In this episode, I share some of my thoughts on songwriting and why I have a bit of impostor syndrome when it comes to calling myself a songwriter.
I also share tons of information that I normally give in my songwriting workshops, including information about: song forms and structures, rhyme schemes, formats, story songs, and ballads.
I also share some actionable tips for songwriters (and perhaps other creative souls) who might need a jog of creative inspiration!
Lastly, I share some “behind-the-song” details about one of my more popular songs from the back-catalog.
Even if you’re not a songwriter, I hope you’ll enjoy hearing about the process, with a bit of music along the way!
I Was an Oak Tree by Jonathan Byrd
Polaroids by Shawn Colvin
Summerflight by Carla Gover and Zoe Speaks
Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts song by Bob Dylan
Barbry Ellen by Carla Gover and Zoe Speaks
welcome to the what dreamers do podcast. i’m your host carla govan and appalachian musician flatfoot dancer, mama creative and dreamer from kentucky. i’m on a mission to inspire others to realize their dreams and live their most creative lives. grab your mason jar full of sweet tea or something a little stronger, and pull up a chair, because it’s time to get your dream off.
that’s what dreamers do.
well, hello dreamers, i’m happy to be back here talking with you yet again, this week. i’m happy to be healthy and living in a place of relative peace. and the sun is shining. and that puts me in a good mood. so welcome to the wet dreamers do podcast where today, i’m going to be talking about songwriting and creativity.
so i hesitated on whether i wanted to introduce songwriting as one of the themes or not, because i know that not everybody who listens to this podcast is a songwriter and i, you know, don’t want to bore anyone. however, i know that a lot of people who listen to this podcast are songwriters. and it’s always fun to talk shop. but also i believe that any creative process for me, as someone who loves to listen to podcasts and interviews and so forth, listening to other people’s creative processes and hearing them talk about
how they roll always inspires me. so hopefully, that you’ll have some takeaways. even if you’re not a songwriter, i decided to talk about songwriting because it is of perennial interest to me, but also because i’ve been messing around with a song this morning and sitting here with my guitar, my good old gibson, and it’s just on my mind, and i never run out of things to say when i’m talking about songwriting. so here goes. first off, i’m going to make a confession to you guys about songwriting. sometimes i feel like an imposter when it comes to songwriting.
maybe that sounds crazy. but even though i’ve written songs my entire life off and on since i can remember,
i’m not one of those nashville kind of songwriters who has writing dates twice a week and writes, you know, 14 songs a month.
so i say that to you, just to let you know that imposter syndrome is something that we all feel. and i am consciously aware that there’s a little bit of
poor thinking in my perception of myself as an imposter. when it comes to songwriting because i have done it a lot. i have multiple albums, i’ve won some cool contests and had some really awesome opportunities come my way because of my songwriting, but it is one of several passions that i have. and so it doesn’t get all of my mojo, it gets some momodu
one of the things that i really love about songwriting is, how diverse it is, how creative it is, and what a huge range of styles and voices and approaches and techniques and methodologies there are.
for me, i have been one of those people that listens to lyrics, my entire life. even when i was a little kid, i just listened to the lyrics tried to make sense of them tried to figure out what people are saying. and then there are those people that really more listened to the groove. and you mentioned something about gosh, that was kind of a dark lyric. and they’re like, what, what was that even about? i wasn’t even listening to lyric, i was just kind of grooving. so i don’t think there’s one right or wrong way. but i am just incredibly impressed by how
there can be a great song that has an incredibly simple rhyme scheme and very few words, but it just they’re so well crafted, and they just hit home. and then there’ll be other songs that are like the most beautiful, complex poetry set to music, and would be a thing of beauty and a work of art on their own, even without the music. i have always appreciated songs that tell stories in an unusual way. because not all songs tell stories. let’s face it, there are dance songs or r&b songs or
even folk songs that don’t necessarily have a narrative arc and they don’t tell a story and they’re not from a particular person’s point of view or a character’s point of view, let’s say. but then other songwriters have an almost entirely story based approach to songwriting people like john prine who becomes
somebody else in so many of his songs he becomes
an old person sitting alone in their apartment and he becomes a woman and he and he takes on all of these characters. so many songwriters, we look to john prine as a
kind of our guru, our fearless leader for obvious reasons.
