Writing 150 Songs

Writing 150 Songs!

An evolutionary tale, told in words, music and pictures.

By Christopher Kent

“Writing is easy,” Red Smith, Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist once said. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins and bleed.”

         I suspect that out of all the forms of writing one might engage in, songwriting may be the one that the most people believe is easy. To the casual observer, it seems like something anyone could do if they put their mind to it. But as a former songwriting teacher—I taught a course in New York City that lasted for five years and was attended by more than 300 students­—I can say with some authority that songwriting involves a very complex set of skills. A songwriter needs to be a poet, know how to capture emotions, have a unique perspective, know how to construct a melody, understand chord progressions, know how to use rhythm and have a working knowledge of song structures, among other skills. (More about that later!) All of this, of course, develops over time.

CK Close-up          At this point in my life, I’ve been writing songs (and performing, arranging and recording them) for many years. Recently, I finished writing my 150th song. That seems worth celebrating, so I decided to write down the story of my songwriting journey and share some of its most memorable moments. This has turned out to be something of an autobiographical exercise, because many of the changes and advances in my songwriting over the years were tied to experiences that altered not just my level of songwriting skill but also my perspective about life.

          Looking back, I can see that my songwriting skills unfolded in five phases, plus an early period of youthful musical education (when I was a member of the American Boychoir) that led up to my early songwriting attempts. In phase one, which mostly took place in high school, I learned the basics of songwriting by teaming up with a series of young songwriter friends, each with more experience and skill than the one before. In phase two, during my college years, I began writing and performing on my own. In phase three, I moved to New York City and sought out the company of other, still more advanced songwriters. In phase four, I began teaching songwriting to others, which forced me to become conscious of what I’d mastered unconsciously and to keep increasing my skills and knowledge. In the current, fifth phase, I’ve sought out creative challenges to make use of all of this experience.

          I’ve divided this essay into sections accordingly. I’m including the stories behind a number of songs that were milestones for one reason or another, as well as links that will let you listen to recordings of many of those songs, and photos from the different phases of my life and career.

By the way, another well-known writer, Elmore Leonard, advised authors to “leave out the parts that people would skip.” I’ve done my best to follow that advice, both in my songs and in this essay. I hope you enjoy the result!

          Note: To hear a song that I’ve included, click on the play bar; to download the song, click on the title (downloading instructions are provided on the Free Downloads page (see menu bar, above).

Prequel: Learning the Basics (and Getting Motivated)

          When I was in fourth grade in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, my music teacher noticed that I had a good voice. She knew the Columbus Boychoir School (later renamed the American Boychoir) was located not far away in Princeton, NJ, so she suggested to my parents that I audition. Eventually I did, singing Moon River—a song I liked a lot—for the choir director. I was accepted.

Ck in Boychoir

CK, age 10

          From age 10 to 14, I attended the school. When we weren’t touring across America or singing in other countries, we rehearsed three hours a day (standing up!), and we managed a full academic course load, even when we were traveling. In addition, we studied music theory constantly. Meanwhile, singing great classical music imprinted my brain with wonderful examples of melody writing and structure. I even composed a few simple, quasi-classical four-part vocal pieces. At the same time, I began writing poetry and attempted to write short novels (modeled after the Tom Swift Jr. series of science/action/adventure books I was reading around that time). During the school year, like most of the other students, I lived at the school. When I was at home over the summers, I taught myself basic piano chords and songs from popular Broadway musicals (think Do-Re-Me from The Sound of Music) on the almost-in-tune piano my parents had Icon-Molecule Manpurchased. Meanwhile, wanting to save the world but frustrated by my inability to have much impact at all (I couldn’t even stop bullies from picking on me) I created the super hero Molecule Man as my imaginary alter ego. I drew a number of comic books featuring Molecule Man; years later, I would immortalize him in song! (That song is one of the Fan Favorites on the home page of this website.)

