Trust the (songwriting) Process

by C.K. Shortell
Kill your babies.
Of all the advice given to aspiring writers, this is possibly the best—and most difficult—to follow. Why? Because every word on the page is like a child—especially if you’ve been staring at a blank page for a long, long time. You can’t possibly just delete something that you’ve labored over, can you? What good would that do?
Imagine that you’ve actually written a huge chunk of a story, poem or blog. The concept is sound—or so you think. There are parts of it that work well; perhaps other parts—characters, specific stanzas, ideas—aren’t as good. You read it over and over. Overall, something just isn’t right. Maybe the plot is taking too long to unfold, or the meter is off, or it’s just too unfocused. Whatever the problem is, and however much you like specific aspects of it, the fact is that it’s not working.
Scrap it. Start over. Kill your babies.
Doing this is hard enough for writers. It has to be far more difficult for musicians in a band committed to “democratic” song writing. We’ve all heard about Duran’s song writing process that usually involves everyone in the room jamming until someone hits on a groove or hook that the others can build upon. (I say “usually” because in watching interviews from the DVDs included with the last few albums, or specials like the Classic Albums show featuring Rio, we do hear of exceptions to the process like The Chauffeur and Before the Rain. And I think it’s safe to say from info gleaned off of interviews during the Warren era that the “democratic” song writing process was not always in force then, either, or at least it was strained as band members were trying to write while not always on the same continent!)
Some of us (okay, me) like to make fun of Duran Duran for the length of time it takes them to record a new album. But consider the process: John comes up with what he thinks is a fantastic bass line…Roger likes what he hears and adds drums…Dom stops whatever he was doing and brings in some guitar…Simon begins to hum something about “puffs of clouds, dewy raindrops and broccoli sprouts” and all’s well except for that fact that Nick is just sitting there shaking his head.
Thanks, Nick, for killing that one.  Time to start over.
And maybe next time it’s John who doesn’t like the direction they’re taking (Why do I always pick on Nick? Wasn’t I the one who wrote the fawning guest blog on Arcadia?). But the fact is, in a “democratic” songwriting process, you could’ve hit upon something that you love only to have it vetoed by someone else in the room. That can’t be fun or rewarding from an artistic/creative standpoint.
Is that what happens, though? I suppose that’s where a producer like Mark Ronson could step in and either validate Nick’s doubts or overrule them, if he’s even in the room at that point in the process (remember, on AYNIN, he wasn’t involved in every track from the outset; e.g. “Runway Runaway” was written before he arrived. And let me add that the fact the band wrote that song on their own is one of the more overlooked stories of AYNIN. There’s  a perception that the band was lost without Ronson and that may be partially true…but they wrote, in my opinion, one of the best songs on the album before he even arrived, ergo…they still have it…just had to be said). But let’s assume he’s not there yet; that it’s just the five guys (or four—I’m not clear on Simon’s role in the creation of the actual music vs. lyrics) in a room jamming. Surely egos clash, tempers flare…
Or do they?
In nearly every guest blog I’ve written, I’ve always included the qualifier that “I’m not a musician” when giving my descriptions of a particular song. However, in this case, I think I can relate to this process. In college, I was involved in a live comedy show. We wrote and directed an hour-long show of live comedy sketches that ran over the course of five nights.  Several of us wrote individual skits that were then brought and read before the larger group (there were about ten of us total). The majority of the show ended up being comprised of these skits that each of us had individually written.
However, one night, three of us ended up hanging out after our rehearsal and started throwing around ideas. As we talked and laughed, we began to realize we might have something serviceable. I began typing and in about 20 frenetic minutes—with the three of us suggesting lines and stage directions and basically laughing and shouting at each other—we had come up with a hilarious skit. When we brought it to the rest of the group, they liked it too, and we ended up placing it second in the show. We ended up writing several other skits via this same process.
In a vacuum, the thought of trying to write in a group like that would seem to be infuriating at best, and impossible to complete anything worthwhile. And yet it was one of the most exhilarating creative experiences I’ve had and I remember it vividly, nearly 20 years later. It helped that it happened late at night among some college kids who had nothing better to do—but it was as fulfilling to me as the skits that I wrote individually which also made it into the show.
“We believe the sum is greater than the parts,” John and the band like to say in describing the motivation behind Duran’s writing process. Sometimes it may take longer, and sometimes it may frustrate some or all of the band members. But judging from the finished product that we fans get to hear, there clearly is a method to Duran’s madness. For as many “babies” that drop to the cutting room floor…there are diamonds in the rough—er, mind– that make the final cut.
C.K. Shortell is a lifelong Duran Duran fan who lives in the northeast with his wife and two sons, both of whom love watching concert footage of the band. When he’s not struggling to explain to a three year old why the guitarist always looks different or just exactly what Nick is doing, C.K. is constantly reminding co-workers and friends that the band never broke up.

4 thoughts on “Trust the (songwriting) Process”

  1. If you're with the right collaborator, then trusting the process makes it easier to kill those darlings. I know. My *Why I Love Singlehood* co-author Sarah Girrell and I sacrificed many along the way–however, we did so through negotiation (I'll get rid of this scene, if you get rid of that scene) or persuasion (“Make your case for why it should stay.”) More often than not, we successfully persuaded the other.

    Thing is, we never missed any of them once they were gone.

    Thanks for the post. 🙂

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    It was an amazing read.
    Whoever is the lyricist in the band, I hope he'd never lose his “moment of great inspiration”, so to say, now and never in the future.
    Whoever in the band has been trying to play the “judge” on the lyrics written, I hope he'd remember we're all humans and he should seriously start thinking he's getting a little envious.

  3. Duran Duran have been writing songs, and producing albums using the same process for thirty years, and so far it works. I am glad that they have developed a technique that works so well for them, even if it does take them a little while to write, and produce an album. Though I know that I am most definitely not what anyone would consider a patient person, I have learned how to calmly await each new album by them, simply by telling myself that once I hear it, it will have been worth the wait. I have heard people give negative critiques on a few of their albums, like Notorious, Red Carpet Massacre, and even Big Thing, personally I have enjoyed each new album. Usually the reason for this is because they were completely new, and different albums, each with a new, and different sound to them. It's Duran Duran's ability to continually change, and grow musically that has kept me a fan, and I feel that it is their Democratic Process, as well as the fact that they do not rush themselves that makes this possible. Hell, think how much better the world could be if more people could function as democratically as they do. I doubt they are ever truly mad at each other over cut songs/music, especially once they are finished with an album, and listen to it for the first time.

  4. I'm not sure that I would call it the same process – I think things have changed somewhat over the years for them. I also feel that some albums were done completely differently than others – whether or not those changes have culminated in a positive or negative outcome is probably up to each listener.

    I guess my feeling is that while it's good to spread wings and grow, it's also good to proudly own the space you occupy. There have been several times during their career that I've wondered if that was indeed the case for them – they seemed to be in such a hurry to change direction with at times instead of allowing themselves the opportunity to evolve naturally, in some ways I feel that has been their downfall.

    As a writer, there are times when I hate to delete my words. I can't stand it when I write and then realize I need to start over. I've actually been known (well, none of YOU knew this until now) to take that work and put it into it's own file for later. Sometimes I've gone back through, found the words I needed and reworked them into something usable. I hate deleting hard work, and I don't think that's what is always necessary. Sometimes you have to give it space and light for it to grow in it's own direction. 🙂


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