Ontario country artists: Write Your Way to The Top
by Stephanie Brooks
Whether you’re a bar napkin scribbler, poetry dabbler, or award-winning professional staff writer at a publishing company, you know the trials of getting that tough lyric sequence down and recognize the tribulations of finding the right chord progression.
There wouldn’t be songs if there wasn’t songwriting. Likewise, there wouldn’t be great songs without great songwriting.
So, grab a pen and paper and jot some of these tips down and, while you’re at it, complete that half-finished song you’ve been meaning to!
While for some artists and writers, simply having a looming deadline is enough inspiration to push out a song; others look to past experiences, stories, and the outside world for insight.
For Cambridge natives and brother-sister duo The Reklaws, people- watching often invites inspiration. “We can all learn a lot from watching others,” they remark. “What we like, how we act, what we want… life is a crazy adventure and if we can write songs that allow people to attach their adventure to it, then we are accomplishing something!”
Sometimes starting with a catchy title can spark a good story to develop as well, according to the band that just recently won the Emerging Artist Award at this year’s Boots & Hearts festival. “Country songs are all about a good story,” they add. “If you can start a song with one idea and then hit [the audience] with another meaning, you have a good country song on your hands.”
Peter Linseman, CMAO founding director and owner of Music Mentor Productions, agrees that country music involves more of a storytelling aspect than other genres. “There are lots of descriptions and subtle details at work, as well,” he says. “Use all the senses in your details… sight, smell, touch, sound, taste. Imagine the setting and then imagine what senses are being affected.”
He also gleans inspiration from working with talented colleagues, friends, and musicians, including Brooklin, Ontario singer-songwriter Lindsay Broughton. Broughton, who starting writing in high school, claims life experiences provide her with the best material. “My songs come from personal experiences and raw, intense emotions that I or someone close to me has felt,” she states.
For country music, specifically, it’s important that listeners can connect with a song’s lyrics. Brad Klump, professor of music at Humber College, says a good, catchy phrase, sometimes with word play, is very effective. Often these songs that work really well and sound effortless are actually the most complex to create. “The economy of lyric and phrase in country music sounds simple to our ears, but it is some of the most difficult music to write,” notes Klump.
Overcoming songwriter’s block
Because of the difficulty in constantly executing well-crafted songs, songwriters (just like those writing any other work) often stumble upon roadblocks. When this happens, writers concur that it’s best not to force out lyrics or ideas.
“Resting my mind for a few days and just absorbing my surroundings the best I can is sometimes the best remedy for coming back with a fresh idea and a new outlook on songwriting,” mentions Broughton, whose latest single “Never Saw It Coming” is on radio now.
How long it takes to complete a song varies – from writer to writer and based on the complexity level of the song. “A good song is a good song in the end,” notes The Reklaws. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes, because when you put time and love into something, it’s bound for greatness.”
Relying on resources
From small-town Ontario to songwriting and country music capital, Nashville, Tennessee, a wealth of resources and expertise lie at your fingertips.
Looking to your trusty bookshelf might just be the place to start, say a number of experts. In addition to a thesaurus, dictionary and rhyming dictionary, Professor Klump recommends the book “Songwriters on Songwriting” by Paul Zollo to get a sense of the different ways songwriters approach their craft. “There is no one right way,” he says. “Everyone needs to find their own path.”
Linseman, who has worked in songwriting circles from Nashville to Toronto and helps develop artists, suggests acquiring critiques and insight from experts through venues like FACTOR, the CMAO DemoRama LIVE open mic, and the Songwriters Association of Canada Toronto Regional Writers Group (of which he is the manager).
Studying other songs also helps with the free-flow of ideas. Broughton says she listens to different genres of music to diversify her style. “There are so many well-written songs and sometimes just diving in and listening to some of the greatest ones, with the best structures and lyrics, inspires me and teaches me new and more creative ways to write songs,” she claims.
Seeking advice from the pros
It is important to enjoy the often-laborious process of writing as much as the final product, says Broughton.
“Stop trying so hard and relax” she advises. “I feel like writing should be a release and since you’re not going to write a hit song every time anyway, you might as well enjoy the process and let it happen naturally.”
For The Reklaws, this process involves starting with an idea, figuring out the best way to convey it, and getting a melody down. “You will soon see that different chords have different feelings,” they add. “If you don’t play guitar, use what God gave ya and sing away! Sing the lines differently and choose the one that best suits what you are trying to do with your music.”
Co-writing is another avenue down which writers wish to go, especially in Nashville, says Linseman. “It really helps you to fully understand the craft of songwriting as opposed to straight inspiration,” he says.
Other tips from the pros:
Carry around a pen and paper (or mobile device) for when inspiration strikes
Use a Dictaphone to record everything you come up with – it’s easy to forget lyrics or a melody
Write and re-write
Don’t get hung up on using true rhymes, counting syllables, song structure, consistent verse/chorus melodies, etc.
And remember: it’s all about the song! At the end of the day, reminds Linseman, artists and faces come-and-go, but a song could be played forever.