 

          My Boychoir years culminated with a profound experience that probably had a lot to do with my decision to become a performing musician. During my final year, the choir spent a month touring Japan.

Singing for the Emperor

Singing for Emperor Hirohito. (That’s me in the back row to the right.)

Japan magazine cover-small

I wasn’t on the cover, but I was definitely mentioned inside…

Onstage in Tokyo

Onstage in Tokyo

 This was no ordinary visit to another country—it was a state-sponsored “friendship” tour, meaning that the American and Japanese governments sponsored it. At that time, rock music had not yet become popular in Japan; teenage girls preferred classical music, which was a big part of what we sang. Thanks to the two governments promoting the tour and Japanese teenagers being excited about our visit, we became the

equivalent of rock stars for a month. That’s no exaggeration: We had a private audience with the emperor; we were on national television seven times; we were even on the cover of the most popular magazine for teenage girls (I still have a copy!) During the tour, we sang in Tokyo three times, and each of us had our own group of Tokyo girls who followed us everywhere. By the third and final concert in Tokyo, the police were out in force with barricades to hold back literally thousands of screaming girls. The girls tried to pull our clothes off, broke down the door to the dressing room and even crawled under the wheels of the bus to try to keep us from leaving!

          I found that month in Japan most … enlightening. (Ha!) By the time I got home and resumed my normal life, I had some new ideas about what I might want to do with my life!

PHASE ONE: Learning from my Peers

          The one thing I didn’t get at the Boychoir was an education in popular music. In fact, we weren’t allowed to listen to the radio at the school. But once I graduated and started high school, that changed. I really liked some of what I was now hearing on the radio, and eventually I found myself wanting to be part of it.

          Although I had some serious musical knowledge under my belt, courtesy of the Boychoir, I didn’t consider myself much of a piano player. That meant that, during the first year or two that I wrote original songs, I had no instrument to accompany myself with. To compensate, I began teaming up with friends and acquaintances who wrote songs and did play an instrument—always guitar. I held my own by composing in my head and telling my partners what chords to play.

CK 1970

Senior year of high school….

          By this time I’d already written some song parodies, following in the footsteps of an early favorite of mine, Allan Sherman (the Weird Al Yankovic of his day). So I guess it makes sense that my first totally original number would be humorous. Titled Little Pink Pills, it was an ode to the pink-colored sugar pills (maybe they were aspirin?) that the high school infirmary would give us if we went to see them because we weren’t feeling well. A sample of the lyrics:

Little pink pills, little pink pills
Guaranteed to cure all of your ills
Bitten by dog or stabbed by knife
Our little pink pills have saved many a life.

          After that I was on my way, exploring different ideas inspired by the music I was hearing on the radio—and sometimes the music created by my friends. The first few songs I wrote were created during a stint with a high school friend who played guitar and was also an aspiring songwriter. Then I teamed up with two other friends who were more advanced guitar players; no matter how complex the chord changes I came up with were, they could play them, even at fast tempos. We called our group Mylke (rhymes with silk). The joke was that we were a watered-down version of Cream, a popular British supergroup that included Eric Clapton. We had a great time creating songs and arranging them, but we never attempted to play in public. We just weren’t good enough, and we knew it.

          That partnership ended when we graduated from high school. But that summer, I teamed up with a young woman in my home town who was really good at both songwriting and performing. Her skill level forced me to up my game yet again. I still wasn’t playing guitar, so I wrote on the piano or in my head; when we sang together, she played guitar and I sang harmonies and played a tambourine. We eventually tried playing in a local folk music club together—my first gig as a singer-songwriter. The manager made it clear what he thought about our partnership, however; he paid her and refused to pay me! (I believe this is referred to as “humble beginnings.”)

          When I started college I was still at a disadvantage because I only played a little piano. (Electronic keyboards were not available back then.) So I found another partner who played guitar and began to perform in public with him. Meanwhile, my songs were becoming more sophisticated. (As for my summer singing partner, she later moved to Boston and spent several years struggling to get a record deal. She eventually ended up becoming a successful writer of novels for teenagers.)
The first few songs I wrote in college all came with their own small surprises…

College room

By my first year in college, I had my first reel-to-reel tape recorder. (Note the posters of Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Jimmy Webb on the wall.)

