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I was reading a recent interview/conversation with singer-songwriter Billy Joel on the Vulture.com website. In that interview he was asked why he doesn’t write songs anymore. Here’s an interesting part of that exchange:
There was a time when you thought your future might involve writing songs but not performing. Is it surprising that the opposite happened?
In retrospect there is an irony there. When I stopped writing songs it was time. I couldn’t be as good as I wanted and that was driving me crazy. I was driving my loved ones crazy. I thought, this is ridiculous. So I stopped. But the performing, what else am I going to do?
From “Billy Joel, in Conversation“, by David Marchese, from Vulture.com
When you take a look at the recording history of your favourite pop artist (especially regarding the performing side of their work), this does seem to be a common circumstance: the first album or two sound a bit weak as they get their feet wet, then they really soar and give you their best stuff, and then their final album or two seem weak by comparison, and then — that’s it.
And frequently, the “that’s it” stage happens when these musicians are relatively young, often when they’re in their 40s or 50s. Sure, they’re likely to keep performing, but they often step back from writing.
I always wonder why that is. In the world of classical music, a composer isn’t considered “mature” — not writing their best music — until they’re at least in their 40s. What’s different about the pop genres? Why do things fizzle at such a relatively young age?
And more to the point, is there going to come a time when you, as a writer of songs, might be best advised to just simply stop?
It’s important to make a difference between the musician as a songwriter, and the musician as a performer. I don’t think there can be any argument that the singer-songwriter as an instrumental performer improves with age. The 60s and 70s rock icons that are still performing are often giving us the best of their careers. The voice might be a touch weak, but the playing chops can be downright amazing.
But regarding songwriting itself? I think there are real reasons why songwriting becomes more difficult with age:
- Songwriting in the pop genres is very much a what’s-happening-today field. Pop songs can sound dated — even antiquated — very quickly. That’s why working with a professional producer is so important if you’re trying to make a splash in the music industry. They know what today’s sound is, and today’s sound can sound tired and lame very quickly.
- Common pop song topics can sound cringy when a 60-year-old is singing about them. Emoting over a breakup with someone you had a fight with on the way to a party… these sorts of things young adults often sing about, and the sorts of things we expect in pop music. But when someone your grandfather’s age is singing them, it can sound a bit awkward.
- Because songs are short, you can run out of ideas more quickly. If you’re writing an hour-long symphony, the potential for creating something distinctive and innovative is great. But writing a 4-minute love song? It’s hard to keep coming up with fresh ideas that don’t sound a lot like the last song you wrote. And by the time you’re in your 50s and you’ve been doing it for more than 30 years, it can be nearly impossible to come up with something significantly different from what you’ve been doing for the past few decades.
I quite suspect that it’s point number 3 above that Billy Joel is experiencing. He’s been writing songs for 50 years or so. It’s hard to keep coming up with great ideas.
So back to the question: Is there a time to stop writing songs — forever?
Songwriting is supposed to give you pleasure. It’s supposed to make you feel fulfilled and creative. And so the easy answer is: if you don’t feel pleased, fulfilled or creative, it might be time to stop.
But I think the better solution to try — certainly before giving up songwriting forever — is to make sure you’re doing the things that will improve the odds of coming up with new and better songs:
- Consider new genres. If you’ve been writing pop/rock songs all your life, turn your attention to other genres such as country, folk, jazz, or any other subgenre. You might be surprised to find new and exciting ideas coming forth, stimulated by a new overall sound that you’ve never experimented with before.
- Keep listening. The best way to keep ideas flowing is to listen to other songwriters’ ideas. It prevents you from working in a creative vacuum.
- Make music with new musical partners. Sometimes bringing “fresh blood” into the picture will encourage you to consider new ways of writing. One of the best ways to do this is to find new, younger playing partners, particularly those who dabble in songwriting. You can be inspiring a new generation of songwriters while stimulating your own artistic growth.
To that last point, I’d draw your attention to Barry Gibb, one of pop music’s greatest songwriters. He’s been writing songs since the 50s, and is still putting great music out there. Because his brothers Robin and Maurice have passed away, he now makes music with his sons Stephen and Ashley.
So there is never a time when you must stop writing. As long as it’s giving you some measure of happiness, it’s always appropriate to keep writing.
Is this an issue you’re dealing with? I’d love to have your thoughts on this topic. Please feel free to leave a comment below.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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According to Mark Forsyth in his book “Elements of Eloquence”, artists often fizzle out because they are “cooking blind” and not conscious of the techniques or ingredients that make their work interesting. Often by chance or a few strokes of brilliance, they stumble upon success. Shakespeare (not a musician, I know), Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell maintained brilliant work because they consistently improved their writing techniques and knew what they were doing.
That phenomenon is also explained in greater detail in Wayne Chase’s upcoming book called “SongMatrix: How Songwriting Really Works”
Yes, that’s so true. Thanks for sharing.