Did you ever use training wheels when you were learning to ride a bicycle? Or did you ever see anyone else use them? The purpose is to keep the bicycle from tipping over. They allow the rider to stay on long enough to perfect some of the skills of riding a bicycle.
Well, I think reality does that for the songwriter. Actually, it does it for any kind of writer. “Write what you know,” they tell you in school. And out of school. And “they’re” right. Margaret Mitchell only wrote one novel and legend has it, she hid Gone with the Wind in coffee cans all over her house, before she showed it to anyone. But she didn’t write an action adventure story or a who-done-it set on a European steamer. She wrote what was familiar to her. She may not have lived every scene, but she knew the people. They were composites of people she knew or was related to, in a time and place she understood.
Songwriters who write from a place of truth have the odds in their favor in many ways. First of all, as my mother used to say, “Tell the truth, and you won’t have to rely upon your memory.” Reality keeps you from falling off into illogic. Too many of the songs I see from pre-professional songwriters skip from one thought to another with enough non sequiturs to give you whiplash.
The intention to communicate something real to a real person keeps what you say on track, keeps it flowing logically like a communication you would make. In life, when you’re telling someone something that happened or asking that person for something you want, you don’t leap from one thought to another or change person or tenses. For that matter, you don’t string together cliches and stay on the surface. You say what you mean, interestingly, with pictures and passion. But when a person sits down to write a song, sometimes all of these good habits fall by the wayside. The minute you start “songwriting” instead of communicating, you’ve blown it. It’s like an actor who’s “acting.” Immediately, the audience is pulled out of the experience of the movie or play and their attention goes on his acting. People should not be conscious that you’re writing. And when you’re really good at it, they won’t be. They’ll just be moved. Reality is a way to help you get to that point.
I think of songwriting as a language people speak. When they’re just beginning, they can barely speak the language. But after many years, they’re fluent. They can pass as a native. So should a person speak on a subject he doesn’t know, in a language he doesn’t yet speak fluently? How many challenges do we need at one time? And yet day after day, I see people trying to write “save the world” songs—the hardest kind to pull off—when their level of proficiency in the language of songwriting is somewhere around “Where’s the bathroom?”
This is another reason why it’s such a crucial mistake to chase trends. Based on their desires to get a hit, songwriters sometimes will try to write what someone told them was “happening” rather than what they know about. Of course, there are hundreds of other writers who can write just as well, for whom that subject is real. So the pictures will be real, the logic will be strong and the impact will be superior in their songs. In the trend-chasing songwriter’s songs, everything will appear to have been written from the outside at arm’s length by someone with very long arms.
Having been a final judge on the “Help Heal L.A.” contest, I only heard a small fraction of the entries, but I understand from the preliminary judges that people in Iowa were writing songs about how to solve the problems on the streets of L.A. And of course, on top of their blatant lack of authenticity, they were preaching as well. Strike three.
The final point I’d like to make on the subject of reality in songwriting is, I don’t care how popular country music is now. If you really prefer those major seventh chords and cryptic lyrics, please stop writing country songs. Don’t you think Nashville can smell your pandering from 2000 miles away? Your style should be based on reality too.
I should acknowledge Nik Venet for some of my viewpoint on this, because when he produced my fourth album, he encouraged me to be who I am, and to write what I know, to be totally truthful as a writer and a performer, as well. I had taken a vacation from artistic integrity and was really enjoying myself writing what I later discovered to be mindless dance music. Now I understand the full meaning of his comment to me when he heard it. “Get real,” he said. And so I did.