          • The first song someone else noticed. I continued to write on piano—at first. Gray January Day (song #16) was one of my first songs to sound like a radio-ready pop song. What got my attention was that a friend took a recording of it to a DJ and asked him to play it. (As far as I know, the DJ never played it, but it was still a big deal to me.)

          • The first song I wrote on guitar. During Christmas break in my freshman year I read an article in my hometown paper about a local kid who’d just released his first album on a major record label. He mentioned that he’d taught himself to play guitar. I thought, “If he can teach himself to play guitar, I certainly can.” As soon as I got back to school I borrowed a guitar.
Within a few weeks I was playing well enough to start writing songs accompanying myself on guitar, although I was only able to strum. I Just Didn’t Know (song #17), an up-tempo song about finally falling in love, became my first song written with a guitar. It was good enough to scare off a young woman who thought I had written it about her!

          • The first song people danced to. This was a 12-bar blues-based song about the joy of rain after a long drought, called Let It Rain (#18). It was upbeat and had a driving rhythm—not my strong suit up to that point. I was playing it one nice spring day in my dorm room with the windows open, and to my surprise, I looked out and saw students dancing to it. For a quiet young folksinger, that was a revelation.

           My first fingerpicking song—also the first that someone else sang in public. At this point in time I was still enjoying playing with my latest musical partner, especially since I could now play guitar along with him. The only problem was that he was a great fingerpicker, and I wasn’t. It didn’t take too long for me to be shamed into learning to fingerpick. Friend, Lover and Sympathy (song #19) was the first song I wrote using fingerpicking. It’s a simple, heart-felt ballad, and everybody liked it. It also became the first song of mine that someone else—another talented singer and guitar player at the school—sang in public. I was starting to feel like a real songwriter.

PHASE TWO: Striking Out on my Own

          By my sophomore year in college I began playing at events by myself. Meanwhile my songs got more sophisticated, and the reactions I got from listeners became more intense. Some highlights from this period:

          • Loving Ocean Sound (song #21). I’ve always been a beach person (witness my more recent song, The First Day of Summer). Loving Ocean Sound was my first song about the beach, although the narrator is stuck behind four walls working and is only dreaming about being there. (I had a summer job, so I was speaking from experience.) When I played it for a woman who was working at the same company, she broke down and cried. That was the first time I’d ever seen one of my songs move someone to tears.

Ck in College          • Cycles (song #22) At this point I began to experiment with more complex song structures. Cycles was inspired by the song MacArthur Park, written by Jimmy Webb, one of my heroes. Although some people mocked MacArthur Park’s lyrics because of its reference to a cake melting in the rain, the music was a milestone of innovation in popular music. It was actually three different short songs put together, building in intensity to the third song, which was an instrumental piece—up-tempo and pounding; at the end it returned to the opening song. (It was a big hit twice, first for Richard Harris and later for Donna Summer, although her disco version omitted the second section.)

          As a classically trained musician, I loved the beauty, complexity and structure of MacArthur Park, and decided to create something similar of my own. As it happened, I ran out of inspiration after my second section, but simply having two connected mini-songs ended up working beautifully. The first song/section was about being lonely in the face of passing years; the second was about finally finding true love. This was one of the last few songs I wrote on piano before I moved to writing full-time on the guitar.

          Cycles was also the first song for which I created an elaborate arrangement and production. Using my music theory training from the Boychoir, I wrote parts for a trio of violins. Then, with the help of my first reel-to-reel tape recorder, three members of the school orchestra and an electric bass, I created a professional sounding recording. I remember some school chums being blown away when they heard it.

