Extreme songwriting

There are different ways of producing software. One approach that was developed many years ago is called Extreme Programming (XP). With XP, developers work in pairs, ideally at a shared workstation. The "driver's" hands are on the keyboard; the "navigator" provides direction. Periodically, the developers switch roles. The idea behind XP is basically that two heads are better than one. Ideas go back and forth, mistakes are caught, and the result is better software.

XP is a tough sell at most companies. Paying two developers to work on the same problem? But  companies that buy into the technique find that paired programming results in higher productivity. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. Two people working on the same project not only produce better results but also work more efficiently.

Software development is something I do to make a living. Songwriting is what I do because I absolutely, totally love doing it. I seem to be unable not to do it. Lyrics, melodies, chord patterns come to me at all hours of the day and night, in circumstances both appropriate and less so. I write songs because it's what I do. I write songs because I am a songwriter.

When writing songs, I have always worked alone. I starting learning the craft by listening to people who were singer-songwriters, whether they played solo or in a band: Tom Paxton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and many others. That was the era of the singer-songwriter. Professional pop song writers such as those who worked in the Brill Building were a thing of the past. Indeed, one of those songwriters, Carole King, had by that time shifted from writing in collaboration to writing primarily on her own.

Later, when I had a band, I would often bring in partially finished songs that the others in the band would help to turn into something closer to finished. I brought in the initial ideas, but then there was some amount of collaboration. If I had been generous, I would have credited the band at least with co-writing the music. As my writing evolved, I created songs that were more polished and did not leave as much room for finishing. And during the long bandless years when the best I could do was solo recording on an old four-track, my songwriting grew even more isolated again.

That's basically where my process is now. The other Hotcakes always help polish a song, but it's not often anymore that I bring in unfinished ideas. Sometimes I even hear all the other instrumental parts in my head and not just the chords and melody. Since I started writing songs again in earnest a couple of years ago, I have become much better at my craft. I hit a level that I reached only occasionally in my earlier songwriting. I am more productive now than I was then. I can't quite write a song on demand, but I'm getting closer. Until just a few days ago, we had five songs for our upcoming recording session. I felt we needed a sixth song, specifically one to close the record. I knew what key I wanted it in. I knew how I wanted it to fit into the flow. I knew the theme that I wanted to write about. That song now exists is rough form.

Despite success in writing on my own, I feel that it's not enough. Last September, I attended a "songposeum" that was put on by the Songwriters Association of Canada. One thing I got from that seminar was that while writing by yourself was fine, writing with one or more other people often led to creative breakthroughs and greatly increased productivity. I have heard the same at other seminars I have attended since then.

Sound familiar? "Extreme songwriting" was always existed. Different songwriters bounce ideas off each other. Producers work with singers who write songs to turn ideas into polished material. Bands have songwriting partnerships. Some bands even write all their material collaboratively, jamming out ideas and turning them into finished songs. I have always found that last one particularly intriguing. It's different than one or even two people expressing their vision through a song.

I have been searching in various ways for one or more songwriting partners. Even though I have never written that way, I really want to try. A while ago, I spent on hour (and a bit more) with Leah Abramson of the Abramson Singers, who teaches songwriting at UBC, on a songwriting lesson (a sweet benefit in exchange for a contribution to her vinyl-pressing Indiegogo campaign). It wasn't a songwriting session, but it had aspects of one. It was very beneficial to me, and I enjoyed the process.

I haven't found a partner yet, but it's not something you can make happen. You just have to meet the right person. The best you can do is look for opportunities and make yourself available.

There might be collaboration opportunities with the Hotcakes. My drummer T and I were talking about that. Sweetie, our bass player, already writes songs, but on her own, like I do. I know she has ideas. I bet T and our singer G do as well. It will be interesting if we can give this a try.


Not revival but reinvention

A few weeks ago, I was at a music seminar about balancing creativity with business. We all have to do business nowadays. We always should have to some extent. Back in the day, many a band got ripped off because they trusted someone to take care of all that stuff, someone who in the end was not trustworthy. Getting stuck taking care of our own business at least has the benefit of keeping the business in the hands of someone we trust. The downside is that a lot of us aren't really good at business.

We're not supposed to be! We make music. We're artists, or at least people creative in an artistic sense. Ideally, artists have the freedom to create without having to deal with the grubby details of making money. But that ideal is long gone for most of us. And it's not easy to find the balance between creativity and business.

One of the panelists said something interesting when I asked the old question (because I'm old) about selling out. This person makes a decent amount of money writing music for advertisements. These days, that's a good idea, because at least you are doing something musical while making more money than a band or songwriter can make. But would Kurt Cobain have done such a thing? Doubtful. What the panelist said was telling about a younger generation of rock musicians: "Don't take it all too seriously."

That's easier said than done for those of us who grew up steeped in music, virtually pickled in the brine of rock almost from the womb. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was 10. Growing up with the British Invasion, plunging into puberty to a psychedelic soundtrack. The high of Woodstock and the crash of Altamont. And for those in my generation who did not fall out of music or get stuck in the past, the rebirth of rock with early proto-punk and punk bands, the explosion of creativity of New Wave, and later the loud and irresistible force of Seattle bands.

Not take it too seriously? We're the ones who thought music could change the world! And it did. Not always in a big way, and not always for the better, but our music did change the world. And for many of us, it shaped our very existence.

The music world now is what it is. I get that. And I deal with it. But I don't always go along with it. I push against it sometimes. For me, that makes sense. I have to be who I am, and if I'm not in sync with the times, then so it goes. I think guitar bands continue to reinvent rock and roll for each era. Not with synthesizers, not with samples, but with steel and skins and sweat. And there will be someone who wants to listen to that.

We can't go back. I was watching a set by Rockpile on YouTube. I love Rockpile! But I realized when listening to them cover Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" that they sounded a bit like thousands of pub bands in the world. The best revivalists don't just revive but reinvent and reshape.

Will there come a time when kids will no longer make rude noises with guitars and bass and drums? I suppose so. But rock has endured long past the point that anyone could have predicted it would, and it has done so because musicians find a way to make it fresh and new. I will let others synthesize in their bedroom studios. Goddess knows I might even do that myself at some point. But I will continue to do what I love and to listen to what I love.

The rental car I'm currently driving around the other coast has Sirius XM satellite radio in it, and I was thrilled to find the Little Steven's Underground Garage. The coolest songs in the world, 24/7! I suppose it's oldies to some extent, but not always. The reinvention of rock music does go on.