As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, my goal for this moon cycle is to write, record, and release four new songs. And the next logical question is “how the hell do I do that?” If anybody has a good answer to that question, please let me know. I’ll be sitting in my room watching Girls (the HBO show, not the gender) until I figure it out. Ok bye!

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But seriously folks, most of the modest number of songs that I’ve written, have been a product of pure inspiration. The music flows out naturally and easily, and the lyrics come fully formed as if written in stone. However, this makes for a very inefficient songwriting process. Although my songs have mostly been snapshots of inspired moments, these moments are are few and far between. Using this process of “inspired songwriting,” it has sometimes taken me years to finish a song. It is a very different approach to say “inspiration be damned, I’m going to write and record four songs this month no matter what!” Unfortunately that is exactly what I’ve set out to do, and thus I’ve got to figure out a way to write these songs!

Lucky for me, I am surrounded by brilliant musical minds at NYU and am paying top dollar to be able to ask them asinine questions like “how do I write a good song?” During a show a few weeks ago at the 55 bar, the great guitarist and NYU professor Wayne Krantz told the audience “all you need in a song are two things and an ending.” Like everyone else in the audience, I was amused that someone who plays such creatively advanced music would propose such a simple equation for composition. Yet unlike everyone else in the audience, I get to pick Wayne’s brain every Friday at 3 o’clock (yes i’m bragging) and can unpack his approach to songwriting.

Few would accuse Wayne Krantz of being a pop musician, and yet he claims that he approaches his songs like a pop musician in that everything is either a verse or a chorus. He comes up with a musical idea that he likes and decides if it is a chorus part or a verse part (“is it the comin’ home part, or the storytelling part?”). After he has built either a verse or chorus part, he then uses contrast to create the other part. For example, if the verse part contains mostly short notes, he may change to long notes for the chorus; or if the chorus part is loud and rocking, he might make the verse sound softer and more relaxing; or if the verse part is using mostly one or two notes at a time, he might switch to full chords for the chorus; or any combination of these and other contrasts.

This all seemed simple enough after he explained it to me, so I decided to use this method to write one of my songs. Indeed, one could certainly use this method to write a song, but after I brought in my song for feedback from Wayne, I discovered that he has some other principles he uses to write a good song. In my song the verse material was funky, syncopated, and used just one or two notes at a time. I contrasted this with a more flowing chorus of full, lush chords. Wayne liked it, but one of the things he pointed out was that during my verse section (the storytelling part), I had this two-note chord thing happening which could be heard has a melody, but more would likely would just come off as a vaguely cool guitar thing. He said that most people really just want to listen to a singer, and if they can’t have a singer, they’d like to have a saxophone player playing the singer’s part— it’s a much smaller percentage of people who just want to hear some vaguely cool guitar thing. Thus, as guitarists, we would be wise to play some kind of melody that at least sounds like it could be sung.

The second bit of advice he gave me was to write an ending. I had simply recycled my intro to the song and used it as my ending. He told me that he thinks “the audience kind of appreciates it when you do the extra work— when you’ve put in a little extra detail.” It doesn’t have to be long or intricate, but it is worth it to put in an extra bit of effort and create a definite ending. He told me that when he was in high school, the guys in Steely Dan were considered some of the supreme arbiters of good taste. Thus, years later when Wayne was hired to play guitar for Steely Dan he asked Donald Fagen “what makes something good?” Fagen paused, thought about it, and replied: “the amount of detail that it has in it.” Wayne advising me to write an ending to my song is also him pointing to the larger goal of simply crafting something with a lot of detail.

I am using the Wayne method and his insightful feedback to help me write these four songs, and I am certainly getting a lot of great ideas by sharing my work with him. Yet the usefulness to me of Wayne’s method is not due to the fact that it is the ultimate right way to write a song, but simply by virtue that it is a way to write a song. It is simply far easier to create something if you have rules, principles, and guidelines for creation. Wayne has been developing these ideas for forty years, and thus I am happy to stand on his shoulders and use them for my purposes— it makes my life easier. And yet, embedded in all of his great advice is a nugget of wisdom he shared that destroys all the others: “The more answers that you accept from others, then the less creative your thing is by definition.” Ultimately yes, I would like to plumb the depths of my own tastes, tendencies, and experiences and come up with my won set of rules and guidelines for creation, yet for now, I’m just trying to write four songs. No reason to reinvent the wheel just yet.


Last week I was in a coffee shop struggling to write a blog post about booty, when I started eavesdropping on an amusing conversation. I listened as the shop’s two hipster employees spun a random web of banter (from farmer’s markets to penne pizza to Keurig coffee to that business card scene in American Psycho) and suddenly I had a sad realization: eavesdropping on this conversation was the most interesting thing I’d done all week. I was struggling to write the blog post because I didn’t do anything worth writing about that week— I just went to school, practiced, did my homework, ate food, watched game of thrones, read Harry Potter, and slept. It was a good week— but a boring week to read about, so I was stuck mining my mind for some interesting concepts. But concepts are not interesting— they’re just dead ideas unless you do something with them. So I vowed then and there that the next week I would go out and really do something, because (dammit) I live in the most vibrant city in the world, and (dammit) I need these blog posts to be easier to write. Thus, I’d like to throw out the tired old concepts this week, and just give you a recap of some of the more interesting things I did.

