Have you ever wanted to write a song as beautifully wistful as ‘Sugar Moutain’? Or maybe a tune as thunderously powerful as ‘Rockin’ In the Free World’? Or perhaps your taste is more ‘Cinnamon Girl’ or ‘Powderfinger’? Whatever the case may be, if you’re a Neil Young acolyte looking to get into the songwriting game, there are plenty of tips that Young himself has provided to aspiring writers over the years.
The YouTube channel SongWriters Chop Shop has conveniently collected some of Young’s most insightful tips by trudging through interviews that the ‘Heart of Gold’ singer has given throughout the years. What is revealed shouldn’t be a massive surprise to anyone who knows Young’s personality: he’s somewhat flip and self-effacing about his songs, often describing his songwriting process through gritted teeth and casual jest.
Still, it’s hard to deny the legacy that Young has had on a large swath of popular music genres. Folk, hard rock, psychedelic rock, jam band, and soft rock have all been graced by the man’s steady hand. His expert use of stark imagery and metaphor has added an element of timelessness to even his oldest material, and he’s reliably cranked out great songs for over 50 years.
If you want to start writing like Neil Young, these are the main five tips he’s given over the years.
5 songwriting tips from Neil Young:
1. Don’t force it
Young employed a metaphor for the effortlessness that he seeks while writing songs: “Don’t chase the rabbit.” In essence, you don’t catch a rabbit by waiting by the hole. You let it get comfortable with your presence, and if it winds up getting close enough to catch it…then you catch it.
Young undercuts this statement in classic casual fashion by remarking that, “If the song happens, then it happens. If the song doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t matter.”
Basically, do what you do, keep practising, play for fun, and whatever comes, comes. Don’t overthink it, and don’t force it.
2. Trust yourself
Look, truth be told, if someone with a more traditional voice or guitar playing style came up to Young at a tender and impressionable age and told him how out of line his musicianship was, he probably wouldn’t have been the genius he is today. But Young always carried himself with the notion that he didn’t care if you didn’t like his voice, or his guitar playing, or his songs. He liked them, and that’s all that matters.
The same can apply to your songwriting: follow your intuition, and be your own strongest advocate.
3. Always be ready
Once you put yourself in the right state of mind to let the songs flow, you have to be ready to capture lightning in a bottle. If you’re banging away at a piano or mindlessly humming a tune, make sure you have the tools to translate those nebulous thoughts into a concrete piece of work.
Maybe this takes the form of having a guitar in an easy to reach place when you’re lounging around. Maybe it’s having a piece of paper ready to write, or your phone on the voice memo app ready to record. Whatever it means to you, the idea of being ready makes it so that the song is ready to come naturally, and all you have to do is let it flow.
4. Accept failure
For all his accolades and his indisputable rock god status, Neil Young has not always been a success. The Ditch Trilogy comes to mind, where he purposefully spent three albums moving away from the success that Harvest granted him. So too does Trans, his robotic post-punk album that got him sued by his record company. Young has had fallow periods, and accepting those failures is important for artistic growth.
Or, as the man himself puts it: “The other thing that you have to be willing to do, and you have to really be able to embrace it and accept it and really accept it into your life with open arms and a wide vision, is failure. Be sure to welcome failure.”
Basically, once you accept failure, you have no fear, because what’s the worst that can happen?
5. Stop thinking
This pretty much goes hand in hand with “don’t force it”, but in a more explicit fashion. “Usually I sit down and I go until I’m trying to think. As soon as I start thinking, I quit. Then when I have an idea out of nowhere, I start back up again. When that idea stops, I stop.”
The worst thing for songwriting is a contrived, overthought idea. It can be sensed a mile away, and that’s why common rhymes, preachy lyrics, and overexerted attempts to be clever wind up ruining songs. The animal part of your brain should take hold, allowing your influences and intuitions to take over.