Today we’re joined by Alex Forbes from CreativeSongwriter.com. Alex has over 100 releases to her name including several Billboard-charting singles as well as tracks heard often on the radio and TV. She’s taught songwriting at NYU’s Steinhardt school and countless workshops and songwriting camps and collaborated with top musicians including Cyndi Lauper. She is the author of “Write Songs, Right Now” and as you’re going to learn in this conversation she has a really sharp and refreshing attitude to the art and craft of songwriting.
In this conversation we talk about:
- Whether it was persistence or momentary inspiration that produced Alex’s first big radio hit.
- The most important thing a beginning songwriter should do on day one, and the #1 thing you can do to improve your odds of succeeding with it, and
- The four elements she thinks are essential for a song to be really great.
It should come as no surprise to regular listeners of this show that as someone invited to be a guest here she shares our encouraging and inclusive attitude to music-making. Far from teaching that song-writing is just for the gifted few, Alex teaches that anybody can and should give it a try – and her enthusiasm is infectious so we think there’s a good chance you’ll go away from this episode inspired to try writing a song or two yourself!
Listen to the episode:
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Alex: Hey, this is Alex Forbes from CreativeSongwriter.com, and welcome to the Musicality Podcast.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Alex. Thank you for joining us today.
Alex: Hey, it’s great to be here.
Christopher: I’d love to understand where this successful songwriter and songwriting coach came from, once upon a time. How did you get started in music? Was songwriting a part of your life from early on, or was it something that came later?
Alex: Well, for me, I guess I was always into songs. I guess I came of age at a time when The Beatles were coming on the scene. Compared to the music my folks were listening to, that really lit me up, and my brothers, as well. We thought we were The Beatles. We had a piano, and we started playing around. Next thing you know, I was picking out songs on the piano, and my parents thought it was a good idea to give me piano lessons. Unfortunately, the teacher I had was a bit more by the book, literally by the book. Those songs that we were learning in the piano lessons weren’t as much fun as the ones that I loved. I remember being able to pick out a song now and again on the piano, and those were the ones I really wanted to listen to.
Time went on, time marched on, and I stopped taking those piano lessons and sort of just was listening to music more passively, and also singing in chorus in school and that sort of thing. But then, at about age … I guess I was 16 … I met a young woman who was a classmate, and she played guitar. I just remember sitting on the rug in her room, fascinated, watching her play the songs I loved on her guitar. It was like magic. We would do sing-alongs, sitting on her carpet.
One day, she offered to give me lessons, and I was out of my mind with excitement. I couldn’t believe that I could actually participate in these things, and that marked a turning point. I asked for Christmas for a guitar, and I was kindly given one. And she started teaching me. The next thing you know, I was buying these books of Beatles songbooks or Elton John or Joni Mitchell, and learning the songs that way.
I had never started writing songs until a few years later. At that point, I was at university, and I saw a little piece of paper taped to the wall that said “songwriting workshop.” I tore off one of the little pieces of paper, and I called the number, and the guy said that the workshop started right after Christmas. So I went home for Christmas vacation and, knowing that I was starting the class in January, I wrote a song. I wrote my first song. It kind of brought together my interest in lyrics and my interest in music and my ability to play the guitar.
It brought it all into … For me, that was the moment when peanut butter met jelly, you know? Or whatever, when A met B, when Ulysses met … I don’t know what. But it was like the sparks went off. I brought that song into the class and, for me, that was the beginning of just becoming a songwriter, just sort of declaring out of nothing that I was going to be a songwriter. That’s how it happened for me.
Christopher: That’s really interesting. Thinking back, were you at all nervous or intimidated about taking that new direction with your music if, up until that point, you hadn’t really been writing your own?
Alex: Well, I’ll tell you one thing, he ripped the song to shreds.
Christopher: Oh, no.
Alex: And a woman in the workshop who had a beautiful voice said, “Actually, I think it’s really good,” and she stuck up for me. I went up to her after the class and I said, “Wow, thanks for defending my song. You have a beautiful voice.” The song that she sang showed off her beautiful voice. And I said, “Can you sing my songs? I would love someone else to actually put their beautiful voice …” And she goes, “Well, I teach voice.” And that was the beginning of starting to perform my own songs. So it was this coming together in that one workshop of that … It was like magic, and something ignited.
