Pat McHenry

songwriter + performer

Pat McHenry is an award-winning songwriter in Seattle WA. His work has been featured on MTV.com, Comcast, FOXNews, ABC, TBS, local and national independent films.

Top 10 Songwriting Mistakes I See Over and Over

Dislaimer* - I'm not perfect at this. Still working, obviously. Still learning. Just like you. Here are some tips I've learned or picked up over the last 15 years of failing and succeeding in the art of songwriting and music industry. Hopefully, this list of mistakes helps to 'right' your compass on the path to stardom. Also, this does not apply to every genre and flavor of music. I'm mainly writing to the pop/country/folk/blues hopefuls that are pining for some wisdom on songwriting. I'm sure most of this does not apply to PBS-acid-jazzers and classical composers (although some of it might) :)  

1) A Weak Title

I see this almost everyday. If you're like me and want other people to enjoy your songs (not just yourself) you need to write songs that relate to other people. Your best place to start, well,  is in the title. It's the first thing they read right? Weak titles are just as good as weak lyrics.  A strong title really sets the bar for the quality of a song. Strong titles generate strong lyrics. I read in an interview with Ryan Adams once (one of my heroes) that he starts with the title which then generates the entire song. He can write a whole song based on the mood, feeling, and emotion he gets from thinking of the title. That's kind of awesome. Even if you aren't like Mr. Adams, who seems to be a songwriting factory (go ahead and look at his discography), good titles can really grab a listener before they even hear the song!

2) Dissimilar Verse/Chorus Melodies

Isn't it annoying when you're listening to a song and you can't tell what direction the singer has taken? Or you thought the song was going to lead into a chorus and it jumps right back into a verse? Or wait, is that still the verse? The chords are the same but it doesn't quite have the cadence of the previous verse. Have you ever listened to songs that have like ten verses until a chorus? You find this mostly at open mic nights where amateur songwriters haven't really got their thang down yet. Have clear verse melodies and choruses that repeat. It's an unconscious way of telling the listener, 'Oh here you go, this is the verse now!" or "Here's the chorus you heard the first time that you loooooved." Your audience is much smarter than you, in the way you will find out very fast onstage when presenting new material. Don't try to pull any fast ones on them, they didn't buy a ticket to the confusion train. Treat em right!

3) Weak Melody

This should kinda be number 1. There is an entire arm of the songwriting industry dedicated to 'top-line' writing. That's a dumbed down word for melody. In a way, it's more important than the lyrics themselves. In most cases, it is. Unless you're the next Bob Dylan, most people aren't even gonna care about your lyrics unless you're melody hits a home-run. This is even MORE meaningful at the beginning of your career where most of the fans you build will likely eat up some great melodies, and not your genius level, crack-poet lyrics.  Heck, just look at Ariana Grande's slaughter of the English language with her complete reliance upon melody. BTW I am not a fan.

4) No Concrete imagery

Your song totally defines you. We get it. It's like you had a baby and when it popped out you looked at it and saw your complete life right in the moment of whatever feels you were going through. That boy who dumped you. There it is. Your desire to have a meaningful relationship. Voilà. But here's the thing poet, if there isn't concrete imagery like who, what, when... our minds aren't going to be able to picture anything. White noise. Country music is so good at concrete imagery. I don't know why. Maybe the average bloke who likes country just really wants to hear about trucks, beer, short skirts, back roads, and white girl booties? There is hardly any abstract ideas either. Because it is hard to find a lofty, touchy-feely detail in any country song. Sure, they are extremely good at turn of phrase ex I'm Gonna Right A Great Country Wrong (gold!), but country songs are not for the artistic. The key here is balance. Most of the best songwriters balance their lyrics with lofty ideas and concrete imagery. Here's some original lyrics via this writer: I was sitting on a truck (concrete), had a beer in my hand (concrete), I felt a lot of luck (abstract),  in no man's land (abstract).

5) No emotional purpose

And here's the flip side to the above. Now you're writing songs that are ALL concrete imagery and NO lofty feels. Come on man! In short, you can tell me everything that is going on in your little story, but I'm not gonna care about it unless you tell me why. I need some sort of emotional connectivity to explain why what you're telling me is important. It's as simple as that. You gotta reach out to my amygdala. Emotions baby.

6) No Climax

Just like a good book, a good movie, a good meal, and a good night, your song needs to have a climax. If your song involves some sort of conflict resolution, it needs to live in the climax. This is powerful stuff. Most every classic story has a strong conflict resolution. Most classic songs have a climax.

7) Intro is WAAAAY too long

Dude save it for the stage. Long intros are cool when the headlining band is finally onstage and the audience, as a whole, has reached it's limit on how many more music blue balls they can endure. Do not have an intro longer than ten seconds in the studio. Your engineer will also hate you. A favorite saying of mine: Don't bore us get to the chorus

8) Song Road-map is Too Complex

Most songs do not need 2 unique bridges. Heck, most songs do not even need one bridge! Most songs do not require multiple solos (I said it). Keep it simple, stupid. We all just want a few verses and a few choruses.

