Why I am a Songwriter


Why I am a songwriter

I’ve written songs my entire life. Only my guitar has heard them all. There have been times when I’ve tried to stop writing when I’m not playing out and new songs start piling up on my computer. I might as well have tried to stop breathing. Behind every songwriter is a motivation that explains why we keep picking up a pen and a guitar to write hundreds, if not thousands of songs the world may never hear.

Once, I got an indirect complement about my music. A top song-plugger in Nashville (someone who knows when artists need songs for projects and represents writers and their catalogues of songs) reviewed my music to consider taking my catalogue on.  He told me, “I really love your music. It really only has one thing wrong with it… your songs actually say something. That’s not real popular on the radio these days.”

Living not far from Nashville has allowed me to understand why pro writers do what they do. I’m fortunate to know one of country music’s most endeared songwriters, Tony Arata. One day while I was up in Nashville I asked him what he was writing these days. He said, “I’m at the point in my career that I’ve decided I’m only going to write songs I can be proud of.”

There are all kinds of motivations for songwriting. Some write for self-expression. Some set out to change people’s minds about causes. Others want recognition and appreciating fans, a career making music, fame on the radio or a chance to hear their songs on the Opry stage. I’ve felt myself wanting bits and pieces of all of that. But none of that is what keeps me writing by 6am every morning.

Personally, I am a songwriter because no other activity in my life comes close to connecting me to people (both listeners and cowriters) the way songwriting does, providing us opportunities to explore together the matters of life, love, relationships, meaning and faith.

How does songwriting work? (the process)

Concept for a song

A songwriter is constantly on the lookout for the interesting things to discuss. From the commonplace to the extraordinary. And when it happens, my mind turns on like a motor without an off switch. I collect ideas in notebooks, on phones, on computers and on napkins, both lyrically and musically. And for me, it’s dreaming of how I can take these personal thoughts and turn them into something public I can share with others.

Crafting songs

I recognize that just because I have ideas, that doesn’t mean they’re good enough to share with others. So I write literally every day. I’m blessed to be able to get up early, so my songwriting usually starts around 6am. I even have a few brave souls (often in timezones east of me) that will write with me online before I go to my day job. Because of time constraints I usually only finish a song or two a week.

Creating demos 

I record simple guitar voice demos to get feedback from outsiders to help me evaluate whether I’m the only one that was connecting with the song or not. Then if I feel there’s merit in the feedback, I’ll begin re-writing the song. Most songs never see the light of day. But over time, I have a new collection of songs that I will test on a small audience. It could be at a gathering, for a open mic, or even a gig when I’m supposed to be covering radio hits for the most part. 

Choosing next steps. 

There are a few main choices here. 

  1. Some songs don’t go anywhere. It’s worth writing them if for no other reason than that they make me want to do better next time. 
  2. Some will stay in my personal repertoire to perform them myself. 
  3. Songs I’ve written with artists often end up on their recordings and in their performances.
  4. Others I’ll pitch to publishers who represent artists I think might benefit from taking the song. (Not being in Nashville makes it harder for me to become a trusted member of the songwriting community, so I haven’t had a ton of success there.)
  5. And some I’ll need to create professional recordings for film and tv music (called sync.) Recording songs with pro players in a pro studio is too expensive to be a hobby. But the deadlines for film and television are incredibly short and require recordings you’ve already produced. It’s not uncommon to have a request made public for a particular type of song on Monday, and have it air by the end of the week. That doesn’t leave time to make a new recording and do all the legal steps needed for a contract. So I only record if I think the song’s got a chance of being picked up for sync, or if want to take a chance as a performer who needs merchandise and radio airplay.

What do I get out of being a songwriter?

In a day when the general public thinks music should be free like air, it’s definitely not about money. Being a life-long songwriter has always cost me financially more than it ever gained. Even pro writers barely scrape by. Thankfully, I have other skills that have paid the bills. But I thought it might be good for me to list a few of the benefits I’ve enjoyed because I’m a songwriter.

  • I have learned how to listen as well as speak
  • I get to see the world from the viewpoints of others
  • I am discovering more about myself and my values as they surface in my songs
  • I have the joy of having my songs appreciated by others
  • I am invited into connections with listeners and co-writers that would have been missed had I not been a songwriter. Co-writers have become some of my closest friends.
  • I get to hear people tell me about aspects of my songs that made an impression or touched them deeply.
  • I am honored when other artists perform songs I’ve been a part of writing and watch the song go places I’ll never see. 
  • And for me personally, since my livelihood doesn’t depend on my songwriting, I have the freedom as an independent songwriter to write about things I care about and to make music I’m proud of personally.

What is that you are drawn to do over and over again? Then ask yourself why.

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