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Careers, Coping, & Creativity

Notes About Songwriting

By David Haley Lauver, East Tennessee Songwriter

At NSAI’s annual meeting, hit songwriter Tia Sillers presented her “commandments” for songwriters—with advice on creativity, coping, and the writing process.

Sillers is best known as a writer of “I Hope You Dance,” the huge hit recorded by Lee Ann Womack that won every major country songwriting award. Her songs also include “Blue on Black”, a Billboard Magazine “Rock Song of the Year” and “There’s Your Trouble”, co-written with husband Mark Selby and cut by the Dixie Chicks.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, your only reward is the joy of writing and the thrill of creativity,” Sillers said. “If you want people to pay you, your odds are on the same scale as those of the gold prospectors of the 1800s.”

Despite desire and hard work, few miners—and writers—ever strike it rich. Yet both keep at it, she said, and feel most alive when they’re caught up in their work.

“You’ve got to love the process of writing,” Sillers said. “The act of creating each new song is a leap of faith.” She said writers discover the “candle in your soul” that makes you a creative spirit. “You have to be all heart,” she said, “but you also must learn the craft if you want to succeed.”

Writers should approach songwriting as if they are learning a second language, Sillers advised. “The only way you become fluent in a second language is by studying and practicing it. You don’t just ‘love it’ and succeed without work.”

Sillers said new writers who are oblivious to trends often are the ones who write landmark songs. “Their songs sound fresh and they change the music business by degrees.”

Here are Tia’s tongue-in-cheek “commandments” summing up her advice.

1. Be able to “write the whole song” by yourself and be open to collaborating. Collaboration makes you write and goads you into finishing songs. In developing cowriting relationships, seek strengths where you’re weaker and be open in sharing your strengths. If you only collaborate, you can lose touch with inspiration and the ability to think in terms of the whole song. If your cowriter cancels, take the time you’ve already set aside and write a song by yourself.

2. Read. She’s gotten her greatest inspiration and observations from books. Sillers recommends author Stephen King’s “On Writing.” To the question, “So, do you do it for the money, honey?” King responds that he writes for the “buzz,” and says “if you do it for the joy, you can do it forever.”

3. Stay organized and hand-write final lyrics. It doesn’t feel as real when songs are only on the computer. Sillers copies into books every song she’s written. She includes an index, indicates when a song was written, and lists co-writers. She keeps eight pages in each book blank to write song ideas. She also writes regular journal notes to herself and includes funny things people say in conversation.

4. Give yourself a sticker when you write a song you’re proud of. Sillers looked back on one recent year’s book of lyrics and counted nine stickers for “favorites” among 73 songs. Half of those songs with stickers later were cut.

5. Don’t listen to the radio too much. Don’t chase trends— you’ll never catch up.

6. Work on your ability to soak up the world. Look at your surroundings, the passing seasons and the “slant of the sun.” Make rituals that inspire you.

7. Don’t be afraid of solitude. Even if you collaborate, your best ideas come from being alone. To get in the right frame of mind, Sillers said, she believes in driving in silence.

8. Be flexible. Many people aren’t open to new ideas and shut co-writers out. Sillers said that despite preconceived ideas, “the song is king—you’re a pawn to the song.” Be flexible enough to go in different directions if that works best for the song.

9. “Dare to suck”—write from the heart and don’t inhibit your creativity while you’re writing.

10. Like the old prospectors—“pick a piece of ground, get a shovel and start digging. All I can promise is you’ll have a singular life. And you’ll have fun.”

David Lauver
Singer / Songwriter

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