Christopher: Take us back to that room for a minute, because I think a lot of people would tell this story about how they got really excited about songwriting and they went along to the workshop, they had their song ripped to shreds, and so they never wrote a song again. And clearly, that’s not how it went for you. Was it emotionally painful at the time?
Alex: Yes, certainly. Anytime anybody criticizes your creativity, it’s like a stabbing feeling. But also, I’ve been in the creative world for a long time. I mean, I used to think I’d be a painter. And that’s the nature of teaching, is that people criticize you. If you want to be in the Olympics, you fall on your butt a lot of times on the ice. It’s the same thing. Anything you want to do well, you have to pass through that however long period of learning the ropes and falling down and getting back up and being criticized and being guided.
And sometimes the criticism is painful, but it’s actually … Some of your worst songs can be your best learning experiences. It’s the same with learning an instrument, or learning to sing, or anything. The people who are willing to give you the feedback are actually your guides and your teachers, and you can be thankful to them. Even when it hurts, it’s actually … If you let the passion drive you through that painful process, you get to the other side.
Christopher: Were you mature enough at that early age to have that attitude? Because that sounds like a super-sensible attitude, but I find it hard to imagine myself in my early 20s not just kind of coming home and crying a bit, with an experience like that.
Alex: No, I think it builds character. I mean, I imagine if you play the stock market, you’re going to lose a lot of money at some point. It’s that same process. It’s like climbing a mountain. I imagine if you climb Mount Everest, you don’t start at the top of Mount Everest. You start at the bottom of Mount Everest, and you make your way to the top. And it’s a process, and there are Sherpas.
Christopher: Tell us a bit about where things went from there. You’d had this initial experience, you’d had some song critique, you’d met someone who was a vocal coach or a vocal teacher. What was the next step for you in songwriting?
Alex: Well, I did enter that song in a contest, that first song I wrote. It was called At Night. I’m telling you, it was not great. But it won a quarter-finalist prize in this contest and, for me, that was like a sign. I took it as a sign from the heavens that I was meant to do this, and I took it on. And I was in university, as I said, and I was sort of trying to figure out what I was going to major in. I knew it would be something creative, but I wasn’t sure what. They didn’t exactly have songwriting majors. This was 1977. At the time, it was … unless maybe you were in a music school. I was not at a music school, and the closest I could come was a creative writing degree, which I then enrolled in and received.
Then I decided I was going to move to New York. I had checked out LA. I didn’t feel at home there. And I grew up near New York, so I moved here and just dug in. I had a real job. I was a graphic artist assistant, basically. And during my spare time, that’s all I did, pretty much. That and boys. And of course, the boys gave me something to write about. So I kind of applied myself. I took a lot of workshops, I found some mentors, I met a lot of colleagues. At first, I was only writing alone. After a while, I began collaborating, which was really a good move in my case because I started writing the same song over and over. So finding a team and finding a community was extremely important for me.
Christopher: I see. What did it look like for you to learn songwriting in those years? Were you reading from books? Obviously, the internet wasn’t there in the way it is today. Were you able to learn in kind of a theoretical sense, or was it purely practical?
Alex: No, I was reading books. I read the books. I went to the workshops, as I said. I joined the organizations. There were a lot of organizations. In a major city like this, of course you have groups that are meeting, and showcases. And I went and saw people’s performances. But the basic work was every week or every other week submitting a song to a group and getting the feedback. So it wasn’t just the theoretical knowledge, it was the hands-on thing of trying and failing, and trying and failing, and getting a little better, and failing, and getting a little better. That went on for seven years before I had any success.
Christopher: Wow. I know that one thing a lot of aspiring songwriters struggle with is that it can be really hard to put your finger on whether you’re getting better or not, apart from that intangible sense of “I’m doing a bit better than I was last year.” Compared to learning instrument technique, for example, or studying music theory, where it’s very clear-cut, the path ahead of you, it can be quite difficult to know, am I getting better as a songwriter? What was telling you, along that seven-year trajectory, that you were on a good path, that you were putting in effort that would pay off?