          • California Dreaming (Never Had Much Meaning For Me) (song #23). Another first happened when a very successful pop act, the Carpenters, showed some interest in one of my songs,. This song was my answer to the Mommas and Poppas’ hit California Dreaming. It struck a nerve among some of my friends, who really loved it. (A few years ago I sang at an alumni reunion, and this was the song they wanted me to play.) Many people said this song reminded them of the Carpenters, who were very popular at the time. So, when I had a chance to meet the Carpenters face-to-face, I gave them a copy of the song. They later sent a note that they liked it and were taking it home for further consideration. But a few weeks later it was returned to me in the mail without comment. (I noted, however, that they did put their return address on the envelope!)

California Dreaming (Never Had Much Meaning for Me)

 

superstar

The aspiring rock star…

The Early Morning Ovaltine Blues (song #25). As my songs became more popular among my friends, I also got to experience a few downsides of popularity. This was a humorous song about my fondness for the drink mix Ovaltine, which purported to provide energy via its many added vitamins. The song, which included a witty spoken monologue as an introduction, discussed how my height was probably attributable to years of drinking Ovaltine, and how every setback in life could be overcome with a little help from the beverage. It became so popular after a while that no one requested anything else, which drove me crazy. (It was pretty funny, though!)

          • For the Quiet Morning Hours (song #28). Up to this point, my songs had been about general topics or moods, but that changed when I fell head-over-heels in love for the first time. It was the first time I opened my heart, lowered my defenses and experienced that overwhelming feeling that comes with young love. The romance ended disastrously. I went into a tailspin, trying to grasp in some kind of logical manner what had happened. The more I struggled to make sense of it, the crazier I got until my brain kind of gave out. It was a peak experience that left me a changed person.

          For the Quiet Morning Hours was written to honor the glory and sorrow of the event:

I will not mourn the passing of something so fine;
It’s too easy to be sorry that it ended on the ground
Being loved by you was something I’ll remember quite a while
For the early morning hours, when the rain is coming down.

          It was the first song that I wrote about a powerful, first-hand emotional experience.

          Writing for a musical. (Songs 29 and 30). In my junior year I experienced another first when I became involved with a musical production that took place at Bryn Mawr College. The production, titled “The Penelopy,” was a gender-reversed musical rewrite of Homer’s Odyssey. This time, Odysseus stayed at home while Penelope went off in search of adventure and women’s rights.

Penelopy Program          I provided three songs for the show. The first was a rewrite of a song I’d written a couple of years earlier called Begonia (song #15), in which the singer rejects a laundry list of girlfriends because his main squeeze—Begonia—is so sexy and so much fun. Since Penelope rejects a long list of suitors in Homer’s Odyssey, this was perfect for the new, gender-reversed scene in which Odysseus rejects all of his female suitors in favor of Penelope. All that was required was changing the name from Begonia to Penelope. (I also wrote a second original song for a scene in which Odysseus is alone at night pining for Penelope to return.)

          The Bryn Mawr student who created the show wrote the words for the third song I contributed to, The Rock and the Whirlpool (song #30); the music I came up with (written on the piano) was pretty cool. At this point in the musical, Penelope and her crew had to sail between Scylla and Charybdis—the rock and the whirlpool—just as Odysseus did. But in this version Penelope and her stalwart crew were sailing between a group of hardline women who disdained men (representing the rock, on one side of the stage) and ultra-feminine girls who excelled at attracting men and pretending to be weak and submissive (the whirlpool), who danced in a swirling circle on the other side of the stage. I wrote music resembling a march for the stern feminists on the “rock” side of the stage, and some giddy music for the dancing group on the “whirlpool” side. I wrote instrumental parts for three violins to accompany the piano. Between verses the music slid up and down, mimicking waves rising and falling. After the rock and whirlpool groups sang their separate songs, they sang them at the same time—I wrote them so they could blend harmoniously— as Penelope and her crew sailed their ship safely between them.

          At the end of the musical I got a rousing ovation from both the audience and the cast. It’s still a great memory!