one song that i heard recently that i hadn’t heard in a while i had heard it before, but came up as an example of a cleverly written song with a different perspective is called i was in oak tree by jonathan bird, which is byo rd. i wish i could play songs on this show. but because of rights issues, i’m not allowed to pretend to be a dj and play songs for you guys, but you can go look it up. he’s one of my favorite songwriters anyway, but i really love that song because it, the first line is i was an oak tree. so i mean, that just grabs you right away. so memorable. first lines are one of the things that i love to look for. it’s kind of like in our modern day era, when you get an email with a really good subject line that makes you want to open it because we get so many emails these days. but if you see one that has something intriguing, you’re a lot more likely to open it and read it.
and the first line of a song, it’s kind of like that, that thing that pulls you in that thing that sets the stage. so i could probably do a whole podcast on this first lines of songs. and feel free to message me whatever you think those are, if you want to, because i love to hear from you guys. but what i thought i would do, since i’m talking about songwriting, is share some of my songwriting, ritual songwriting tips and tricks and techniques that i use and that i teach in my workshops. and that way, in case you are a songwriter, you might find some inspiration, or something that will help you in your process. and if you’re not a songwriter, maybe you’ll just find it interesting or inspiring in some other way.
so the first thing that i’ll talk about is my songwriting ritual, which is not unlike my creativity ritual, but it has a few extra steps or a few different aspects of it. and i also want to share why i like to have a songwriting ritual. so there’s a few different reasons. one of them is that it helps me get out of my own way. because when i light my candle, and i get my tea, and i set up my materials and tools, and i have my notebook, and my pins and my guitar sitting there and my tuner, it signals to my brain that we’re fixing to get started. so it sets me up to be in the creative mode. another thing that my songwriting ritual helps me with is silencing my inner critic.
the inner critic is a problem for all artists and creatives. and really, let’s face it all human beings. and it’s that little voice on our shoulder, that’s always all too willing to tell us why even bother, that’s dumb, you’re going to fail, you’re going to screw it up. and when i ritualize something, when i just tell myself, okay, i’m going to do it no matter what. so what if it sucks, shut up, inner critic, it’s time to get down to business. it just helps me sidestep that for a while. and maybe at the end of my songwriting session, i don’t have anything that i like, and i don’t put it out to the world, but at least i’ve done it and i’ve made that muscle stronger. so then tomorrow, or the next day, or the next week, or the next month, when i return back to it, i have more strength, and i’m more ready.
i love using the phrase, and you’ve heard me say it before court, the muse. creating a little ritual is definitely one of my ways of coding my muse. and especially if i have flowers in my space, i know it sounds cheesy, you guys. but when i make my space nice for myself, as if imagine, you were hired by somebody to do your songwriting or to do your art because you were so good. and you were in demand. and they said, okay, we’re going to have you come and we’re going to give you the space today, or we’re going to give you this whole week and they set it up for you.
just think about yourself and treat yourself like that. so, you know, you might make sure there’s water you might put some flowers on the table, you make sure there’s really good pins and freshly sharpened pencils and pads of paper, and all the tools of the trade and maybe even my favorite songwriting tool of all time is my iphone. in the notes, the audio notes section. i am constantly it’s so full of notes. and i know i’m not the only songwriter or creative that does this but i just have to remember to back it up frequently because i could use lose so many ideas if i lost my data on my iphone because i
put, i put ideas there, like when i’m in the car, and i can’t get to my guitar. but also, when i’m writing, i put my rough drafts in that iphone. so i really love that as a songwriting tool. so that is also something that i would put with my ritual preparation.
