A few years ago, after I completed a large, exhausting album, I stepped back and tried to get some perspective on my own work. By observing my own process, it occurred to me that I’d fallen into a pattern of how I wrote songs. It was almost always lyrics with a hint of melody first, followed by chords, and ending with the arrangement, orchestration, engineering and studio production. I felt, however, upon finishing that big album, that I’d played out the possibilities of that particular approach and more or less knew what would happen if I set out to write more songs in that same way. So I determined the songwriting element I usually focused on least of all – rhythm – and decided that for my next project, I would start there.
Collaborating with a percussionist, I built rhythm tracks and wrote music to accompany the beats, recording and producing as I went, essentially composing straight to tape. The very last thing I did was add lyrics. I effectively inverted my songwriting process and came up with extremely different sounding material. Even the types of words I used changed – fewer syllables, less ornate or metaphoric language – since they occupied such a different place in the creative process than they had before. The music I wound up making was something I never imagined I had in me.
Songwriters often vary the types of songs they create and broaden their spectrum as songwriters, simply by varying their creative process. Bob Dylan famously headed down to Nashville and worked with a completely new group of musicians to come up with Nashville Skyline. The Talking Heads sought to break down the perceived relationship of David Byrne as frontman supported by a backing band. They experimented with new techniques and expanded instrumentation to create what many consider their best album, Remain in Light. Paul Simon first split with his writing partner, Art Garfunkel, to alter his sound, then later travelled to South Africa seeking new sounds and different creative approaches to write the wildly successful album Graceland.
These weren’t intentional shifts in content or subject matter, but in process and approach. However, the changes in process yielded different content and end results. It’s a strategy that can be applied to not just songwriting, but all kinds of endeavors; writing, marketing, sports, business.
By analyzing an existing process and altering it, the end results will likely be altered in some way. A songwriter might look at what time of day she usually writes, does she compose in her head or on paper, does she always start with the same section of a song, does she always write in the same location? Once she clearly understands her process, she can go through and systematically invert or challenge her patterns to yield different end results. A software engineer, a baseball player, a physicist, a chef could ask the same exact type of questions, and in so doing, develop the potential breadth of their skills.
See what happens when you take a page from the songwriting workbook, whatever it is you do. Examine and analyze your process, then go ahead and invert it or take a completely different approach, just out of curiosity. You never know what you might find.