Alex: Well, at a certain point, people started performing my songs live. A few people responded to the point where they were like, “I’d like to perform that song.” That was really exciting, for example, if a band would do one of my songs or if … Some cabaret acts started doing my songs in their show, and I’d go there, and they might call me out from the stage and say, “And this is a song by Alex Forbes,” or whatever. And it would be just such a rush, and I felt my heart pounding, and I was looking around like, “Are people liking this?” I mean, I think that’s also a huge thing to see how the song is landing over there. It’s landing a certain way to the writer because you’re enmeshed with the song and you are one with the song. But to see how it goes over in the world is really a whole other thing.
It’s the same thing with recording. At the time, recording equipment was a bit … let’s just say the home recording setups were not great in those days. You had to pay a certain amount of money to go into a studio, and I was living pretty hand-to-mouth, so I didn’t have a lot of money to go into the studio. So I had one of these multi-track cassette recorders. I think you could record four different tracks on a cassette. You used both sides and … Oh, my God, it was ridiculous. But you could get the point across, let’s put it that way.
Christopher: I see. If we set aside the lyrics for a moment, when we talk just about the music of your songs in that period, how were you writing that music? How were you composing? What were you drawing on, in terms of music education or music theory? When you sat down to write a new song, what did that look like?
Alex: A lot of guitar lessons.
Christopher: Is that right?
Alex: A lot of guitar lessons. I must have studied with 10 different teachers, sure. I’m no great guitarist, really. I’m no great shakes as a guitarist. But what I learned is that some of my favorite songwriting heroes were not great guitarists, either. Songwriting doesn’t require mastery of an instrument. It requires mastery of songwriting, which is really melody meets lyric. So if you can come up with an interesting melody and set it to a pretty simple set of chords … I mean, unless you want to go into jazz or something, you don’t need to know a million chords. You need, as the saying goes, four chords and the truth.
The truth is the part that’s a little hard to get to at certain points, because we do think we might need to impress people, or we might think we can get away with copying something that’s already out there, or whatever. We have influences. But at a certain point, we have to declare ourselves and find ourselves on the instrument, find out what our own spin is on that instrument, whether it’s a piano or a guitar or a ukulele or whatever. We have to get the basic skills enough on the instrument to be able to find our way as an individual.
Christopher: It sounds like you, from fairly early on, identified as a creative. You were someone who wanted to have that artistic output in the world. Did you have any doubts along the way, when you realized it was going to be a journey of years rather than months before you had a big hit or before you had major success? Were you at all concerned that that meant you didn’t have what it took or that you weren’t quite the right type of person for it?
Alex: No. I don’t think I … I mean, I still struggle with making it in this industry, because the industry keeps changing. But I think I still get so excited … When I’m in the middle of writing a song, that’s what drives me. That’s the most fun you can have. It’s like Woody Allen said, it’s the most fun I ever had without laughing. And you do laugh. So it’s just a great emotional release. It’s like therapy. It’s all the highs and all the lows of a rollercoaster.
And you can do it in a few hours. It’s not like writing a novel that might take you a year or something. You can write a song in a few hours and, whether it’s good or whether it’s bad, at least while you’re doing it, it’s so immersive, and I think it’s its own reward. Like I said, those seven years before anything was successful were equally fun to the fun I’m having now. I think it has to be an end in itself. In order to find any success, you have to enjoy the process of the writing. And if you don’t, well, maybe that’s not your cup of tea. But if you enjoy it, well, then it’s better than watching TV, really.
Christopher: That’s a really tremendous attitude. I was motivated to ask a question, partly because I know a lot of people in our audience feel like they need permission or like they need to prove something quickly to be allowed to spend their time writing songs, that it would be a waste of time unless they have a certain gift, a certain talent, a certain natural ability. So I can imagine many of them, if they got a few months in and they didn’t see clear tangible signs of improvement like we just talked about, or they didn’t have big success … like for you, it took a few years to come … they might be quite discouraged. And it sounds like, for you, the key was enjoying the process as much as aiming for the outcome.