           Portrait (song #42). By the end of my college experience I’d become a huge fan of another artist who had a powerful effect on my songwriting: Joni Mitchell. The level of insight and intimacy in her songs, combined with her extraordinary musicality and creativity, blew me away. I wrote Portrait as a tribute to her, attempting to mimic her style while celebrating her as an artist. Portrait was the last song I wrote before graduating from college.

          I recorded Portrait for my first album, Intuition. Because it was recorded as a solo track (just guitar and vocal, like many of Joni’s early recordings) I practiced playing it several times a day for almost a year and then recorded it in one take.

Portrait

 

          Just Won’t Be the Same (To Say Hello) (song #43). After graduating from college I spent seven months living at home, gearing up to move to New York City to seek fame and fortune. During this time I devoted a lot of time and energy to writing three new songs. The most notable was Just Won’t Be the Same (To Say Hello) which turned out to be a heavy hitter; during my first year in New York it helped me become a winner of the New York Songwriters’ Competition. To this day, people who knew me back then ask what happened to this song, and why I haven’t recorded it. Ironically, every time I’ve tried to record it, I’ve ended up not liking the result. (One of these days I’ll get it right.)

Note: More songs from this period are being released as part of my Basement Tapes collection, elsewhere on this website.

PHASE THREE: Learning from the Best

          After that brief period living at home I moved to New York City. By now I was writing at a fairly professional level. I didn’t move to New York with the intention of seeking out other songwriters and musicians to learn from, but that’s what happened. Not surprisingly, the caliber of musicians I encountered in New York set the bar even higher, and I found myself rapidly learning from them.

CK Smile #1, 1975          It’s also worth noting that this was a peak period for singer-songwriters in popular music, giving me plenty to learn from. Albums that captured my full attention included Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years, Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Court and Spark, James Taylor’s JT, Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat, Jackson Browne’s Late For the Sky, and a host of others. An aspiring songwriter could hardly have asked for better material to analyze.

Soon after arriving in New York, I made a demo of some new songs I’d just written, working with some talented New York musicians I’d stumbled onto. I circulated the demo to several music publishers. Not long after, I was surprised to get a phone call informing me that I was a winner of the New York Songwriter’s Competition. Unbeknownst to me, one of the publishers had submitted my tape to the competition, which was held by the top music publishers in the city. I was one of a handful of winners, and our prize was a chance to play at the Bottom Line for an audience of music industry pros. That also led to a record company offer, but when I was less than thrilled with the terms, that fell apart.

          Around this time I started to pay a lot more attention to rhythm, the result of a chance meeting with another songwriter. At one of my early gigs, I found myself singing to a single person in the audience. Undaunted, I did my set. Then he got up on stage and did his set! We became friends, and along with another young woman songwriter we’d met, we traded and critiqued each other’s material, learning from each other rapidly. One of the biggest things I learned from that friend, Hugh Prestwood, was the importance of rhythm—something I hadn’t devoted much attention to up to this point. His song demos really rocked! That lesson resulted in my writing four up-tempo songs in a row to try to master this aspect of songwriting. Meanwhile, the originality, melodic sensibility and heartfelt emotion of the songs written by the third member of our triumvirate, Maureen McElheron, inspired me to raise my standards even higher.

Parks Dept #1

Singing for the New York City Parks Department

          One difference between Hugh and me was that Hugh eventually decided to focus his efforts solely on songwriting rather than trying to get a record deal. After 15 years of hard work, he had his first big hit. Since then he’s written a string of #1 country hits, won an Emmy and been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. (I recorded one of his songs, When I Died, on my album Doorway.) Meanwhile, Maureen went on to create soundtracks for the animated films of Bill Plympton, one of which was nominated for an Academy Award. She’s also a music teacher and published author. (So if you’re ever performing and there’s only one person in the audience, just keep going!)