and it just helps me have a habit. when i have the little creative ritual, whether it’s songwriting, or something else i’m working on that day, it plays into building those habits. so that i get used to being somebody who creates things on the regular.
another wonderful source of inspiration is finding a place with a good view.
coffee shop cafe overlooking a river, somewhere with good light, right here, right now, in my kitchen, this time of day, which is the afternoon the light really streams in and it feels luxurious, it doesn’t cost anything, the sun shines free. but i have this little aura of luxury for when i’m working. so again, whatever it is, that connects you with feeling good with flowing, i will add a caveat that you don’t want to make it too complicated, because then you can spend all your time getting distracted on the external things. and the most important thing, the most important thing of all, is that you just do it that you just take action. i believe so much in taking action when it comes to any form of creativity or anything that you’re wanting to do in your life. go ahead and do it, you might screw up, but you’re going to learn a lot on the way. and you’re going to course correct as you go. and you’re going to reach your destination a lot faster. if you just go ahead and start imperfectly rather than trying to plan and organize everything in advance. so that you can have a perfect beginning, well, there might be six months down the road, and you haven’t even started.
another thing i love to do to warm up is a songwriting warmup that i learned from a writer and teacher named pat patterson.
and it is called seven sense writing. and it’s a little bit like the morning pages that people do who do the artists way, in that you’re just kind of doing a stream of consciousness. but in this case, it’s very focused. you pick an object to write about, you could it could be a mug, it could be a doll, it could be something imaginary, like a yellow dress, it could be a building, it can be literally anything. but the crucial parts are that you set a timer for 10 minutes, and only 10 minutes. and then you use as many of your senses as you can sight smell, taste, hearing, touch. plus, like the organic sense of your body, your heartbeat, your breath, that cramped feeling you might have if you’ve been sitting at a computer, things like that. and also your kinesthetic sense your sense of your relationship to the world around you. the way the landscape blurs out the car window when you’re driving or maybe the way your neck prickles when you’re crawling up and under something
like an old porch, and you know, there’s spiders up there. so in this case, we’re looking at seven senses instead of five. and so you set your timer, you turn it on, and you write as much as you can, freeform sky’s the limit, anything goes for 10 minutes. and then as soon as the timer goes off,
you stop writing, you put the pin down even if you’re mid sentence. and this is something that you could do even on the days that you’re not going to write. because what it does is it turns on your writer brain, your observer brain and the brain that starts to the part of your brain, i should say that starts to process all the different information that your brain is receiving that we would normally filter out because we’re you know, just on the way to get a cup of coffee.
the other thing it does, though, when we do this exercise regularly is it creates a kind of rightist interrupt us, if you will. and sometimes
that actually fuels the desire to do something, because you have to stop right in the middle of it. and maybe you didn’t finish getting that idea out. but it kind of puts you in this mode of wanting to write stuff wanting to write songs wanting to put your ideas down. and for me, i think this is really effective. it’s just a way of
kind of tricking my brain into being more creative throughout the day.
so i love that as a warm up exercise. so maybe i’ll do my set my writing ritual up, do the warm up exercise. and then i have to either work on a song idea that maybe i’ve already gotten in, recorded into my iphone or if i’m just having a writing day and i don’t have any particular things in mind. there are some kind
tons of idea banks that i tend to draw on. so one of them i already touched on was the idea of titles. and i got this suggestion from ray bradbury, who was a science fiction writer that i really love. he’s, you know, obviously super famous fahrenheit 451. but the story about him is that he would keep a list of potential titles that he thought would make interesting stories, even if he didn’t know what the stories would be about. and whenever he would hit a slump or a dry spell, he would just look at his title bank, and pick one and start writing. so having a list of titles in my journal, sometimes i just jot them down is one thing that might trigger me to
write a song, then a good idea that i’ve had a title, but no song about.
