On Songwriting

Updated 2021

Editing & Re-writing

I’ve found a very important part of the songwriting process is editing and re-writing. Especially useful in my solo writing. I’ll usually come up with an initial draft the day I write a song and then step away for a while. When I come back to it, I’ll identify areas that need to be improved, lines that need to be strengthened. Sometimes I find I’m not loving the initial melody I came up with, or the chord progression. Then I start to experiment and work on it until I discover something I like better. This can take days, weeks, months in some cases. When I really get stuck, I might bring in one of my co-writers to help with the song. If I feel the concept/idea is strong, I won’t stop until I feel it’s rock solid. I’ve learned that becoming my own worst critic has served me well. 

There have been times I’ve finished a song, actually had it recorded, and decided it still needed work or could be improved. Sometimes several years after initially writing the song, I’ll go back to the drawing board and try to create a completely different version I like better than the original. I’ve actually been known to completely scrap the song, take the title and start over from scratch. This process has been really helpful, leading to much better, and more polished songs. In recent years I’ve been mostly co-writing whenever I can. On days I don’t have a writing session set up, I’m most likely in the studio editing or re-writing one of my older songs. I find the time and effort spent doing this has really paid off in big dividends and will always be a part of my songwriting routine. 

Lost Town

A good example of the value of editing is Lost Town, the first single from my new story song album. I had written the song specifically for the project 3-4 years prior to the actual recording.  The original version had six verses (or more) and no chorus. Only two chord changes in the entire song. Old-timey feel.  

When I sent it to producer Stephen Mougin asking for his input, he suggested the lyrics needed streamlining, and I should try to find a more interesting and varied music setting. Worked on it off and on for several months but wasn’t making any progress. Decided to set it aside for a long period of time and come back fresh. Six months later I picked up my guitar, the most updated lyrics I could find, and took a new approach. Sang it in a minor key this time, tried a different chord sequence, and discovered that’s’ exactly the song needed. Within an hour I had re-written the whole song including adding a short chorus. Sent along Stephen and he loved the new version. I never gave up on the song, just kept working it until it felt right, sounded right, and now it’s a featured track on my newest studio recording.

Pouring Emotion Into Your Song

When I write, there are a few priorities I focus on that will have a major impact with the song. On the top of the list is “pouring emotion into your song”. I want the listener to “feel something” when they hear it.

If they do, I feel I have succeeded at some level. That emotion is transferred from the writer, to the singer, to the listener. I’m never really concerned all that much about song mechanics, perfect rhyming, being structurally correct and all that stuff. I want the song to be real and believable. That’s why I mostly write about what I know and familiar with. Real life dramas, real life experiences. Write the truth. Be conversational. Write as you speak!

One example of that was a song I wrote a few years back entitled “Looks Like Up To Me”. It’s based on a book I once ready by Mississippi author Eudora Welty. The story line is about the plight of the south after the Great Depression. Those were the hardest of times and folks were struggling just to survive. They basically had nothing, and things got so bad they could hardly get much worse. I was totally captivated and moved by what I read. That spawned the line “Been down so long, it looks like up to me”…..which became the battle cry of my song. I attempted to tell their story, pouring as much emotion and feeling into the song as I could muster.

It actually took me years to write, with several incarnations, before I felt I effectively captured the spirit of the song. Here are the lyrics, and if there was one thing I would want to impart to all writers, it would be: ‘Write what you feel, feel what you write”. 

Looks Like Up To Me
@Rick Lang

When it comes to troubles, Lord knows I’ve had my share got my share,
I can’t remember when I felt so low.
The crops have all been ruined by the flood this year,
And they’ve repossessed most everything I own.
I’m drowning in a sea of misery.
Been down so long it looks like up to me.

The more I try to get ahead, it seems the more I get behind.
And every day it’s just more of the same.
The front porch still needs fixin’, but the cost is much too high.
And that ol’ tin roof still leaks when it rains.
I’m doomed to live my life in poverty.
Been down on the bottom for so long…it looks like up to me.

*CHORUS
They say to keep my chin up, look on the brighter side
But the situation’s hopeless as can be
From way down here everything I see….looks like up to me
….Looks like up to me

I’ve watched my life unravel, right down to the last thread.
All I’ve worked for vanish in thin air.
I feel just like a pebble you toss into a well.
I keep fallin’, but I ain’t hit bottom yet.
Here I am Lord on my bended knees.
Been down on the bottom for so long…it looks like up to me.

*CHORUS
They say to keep my chin up, look on the brighter side
But the situation’s hopeless as can be
From way down here everything I see….looks like up to me
…Looks like up to me

Concept Albums

I’ve been working at writing songs for nearly thirty years to this point. I tend to write about things I am familiar with, and lean towards subject matter that resonates with me. At some point I came to realize that several of my songs had ocean themes and story lines. It’s not really surprising as I live only about thirty minutes from the ocean, and over the course of my life have spent a great deal of time along the NH and Maine shoreline. My family and I have had many life experiences that are in some way connected to the sea, some of which have found their way into my songs.

In looking over the lyrics to these “ocean theme” songs, I realized that they could potentially make for an interesting concept album. Something I’d really never considered before.  That was about 15 years or so ago. I checked around and could not find another recording project like the one I had in mind, so I became fascinated about the prospects. To make this a reality a few things would have to happen. I would need enough songs good enough to record, with various story lines and musical settings. Although I was off to a good start I still had a lot of work to do.

First I needed to “tighten up” songs I had already written, some of which needed improving. That involved months and months of editing and re-writing. Truth be told it was really a difficult task, but essential to create a really good recording. Some songs just needed minor changes, others I had to start from scratch… like The Rising Tide. I actually only kept the title and replaced everything else (words and music). The effort paid off as the new version was much stronger than the initial attempt.

Then I needed to add more songs to broaden the scope of the collection. So over the course of the next few years would come up with a new one here, a new one there. The trick was to find story lines that were different from the others I’d written. Eventually I had close to thirty “ocean theme” songs, of which we would pick twelve to record. Took a lot of time, a great deal of effort, but as I learned a long time ago you cannot put limitations on the creative process.

I selected  “The Undertow” as the album title, and turned my long- time friend Bob Dick to produce the new recording project.  Bob had produced & engineered my first Christmas release “The Season Of My Heart” and was very familiar with my writing style. Most importantly he understood my vision for this unique concept album. A key element was to establish the music setting and instrumentation appropriate for each of the story lines. We both had performed and recorded Bluegrass and Gospel music in the past, but this one required a different approach. It needed to have an overall “ocean feel”. Accordingly we didn’t pay attention to a specific genre, but what felt right for each of the songs. Although basically acoustic, we added piano, electric guitar, percussion and accordion to a few of the selections.  That gave the album a few more textures, and more variety of sounds.

From start to finish it took six years to create “The Undertow”, but was well worth the wait.  The performers included many of the friends that I had written with, performed with, recorded with in the past. Together we successfully created my very first concept album, a one of a kind recording, and hope folks will enjoy hearing this new collection “ocean theme” songs.