Another key factor in my education as a songwriter was playing in New York City bars for several years. This required learning hundreds of top-forty hits to play for the patrons. Learning all of those well-loved songs gave me an in-depth education in popular song structure, memorable melodies, the importance of a song being danceable, and many other aspects of songwriting. This undoubtedly played a big part in my developing ideas about what constitutes a good song.

          During these early years in New York I wrote a number of songs that were memorable for different reasons. Here are a few:

CK on ferry

Working on a song, riding the Staten Island Ferry

          Leaving Your Own Best Friend Behind (song #51). This song captures the sadness and despair I sometimes felt—and saw others feeling—as they drove themselves trying to achieve a dream, but failed over and over again. I wrote an instrumental break for the middle of the song that was by far the most complex and heartbreaking bit of music I’d written up to then, pushing my guitar-playing skills to the limit. Although the lyrics expressed the idea of the song, I wanted to capture the emotional experience of struggling to get to the top, only to be slapped down, over and over again. The instrumental section in the middle of the song gave me the opportunity to capture that emotional experience directly. Later, when I recorded the song for my second album, Doorway, the instrumental section was lifted to even greater heights thanks to the amazing classical guitar work of Jay Azzolina (formerly the lead guitarist for the legendary jazz band Spyro Gyra.)

Leaving Your Own Best Friend Behind

 

           Sailor’s Song (song #60). During my first two or three years in New York I underwent a series of experiences that challenged all of my previous beliefs about the nature of reality and what was possible, culminating in an experience that convinced me once and for all that we really do survive death. (I apologize for leaving you hanging, but the details will have to wait for another essay!)

          Those experiences opened up a whole new set of topics for me to write about, eventually leading to songs like Intuition, What He Would Have Done (from the album Doorway), We will Meet Again and Children of the Sun (both from Piece of the Puzzle), and Snow Moon (from Earthsongs)—not to mention my recent poem, Ghost Mortem (elsewhere on this website). But the first song to emerge was Sailor’s Song, a celebration of my new perspective about life and death. Hearkening back to the multi-song structure of Macarthur Park, Sailor’s Song was made up of a primary song with a second song inside it. It ends with a climactic statement: We will survive!

          Incidentally, of all of my songs, Sailor’s Song became my father’s favorite. When he died, I sang it at his funeral; it seemed very appropriate, being a song about surviving death. I have no doubt that he was there, listening and smiling.

Chris & Maureen

Recording with Maureen McElheron, who sings harmony on my recording of You Are the One.

          You Are the One (song #65). Little did I know when I wrote this song that it would become one of my most popular and enduring songs. I wrote it as a statement of love to the person I would stay with for the rest of my life—whom I hadn’t met yet! One of the first people I played it for noted that it bore some similarity to an earlier song of mine, and that caused me to shelve it for a year or two. But eventually I tried it on some other folks, and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

          A few years later a recording artist of some note wanted to record it, but she also wanted me to rewrite it; when I said no, she rescinded the offer. Meanwhile, it played an important part in the story that unfolded when I really did meet the love of my life. (You can read that whole story in the essay The Song That Changed Everything, elsewhere on this website.)

You Are the One

 

          • Take Me, I’m You! (song #69). This song was a good lesson for me in what doesn’t work in a song. I’ve always been a fan of meaningful lyrics, so I decided to write a song that would address all of the world’s problems in one song. It wasn’t a bad song, but I learned pretty quickly that when I played it, most people looked blank. WAY too many ideas going by, way too fast! (I’ve tried to avoid that mistake since then.)

At Lou Friedman's S.N.A.F.U. in NYC in the 1980's. © Lynn Yost

At Lou Friedman’s S.N.A.F.U. in NYC.

          Doorway (song #71). This song, which appears on both my first and second CDs, talks about realizing that many of my limitations in life are of my own creation. It was the first song I’d written that got me a particularly amazing compliment: A young woman came up to me after a show and told me the song had changed her life. She took the message to heart and quit a job she hated.

