Author: John Lucas Kovasckitz
I don’t claim to be the best musician, and I certainly don’t claim to be a great performer (although it is an area in which I want to grow and improve, I currently view performing - with exceptions - as primarily a necessary evil...signed, a classic introvert).
However, I believe in my abilities as a songwriter.
I’ve been seriously writing songs for about twelve years, and I’ve been writing (what I consider to be) good songs for about seven years. Notice a lengthy period of songs falling in categories such as being “good for an adolescent”, or “good enough for a church youth group”, etc. before becoming what I consider to be simply good with no reservations.
I was not a child prodigy, despite what my mother thought. I remember as a kid writing a rap about Jonah (the guy from the Bible who was swallowed by a fish), and I believed at the time it was great stuff. It was not. Somewhere on an old home video tape (hopefully destroyed by now, but labeled “Rock Star Luke”) is me playing my hit song, “I’m Just Dancing Around for No Particular Reason” - the title is essentially the entirety of the lyrics.
My parents bought my brother and I a guitar when I was ten (followed later by a keyboard and drums - yes, my parents are truly saints). I took three guitar lessons before quitting...scales were hard and my fingers hurt. I later picked it back up on my own, fell in love with music, and I have learned without formal instruction since. I slowly started getting better and writing seriously, and eventually began recording my on a very used Macbook.
I released four EPs for free through Noisetrade over the years, each progressively getting better and receiving more attention, until I reached the pinnacle of my engineering capabilities and hired Everett Hardin - with funds raised via Kickstarter - to produce and engineer my first full-length album, Promised Land in 2015...an album of what I believe to be twelve good songs. Shameless plug: its 7-song sequel, A Thousand Cathedrals, is coming soon.
I relay this history to show a bit of the journey, and to show that there is a journey. Good art takes time, and I think that above all it takes perseverance. Your fingers will hurt and you will want to quit. You will write dozens of crappy songs before you write any good ones. You will record something that you finally like, and no one will download it...even when you give it away for free.
Do it anyway. In my experience, this is all part of the process.
I consider myself to be a successful songwriter. However, I am not - at least currently - a financially successful songwriter. And yes, there is a difference. My wife and I have full-time jobs outside of music, and I’m happy if the money I make from what I create pays for recording costs and occasionally a new instrument.
I don’t make music for the money, and if I did I would have quit a long time ago. I make music because it is a part of who I am. I make music to express myself in ways that I would otherwise be unable, as a way to know the Creator through creating, and to connect with others on a deep level. I get messages all over the world from people who relay that my music has helped them through deaths or divorces, from people who have proposed with one of my songs or used one as their first dance at their wedding...or from people that have seen God more clearly through what I write. To me, these stories are greater than financial success.
Although, to be clear, I like getting paid.
I also get a fair amount of requests from people asking about my songwriting process, or if I have any advice or suggestions for aspiring songwriters. Let’s move into some of the practicals...and if you’re not a songwriter but have made it this far, stay with me. Many of these bullets are applicable to any art form, or most things worth doing for that matter.
Again, persevere. If you feel that there are songs inside your bones, there will probably be a long journey to find them. Practice your instrument often, so that when the words do come, you won’t be distracted by a poor foundation.
Have easy access to your instrument(s). If you keep your guitar in a case tucked away in a closet, it will not be played. Keep your guitar in a stand, or hang it on a wall where you will see it often. Even something as simple as leaving the keys exposed instead of covered on an upright piano will make you more likely to play.
Have a place (or several) where you can go to be alone. I am usually unable to get in “the zone” to write when other people are around - even my wife. I like to play outdoors when the weather is nice, or near a window if it is cold or wet outside. If you live in a more crowded environment, you may find that you need to write later in the night or early in the morning. Find a time and place where you can sing and try out lyrics without being heard by others. I usually play and sing random words and phrases, looking for a thread. A thread is a lyrical phrase, a melody, an image...even a single word that you know is special somehow. I realize that there is something mystical about this. When I’m creating music is often when I most clearly feel the presence of the Spirit (whom I believe to be inside of us all)...and songwriting, when I have experienced it at its very best, I would almost describe as a conversation with that Spirit.
Threads do not have to come while you are in a position of writing. While hiking in Washington state, the line “I have the dust on my boots of a thousand cathedrals” came into my mind. It stayed there without further progression for a couple of months before forming into a complete song, later to become the title track of my upcoming EP.
Once you find a thread, write it down quickly - otherwise you will forget. If it is a phrase with a particular melody, make a quick recording. One of my favorite things about my iPhone is the voice notes app. Keep a notebook or a voice notes folder with threads that you can come back and explore later. Sometimes I am able to hold a finished song in an hour, and sometimes I wrestle with a certain song for months. Don’t get frustrated with the process - if a song is bucking you off of its back, come back to it later. You may need to learn or experience something in your own life before the thread is able to be followed further.
Many people are stuck with what to write about. Write about what matters; write about what moves you. If a song does not first speak deeply to you, it will not move others, and it will not have authenticity. Do not write what you think other people want to hear. Write from your perspective, write from the perspective of someone you love, write from the perspective of your enemy...have the audacity to write from the perspective of God (I have personally done all of these). Read books that matter, watch films that move you. Serve others, love others. Let your life feed your art and let your art feed your life.
When you have a finished song, have the bravery to share it with someone else - usually my wife is my first set of ears. A smoky bar on open mic night is not my recommended place for a debut. Show your music first to someone that you love and trust, and move outwards as you continue to write and grow.
Bear in mind that this is all blanket advice from my own experiences, and is in no way a set formula. I’d love to hear your own thoughts, questions, and experiences. I believe that art created with boldness and honesty has the power to change destructive cultural and societal directions, and can bring unity across our constructed borders.