another thing to think about,
that i sometimes will draw inspiration from is the rhyme scheme. and maybe you haven’t thought about rhyme scheme since high school english class and you had to parse poetry or maybe you’ve never thought about it, i went to a kind of a prep school and we did lots of this kind of thing and literature, and i always really enjoyed it, i loved it, where you, you look at poems and you see what the rhyme schemes are and you identify them are they rhymed couplets? do they end it as many appalachian ballads do in an ab cb rhyme scheme.
so one example from an appalachian ballad that would be a b cb, would be from barbara allen, where it says slow last lola rose she up, up is a slow last she went and i him know him is b.
all she said when she reached his side, side is c because it doesn’t rhyme with either of the above words. young men are thank you diane, and diane goes back to b because it rhymes mostly with nyholm and dion.
in some ballads do have an ab, ab rhyme scheme.
and many pop songs have that as well. for example, the song todo by africa, it’s an aibee aibee rhyme scheme. some songs will have a a bb cc, like superstitious by stevie wonder.
or you have a brilliant song like yesterday about paul mccartney, the beatles. it’s just a if you listen to it. so my takeaway from that is you can pretty much get away with anything if you’re paul mccartney. i have never personally done an aaa rhyme scheme though. maybe that should be on my list for next time.
another thing that you might want to consider thinking about in songwriting
is the idea of the hero’s journey as described by joseph campbell.
so the hero’s journey is not the only kind of narrative arc that there is it is kind of centered in western thought and culture. and if you branch out into other european cultures, african cultures, indigenous cultures, there are a lot of different storytelling modalities besides the hero’s journey. so i want to acknowledge that but a simplified version of the hero’s journey is a really awesome way to tell any kind of story. and it’s succinct, and people can usually relate to it. so the most simplified version and joseph campbell’s version has a lot more steps. but
you start with a character who has a problem, who then meets a guide.
and the guide gives them a plan. and the plan spurs them into action. and then from that action, they either have success or failure. so that’s the very simple outlines of the hero’s journey. and if you think about
the story songs that you love, country songs, and of course, many movies and novels, you will find some version of that skeleton expressed. another thing that you can think about when you’re songwriting if you’re trying to get an idea of just how do i dive in, how do i get started? or the structures so there’s the ballad
oh, here that train rollin by, trains inspire me because i grew up around trains. i grew up right next to the railroad track right next to a coal mine. and that was a form of music in and of itself, i think, as is evidenced, i support my thesis by this
your number of train songs that exist in the world, it’s a pretty musical phenomenon.
anyway, hopefully it’s not overpowering you guys, i’m not going to stop
recording because, you know, a little bit of train ambience in the background here. okay, so we could choose from a ballad, which is a repetitive verse, and it often doesn’t have a chorus. so it’s just telling the story. and the melody doesn’t really vary too much, from verse to verse. so good examples of this would be, you know, much of appalachian music,
or rocky raccoon by the beatles, or lily rose, marrying the jack of hearts by bob dylan, i could go on and on, we’re familiar with ballads.
then we have the verse chorus, bridge structure, lots of pop songs.
and most nashville hits have some version of this. so they’ll have the verse, the chorus that is either the same each time or maybe changes a little bit or alters a little bit depending on the verse that that it’s following. and then a bridge that expresses usually a different musical idea, as well as a slightly different side of the story, the bridge, it’s sort of the pattern interrupt.
but there are plenty of good songs that just never even have a bridge, from folk music to funk music. so many, many folk songs, just have the verse chorus format, and even something like shake your booty by kc and the sunshine band, no bridge,
just diverse and mainly a chorus, but it works you know, it works for what it is.
okay, so i have given you some ideas of structures and forms that might inspire you as you get started. and now i’m gonna give you a few specific ideas, starters and prompts in case you feel inspired to go write a song, after you listen to this episode. or you can just jot these down in your journal and have them for when you do have your next songwriting session.