         • Intuition (song #77). This song—which become the title song to my first CD—was an instant hit with audiences. But it taught me an important lesson. It has a driving beat, and one night I played the song a little slower than usual at a gig. The response was completely different—nobody seemed to like it! That made me realize, for the first time, the importance of tempo and how it can give a song energy.

Doorway

Intuition

 

Working on UR1

Recording my first album, Intuition.

          Toward the end of this early period in New York, after having met my wife and gotten married, I decided torecord my first album—on my own, since I hadn’t been able to getting the backing of a record company. (I did have an offer, but it fell apart when the label wanted me to be a part of a band; I saw myself as a singer-songwriter, not an anonymous part of a band with a name chosen by the record company.)

          Recording an album on your own was not something many artists did at that time; home recording equipment was still analog (rather than digital) and rather expensive. Besides, creating your own album implied that the record industry didn’t think you were good enough to be worthy of their investment. But the fellow I had performed with in my early days of college was now singing with his wife, and they had gone ahead and recorded their own album. Just as he had shamed me into learning to fingerpick, I realized if he could do it, so could I! My first album, Intuition, was the result.

Phase Four: Teaching Songwriting

          By this point I’d pretty much absorbed everything I could from my New York musician friends. At the same time, it was clear that I’d reached a level at which I could help others learn to write songs, so I decided to try teaching songwriting. I applied to one of New York’s “universities without walls” and was accepted on a trial basis. Someone from the organization attended my first month-long class, and was impressed. I ended up teaching those classes for five years, with a different group of students every month. I soon added an advanced class for students who wanted to meet every month and go beyond the basics.

Chris giving his successful songwriting workshop at the Barns & Noble Superstore in center-city Philadelphia. He presented the 5-part lecture series during the summer of 1998, and again at the Langhorne, PA store in 1999. © Lynn Yost

Giving a songwriting workshop at the Barns & Noble Superstore in center-city Philadelphia.

          Teaching the classes forced me to become conscious of exactly how I did what I did. I also read numerous books by other songwriters to gather every scrap of information I could. Meanwhile, for the advanced class I had to create a new lecture on a different aspect of songwriting every month, and I was constantly analyzing hit songs so I could discuss what made them good songs.

          As a result of all of this, my level of understanding increased dramatically. Pretty soon I was able to give concrete answers to questions even many successful songwriters can’t answer: Why is one melody memorable while another is forgettable? When does an unusual chord change make a song extraordinary, and when does it just sound wrong? Why is repetition sometimes irritating, while other times it’s glorious? Why do some melodies trigger an emotional response in the listener while others don’t? When should your lyrics be first-person (“I feel this”), and when should they be third-person (“He or she did that”)? What are the different options when you’re looking for a way to tell a story in your lyrics? Why do people have a harder time remembering music if it’s part of a music video? Exactly how does the creative process work, and what do you do when it breaks down?

          An interesting note: During this five-year period I only wrote two songs. (One of them was Love Looks for You (song #80), which I eventually recorded for my album Piece of the Puzzle.) I guess my creative energy during this period was totally devoted to learning and teaching.

Love Looks for You

 

Phase Five: Seeking Out Challenges.

          After I stopped teaching, I began to long for different challenges. Now I became interested in seeing what else I was capable of. Here are a few of the challenges I took on:

Icon-Your Age is           Could I write a song based on a crazy title? In 1993 I wrote a song based on the title Escape From Von Neuman’s Catastrophe of Infinite Regression (A Crazy Dream) (song ##98), and another one titled The Last Stomping Ground on the Road to Oblivion (song #99). (Both are scheduled to appear on an upcoming album called Wild Ideas.) And in 2006 I wrote Your Age is None of Your Business (song #122), which has become one of my most popular songs.

