Whether as instrumentalists, singers or songwriters, those of us who play music with any degree of seriousness tend to aspire to finding and developing a recognisable personal style.
And that’s a good thing. Over time our style – or our way of doing things – becomes our brand. It’s the thing that sets us apart.
But here’s the rub. While it’s good to have a recognisable style it’s certainly not good to become predictable. And sometimes, without knowing it, personal style morphs into sameness. From a songwriting point of view, that might mean falling back on certain chord voicings. Or we may find ourselves pulling out variations of the same melody over chord sequences that are always different and yet strangely familiar. Or to put it another way, we end up falling back on those musical tropes and habits that have served us well over the years. It’s a rut.
As a songwriter, I’ve always tried to break things up a bit. So if I’m writing a 10 song collection, I’ll employ different tempos, song structures, keys, and tunings, playing styles and subject matter. This is all conscious activity. Unconsciously, I might well be – for instance – using similar chord patterns but in different keys in two songs. As far as I’m concerned they sound as different as chalk and cheese, but record and play them back to back and the similarities emerge.
So how do you break away from the habits that have become vices. Here are five ways that work for me.
Learn and Play Some Cover Versions
One thing I have been guilty of is focusing solely on my own songs. After all, when I’m out gigging, 95% of what I play is original. So when I’m at home, I concentrate on writing new material or honing existing songs.
The problem is that it’s all too easy to base everything around a personal style – and musical knowledge – that you’re overly familiar with. Maybe also, you forget how to be a fan.
Playing covers reconnects you with the way other songwriters work. The chords they use. How they use melody above the chords. Their use of rhythm. I’m not talking about ripping off other writers. It’s more a case of letting them pull you out of your comfort zone.
Write on Different Instruments
Even changing from one apparently similar instrument to another can re-inspire you. For instance, when I returned to playing live after a ten year gap, the catalyst was the purchase of a parlour acoustic guitar. It asked to be played fingerstyle, and as I explored its musical possibilities, I started to write a whole new collection of songs, which eventually found their way onto the Secret Histories and Firecracker Day albums.
More radically, you might switch from acoustic to electric guitar as your main writing instrument. Or from guitar to piano. Alternatively to take your mind of chords and focus it on melody and beat, you could try building a song from a drum track.
The album I’m probably most proud of is Firecracker Day. It’s a stripped down, acoustic purist album featuring voice and fingerstyle guitar. It was designed to ( if such a thing is possible) showcase my guitar work, voice and story telling style. But here’s the thing. I loved the stripped down format but I knew that when I came to make another record, that I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) do the same thing again.
So next time round, I jettisoned a lot of the fingerstyle solo playing and opted instead for layered guitars. Strummed at flat picked acoustics, overdubbed with electric lead lines. This had a double impact on my writing and recording. On one hand, it changed the feel of existing songs. Equally, though, it fed into my writing.
Play with a Band
I play a lot of solo gigs, but every so often I get a band together. And guess what, my writing changes. Once I get a feel for what the band can do, I start writing for that combination.
Get Outside Your Own Life
Most of us start off by writing from experience. Your sixteen and your girlfriend/boyfriend dumps you, so write a song. It’s heartfelt and your friends all like it. But unless you have a more interesting life than I do, writing from personal experience has its limits. So look at the world and people around you. There’s a whole world of stories out there. Stories that can inspire your next hit (if you’re luckier than I am).
Learn Your Craft
On the technical side, there are a huge amount of tools at your disposal. Listen to other writers to see how they structure their work in terms of verses, choruses, bridges, codas, internal rhymes. Equally – and this gets back to playing covers – there’s a whole range of musical styles, scales and chord substitutions that can take your writing forward.
More of this in another blog.