or maybe if you’re another kind of artist, you’ll turn it into a painting or a sculpture or something else, that’s not a song. so here are five quick prompts.
one of them is you are a crow. so just imagine that you are some kind of bird or crow, and you’re flying through the town, you’re seeing things from a different angle, maybe you’re watching people, you’re watching what they’re doing, maybe you’re eavesdropping, but you have this kind of bird’s eye view, and maybe even a bird’s eye perspective on things.
so that’s your first prompt, you are akro.
your second prompt, is find a picture that inspires you either an illustration or a photograph.
if you want to write a funny song, or a ballad, that’s kind of sensational, i recommend the national enquirer and magazines of that nature, people watching can also be really a fun prompt for writing a song, or just eavesdropping. sometimes i can’t believe the things that are over here, like in the coffee shop, or i’ll get an idea. from something i hear at the grocery line, the person next to me saying so you never know when you’re gonna get an idea like this. so again, having that little journal handy, or having your iphone recording button at the ready can help you capture these kinds of ideas.
so your third prompt is, this is kind of a two fold prompt, but they’re related. so one is to
picture yourself in your mother’s kitchen when you’re small, or your caregivers kitchen. what are the sides? what do you smell? what do you taste? what does it feel like? who else is there? what’s going on?
that can be really evocative for memories and imagery.
another similar one is imagine that you’re in your grandmother’s house and you’re looking at one of the framed photos that your grandmother has on the wall or on a table or on a bookshelf
zeroing in on that photo,
and talk about the story that that photo tells or the relationships that it reminds you of or the people or the situations or the scenarios.
those are two sort of past family related scenarios that can often
be really rich in imagery.
so prompt number four, i’m going to call steal this song and of course i don’t literally want you to
do that because it’s bad and you can get sued. but what i mean by that is you find a song that you like,
and you steal just the rhyme scheme, and maybe the meter, maybe the rhythm of it.
this one can be really fun, it can be effective if you sort of sketch out what that rhyme scheme is and sketch out what the meter is, and then step away from it for a few days. so you kind of aren’t hearing that song in your head really strongly when you sit down to write, so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize something.
but this can be a really fruitful exercise. and it can be surprising to my son in law, who was really into poetry, when he was younger still is really poetry and writing in english. and he pointed out to me once that many of shakespeare’s sonnets can be sung to the tune of blowing in the wind by bob dylan, which is interesting. i’m not necessarily saying that bob dylan used dynamic pentameter when he was writing, blowing in the wind. but that’s just an example of how flexible poetry can be, how you can take a rhyme scheme and make it your own with your own words. so i like doing that i have actually done that. i’ll give you guys an example at the end of the show of how i did that.
and the last prompt i’m going to give you is called the song worksheet. so i’m just going to describe this this is something that i’ve learned over the years that certain nashville songwriters will do, as a means of
inspiring themselves when they start writing a song. so it’s kind of a brainstorm.
brain dump situation, you might think of a theme, such as longing, many songs have longing as a theme, or it could be heartbreak, or it could be joy, or it could be romance or any number of things, you know, any any theme that you want to come up with. then your second step, after you determine the theme is to come up with five keywords that relate to the song theme. and you just jot them down. so if your example were longing, you might put desire, risk, loss, distance, obsession, you can take it any direction you want to. then once you have your five keywords, you take each one of them and brainstorm more words and snippets of ideas that go along with each category. so so if i had picked the subcategory of risk, i might come up with words or ideas like danger, can’t lose my heart again, take another chance. and so the idea is if you fill out that song worksheet, then you have this whole bank of images and ideas that you can use when you begin to write the song in earnest and put things into a more structured form.
one other way, i will add that you can elaborate on that exercise is if you want to create banks of rhyming words as well. so for instance,
if your word were
blues, you could put news muse through fuse hughes,
few through clues, true loose dues, you get the idea, you want to rhyme and it doesn’t have to be perfect rhyme. but you’re creating these word banks that you have as a resource as you continue the writing process.