Your Age is None of Your Business

 

          Could I come up with a song idea no one had used before and make it work? In ’93 I wrote Dimension Dreams (song #97), basing the lyrics on real dreams I’ve had that profoundly influenced my life. In ’98 I wrote Children of the Sun (#113), about an experience I had seeing the night sky that changed my perspective about our place in the universe. In 2001 I wrote Piece of the Puzzle (#116), a song made up entirely of quotes. (You can find a detailed description of how I wrote

GIF 2016

Chris & Lynn singing “At the Insect Bite Cafe,” at Penn State’s Great Insect Fair.

that song elsewhere on this website.) In 2008 I wrote At the Insect Bite Café (#126), about a restaurant that serves dishes made with insects. (My wife and I sing this every year at Penn State University’s Great Insect Fair, performing together as The Bug Band.) In 2011 I wrote The Spires of Callisto (song #132) for my Earthsongs album, about mysterious structures on one of Jupiter’s moons. That same year I also wrote Songs of the Season (#135), a Christmas song about the origins of classic Christmas songs.

Songs of the Season

 

          Could I write about something controversial in a way that wouldn’t offend anyone? For my album Doorway I wrote What He Would Have Done (song #88), about people using their idea of a violent God to justify their own violence. In 1990 I wrote When To Let Go (#87—it’s also on Doorway) about the reality that sometimes the best way to help someone is to stop helping them. In 1994 I wrote The Champion (#102), suggesting that the reason men behave the way they do is that boys are shamed into repressing their feelings, acting superior to girls, being aggressive and never asking for help. In 2006 I wrote What Do You Believe (#121), about the dangers of assuming that everything you believe to be true really is true. (In fact, the whole Wild Ideas album project, mentioned earlier, will feature songs that challenge accepted ideas.) Right now, I’m working on a song about a young boy asking God about religion. (We’ll see how that turns out!)

What Do You Believe

 

Nothing Lasts Forever CD-1400px          How many different types of experience could I capture in multiple-example songs (one of my favorite song formats)? Nothing Lasts Forever (Song #124, recorded on my Piece of the Puzzle album) talks about dealing with different kinds of loss;  A Christmas to Remember (#138) tells about three Christmases that were very special despite being totally unlike a classic Christmas; The Meaning of Grace (#147, which will appear on Earthsongs) describes three times when I truly felt blessed to be alive; Once I Tried It Myself (I Changed My Mind)—song #151!—tells about three times when belated first-hand experience caused me to reverse my opinion about something; and Part of It All (# 117, also on Piece of the Puzzle) describes several of my favorite weather/nature encounters. (You can listen to it below.)

Part of It All

 

Earthsongs cover larger.fnl          Could I create an entire album that captures a single universal theme? That challenge led to my album Piece of the Puzzle, featuring 12 songs of hope, and my current work-in-progress, Earthsongs. Other thematic albums I’m working on as I write this include a suite of original Christmas songs, the aforementioned Wild Ideas album, and a collection of love songs that tell a story of love lost and found.

          Could I create a book and album set with each component tackling the same theme, but in a different way? This challenge led to my first book and CD set, Help and Hope, of which my Piece of the Puzzle album is one part. (The book Staying Off the Wheel of Misfortune, features 10 chapters on different skills for a happy and successful life, gleaned from years of experience and research. You can find out more about the book elsewhere on this website.)

What’s Next?

          The future is notorious difficult to predict, but here’s what I hope will happen:

          1. Thanks to years of teaching songwriting, I’ll continue writing songs that people will enjoy until the day I die.
          2. I’ll keep on learning new things about life and music, and using that knowledge to create ever-more-interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking songs, albums and occasional music videos—as well as trying out whatever new art forms evolve in the coming years. (Virtual reality? Hmmmm…)
          3. I’ll arrange, produce and release recordings of all of my songs. (Well…maybe not some of the earliest ones.)
          4. I’ll reach a lot more people with my music (and books and poems and who knows what else).

          Whether or not any of this happens, I know I’ll leave behind a serious body of work that will hopefully bring pleasure to anyone who finds it, for many years to come.
          Say….That gives me an idea for a song!

—Christopher Kent, May 2017

Copyright 2017 by Christopher Kent. All rights reserved.