Alex: Right. And actually, I’ll tell you, the moments of process are like 100 to 1 to the moments of success. But if you can find success in the process, then you’re always succeeding. I think we live in a fame culture. It’s a bit obsessed with that sort of thing, fame and money and yada-yada. But what about honoring the process of becoming better at a skill and enjoying that unfolding of the … the word “process” just keeps coming to mind. The result is the process, in this kind of a field. You can’t be chasing something. You have to be in something. It’s not a striving. It’s actually a becoming and a blossoming feeling, more.
Christopher: I love that description. Well, I definitely want to come back and talk a bit more about the process and your advice for making that an enjoyable one, but let’s jump to the other side that we just said isn’t the point of it, which was the success. You said after seven years or so, you started to see real success. What did that look like? What made you think, okay, now I’m really managing it?
Alex: Well, I’d say one of those … I had a turning point, and the turning point was sort of the moment I went from amateur to professional. And that, for me, happened at … As I said, I think I’d been writing about seven years, and I was in a workshop, and the workshop leader said, “We’re going to do a showcase at The Bitter End.” Now, if you ever have been to New York City, The Bitter End is this club on Bleecker Street. It’s the legendary Bitter End, where Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and all of the greats played back in the ’60s, and it’s still there, to this very day. I had been there, but I had never played there, so for me, this was very exciting that we were going to play.
So we were all, in the workshop, tasked with writing a song that was the best we could do that we would perform at this thing. Within that few weeks that we were getting ready, I was walking down the street and I had this idea. I got like, wow, that’s a good idea. There was a phone booth on the corner, and I called the idea into my own phone message machine. This was in the old days, okay? You didn’t have a cell phone with you. So I called it in, in case I forgot it, because I didn’t have a notebook with me. I was just walking down the street.
So when I got home that … Actually it was earlier then, again that same day, I wrote some lyrics. I was scribbling down lyrics madly. I showed them to my friend, Shelly Peiken, who is actually a really great songwriter and a great friend. She looked at the first line and she said, “That’s a little violent, isn’t it?” because the first line was “love is a cliff, and I’m pushing you over it.” And she was like, “That’s a little violent.” And I remember thinking, yeah, but I like it. So I kept it.
I went home that night, and I was up for hours and hours and hours with that little cassette machine, and I recorded it. All night, I couldn’t sleep. My heart was pounding. I was like, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, this one’s better. Sorry, that probably went ouch on the microphone. But when I brought that song into the workshop, the reaction was completely different from all the songs before it, and everybody just said … they clapped, and they said, “That one’s a hit.” Nobody picked it apart. It was the first time that had ever happened. And I knew in my heart that something was special about that song.
So I hired someone to demo it, and it wasn’t very great. The song was good, but the demo wasn’t great. And then I spent the equivalent of two months’ rent, which at the time was $200 a month, so I spent $400 to go into the studio and record that song, and that became my first hit. So that was the moment I crossed over.
Christopher: I see. So this touches on one of the things I was most keen to talk with you about, which is the dichotomy or the spectrum between this idea people have of songwriting being a flash of inspiration by a talented musician and the song just appears out of nowhere, and the kind of down-to-earth practical advice you hear about putting in the work, practicing every day, writing a lot of songs, learning the craft. How do those two relate to one another? Given that you just told this great story where it was more an inspiration moment, how do you think about that?
Alex: Well, I think it has to do with that quote … was it Einstein who said it? You know, success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. I really feel that’s true. But we look at these … there are these tales out there that people wrote their hit song in 15 minutes on a table napkin. But if you scratch the surface, that person never spent less than five or ten years preparing for that moment. There is always a backstory. You might not know it. Of course, like I said, that inspiration for me came in a moment. But I had been preparing for it for seven years. I had been laying the groundwork and learning the skills and doing the studying and playing the music, going to the clubs and whatever.
