! Listen to it here.

deliberate-practice-matters

Why I Started Incorporating Deliberate Practice Into My Daily Routine

artist, music, productivity, songwriting

This is me putting on a circus show for my parents. I spent weeks (or maybe really just a week) learning how to juggle, teaching my cat tricks, and mastering the magic of the disappearing thumb. Then I dressed up and made my parents watch me and applaud my endeavours. My dad sent me this photo this morning, and it made me chuckle and think about how much I’ve changed. He replied: “Actually, you haven’t changed at all.”

It’s true. I still get a kick out of people watching me perform. I would probably still rock a synthetic purple glitter blouse. It made me think of other ways I’ve stayed the same. A couple days ago, I showed a friend a video of the first song I’d learnt on guitar. My mum diligently videoed all my performances until I moved away from Belgium. After that one video, I started scrolling down and looking at the rest: me at twelve, at thirteen, at fifteen… But what struck me was how small the difference was between me at fifteen and me now.

“You’ve definitely learnt how to strum better,” my friend said. Which, by the way, I don’t think is true. He just hasn’t heard me strum yet. But everything else was pretty much the same. I was always slightly embarrassed about my fingerpicking style (I learnt one pattern when I was fifteen and decided that was enough) and spent years justifying my laziness by finding examples of successful musicians who weren’t great guitarists. What I didn’t realise was that by doing that, I was standing still.

I have always been proud of having started performing early – my first gig was when I was twelve and I’ve gigged regularly since. But I haven’t spent much time over these ten years practising – most of it was spent writing songs, singing songs I could play already, and doing everything other than playing the guitar. A while ago, though, I read ‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth, where she wrote that hours spent doing something didn’t always translate to mastering a skill better. And then she wrote this:


Without effort, your skill is nothing more but what you could have done but didn’t.

‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’, Angela Duckworth

I realised that if I didn’t put the effort in, becoming a musician would also be something I could have done but didn’t. That effort was called deliberate practice.

Two months ago, I started practising every day for two hours. I want to say without fail, but of course the holidays became a two-week Netflix binge. I’m back on track now, though. I started playing scales, learnt Travis picking (fucking finally), learnt one or two covers a week (and this time, didn’t skip the solos and the intros), started reading more about music theory, and doing ear training exercises. For the first time in ten years, I also started doing vocal warmups.

I’m still getting the hang of deliberate practice, but I’ve made peace with the fact that it’s not always fun. It’s supposed to be hard and make you sweat just enough so you still have the courage to come back the day after. And it’s worth it – I’ve grown more as a musician in these last two months than I had in all the years of gigging combined.

Of course, when I wanted to show off my great new skills to my friend who had encouraged me to practice more in the first place, I choked and fucked up. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not getting better. It just means I have to keep practising.

Here are some resources I use in my deliberate practice sessions and some talks that have inspired me to keep going:


Talks


Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance | Angela Duckworth

The famous TED talk by Angela Duckworth about work ethic, effort, and consistency.

Music Lesson – How and What to Practice on Your Instrument

Rick Beato talking about how to structure your practice routine.

I practiced 10,000 Hours in 6 Months

Again, Rick Beato, bragging about how much he used to practice in his twenties. Whatever.


Guitar Resources


Scales

The ten essential scales you need to know. This website is generally good for guitarists who want to improve and includes tips on practice, books to read, exercises, etc.

Fingerstyle guitar lessons for intermediate guitarists

LicknRiff is a Youtube channel with guitar lessons for intermediate and advanced lessons on fingerpicking. It’s geared towards those who play a nylon string. The guy who teaches it offers tabs for free as well, and his videos always feature his two dogs, which is almost an unnecessary bonus, really.

Laura Marling tutorials

I’ve been going on about these for ages. But it’s Laura Marling. Herself. Teaching her own songs.


Ear Training and Music Theory


Ear training exercises with Rick Beato

Some general explanations on how to improve and a series of seven ear training exercises you can do daily. Rick Beato’s channel in general is great for music theory explanations, so have a look around. I’m kind of obsessed, but maybe that’s also because I have a minor crush on the man.

Teoria

A great website on music theory with ear training and theory exercises you can do. You can also select how advanced you want to go.