I began my adventures last Friday night by taking a stroll down to Union Square (well known hangout for eccentric characters). I was just eating an apple doing some people watching when I saw a large mass of people circle up and heard someone from the inside suddenly shout “If you’re loving the Cyphers put your fist up, and say hell yeah!” (and naturally all the spectators put their fists up and shouted back “hell yeah!”). I approached the crowd and soon realized that there was a hip-hop beat playing and many people trading freestyle verses over it. Apparently I had walked into a meeting of the Legendary Cyphers, a renowned freestyle session that happens every Friday night in Union Square (read about it here please). Many of the MC’s were wearing Legendary Cyphers shirts, most were just in plain-clothes, and one guy was inexplicably wearing a full Aquaman costume. I learned from their verses that they were honoring an MC called Majesty, one of the founding members of the Legendary Cyphers who had recently passed away. I was captivated by the scene— some of the MC’s were incredibly talented and effortlessly picked up where the previous rapper had left off, then spitting a clever collection of puns, metaphors, and cultural references. Some of the MC’s were clearly amateurs, yet this was obviously a safe, supportive space with the beginners being lifted up by the heavy weight MC’s rather than put down by them. If one rapper began to flounder, there was no dissing or booing—another MC would simply pick up where he or she left off and the cypher would continue. For the roughly hour-long duration that I watched, the rapping never stopped. The beats would change every five minutes or so, yet the MC’s never stopped flowing. As I watched I was constantly aware of the many similarities between this and a jazz jam session, but that is the topic for a future blog post…

The next day I decided to do something I have not done in years: watch an Arkansas Razorback football game. There’s a bar in Times Square called Hurley’s Saloon that hosts watch parties for Razorback sporting events (don’t ask me why). I wanted to go hear some Arkansan accents so I threw on a red shirt and brought my buddy Jonathan along to watch Arkansas get royally stomped by Alabama (coincidentally, Jonathan went to the University of Louisville who is currently having success under the memorably-fired former Razorback coach Bobby Petrino). We sat and drank some beers and I told Jonathan that I wanted to go talk to the people at the table nearby. He seemed doubtful that I would actually cold approach a table full of strangers and introduce myself, but he’s never been to Arkansas and doesn’t understand how small of a world it is there. So I got up and introduced myself to a table of five women (oh maybe it was the “five women” part that made him doubtful), and after some brief small talk I discovered that two of them were indeed in Bible study with my aunt Martha Jane at First Methodist church in Hot Springs, and one of them was an assistant principal at Pine Bluff High School when my friend Epiphany Morrow was a student there. To borrow a term from Malcolm Gladwell, Epiphany and Martha Jane are “connectors.” They both know a lot of people and a lot of different types of people. I’ve been very lucky to have been propped up and helped along my life’s path by a number of friends and family members who are connectors. Because of this, I too aspire to one day be a helpful connector to many people in my life, but that is the topic for a future blog post…

My week at school passed by with plenty of practice and classwork, and by the time Thursday rolled around I was ready for another outing. A fellow guitar student at NYU named Ben recommended I go see the excellent guitarist (and NYU professor) Adam Rogers perform at 55 Bar with his power-trio Dice. Rogers is mostly known as an accomplished jazz guitarist, but in this band he breaks out a Fender Stratocaster and fully flexes his rock muscle. He still played with his trademark technical skill and advanced harmonic and rhythmic ideas, yet he did so in the context of arrangements of songs by Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, and Jimi Hendrix, as well as some heavy-hitting originals tunes. It was fun and invigorating to see such a great performance, yet watching Rogers play this style of music was inspiring on another level as well. For I imagine that the current generation of jazz guitarists did not first pick up a guitar because they heard a Kenny Burrell or Wes Montgomery album. They were probably first inspired by rock gods like Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page and only later seduced by the deep well of musical ideas that the jazz cats provided. Thus, it was great to see present-day Adam Rogers playing something that I imagine a 13 year old Adam Rogers would have enjoyed— certainly my 13 year old self would have enjoyed it, but that is the topic for a future blog post…

I keep harping on this phrase “the topic of a future blog post” to show that simply by going out into the world and doing something (anything really), I have gained, if I want to use them, ideas for at least three new blog-posts as well as concrete experiences to support them. Whereas last week I spent hours upon hours struggling to write a purely conceptual post, this week’s post flowed easily from the pen to the page (and then from the fingers to the screen as I typed it up). Yet because I’m a conceptual kind of guy and I can’t stay away from abstract ideas for too long, I’d like to leave you with what I think is the underlying lesson of this week’s post: The more that you do, the more you that you can do. The more you practice your craft, the more gigs you’ll be able to handle; the more people you go out and meet and invest yourself in, the more people you’ll have to help you in your personal and professional life; and the more you just get out of the house, the more you’ll have to talk about in your music blog. See you next week!