I mean, we each have our own path. Everybody has a different path. And there’s a mythology that these things come out of the woodwork, but they never come out of the woodwork. Any overnight success takes many years of preparation to get to that one night where the success occurs. There’s people who would like us to believe that we pop out as these prodigies or something, but I really don’t think that’s true. Or nobody I know has done that. Everybody has done the groundwork. I just think people use that to deny themselves the permission to engage in the process.
Christopher: Talk a little bit more about that final point there, people who feel like they don’t have the permission or they don’t have what it takes. If someone came to you and said, “I always had this dream of being a songwriter, but my voice isn’t very good, or I just don’t have any inspiration,” what advice would you give someone like that?
Alex: I would say give yourself that … I don’t want to preach at anybody, but I think if they have the desire and if they’re asking the question, that means that they really do feel like they have something to say. We all have something to say. I think it’s a question of what form we say it in. You know, I don’t have kids. These are my babies. Other people might put that creative energy into baking a cake or building a building. We all have creative urges and creative talents. It’s a question of what form we put those in. Like I said, I thought I was going to become a painter at some point in my life, when I was in high school.
And it almost doesn’t matter what the shape is. If you’re going to choose songwriting, well, then you have to declare … and this is one of the exercises in the very first pages of my book, which is called Write Songs Right Now … the first thing you do is declare that you’re a songwriter. And then immediately, up comes that voice that says, “No, you’re not. You have a terrible voice. You don’t have the equipment. You don’t have the skills. You can’t play an instrument.” It’s like yada-yada, thank you for sharing, now I’m going to write songs. And we really have to let the passion outweigh the criticism, the self-criticism or the criticism of others.
Like I said, we’ve all been criticized. If we let that stop us, what does that say? I have people in my life who do not support me as a songwriter. I’ve been doing this for 40-something years, and they don’t believe in me as a songwriter. Well, you know what? Thanks for sharing. Sorry. Sorry to disappoint. This is what I’m going to do. And that’s almost the attitude you have to have. If you have a relative or a friend who poo-poos what you’re doing, you know what? They probably wish they were writing songs. They’re just jealous.
Christopher: Fantastic. I love that, and I love that you begin by declaring you’re a songwriter because, even if it conjures up that negative voice, I think it gives you the space, doesn’t it, to start exploring what that means to you.
Alex: The permission.
Christopher: Yeah, and the permission.
Alex: Yeah, I call it your artistic license. I mean, we all have an artistic license. It’s a question of whether we choose to use it or not. And the artistic license means that you can do whatever the heck you want to do artistically, and you will suffer the consequences or you will enjoy the consequences, either way. I think if you write a terrible song, they will let you know by not listening to it. What’s the worst that can happen? You write a terrible song, who cares? It’s like, “Next.”
Christopher: You mentioned that, for you on that learning journey, you stuck with it because you were enjoying it. And you said something along the lines of, if you’re not enjoying that process, then maybe it’s not right for you, and maybe you need to go off and be a painter instead. If someone’s at that early stage, and they’re just kind of getting into it and they’re just trying to give themselves permission, is there anything they can do to improve their odds of sticking with it? If they want to stick with it but they’re feeling quite discouraged or maybe they don’t have a supportive community around them, what advice could you give them to make that a more successful journey?
Alex: I would say start to find a community. Wherever you are, even these days with the … It’s a team sport, A. But B, there are so many incredible resources, especially … I talk to a lot of people, because I coach people one-on-one, and they might be isolated in a small town or in the middle of nowhere, but they still want to connect and they want to get feedback and they want to share their song with someone. Because it’s very hard. It’s like looking at your own eyeballs. You can’t tell how good or bad your song is, yourself, because you probably love it. But that objective viewpoint that another person, a like-minded soul, can provide … Not a critical, toxic soul, but a like-minded, enthusiastic, encouraging relationship.
That’s, I think, one of the main things, is to … Like all those guitar teachers I had, all those voice teachers I had, all those songwriting mentors I had, the colleagues I had. I would never have gotten anywhere, sitting in my room, trying to figure it out alone. It’s daunting. There are so many parts of the skill. We all need teachers.
