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From Bob Dylan to David Byrne: Tips on songwriting from the masters

Although it might seem like some songs were never written, as though they are so natural and omnipotent that they were surely just somehow coaxed out of the ether by some sort of alchemical process that only those who sold their soul know how to enact, the truth is there is a very true science behind the art. 

While churning out songs evidently comes easier to some than others, there is no denying that even the masters have to finagle their songs into shape. The good thing is that as they go along in this process they amass knowledge that often they have disseminated to help others on their musical journey.

Below, we have amassed some of the finest songwriting quotes from masters of the craft. From the beautiful to the practical, we invite any would-be songsmiths to allow this to be your guiding bible. 

Songwriting advice from the greats:

Bob Dylan

On the importance of curating influence and musical exploration: “It is only natural to pattern yourself after someone. If I wanted to be a painter, I might think about trying to be like Van Gogh, or if I was an actor, act like Laurence Olivier. If I was an architect, there’s Frank Gehry. But you can’t just copy someone,” Dylan once said via The Los Angeles Times in 2004.

“If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years. I go back to Stephen Foster.”

Joni Mitchell

On the importance of not fearing mistakes: “If you’re only working off what you know, then you can’t grow. It’s only through error that discovery is made, and in order to discover you have to set up some sort of situation with a random element, a strange attractor, using contemporary physics terms,” Mitchell said in a part interview with Acoustic Magazine.

“The more I can surprise myself, the more I’ll stay in this business, and the twiddling of the notes is one way to keep the pilgrimage going. You’re constantly pulling the rug out from under yourself, so you don’t get a chance to settle into any kind of formula.”

Alex Turner

On the importance of mixing up the process: “The guitar had lost its ability to give me ideas. Every time I sat down with it I was suspicious of where it was going to go,” Turner said when speaking to BBC Radio 1, 2018. 

“Which was completely contrary to how I felt when I sat at the piano and suddenly my imagination was ignited once more,” he added.

John Fogerty (Credence Clearwater Revival)

On the importance of a starting point: “I got a little plastic book, and somewhere along the way the very first thing I wrote in it was the words ‘Proud Mary’. I had no idea what that meant, but after that, every time I had an idea, I’d write it in that book,” Fogerty told Uncut in 2012.

“What I discovered was, if I had a title that sounded cool, then I’d try to write a cool song that fit the cool title. That’s how ‘Bad Moon Rising’ happened. I had written that in there, and at some point later, messing around with some chords and kind of a story, as I went through what was only a few pages then, I saw the phrase. ‘Yeah—that’s what this is about,’ and I went off in that direction.” 

Tom Waits

On the importance of relishing in the art form: “For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes,” Waits told NPR in 2011.

“And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.”

Mark E Smith (The Fall)

On the importance of attitude and bravura (I suppose): “If you’re going to play it out of tune, then play it out of tune properly,” Smith said in Renegade by Mark E Smith, 2009.

Dolly Parton

One the importance of not taking it too seriously: “It’s therapy. It’s fun. It’s creative,” Parton once told American Songwriting Magazine in 2006.

“I love getting on a big writing binge and staying up a couple days working on song and knowing at the end of those two or three days that I’ve created something that was never in the world before.” 

Nick Cave

On the importance of counterpoint and imagination: “Songwriting is about counterpoint. Counterpoint is the key: putting two disparate images beside each other and seeing which way the sparks fly,” Cave is quoted as saying in the 20,000 Days on Earth documentary.

“Like letting a small child in the same room as, I don’t know, a Mongolian psychopath or something, and just sitting back, and seeing what happens. Then you send in a clown, say, on a tricycle, and again.”

David Bowie

On the importance of an uninfluenced artistic vision: “Never play to the gallery. Always remember that the reason you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society,” Bowie said as part of the Inspirations documentary in 1997. 

“I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfil other people’s expectations. They generally produce their worst work when they do that.”

Joan Armatrading

On the importance of being self-aware in the midst of the process: “Writing is all about self-editing; it’s all about being present, being aware of what’s happening,” he said via Sodajerker Podcast, 2014.

David Byrne 

On the importance of being ready to seize upon inspiration: “I still think you have to wait for the inspiration, but unless you’re there, waiting at the bus stop, you ain’t gonna get on the bus,” Byrne said via Go Into The History, 2014.

“If you’re doing other things all day, a song ain’t gonna get on the bus. If you’re doing other things all day, a song ain’t gonna tap you on the shoulder and go, Pull the car over. I’ve got a song for you right now. That can happen but I think it’s pretty rare. I find that you have to get into the mode and hope that something comes. It doesn’t always.”

Paul McCartney 

On the importance of individualism: “I used to think that anyone doing anything weird was weird,” McCartney said via Revolution in the Head by Ian McDonald, 1994.

“I suddenly realised that anyone doing anything weird wasn’t weird at all and it was the people saying they were weird that were weird.”

Stevie Wonder

On the importance of having a creative mindset: “I can’t say that I’m always writing in my head, but I do spend a lot of time in my head writing and coming up with ideas,” he told CNN.

“And what I do usually is write the music and melody and maybe the basic idea, but when I feel that I don’t have a song, I just say ‘God please give me another song,’ and I just am quiet, and it happens, and it’s just amazing.”

Paul Simon

On the importance of hard work and writing in the vernacular: “I work with my guitar and a legal pad and use about 50 pages to develop a song. I get going fairly early in the morning, because my mind is sharp, […] Slowly, a song will begin to emerge although sometimes it will stagger along, day after day, making no progress at all. […] I think most songs should be written in the vernacular,” Simon said to the Making Music by George Martin.

“There is, however, some good news and some bad news about this the good news is that it’s simply the way we all speak; and the bad news is that it’s … simply the way we all speak! Odd as it may sound, I don’t think poetry lends itself to song. Editing your own words is a significant part of writing songs: the writer must edit all of the time.”

Bruce Springsteen

On the importance of duende (soul): “Why songs are good is because one add one makes three. If you’re writing and all you get is one add one makes two you fail. […] You’ve got to find that third thing that you don’t understand but is truly coming up from inside of you,” The Boss once said.

“You can set any place, you can choose any type of character, but if you don’t reach down and touch that place, then you’re just not going to have anything to say and it’s just not going to feel like it has life and breath in it, you’re not going to create something real, and it’s not going to feel authentic.”

Leonard Cohen

The importance of allowing time to do the work, and working hard all the same: “No, I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing,” Cohen is quoted as saying by Songwriters on Songwriting by Paul Zollo.

“I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So, it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is. So, I am working most of the time.”

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