so of course, i want to leave you with a challenge. if you’re a songwriter. or if you want to adapt this into your own particular creative path, please feel free. but if you’re a songwriter, i want to challenge you to commit to trying the object writing exercise i gave you 10 minutes a day, three times during this upcoming week. so i’m asking you to do it three times for 10 minutes at a time and see if it turns that writer brain on for you like it does for me, this would also of course, work for writers or poets as well. and then let me know how it goes.
so i told you, i was going to leave you with a little example of the steel this song prompt. and i became obsessed. you know, 15 or 20 years ago, i can’t even remember with this song by shawn colvin called polaroids. there’s just something hypnotic about it to me, i loved the melody and the words were so clever, and it had this great groove. and i listened to it over and over again. and i was like, well, that’s a really cool rhyme scheme. and so i just wrote down the rhyme scheme in my journal, and then i kind of didn’t think about it for a while. and i went back in
i was like, i want to try to write a song like that because the rhyme scheme is a b, c cb. so here’s an example of the first verse of the shawn colvin song says, please no more therapy mother take care of me. those aaa those two rhyme, piecemeal together with needle and thread b, wrapped me in either down lace from your wedding gown, fold me and lay me down on your bed. so, therapy and me rhyme. and then there’s thread, which is b, and then eiderdown, and wedding gown rhyme, those are the c’s, and then it ends with bed, which is a b and it rhymes with thread.
another song that uses that rhyme scheme that’s just gorgeous, is hallelujah by leonard cohen. well, i wrote this song called summer flight, and it has that a b ccb rhyme scheme. and you’ll hear it and this was when i was going to kerrville folk festival a lot, which is kind of like mecca for songwriters. and it seemed like every single writer down their head, they’re coming of age song about like their first love so i decided to try my hand at it. and so that’s what this one’s about. it’s called summer flight with that rhyme scheme that i stole from another song, but it totally came out as its own thing and i don’t think anybody would ever notice that if i didn’t point it out. so i recorded this on the first album i made when zoey speaks called pearl
we jump the guard and fence off dan sticky and since
we couldn’t wait to see what
loves that song. again made our bodies notice what to
do canopy of leaves above
summer goes between us like a wading bird just flying through the darkness of the night.
expectancy. see, urgency feel your body next to me. i never will forget it are some fly
i drove you in my father’s car. we
ah, yes, that summer flight. well, thanks for being with me for another episode of what dreamers do today. i always enjoy this time together. and i am kind of needing a favor right now. i need some reviews on apple podcasts. so if you take a minute if you get a minute to rate and review this show, particularly on apple podcast, which means you give it a star rating, which you know, of course i would love it if you give it five stars. but then also say a few words about how you feel about it or what you get out of it. and screenshot that. and tag me on instagram at kentucky carla, or tag me on facebook. at carla go over music. i would love to send you five free original songs and a little bundle just for doing that for me. because that really helps me get seen by more people. the more ratings and the more reviews i get. that helps me get my podcasts out into the world more. and so i’m at a time where i’m still building this podcast and if you have a minute to do that, i would appreciate it so much. you can also always support this podcast by buying me a coffee on koh phi.com and you can see that information on the podcast website. but no matter what, i’m just grateful for you and i’m grateful for this time together and i can’t wait to see you again next week on the what dreamers do podcast bio
thank you so much for joining me this week. if you want to make sure you never miss an episode. please hit subscribe wherever you’re listening now. or visit my website to get on my email list at www dot karla grover.com when you sign up, you’ll instantly receive my milton mama digital care package, a bundle of music and videos to help you wring every drop of the heart of life. you’ll even find a dance lesson as well as my granny’s cornbread recipe with new goodies being added all the time. i’ll see you next thursday on the what dreamers do podcast
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