Songwriting presents many challenges: how do you block out all of society’s noise to allow some musical inspiration to enter in? How do you get someone else interested in your songs once they’re written? Where can you get a good deal on yellow legal pads?
Maybe the biggest challenge of all, though, is simply coming up with an original song idea that hasn’t been used before. Or if you’re writing a love song, positive or negative, how do you find a new way to express ideas like, “she left me, and I sure miss her,” or “she’s really great, and I’m really glad I met her”? (Actually, now that I look at those, I think they’re pretty catchy titles. Please don’t steal them!).
Most songwriting workshops I’ve attended, or participated in, generally deal with the craft of songwriting. That’s if you’re lucky. In the worst-case-scenario kind of workshop, you mainly have songwriters fielding questions about how to get songs published or cut, or they just degenerate into songwriters name-dropping about their “cuts” by famous artists (“when Faith cut ‘You Are It,’ I thought my life as a songwriter was complete. Then she introduced me to Tim—what a card that guy is—and he expressed an interest in ‘You’re My Vegas’ and the rest is history. I’ve truly been blessed”).
Songwriting workshops seldom give aspiring songwriters really specific song ideas. One of the reasons for this is that these same songwriters don’t want to be giving away their best stuff.
There’s also a belief that you need to earn your song ideas by living the kind of lonesome, tortured, songwriter-ish life that produces inspiration for heart-wrenching songs. You know, the kind of life that entails working crappy jobs, sleeping in train stations, doing jail time, engaging in rampant substance abuse, and making reckless and foolish decisions in your romantic life.
For my part, among other low points, I’ve done janitorial work in an electronics plant, and I was stood up on my 18th birthday, so I’ve got all the inspiration I need or want (you may recall my song “You Stood Me Up Because I’m a Janitor”; Tim and Faith cut it as a duet). But what if you’ve had no real heartbreak or disappointment in your life so far? Perhaps you came from a functional family, went straight from a college music program into high-paying gigs with nice catering, and you’ve been in a loving and stable relationship since you were 15? Should you be excluded from writing angst-ridden and pathetic songs? I don’t think so.
At one point, I wrote a column suggesting ideas for a songwriter’s video game that would simulate tragic life events so you wouldn’t have to actually live them yourself, but the game is still in development. To tide you over, then, I’m going to list several specific song ideas to get you going. Some songwriters make you buy a book to get this kind of information, but I’m offering it to you for free. And, as I said, you’re unlikely to ever get this from a songwriting workshop. I’m even including working song titles, so all you need to do is flesh out the ideas and set them to music.
Some of these ideas are different angles on existing songs, but they’re original angles, and remember that’s what all love songs are anyway.
“I Wish Your Letters Rambled More” – A guy is in love with a girl who is really bad at expressing herself with the written word. All of her communications start with, “How are you? I am fine,” and close with “Wishing you all the best . . .” with almost nothing in between.
“Let Me Introduce You” – Two festival M.C.s have feelings for each other, but they can never do anything about it because one of them is always on duty, bringing bands off and on, telling them when their time is up, and reading off sponsors’ names in between acts. All they can do is share a meaningful glance as one hands the clipboard off to the other.
“The Lawson Family Lecture” – This makes a nice non-violent alternative to “The Lawson Family Murder,” in which the Lawson dad vents his frustration to the rest of his family, detailing the ways everyone has let him down, then storms off in a huff. One of the kids remarks, “I think dad’s really mad” (you don’t have to use that part; I’m just throwing out ideas).
“I Think It’s More of a Grey-ish Blue” – A young soldier accidentally fights for the wrong side in the Civil War. After he’s mortally wounded in battle, he’s heard uttering these words: “I think I like you guys better anyway.”
“Lonesome Bureaucratic Blues” – A county sheriff laments his professional life because of all the paperwork he has to do day in and day out.
“Bad Corn” – A moonshiner poisons an entire town due to improper distilling methods.
“Bluegrass is Awesome” – When in doubt, everybody loves a bluegrass song about bluegrass.
And, in case you’re hoping to write a song with crossover potential:
“I’m Melting in the Rain” – A new take on Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park,” told from the point of view of the cake.