If I could notate music I would do it here to show you the musical line of her recent creation, “Liberty Bell”. The lyric goes like this:
As with most songs, versus poems, you need the music to give it full impact. And to make it shine, you will need Anna Bella to sing it for you! She knows, instinctively, the value of simplicity, and of repetition.
So, Anna, I have a little advice for you (and any other writer out there). Write your truth.
When I was working seriously on my songwriting career, and making trips to Nashville and L.A., I repeatedly heard that I need to know my audience and write for them. “Listen to the radio, and see what people are listening to. Then imitate that with your own flair.” There is some truth to that, if what you want is to aim only for commercial success. But even then, I still advise you to write your truth. Your truth is no one else’s, because no one has your heart and your brain and your life experience. But, if it is real truth, then the validity of it will infuse into your songs, so that even if it is not the experience of the listener, they can still believe it as YOUR truth, even though it isn’t theirs. I’ve always believed that I can enjoy any piece of music if it is honest, believable, and on pitch.
By “honest” I don’t mean “realistic”. Like all forms of art, you can express your truth in all sorts of ways. There can be great truth in a song about pink elephants, even though there is no such thing as a pink elephant in real life. Find that underlying truth and tap into it.
When we moved to Utah someone in PA said to me, “Oh are you going to go write LDS music now?” Even back then, in my very early twenties, I smiled and shook my head. It has never been my intent to write music for the LDS church market. I just don’t swim well in those waters. That being said, I think most of what I write would not offend an LDS audience. At least I hope not, because what I write is my own truth, and I am a dyed in the wool, true blue LDS gal. I may not fit the typical LDS cultural stereotype (though I am afraid I probably do more than I’d like) but the core of me embraces that faith. Maybe it’s just semantics. I am not an LDS songwriter – but I am a songwriter who happens to be LDS.
A while back, after we had produced my album Out of the Blue, we had a release concert in Boise. We had recorded that album in Boise and Nashville, so it was natural to have a release concert there. I taught a songwriting workshop that weekend as well. And then a fellow who owned a bar there asked if we would hold a second concert in his establishment the following night, which we did. I have sung in bars many times. I’ve sung my own songs there, the same songs I sing in churches and house concerts and to my children and grandchildren. My truth is my truth, wherever I take it. After that show a fellow came up to me. His breath reeked of alcohol, and he had tears in his eyes. “I know I am drunk” he said, “and I apologize. But one of your songs tonight reminded me that I have grandparents who loved me. I had forgotten. Thank you for reminding me.” Truth is truth, no matter where you find it.
And, Anna, here’s another thing: your truth does not have to be your actual personal experience, word for word. When you write, you are allowed to use poetic license. The truth lies in the message, and the feeling. The details should support that truth, and if you have to create details to support it, go right ahead. The details of the songs do not have to be autobiographical. But the core of the song should be, because in order to be truly believable, it needs to contain what feels true and honest to you.
One more thing, inspiration is a diving board. You use it to spring off, a starting place. People who say they cannot change a lyric or music because it was inspired by God are…well, I think they’re wrong. Generally. Of course there are exceptions. But in general, our inspirations as writers are whisperings that we should address a topic. The rest is sweat. Use all your intelligence and energy to turn that inspiration into a well-crafted song. Play it for writers you respect, and if they have advice, listen to it. My rule of thumb is if two or more respected writers have the same criticism, then I must take a second look and see what changes I can make. I may choose not to make any changes, but I will take an honest look and evaluate with fresh eyes and ears.
Once, when I was taking a poetry class at BYU, I called home in tears, telling my mom that I could not write, I never was a real writer, and my professor hated my writing. My mom calmly asked about my professor, what kind of writer he was, and if I liked his style. I told her that I did not especially like the way he wrote. She reminded me to consider the source, take what advice the spirit and my intelligence tells me to keep, and spit the rest out. I’ll pass that bit of wisdom on to you, from your wise old Gram who loved you, and still loves you from her Heaven-place.
There’s a lot I can tell you about songwriting, Anna Bella. I hope you’ll ask. Your dad and uncles Dan and John can also help you. But the one thing I want you to know now, when you are nine years old, is that what you write should feel like truth from your heart. It doesn’t have to be heavy and serious. It can be as honest and light as Ding- Dong- Crack!
P.S. - Little Libby, my grand-niece who is also a talented songwriter - this is for you, too!
During the season of Lent I make the personal commitment to write every day. I’ve done this for the past eight years, as a token of devotion and thanks to the Lord for giving me a brain that works (usually). I publish these writings here on my blog, unedited and splattered like wet paint, as a way to share them and to keep them for myself and for my posterity. This year I have decided to ruminate on thoughts, ideas, habits and miscellaneous personal practices I would like to put in a figurative HOPE CHEST to take with me into the rest of my life and the life beyond. Besides that, there are bits of advice I would like to tuck into the HOPE CHESTS of my kids and grandkids.