Jess Cates is a professional songwriter with over 100 songs recorded and over 15 million records sold. He’s also had songs placed in films and television. Though he’s a songwriter by trade, Jess offers consulting services for other career-minded songwriters to help them level up. We’re so thrilled to have him offer his valuable advice right here on the SongFancy blog!
The idea of zooming up and out from anything is only a hundred year old phenomenon. Up until the age of flight, humanity was limited to whatever hill or mountain you could climb to get the best view of your surroundings. No window seats. No snapping selfies and sunsets at thirty thousand feet. Just imagine looking into the night sky in those days with only one perspective: up.
But here we are in 2018 and zooming out is in our everyday vocabulary. I’ve gotten so used to pinching my fingers on screens that I have actually done that to physical photos! (Say you haven’t! )
Our songwriting can also benefit from a quick zoom-out. Here’s what I mean:
Your song from 30,000 feet:
The ability to change perspectives on the fly is an invaluable skill for every songwriter to learn.
This is because, sometimes we stare at a song we are working on for so long that we just plain lose objectivity. Who can see a mountain when you’re standing at the bottom, staring at rock?
I’ve learned that zooming out is critical as a songwriter. It sure beats banging your head against the wall for hours and hours, just believing that magic is just one head bang away.
We must step back to see our songs from 30,000 feet.
Here are 5 things I found that work:
1. Go to the bathroom.
Seriously! If you are hitting a road block in a songwriting session, or in any creative process for that matter, you’ve gotta go to the bathroom – or the loo if your British – or the washroom if you’re Canadian – wherever you’re from or whatever your call the infamous room you relieve yourself in, there is something magical in that place!
It’s like the wallpaper is lined with melodies and lyric ideas that jump out and hit you like a lightning bolt. I can’t tell you how many ideas have come to me or my co-writer by simply taking a break and walking to the restroom.
One time, some co-writers and I were completely stuck on a chorus. But I promise you that in the bathroom of that Hollywood studio, the chorus came to me in one fail swoop. I came back and sang it down with the track as we were literally jumping up and down in excitement.
The magic in taking that restroom detour? You switch your focus from the song to something else entirely. While your creative brain is relaxed (or at least momentarily dis-engaged from the forefront of your thoughts), it can think clearer and suddenly give up some wonderful ideas. Try it next time you’re stuck!
2. Consume music or videos.
Sometimes you gotta step back and get some fresh inspiration. Go to Spotify and play your favorite new music or just browse the latest tracks of the type of music you love. Of course, this is not an exercise to rip someone else off, but just to get out of your creative funk by filling yourself with awesome music .
When you take in an incredible song and amazing music, it gives you the courage and permission to go do it yourself. Sometimes it’s just the spark you need.
When you take in an incredible song and amazing music, it gives you the courage and permission to go do it yourself.
Just the other day, I watched a short, behind the scenes clip on how Christopher Nolan got Hans Zimmer to write music for the movie Interstellar (which you can also watch here). The song we wrote after we had that swirling in our heads is one of my favorites in a while.
3. Take a walk.
You may have heard of this technique before, but it bears repeating: go for a walk! When was the last time you took a walk in your co-writing session or the middle of your own songwriting? Probably a while ago.
The reality is we get so locked in and want to finish something so bad, we’ll keep working at it until we get there. But sometimes the stagnant waters of creativity just need to be stirred a little, and taking a walk does just that.
There’s nothing quite like a walk in nature (or even around your neighborhood) to give you some needed perspective away from your song.
4. Take a lunch break.
Food helps everything – the brain, the creative process, that grumpy co-writer’s attitude. Occasionally, what we thought was genius before lunch turns out to be mediocre after lunch. Many times, we find have had to go back to the drawing board after stepping away. This is a good thing!
Occasionally, what we thought was genius before lunch turns out to be mediocre after lunch.
Also, sharing a meal with friends is never a bad idea. The relationships I have with my cowriters are the highlight of every writing session; far more than any song we write.
It’s the conversations about life, family, highs and lows that make it worthwhile. And every bit of that makes for a better song. Who knows what other ideas you may come up with after a lunch with friends!
5. Come back to it another day.
Sometimes you need to put it down for a night or two. Isn’t it amazing how in life, when you have an important decision to make and you choose to sleep on it, you wake up with a totally fresh perspective on that decision in the morning? It’s the same with songwriting. Sometimes, we just need to step away and let the song simmer in the background for a bit.
Sometimes, we just need to step away and let the song simmer in the background for a bit.
This is my favorite way to write. Many people in the songwriting community here in Nashville are used to writing a song (or 2 songs) in a day. Although I do that some as well, I really like to let things simmer and then come back to make sure each part of the song is bulletproof.
That sometimes means revisiting an idea over and over until it’s 100%. For me, I have found that makes for a higher level song in the end. So long as you don’t let perfectionism keep you from crossing the finish line, I highly recommend this strategy.