How I Got Into Songwriting

I played guitar since I was 12, and occasionally tried to write songs, but those attempts generally ended in frustration. I assumed that I just wasn't "born" to be a songwriter. Then in August, 2004 I attended the Song School which precedes the Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado. I did so with little confidence that the songwriting classes would be able to help me, since I wasn't "born" to be a songwriter. But I figured, what the hell?-- the worst that could happen is that I don't learn how to write songs, but camp out with a bunch of songwriters all week and play guitar. Beats working.

At Song School, I learned some of the craft of songwriting. It gave me the confidence that I could actually write songs--and maybe even good songs. I had the inspiration all along; what I was lacking was the craft.

At that event I met a couple of people from Denver, and we decided to form a songwriting group to help and encourage each other. 3 years later, we're still meeting once a month.

One thing I learned is that songwriting is like any other art form or craft. You have to study it, and practice. Maybe some people are "born" songwriters, but the more interviews with songwriters I've read, the more I've discovered that the best songwriters work at their craft. At that first Song School, one of the instructors, Peter Himmelman, said that you have to "write crap"; that is, you have to continually practice your craft, if you want to write something good. A photographer has to learn the technical aspects of working the camera; an oil painter has to learn how to mix paints and which brushes to use; a guitarist has to learn how to play the guitar-- songwriting is no different. It's a craft, like all art forms.

The songs on this record are some of the songs I've written in the 3 years since that first Song School. Each of them had a different approach--or songwriting method--as I experimented to see what works best for me.

How I Wrote the Songs

Invisible Prison

I started this song several years ago, in the 1990's, while living in Tucson, Arizona. Like all attempts at songwriting back then, I made notes, but got frustrated trying to create lines, and gave up. After my first Song School of 2004, I dug up the notes and resumed work on it. I liked the metaphor of an invisible prison. I remember that the chorus came to me while hiking in the mountains outside of Golden, Colorado, and the verses came to me while jogging. I finished it in October, 2004.

A Special Request

This one took a long time to write. It must have been sometime in 2003 when I started it. I first wrote it as a folky, finger-picking guitar song, with the title "Keep Your Lovesongs to Yourself". However, I later realized that I had taken the melody from another song, so I had to at least change the melody. I thought if I changed the musical style might inspire a new melody. So I tried country, rock and even hip-hop. Country and rock didn't work, but hip-hop gave me a lot of lyrical ideas. I remember I was hiking in the mountains just outside Golden, Colorado, when I got the idea. I walked around the pine trees rapping freestyle and coming up with lines. Luckily no other hikers walked by seeing an aging white boy rapping in the woods.

Soon after, I had the jazz station on at home, and a jazz singer was singing a jazz-blues song, and it hit me: that's it! That's the style this song needs. I went down to my basement and fired up my keyboard, and started developing the chords. Coincidently, I had been reading Jimmy Webb's book Tunesmith at the time, and his section on chord progression and chord substitution was helpful in composing the bridge chords. The lyrics still took some time but finally started falling into place. I finished it in July, 2006.

When They Go

With this song, I used a technique I learned in Paul Reisler's class at the Lyons Song School. You share a story with another person, and write a song about the other person's story. It gets you away from writing about yourself all the time. The bonus is that, if you listen and take good notes, the person will give you half the lines of the song. This song is written for a friend of mine who lost his sister. Their father had been abusive, and he said that she never really recovered.

I originally had a different idea for the music, but while listening to some music ideas I had recorded, I heard this idea, and said, "that's it!" The music was actually composed 6 months before I ever heard the story. But it just seemed to match the emotion of the story. I got the melody while walking around my neighborhood on a weekend afternoon. I started this song in August 2005 and completed it in April 2006.

The Screwup Song

This was written in response to a songwriting group member who challenged me to write a song containing a chorus with a good melody. While jogging I came up with the melody. While still jogging, the "Here's to" came; the melody just seemed like an Irish drinking song. Here's to what? I had been working on another song at the time (still unfinished), and was exploring the concept that mistakes are inevitable and even beneficial as learning experiences. So I lifted that idea and fleshed it out for this song. I began the song in November 2005 and finished it in April 2006.

Let it Go

This was the first song I ever wrote where the music came first. At the August, 2005 Song School, I took some classes on alternate tunings and partial capo's. Ken Morris, a member of our Denver Songwriting Group, uses partial capos and alternate tunings on almost all his songs, so he gave me a little class also. Using standard tuning, I put the partial capo on the second fret, in the low position, so that the capo presses the 3rd, 4th and 5th strings. This creates a tuning similar to the DADGAD tuning. Also teaching at that Song School was Willy Porter, who I had just seen perform a week earlier. So I started noodling around with the new tuning, figuring out where the basic chords were, and trying a more rhythmic, percussive picking style a la Willy Porter. The chord progression of Let it Go came to me pretty quickly-- verse and chorus.

But what do I do for lyrics? I've recorded dozens of music ideas like this, but never got any lyrical ideas for them, so they just sit on cassette tapes and collect dust. I told Ken Morris this, and he said, "You're not giving it enough time; you're giving up too quick." So over the next couple of days I started thinking about the music, and what emotions it brought out in me. The verses were tense, but then when the chorus hits, and I go to the root chord, it was like the tension was gone; it had been relieved. I thought "let it go".

So then I started thinking, what is causing this tension that you need to let go? I remember I got in my car to drive somewhere for an errand or something, and I thought about the rude, self-centered drivers one encounters everyday in Denver. They certainly cause tension. So that became the idea for the first verse (which I later moved to the second verse).

I then started making a list of all the other things that piss me off. Politics, work-- the list wasn't hard to draw up. But then I realized that I should confine it to things that you should "let go", not the things that you really should do something about. At first I wrote a verse about the typical workplace aggravations we encounter. But I was never that happy with it, and got an idea later for the bar bully that I've encountered more times than I would like.

Of course, I already knew "Let it go" would be the first line of the chorus. But it took quite a bit of time and work to get the chorus and pre-chorus written. The third verse, I thought, should sum up and further develop the message of the chorus. The song was finished around December, 2006.


I was looking for an upbeat song, something to open a set with. I came up with the music, then had to figure out what to write about. Having gone through the experience with "Let it Go", it was easier this time. I had a couple of ideas but settled on a light-hearted look at Bipolar Disorder. My theory is that everyone is a little bipolar, just some worse than others. I know there are days when I just feel down, and other days when I'm in a good mood, seemingly independent of external events. This was written in October 2006.