Christopher: You talked about the need to write a lot of songs, and sometimes they’re going to be bad songs. How does that compare with this idea that you’re learning a skill and that your songs can get better and better? How do you go from writing a lot of bad songs to a lot of good songs? Or are you always writing a lot of bad songs, as well?
Alex: I’m still writing a lot of bad songs.
Christopher: Well, that’s reassuring to hear.
Alex: Of course. I think it’s probably … I’d say 90 to 10, bad to good, for the most part. I write a lot of songs, but I throw a lot of songs out. It’s just the nature of the game. I call it quantity towards quality. It’s like that with anything. If you ever did a photo session, they usually take 200, 300 photos, and you pick one. So it’s the same with anything. I just think that we have to get used to the idea of cranking out all those songs. Each of them has something to recommend it, but it’s almost … if you write enough of them, it will start to come together in certain songs.
What I’ve done, which I tell people not to do, and I’ve done it myself, is you get so excited … I call it “song high” … you get so excited about the song you’re writing that you go and spend a lot of money to record it, and then you find out it’s bad. I’ve done it many times, and I cursed myself afterwards. But it’s the momentum of writing the song that can push you to do the crazy stuff. Whereas, if you let it settle for a few weeks and you see, “Gee, how did that song go? I can’t even remember it,” that’s a bad sign. If you can’t even remember your own song, that’s a bad sign.
Christopher: That’s a really valuable tip, and you’ve touched on the fact that it can be really hard to judge your own songs and that sometimes you need to see how an audience responds to them. Is there anything else someone can do to be able to evaluate which songs might be in that 10% that are good, without going out there and performing?
Alex: Well, I’d say there’s a lot of resources these days where you can post your song, you can find a mentor. It’s just that bouncing off. You can also find a collaborator who is strong where you’re weak and weak where you’re strong. If everybody says, “Wow, I love that lyric,” and nobody says, “Wow, I love that music,” it’s like take a hint.
Or if you find yourself becoming very repetitive and writing the same song over and over, like the … oh, gosh, what was her name? The character who keeps writing the song about Joe in the movie. She keeps … oh, gosh, I can’t remember the name of the movie. It’s the one where he holds up the … In Your Eyes. He holds up the Peter Gabriel boombox with In Your Eyes. What the heck’s the name of that movie? But the girl in that is writing the same song about Joe over and over and over. And if you find yourself in one of those ruts, the way to get out of it is by finding other people to bounce off of.
Christopher: Got you. In your experience, having written so extensively and coached other songwriters, is there anything that people can think about in terms of what distinguishes a good song from an okay one or a bad one? Apart from that audience reaction, is there anything more specific or tangible they could be working on to improve?
Alex: That’s a big question. I have an entire chapter on that question, what separates an okay song from a great song. For one thing, a great song, you can remember it afterwards. That’s one of my key things. It has to stick. It has to have some lasting stickiness in terms of melodically, but also lyrically. There needs to be, as we were talking about, a hook. It needs to have a hook that embeds itself and that is unique and memorable.
It has to have a lyric that has meaning that has an angle that has not necessarily been explored before that’s yours, that you staked out some new territory. It has to have a point of view, a strong stand that it takes, a way of looking at the world, a perspective on things that is heartfelt and real and just palpable the minute you turn it on. All these things. It has to have a strong dynamic in terms of a rollercoaster ride.
I would say what happens with most songs that are not that great … and I have written, as I said, many of these myself … is that they have a good little spark, and they start out strong, but then they do what I call “hydroplaning.” They don’t grow over time. It’s like when your car is on the ice in the winter and it just keeps on sailing. It’s not really going up or down, and it’s not taking us … it’s not manipulating the listener. It’s not revealing something of importance. It’s not going anywhere. It’s kind of treading water.
Like I said, it has a spark, which is what propelled you to write the song in the first place, so it starts off kind of strong. But then it just doesn’t have enough there to sustain itself for three minutes, which is a big task. You think three minutes isn’t that long, until you hear a bad song, and then it’s like forever.
Christopher: So if someone’s working on a song and they feel like it’s not quite hitting the mark on one or more of those, how do they know whether to keep trying to improve that song versus jumping to something completely different and writing their next song? How do you find that balance of perfectionism versus volume and quality through quantity, as you put it?