9) Too much musical tension

Oh man I love some good tension in a song. You know what I'm taking about. That major 6th. Majoring the 2nd? Mmm so good. Also, throwing in one awkward lyric that doesn't rhyme or maybe makes you just feel weird! I love me some good key changes too. But there is a thing called too much. Unless you're a musician from the mid 50s you really should limit this to 1, per album of songs. If it's your trademark, hey, go for it Buddy Holly. Celine Dion can also get away with this. If it's not an addition, it's a subtraction.

10) Your song only applies to you and no one else

In closing, you're writing songs for people to listen to right? So then write them for other people! Sure some songs are very cathartic, but the magical bridge that separates the pros from the novices is writing your song  in a way that applies to all of us. That's how you're going to get the largest audience. That's how you're going to sell the most albums. And that's how you're going to get the best gigs.

 

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Songs That Changed My Life: Dondante - My Morning Jacket

There is a good reason to put this song first. It certainly wasn't the first song that changed my life, but my life was the most changed by it. I first heard this song sitting on my roommate's computer in our second apartment. I was taking a study break to indulge in some new music. It was midday in the spring time, and I was sitting at his desk looking out his window to our fire escape. The sun was setting on a beautiful, temperate, perfect day which I had spoiled all day inside studying. My roommate was gone and I was all alone. I had found this band years prior, while at a party my old bass player threw at his apartment. He had a mix-DVD of bands playing at random festivals around the country, and My Morning Jacket was one of the last bands on the disc. That was in the days before Youtube. I remembered liking the song and the band though I didn't remember the name of the song, so I decided to find them online and see what they were up to. This song however was a single from their latest album, albeit a somewhat odd duck at first. I sat in my roommate's computer chair and listened to this song on repeat for the rest of the evening. When he got home it was the first thing I said to him, "You have to listen to this".  The rest is history because this is his favorite band now. It was the best song I had heard in year's. Incredibly poignant. I remember not knowing what the song was about at first, yet weeping silently with every listen. To me, it was the perfect melding of melody, music, and lyric. I didn't really want to know what the song was about or what the original songwriter had wanted it to mean. I didn't even want to look up the lyrics. I felt like I already knew. I didn't want to have my perception informed by somebody else's interpretation of the work either. It was only years after I watched the VH1 storyteller episode on this song that my suspicion about this song's meaning was confirmed. Suicide. This song stopped me dead in my tracks and forced me to look at the road of my life. Almost in Lewis fashion, it was like I had been hiking up the steep cliff for some alien planet for years, not looking back on my darker days when I first crash landed on it's shore, coming out. I heard this song and it made me look back on that. It said to me "Remember that? You haven't thought about that in such a long time…" I was very depressed throughout high school and the beginning of college. I took a breath. I looked down on the monsters that seemed miles away now, standing on the beach not even noticing that I had left. And I was glad. I wept for myself. I wept for the narrator. I wept for similar people who hadn't got out of the waves. I wept for the ones in the water now. I wept for the ones about to get in the space ship.

From a music standpoint, this song is perfect. The rhythm beats like a heart, constant and eerily looming over the vocal. The guitar in the beginning sounds like it's coming out of some sad person's bedroom two floors up. The vocal sounds like it's being sung under a streetlight on a foggy night in 19th century London. The guitar grows teeth in the solo and completely destroys. At first you feel helpless. Then you feel the unfairness of it all. You pray for an end. Then you get angry and hateful and spew your ugliness on everyone and everything around you (not to say this solo is ugly, but the dissonant double stops in the 2nd part of the solo tear like an acidic bone saw at me in a good way). Then you get even at yourself. Then you decide you can't exist in this world. The sax which comes in at the end of the guitar solo makes me think the body is starting to get cold, and the now free soul is looking down remorsefully on that body, hoping it gets found soon for the sentimentality of it all. To me, this song was incredibly dark, but not in a way that made me dark, or made me feel like getting dark. In some way, it lifted me up!

This song made me realize how far I'd come. I wanted to honor this transition and change the way I would write songs. I was tired of writing sad songs. I wanted to write happy songs that people could dance and enjoy themselves to! I wanted my art to represent this acme of personal emotional health. I wasn't 'that guy' anymore, my art certainly did not have to be. It's kinda funny when you think about it: An incredible sad song about one of the singer's best friends committing suicide changes the way a young songwriter chooses to write his own song.

Depression is a prison.

In a dream, I saw you walk' Like a kid alive and talkin', that was you In the classroom, you were teachin' On the streets you were policin' that was you

To the one I now know most I will tell them of your ghost like a thing that never, ever was

And all that ever mattered Will some day turn back to batter like a joke Behind thin walls, you hid your feelings Takes four legs to make a ceilin' like a thing

In a dream I saw you walkin' With your friends alive and talkin', that was you Well I saw it in your movements And even though you never knew it, well I knew

Just how sweet it could be If you'd never left these streets

You had me worried, so worried that this would last You had me worried, so worried that this would last But now I'm learning, learning that this will pass But now I'm learning, learning that this will pass

-lyrics by My Morning Jacket