I’m a musician; I write songs. I just hope at the end of the day to tear a little corner off of the darkness. –Bono, of U2.
Performing at Manchester Regional Finals for Future Music Songwriting Competition 2015
Darkness and Light. A recurring theme for most of us. Artistic competition is a dark place for me, yet, it would seem that it also illuminates hidden facets of my creative process. It would be remiss of me if I didn’t write about my songwriting competition experience in the context of my songwriting blog. This was my first foray into songwriting competition, specifically; though I’ve participated in a couple of open mic competitions at a pub. From what I can tell, there are a couple of flavours of songwriting contest:
- Mail in your stuff, and it gets judged somewhere far away, and you eventually hear back. Maybe.
- Perform your song live, get judged on the spot, and move on to the next tier of contest (or not).
As an introvert and generally fatigued person, option 1 sounds more appealing. However, I have yet to produce a recording of any of my songs that I’m truly satisfied with, where the song speaks on an emotional level comparable to my live performance. For better or worse, my songs seem to shine in my live performances at this point in my career.
I blame Randy Raphael for my fleeting moment of boldness. Randy is a personal life coach, podcast host, brilliant actor, performer, and most importantly a friend who I met circa 2002.
This past spring, he entered an audition for a performance-based singing contest in L.A., and posted videos documenting his experience on social media. The inspiration, encouragement and positivity flowing through his videos were infectious, and I signed up to audition for a performance-based songwriting competition which I stumbled across while searching for local open mic nights online. The competition was designed somewhat similarly to singing contests such as X-Factor or American Idol, with an audition and elimination process, but on a smaller scale. Also, supposedly the judging was to be based on traditional songwriting contest criteria (i.e. lyrics, melody, songcraft, originality, marketability), rather than what you look like, how well you sing or whether you run around the stage.
With a catalog of over 50 songs, how would I choose one for the competition? The next day, while reading Psalm 39, I heard a melody in my head and it became the chorus for Light With You. Over the next several days, the rest of the song took form. With the songwriting contest in mind, I massaged this song with a different process than my typical “see what happens” passivity. I actually thought about the “hook”, and “formula”, and a catchy instrumental introduction melody. Song length, and getting the chorus in quickly were important considering the 2.5 minute time limit for auditions, and marketability.
Stolen from the internet; credit unknown.
The lyrics I wrote for the verses were revised heavily several times, in an effort to get the message as clear and accessible as possible, perhaps at the expense of higher level imagery. The song asked to peak in a bridge yet unwritten, and though daunting, I obeyed and managed to write music for the bridge, adding the lyrics later, again heavily edited multiple times. After the bridge peak, I inserted a break down, and arranged versions of the song for both a 2.5 minute audition (from which I was sent to Regionals) and a 3.5 minute performance at the regional competition.
Does all of this sound a bit detached or methodical? Formulaic? It was certainly more intentional. I had a specific goal in mind, a deadline, and a narrower audience than usual. Because the judges were from the music industry, I wanted Light With You to be able to sound great with commercial production, a full band, overdubs, chorus and many instruments. I also wanted Light With You to be real, able to be completely stripped down to acoustic guitar or piano. A chameleon song, able to blend into different environments when needed. I envisioned the song being produced with a driving, deep beat as a rich vocally-driven pop-electronica piece on the radio, and alternately, being performed live with a grand piano and single vocalist, vulnerable and alone in the spotlight on a dark stage. Most importantly, I wanted the song to reach people. Does writing a chameleon song strip it of some depth? Can it still come across as genuine?
You be the judge. A video of my performance of Light With You at the competition is now available on YouTube.
The experience of challenging my comfort zone in a safe environment helped me to grow in songwriting, and probably in other ways as well. This blog entry was supposed to be about competitive human nature, and it turned out to be about process. The discourse on competitive human nature will just have to wait.
Much thanks to Randy for the accidental inspiration to challenge myself in a contest, and of course to the most high for the song inspiration. In addition to life coaching, Randy has since launched an interview-based inspirational podcast called No Regrets. You can find Randy here: