I asked Omaha songwriter and BSE member, Michael Campbell to share some of his thoughts on songwriting and his process. Today he is celebrating the release of his new book Of Mice and Me which presents 70 new essays, many inspired by his humor blog and weekly email rants as former owner of Mick’s Music & Bar. The book release party is free and open to the public, and will run from 6-8pm at Michael's home. More info here.
What is your primary songwriting instrument?
My head? I usually write for—and with—the guitar, but often I start by hearing songs in my head and I work things out in that big empty vacuum. I compose and arrange as I fall asleep, or in that sweet half-awake delirium in the morning. It’s not until I have a pretty good idea how a song will go that I sit down with a guitar, pick a key, make an arrangement and start writing things down.
How did you start writing songs?
I wrote a bit as far back as high school, but I didn’t really get legs until I was around 27 years old, divorced and with a lot of time to think. Forming the band The Corner Boys with David Cathro and Bunny Geist was a turning point. We all wrote for the band and had new songs for each other almost weekly. It was a very inspiring, encouraging, exciting time.
Where do you get your inspiration and what do you find most inspiring when writing a song?
Listening to other people’s songs always gets me going. When I surround myself with music, I want to make it. Unfortunately, I can’t listen to music idly like most people. When music is playing I focus on it, so I can’t listen to music while I work. I won’t get anything done.
What do you do to keep your music original?
I try very hard to keep my songs personal and to some degree literal. That helps keep me from repeating myself. The hardest part for me is to avoid repeating familiar musical patterns that are comfortable. That’s why it often helps me to write in my head, not with a guitar in my hands.
How do you get past writer's block?
You tell me. I suffer from it all the time. BSE has song challenges that are always inspiring and help get me started on a creative path, but I am my own worst enemy.
I have a terrible time getting started. I am a fierce editor, which is helpful later on in the process. But I often edit while I compose, and I can hardly get a line out before my editor-brain rejects it. I’m trying to get over that, to write more freely and with less judgement, and tweak things later. Mixed success on that so far.
This story inspired me: two groups were told to write essays. One group was told they’d be judged on the quality of one single essay. The other group was told they’d be judged by how many essays they submitted. Each group was given a week. In the end, the group that wrote the most also wrote the best.
What do you think about collaboration in songwriting?
I love the idea and think it’s good for the song. Since I write best in a state of idleness and distraction, it’s hard to imagine doing that with someone else. I kind of need to be in the quiet. But once a song is underway, I’d be darling at collaborating, I think.
What do you think is the most important thing a new songwriter should focus on?
It’s great to by inspired by your favorite artists. That’s a good launching pad. But as soon as possible, figure out what your story is. Then listen to your voice singing compared to how you talk. If they’re very different, ask yourself whether you’re copping someone else’s singing style. Most of us do that, but it’s good to find one’s honest voice.
What songs do you wish you had written? Why?
Right now I have a huge crush on Sara Bareilles. Every song from her Broadway show Waitress is fresh and original and heartfelt and vivid and musically brilliant. Damn her. It’s cruel that it came out the same year as Hamilton. The funny part is, normally I have no patience for Broadway musicals.
What's your motto or advice you live by?
“Do it right.” I’d rather write one song per year I’m proud of than fifty songs I halfway like. Of course, I have friends who write fifty great songs a year, but sadly that ain’t me. I have no problem being fussy with the details. I enjoy the process.
Ten years from now you will be…
Releasing my next album! One every ten years—that’s about what I’m averaging. Okay, let’s hope it’s much sooner than that. I put out a good album, My Turn Now, in 2015 and I’m about a quarter of the way into another one, so maybe I can pick up the pace.
BONUS: What are your favorite non-musical hobbies?
I’m a devoted catamaran sailor. The volatility and speed of it thrills me. I also juggle and can ride a unicycle. I guess that runs the manliness gamut.
For more information on Michael Campbell and his songs visit: http://michaelcampbellsongwriter.com