Alex: I’d say go with the heart. Is it driving you? Are you feeling it? The most important ingredient of any song is the heart of it, is the soul of it. Is it ringing true to you? Does it reveal something about you? And if you start … let’s say you put the song aside, and you go to bed finally, and you wake up in the morning. Does it engage you? You’re the first person who has to be engaged by that song. If you’re not feeling emotionally engaged and excited about it, believe me, nobody else will, either. If all you’re doing is craft, which is … there’s nothing wrong with learning a craft by putting the bricks together in a certain way, but if you put it together and all it does is lay there like a pile of bricks, then it’s time to put that one aside.
And you might be able to pick through it and find something that’s worth keeping and recycling in another song. I’ve done that many times, where I was like, that song kind of bit, but that one line was really cool, or I loved that rhyme, or that relationship that sparked that song is certainly worthy of another go at another time in the future. You can kind of take the best of.
Christopher: Fantastic. Given that your own journey obviously started quite young and you were a teenager when you got into songwriting, a lot of our listeners are a bit later in life … mostly adults, some in retirement … and if they’re not in those teen years, is it kind of a pipe dream or a waste of time for them to think about putting on that mantle of songwriter and exploring this kind of journey? Do you need to start young to develop the ability?
Alex: No, you do not need to start young. I am old now, and I’m still doing it. But also, do you care, if a song moves you, how old the writer was when they wrote it? I don’t think so. I mean, is that something you’re measuring when you listen to a great song? Are you saying, “Well, they were 22 when they wrote it, so it’s a better song”? No. I think that it’s a different skill than performing. Like, let’s say that you want to be a ballet dancer. Well, by the time you’re 45, yeah, that might be a pipe dream. But by the time you’re 45 or 50 or 60 and you decide you want to write songs, I think that’s perfectly valid. And who cares, as long as your songs keep getting better? That’s the thing.
Like I said, if you can disengage from the fame and fortune notion for a minute and really just work with the actual song that’s in front of you … A lot of my coaching clients are older, but they do what I do, too, which is sometimes you find a budding artist that will perform your songs. Now, that budding artist is not necessarily going to ask, “How old are you?” before they listen to your song. They’re actually just going to listen to the song, and what’s on the paper and what’s in their ears is actually going to be what determines whether or not you have a shot.
Obviously, there are some people who are judgmental and they only want to write with a hot, young thing. Okay, those aren’t my cup of tea. If they only want to write with a hot, young thing, thank you, we’re never going to work out. It’s like, he’s just not that into you. But a lot of what I do these days is work with artists, write with artists, write for artists who are 20-something and have a viable project going on.
Christopher: Fantastic. So you have compiled a lot of wisdom on the kind of topics we’ve been talking about today in your book, Write Songs Right Now. Could you tell us a bit about that book?
Alex: Oh, well, it actually came out of a … I was teaching a 10-week workshop over and over and over. I think I taught it for like six or seven years. And I had a long series of notes, I think it was 17 or so pages, of bullet points that I would go through in the class. I had one for each week. And I started thinking, well, if I could just make a little workbook for the class, then I could hand it out. So I did that, and I started writing it out, and somebody referred me to a publisher because … I then self-published it.
Really, what I wanted it to be was an inspirational guide for people who … especially people getting their feet wet in this world. It’s not really about the music business, because I find talking about the music business can be very … let’s say it’s just not my cup of tea, talking about the music business. But talking about songwriting and music and lyrics, to me, is really fun and brings out the best in us. Whereas talking about the business can kind of bring out the worst in us because people … you know, it’s just a different can of worms, let’s just put it that way. But talking about songwriting …
So I just had divided it up into the same 10 chapters that I used in the workshop, and somebody picked it up to make it … I did a spoken-word version of it, an audiobook, and also an eBook. I’ve sold a few hundred copies, and it’s great.
Christopher: Fantastic. And the other thing I love of yours is your Breakthrough Song Workshop that’s a video series, a series of short videos, available for free on your website that covers some really … I hesitate to say “unusual,” but certainly distinctive angles and opinions on songwriting. Could you give the listener a little idea of what’s in there?
