Artist to Artist: Don't Play It Safe

People feel and express their emotions the most in times of extreme joy and sorrow. It’s no surprise that most artists are the same, writing their best material during these times. Certainly, that has been the true for me, and I think the reason my songs resonate with people is that I am brutally honest about my life, and when I sing I freely express my emotions to be heard.

These are great times to write songs, but if you want to write prolifically you cannot wait for extreme emotions to arrive. A song can be written about virtually anything. For example, I wrote a song about the beauty of trees and one about the inability of weather forecasters to accurately predict the weather. I’ve learned over the years not to wait for profound events to write songs. There’s so many things to see and so many ways to look at them.

The best songs I write tend to fly out all at once, coming from a deep place that is difficult to describe. I’m very blessed and humbled having had several songs internationally chart over the last year, and I still have a hard time describing where my songs come from to interviewers. I believe God gives us all different gifts. Mine happens to be the ability to write songs and express them in a way that resonates with people. I think people can relate to what I have written about because many times I tackle very personal matters, exposing myself to people in a way that makes me very vulnerable. Sometimes my best songs seem to write themselves, like “I Called you Rose,” and “Hey Siri.”

While most working musicians were sidelined from the road during the first stage of the pandemic, that down time provided some key opportunities me to focus on what I really wanted to do with my life. Several months after laying off seven people from staff at my law office, I told my wife I needed to get out of town for some fresh air and a new perspective. I had fallen in love with horses on a previous trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and fell into an exciting opportunity to go on authentic cattle round up, punching 650 cattle down Big Horn Mountain, Wyoming, with a rancher and a few other riders. My passion for horses was a late in life discovery for me – and like all things I become passionate about, I became instantly consumed.

Spending 12 hours a day in the saddle, I went through a few horses before finding my perfect horse, a quarter horse named Reagan, whom I later purchased. I fancied myself a cowboy and the song “I Need a Horse” came to me. It summed up everything I felt about my life at that moment. I wrote: “I’m a cowboy at heart, stuck in an office/Punching a clock, wasting time on small talk/Love my God and I love my country/There’s something that’s missing in living my life. I’ve owned some dogs and I’ve loved some women, spent summer nights, regrets and misgivings, made my mistakes, we all do, of course, Lord all I’ll do is ask for a horse.”

That became one of the first songs I ever produced in a studio setting, with tracks done in California and vocals produced near where I live on Long Island. Greatly encouraged by the response I got from family and friends, I dusted off a bunch of songs I had written over the years but put on the back burner. With time on my hands, I also quickly wrote 15 new songs over the course of several months. These are the ones that will appear on my upcoming album Fly Away. At that time, I knew it was time to take a leap to a professional music career and follow my dreams.

When I look at all the different things I’ve done in my life outside music - working in the State Department, teaching Chinese in Beijing and being a trade delegate to China, founding HALO Missions (Health and Learning for Orphans), being a volunteer firefighter – it’s no surprise that I also want to keep reinventing myself as a songwriter and artist and never write the same type of song twice, either musically or lyrically.

Anyone who has experienced success can put out the same basic song or album multiple times, but if you dedicate yourself to exploring the far reaches of what you can sound like and write about, you’ll really get a chance to know who you are both as a songwriter and person. If you play it safe and don’t take chances, your odds of being successful over the long haul are dramatically reduced. I don’t worry about commercial success, I want to write authentically and to maintain my unique sound. I think I could write some hokey hits, but I’d rather just write the way I want and let the songs speak for themselves. If they are good and people like them, the rest will follow.

I think many songwriters are afraid to share their deepest secrets with the world, but I think being vulnerable and honest about your faults and failures and feelings is a great way for songwriters and artists – especially newer ones – to forge a meaningful connection with listeners. We all endure the similar trials and tribulations in life, and in revealing something personal, you can tap into something universal.

Allowing people to get to know me through my music gave me a chance at successs. Though many people thought the traditional country flavored “I Called Her Rose”, which reached #3 on the Euro Indie Chart and #8 on the World Indie charts, was a heartbreaking love song, but it’s really about quitting drinking. The follow-up “A Box for Jewels,” which hit the Top 20 on those charts, is a pop/folk tune about a special music box my grandmother gave me that plays “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” when you open it. She made me promise to think of her when I play it. I don’t need the box for that.

My two upcoming songs, produced by industry legend Stephen Wrench, continue this pattern of tapping into different styles and narrative inspirations. “Hey Siri” is my attempt at capturing the flow of our techno-crazy modern world, wistfully and humorously addressing our addiction to and frustration with Siri, Alexa, Facebook and Amazon, while lamenting the loss of simpler times before the cell phone/social media age. It’s got a lighthearted, playfully rolling, African styled groove that moves to a happy beat. It’s a song about a serious topic but the music and vocal delivery make it a celebration of life. It’s my hope that people will connect with me when I sing in the chorus: “Siri’s unavailable, Alexa won’t stop talking, texts and emails coming, our children text for talking/I can’t remember my passwords/Days run like a river/My phone is like an organ./You’ll kill me if you take it away.”

The second lead single will be the upcoming album’s title track “Fly Away.” It’s a heartfelt ballad that all parents of a certain age can relate to, about all my mixed emotions I felt when my son headed off to college. When your child is born, everyone tells you that the years will fly by and before you know it, they’ll be on their own, but you think it’s just a cliché and don’t believe it. Until it really happens. The song touches on my feelings about him leaving the nest and my vow to be there for him. Always.

My advice to songwriters is to be ready for anything, because inspiration can hit you anywhere at any time. If you hear a melody and lyrics, whether at a gathering, conversation or at a party, steel away to get the melody and lyrics down. If you hear a song or melody in your sleep, wake up and record it. Don’t think you will remember it later. I never have.

While most artists write songs on piano or guitar, always be ready to record a melody or song on your cell phone or other recording device. Record those small riffs and melodies you create. You can always use them later. Sure, you might get inspired while riding a horse in the wilderness, but more often, inspiration can come from day-to-day things, when you’re least expecting. Take notes on interesting things you or others say or read in books or on TV––even if it’s just a line. You’ll be surprised how you will find a place to use those words for lyrics in a future song. It can make a huge impact.

Even if you have a demanding day job, you must commit hours a week to your craft. There’s no substitute to hard work, and that includes fine tuning your songs. Even if you like your lyrics, continue to sculpt them until every line and word has meaning. It’s important to fit the lyrical flow to your chords or melody, so cut or add to make the cadence work. Often, less is more, and cutting lyrics is a good way to write. Rarely take a direct approach in to what you want to say. Instead, leave the listener room to hear what they want. Remember, one bad choice of a word or line can ruin a song.

Sing a cappella if you hear a melody and lyrics in your head but you don’t have your instrument or if you don’t know the chords yet. Once you’ve recorded the vocals you can find the chords later. If you start hunting for chords, sometimes your song will be compromised during the process.

Finally, never get discouraged. Keep writing even if you write a clunker. Bad songs are a gift because they help you to grow to write good ones later. If you love writing songs never give up. If it only brings you joy, that’s more than enough to keep you pursuing your dreams.

See chrisstjohnmusic.com