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songs

The ultimate measure of a song comes down to whether or not it moves someone. If a song is going to move someone, it has to start with you. I have many principles that I apply when it comes to writing, but only one rule:

If a song doesn’t move me, then it isn’t a song.

Write music that is, first, meaningful and important to you. If the music doesn’t touch you, then why should it touch anyone else?

As far as “worship” songs go, why would you offer Jesus a song that doesn’t even touch you? Would a song move Jesus if it didn’t even move you? Don’t y0u think he’s worth more than that?

I think it’s the difference in Cain and Able. Able offered something that he valued himself, but Cain only offered what was obligatory. Cain fulfilled a requirement, but still never gave God what God really wanted. I don’t think the object they offered was ever the issue. Though it may have symbolic significance, I don’t think God liked the sheep better than the produce. It was what each offering meant to the giver that God was concerned about. God doesn’t need the sheep or grain. He doesn’t need your song to feel good about himself. He wants you. If you come with the song then God wants the song. Otherwise it’s just an activity, a program… a ritual.

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Around the world Clint Eastwood is most famous for his brilliant one-liners, but, believe it or not, what made his career may have actually been the things he didn’t say. As an actor, Eastwood is known for blotting entire pages of dialog out of his scripts. In an ‘85 interview with Rolling Stone he explained “In a real A picture, you let the audience think along with the movie; in a B picture you explain everything”.

The same principal can be true as a songwriter. It’s important to keep in mind that a person’s imagination is far more vivid than your language or melody will ever be. Because of this, it doesn’t necessarily help your story/message/cause to insult their intelligence with over-explanation or ultra-simplification. In my opinion, the ultimate goal is not to simply relay information, but to actually draw people into the conversation. If you explain everything away, it doesn’t give them an opportunity to think along with you, and actually limits their ability to enter into a conversation.

I’ll give you an example from my own work (I know it seems a little pretentious, but it is easy because I know my own songs better than anyone else’s)

“Dress us up in the blood of a son”

I’ve seen several people reword this line to say blood of “the” son, but that isn’t what I wrote. Simply using the word “a” instead of “the” gives the listener a chance to ask themselves some very important questions such as: “If this is a son, then was he actually someone’s son, and how did that someone feel about the blood that was drawn?” They would probably have to answer: “the same way I’d feel if it was my son”. The conclusion they would hopefully come to would be that Jesus wasn’t just the Son of Glory (insert bright lights and cheesy white-girl vocals here); Jesus was also someone’s little boy. He was also a son.

Notice all the words I just wrote in that last paragraph in an attempt to explain a thought, when the more powerful explanation is still in the simple word “a”. It gives the listeners an opportunity to ask themselves who the “son” is, and that is far more important than the precision of my information.

Continued from: Aug 31

In Jesus day the common way to receive news was by way of a “town crier”. Actually, this is where we get the word “preach”. Preach means to “cry aloud” and gospel means “good news”. This, however, is no longer the way we receive news. Furthermore, it hasn’t been in over a hundred years. Still when we imagine the evangelist, we see he/she on the corner of some street shouting at people.

Just like the violinist in my previous blog, this archaic method is largely ineffective because people are not in the mindset to hear what we’re saying. We are out of “context”. Preaching is still a beautiful art form and is still incredibly relevant and essential in the right place. But to hear someone “crying aloud” on the street corner today is likely more of a repulsion than a draw.

Let me make it clear though, this blog isn’t about preaching. It’s about how we do whatever it is we do. This is just an example of how I think we’ve been misunderstood. The story of the gospel is beautiful and deserves to be told with real sophistication, mystery, and beauty.

The buzzword of the day seems to be “permissive marketing”. I’m not necessarily saying that what we need is some new marketing strategy. However, the heart of real marketing is the telling of a story and we certainly have a story to tell. Because of the progress of culture we have to gain permission of the listener in order to tell this story. I for one don’t think it’s such a bad thing.

The issue here is that you can’t really tell someone a story anymore until you have won the right to tell it. People must give you permission into their world if they’re going to hear you.

My dream has been to tell stories through music with a level of artistic integrity that could win the trust of a listener. I realize that I certainly have not arrived, but I’m excited about the progress I’ve made.

My question for you is this:

What story are you telling people? Do people hear the heart behind you, or do they hear something else?

What we say is not as important as what they hear.

A while ago I read an article in the Washington Post called Pearls Before Breakfast. This article was about an experiment.

A professional violinist would stand in the Washington DC metro posing as a street musician and serenade DC commuters on there way to work. But it wouldn’t be just any violinist. It would be Joshua Bell “one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made”. The purpose would be to see how differently people would respond to him as opposed to the average street musician.

What they found was pretty striking: Of the thousands of people traveling to work that day, ALMOST NO ONE PAID HIM ANY ATTENTION. In fact only one woman stopped to listen and that was because she recognized his face from a concert three weeks before. “Here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what the heck was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn’t about to miss it.”

“It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington,” The woman says. “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”

My point is this: Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good you are, how correct you are, how smart you are, how creative you are or how passionate you are. If you are in the wrong place, at the wrong time, or doing it the wrong way, then you could very well be wasting your time. The key word here is “context”.

Last time I wrote a little bit about how overused or common phrases tend to lose power or potency. To this discussion I would like to add that any moron can tell you what’s wrong with something, but few can tell you how to make it better, and even fewer have the commitment to actually do it. Let me just say I don’t want to be that moron. Writing a song is hard. The easy part of this process is recognizing “dead” wording. The difficult part is finding new ways to say things that don’t just make sense but actually impact the listener.

I recently had a five-minute conversation about songwriting with one of my songwriting heroes, Kevin Prosch. (Kevin may be the greatest unsung hero of the worship movement. In my opinion he could be the most influential worship leader of the last 20 years. Pick any successful modern worship band and, 9 times out of 10, I can trace what they do back to Kevin. )

Kevin told me that whenever he sees a sentence, or any group of words weather it be on a sign, in a book, or on a magazine cover he’ll reorder them in as many ways possible to see how many new lines he can make with the same words.

This is a great exercise as a songwriter and is a good way to experiment with new ways to say things in a lyric or song. If your lyrics are boring, flip them around a little. See how many things you can say with some of the same words.

Want to see how a master does it? Watch Bob Dylan in this video.


A note about lyric:

Words lose potency with overuse.

My rule of thumb is if you’ve heard a term or phrase before, then don’t use it. Never use clichés, “dead” words, or tired metaphors.

A line doesn’t have to be especially clever or extreme to deliver an impact. It just has to be “heard”.

Here is a line from the chorus of my song “Skeleton Bones”:

“Oh let us adore the son of glory dressed in love”

There is nothing innovative or revolutionary about this line whatsoever. The idea isn’t new. I didn’t use any big words, and it isn’t difficult to understand. But as far as I can tell, it’s not been said before exactly like this.

I don’t think the specific term “Son of Glory” is used in the Bible at all and that’s exactly why I used it/possibly invented it. At the same time it isn’t at all unbiblical either. Christ in you is the “hope of Glory” and Jesus is known as the “son of man”, “the son of God” , the “son of David “ etc… so Jesus could easily and biblically be described as “the Son of Glory”.

I know this particular line obviously won’t “make” or “break” a song, but if you apply the idea to a whole song, then you could end up with something that sounds more original and authentic.

Just think of how boring it would have been if I had written:

“Come praise God, He’s so Holy, His name is lifted up”

The line is true. Just nobody will ever know how true it is because they won’t ever hear it. It will slip right by them. It will be true and silent.