This guest post comes from Matt Johnston, who writes really cool and catchy punk songs for Hello Creepy Spider from Glasgow, Scotland. I like Matt’s approach to songwriting because even though he is a great singer, he doesn’t just rely on his voice and instead crafts instantly memorable hooks that remind of The Hives and Alkaline Trio. I asked Matt to write about developing ideas and he delivered the following. Thanks, Matt!
Record every idea you have. Every melody, lyric, chord progression, rhythm. It doesn’t matter how derivative or dumb or half-baked or cheesy or hammy it is.
I just had a great idea.
Don’t worry about what anyone else will think, because in all likelihood no one else is going to hear this stuff besides you.
The vast majority of people have a voice recorder app preloaded on their phone. Android users have Voice Recorder. Apple iOS has Voice Memos which does the same thing. Windows phones will have something similar. So, assuming you have a smart phone, grab it now:
- Find your voice recorder app.
- Put it on the front page of your device.
- Open the app and hit record whenever you have an idea.
Again, you’re not trying to have Good Ideas here. Your only goal right now is to get into the habit of having ideas. Just a tonne of ideas.
Yes, most of them will be Bad Ideas, and yes, bad ideas are scary – which is why most of us put every idea we have through a rigorous series of subconscious trials before we’ll even admit to ourselves that we’ve had an idea. This is your ego’s immune system at work and it’s really good at killing bad ideas, but it also kills a lot of good ones, and it kills even more bad ones that might have become good ones with a little work.
If this puppy is one of your ideas, then your fear of bad
ideas is a burlap sack and a river. What’s wrong with you?
If you refuse to get over your fear of having bad ideas, then the only ideas that will survive the vetting process are ideas that resemble other people’s good ideas. We’ll talk about that another time.
It doesn’t matter where you are, always record.
Having your phone to your ear is the international symbol for Ignore Me. We’re totally used to seeing people talking to themselves, gesticulating, laughing to themselves, as long as they have a phone to their ear. Nobody will look twice at you singing to yourself if you have your phone to your ear.
It’s either that or get used to forgetting your ideas by the time you get home.
Give the recordings titles, for the love of god.
Give every recording a title, something identifiable. The main lyric of the hook is a good one where possible. There is nothing worse than knowing you recorded an idea, opening your app to find it, and finding 300 files titled ‘Voice Recording’. If you don’t have a lyric to use, then use a description of the melody, or use where you were or what you were doing when you had the idea.
Anything to give Future You something to refer back to.
“Okay, my next song is called
‘That Time I Took DMT In The Forest And Realised That We Are All God’.
Sing along if you know the words.”
Avoid the temptation to listen back to your recordings immediately.
You’re not going to be able to get a sense for whether an idea is good until you’ve forgotten it and come back to it with fresh ears. Hit record until the ideas run out of gas, and then don’t listen back to them for as long as you can bear. A week is good. A month is better. A year is heroic.
One day, when you have nothing to do, grab your earphones, go for a walk and listen to the last few months’ worth of ideas. Make a note of every sketch that excites you, even if it’s a single note buried in another idea. Then head home, archive all the ideas that didn’t excite you, compile all the ones that did, and what you’ll have in front of you is a series of highlights of almost every idea you had over that period of time. All the bad stuff has been edited out, and you’re just left with the good stuff.
“All I have left is ‘eat a sandwich’ four-hundred times. I’m not even disappointed.”
We’ll talk about what to do with that list in another column.
Matt Johnston writes for the band Hello Creepy Spider. When he’s not trying to make three-minute pop songs suck less, he enjoys video games and referring to himself in the third person. He’s also currently rewatching Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It hasn’t aged well.