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Carmin Chappell

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Confessions of a First-Time Songwriter

Posted: 08/18/2013 11:16 am

I've spent many nights this summer curled around my acoustic guitar. Hours have been dedicated to strumming renditions of my favorite songs, playing until my fingers were too sore to pluck another string. Mind separated from body; body connected to melody. But I yearned for something more than the washed up feelings of another artist, imitated too many times by ambitious teenagers with Yamahas to retain their sincerity. So one night, with notes and riffs swirling in my head, I decided to write a song of my own.

I sat down and began smugly typing into my iPhone (just in case inspiration struck while I was out), stopping every so often to conjure up a list of rhyming words for the next line. I developed an entire story in my mind, with enough conflict and climax to impress any English teacher. Subtle analogies and metaphors were sprinkled in between the lines as I commended myself for my attention to detail.

After finishing my lyrics in what should have been a questionably short time (I attributed it to my obvious natural talent), I carefully decided on a chord progression that fit the fabricated "mood" of my song. I loaded Apple's gift to the inexperienced musician, GarageBand, and prepared to record my creation. Committed to maintaining professionalism (for when the label executives start calling), I recorded separate tracks for vocals and instrumentals. I gleefully added an artificial drum pattern from the "Jazz" collection, the closest thing I could find to the "Acoustic Indie Folk Greatness" genre, in which my song definitely belonged. An "ambient" effect disguised my harmonies and the fact that I zoned out during that lesson in music class. After recording at most three takes (I didn't want to ruin the raw emotion, of course), I was sure my song was ready for the airwaves.

A few hours later, I sat down at my computer, plugged in my headphones, and pressed play. Without the creative adrenaline that fueled my songwriting process, I realized I might not have created a masterpiece. Or a decent song, for that matter. Disregarding my amateur recording technique, my song just didn't have the heart or style I'd anticipated.

As a person who likes to dive right into a task, I'll admit that I underestimated the skill it takes to write a song. As both a musician and a writer, I was convinced I could churn out hits in my sleep, but there's much more required than textbook knowledge. The circle of fifths only helped so much before I felt trapped in my own circle of dull chord progressions and clashing harmonies. My journalism experience and AP Literature score couldn't save me from cliché lyrics and trite imagery. From listening to some of my favorite tunes, simplicity seems to be the best method for creating a good song. My lofty desire for a deeper meaning led to contrivances that felt clumsy and unnatural. If I had just focused on one verse or melody instead of attempting to do everything, my song would've had a more solid foundation. I was overwhelmed by the possibilities of a blank page, and justifiably so. In terms of creative authority, writing a song is on entirely different level than interpreting other artists' music through covers. Conceiving a multifaceted piece of art from nothing is the ultimate test of a musician. It's one part technicality and one part imagination, and the two should coexist like lyrics and melody to make something great.

Despite my challenges, I'm not giving up on my quest for a great song to call my own. I've already got a few ideas; I think next time I'll have a hit.

 
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