Alex: Oh, boy. I haven’t watched it in a while.
Christopher: Well, one thing that sticks in my-
Alex: Do you remember any specifics from the chapters?
Christopher: I do. Well, fittingly, one thing that sticks in my mind is you talking about hooks and hooks per square inch. Tell us about that idea.
Alex: HPSI, yes, hooks per square inch. I guess, for me, that came out of listening to the songs that make it to the radio, my own and others. What I’ve noticed is that, with a lot of the songs that make it to the radio, which for me has been the touchstone of … I grew up on radio, I had a radio. I didn’t even have a record player when I was young. My brothers did, but I didn’t have a record player. I had a radio, and I listened to the radio, and that infused my brain somehow. And what I’ve noticed is that pretty much 100% of the songs that make it to the radio have musical hooks, they have lyrical hooks, they have vocal … the background vocals are a hook, the lead vocal is full of hooks, the guitar part is a hook, the bassline is a hook, the drumbeat is a hook. It’s almost like these multiple hooks interacting with each other.
Like, you can be in a store and you hear the first few notes of a song, and you go, oh, I know that song. And it’s not even the … it’s not the vocal melody. It’s that little thing in the intro, that little sound and that little drumbeat and that little combination of maybe some of the background vocals. And if you can start thinking that way, of multiple hooks interacting with each other so that there’s never a dull moment … There’s this concept out there that everything is leading up and then you get the hook. No, it’s all hook, all the time. They’re just different kinds of hooks.
Like, think of the bassline of “My Girl”, [sings], you hear that and you go, “I love this song!” And that’s not the main hook. The main hook is where they go, “My girl, my girl,” right? But the bassline is a fantastic hook unto itself. Or Stevie Wonder, Superstition, where it goes [sings] and you go, “Yeah, I love this tune!” But is that the main hook or not? Maybe it is, in that case.
Christopher: I love this. I think the reason this struck me so much was that it’s almost counterintuitive. We think if the song has a hook, that’s what we showcase. Like you said, we build up to that. And anything else, we don’t want to make it too interesting, because it might distract from the hook. But as you described there so well, the best songs, the one that catch your attention on the radio and the ones that are interesting enough to be played on the radio, are kind of continuously interesting, which means they must have more than one catchy bit.
So yeah, I think that’s just one example of that Breakthrough Song Workshop, what makes it so interesting. I definitely encourage anyone listening to go and check that out. That’s at CreativeSongwriter.com. Correct me if I’m wrong, Alex, but I believe that’s the best place to learn more about your books and other projects. Is that right?
Alex: Yeah. Yeah, I have a lot of links there. There’s a mailing … a contact-me page if people want to get in touch. I try to write back to everybody. It takes a few days maybe, but I do write back to everybody who writes in to the site. I’m passionate about this. I don’t know if you can tell. I care deeply, and I really do think it makes a big difference in people’s lives to be able to express their true self in a song. A lot of the people I work with one-on-one or in workshops or whatever, you can see that they’re bursting at the seams and they want to get something across.
And to be able to embody it in one of those three-minute forms, it’s so fulfilling to see someone write what I call a breakthrough song. A breakthrough song is that all those years you’ve spent learning the craft and the art, experimenting with your own art … in other words, putting your heart and your art into something and learning the craft of it … there comes a moment, if you keep at it, where it flips over and you have a breakthrough song. And that song actually … it leaves everything else in the dust, and it opens up a new future that wasn’t there before you wrote that song.
Christopher: Wonderful. Well, I think it’s rare and tremendous to encounter someone like yourself who speaks with such clarity around these topics that are often a real mess inside people’s heads, around talent and inspiration and creativity. I really admire the way you blend the creative arts with the practicalities of learning the craft. I know that’s going to have been really inspiring and helpful to our listeners today who are at one phase or another on that songwriting journey. So just a big thank-you, Alex, for joining us on the show today.
Alex: Hey, my pleasure. It’s great, and I really respect what you’re doing. I look forward to hearing from folks if they’re interested at all in finding out more.
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