Toiling away at your keyboard but feeling no direction? Jamming out in the car but you can’t put pen to paper? The Long Center and Texas Arts Project has a special treat for you songwriting novices out there! TAP Camp is so excited to welcome Kelley McRae, NYC songwriting and touring artist, to the all-new Songwriting Major at this year’s camp. February 3rd, she’ll be doing a FREE Songwriting Workshop for high school students at the Long Center! Read on for her practical tips and a little sneak peek into what this Saturday’s Workshop and this summer’s TAP camp have to offer.
How would you describe your creative process?
The songs that I love the most are the ones I hear and they just immediately hit me in the gut and I know they are TRUE. The songs that make me want to cry or dance or just make me think “yes. This is me.” So my creative process is all about paying attention to the moments in my day-to-day life that I have that kind of gut reaction to. I keep a notebook of lyric ideas and my phone is full of music ideas. Then I’ll sit down with my guitar or at the piano and try to find the heart of that initial inspired moment. Is there something there for me to discover? I think the best songs are the ones that take a risk. When we own our story and tell our story—which is a really brave thing to do—we have the ability to write great songs and connect with the people who need to hear them. So I’m constantly trying to push myself to write in a way that every word and every note is true.
How do you stay focused and inspired?
For me, staying focused means finding a place where I can get into a certain creative zone. I’ve had students who have to work with lots of noise and activity around them, but I’m the opposite. I love to find a quiet place away from distractions and to sink into the feelings, ideas and music that are at the heart of the songs I’m trying to write.
I think inspiration comes from really paying attention to our lives. I don’t think you have to have some dramatic story to have beautiful things to say or songs to sing. We all, just by being alive and surviving day-to-day, have stories to tell. So I try to really give a quality of attention to my life and to the people around me. I’m also active about trying to create an inspiring life. Sometimes that means BIG changes—like jumping into a VW van and touring America!—but most of the time it means putting my phone down and looking out the window at the landscape rushing by.
Are there times when it’s easier to write individually or with a partner? Any advice on songwriting with others and merging styles or processes?
When I started, I only wrote on my own. But my husband Matt and I started touring full time years ago and we needed new songs! We started to collaborate and it was so, so hard for a long time because I didn’t know how to let him into the process. We have really different strengths and weaknesses and eventually I started to see that when I actually listened to his ideas, the songs were much better. Ha! So we started to trust each other and give each other room to trade off leading the way.
My advice would be to work with people you really admire and respect. And to go in with a totally open mind. Really amazing things can happen when you let go of trying to control the outcome and just have fun and see what’s possible. And not taking it all too seriously helps so much!
How do you combat obstacles in your songwriting process, like writer’s block or being unable to complete a project?
One way I combat writer’s block is that I have a notebook that I’m constantly filling with ideas. It could be a quote from a book I’m reading, or something I overhear, or a possible lyric that comes to mind. This way, when I sit down to write, I always have several ideas to work with. I also know that if the song isn’t going anywhere, there’s a good chance it’s because I just don’t care that much about what I’m singing. If there’s no risk involved, if I’m just trying to sound cool, the song is probably going to suck.
The other solution to fighting writer’s block is just good old fashioned hard work. I’ve had songs that have taken me years to finish. Some come quickly, but a lot just need me to put in the time. But the payoff is so huge! When I write a song I love and I get to go onstage with my band and sing it and we’re having a blast, all those hours are worth it.
What advice do you have for beginners? How should they break through those beginning jitters?
Come to the Texas Arts Project! No, seriously! I’ve gotten to work with hundreds of students from around the world and one of the things I love the most about teaching is helping them conquer the fears that keep them from creating. Early on we specifically address things I hear a lot—things like: I don’t know where to start, I start a lot of songs but can’t finish them, I don’t know what to write about so my songs sound cliché, I don’t have enough life experience to write good songs, I’m not ‘talented enough’ to write good songs. . . These are all blocks and fears that can be faced and conquered. You have something important to say and your story should be heard.
The other thing that helps so much is finding people you LOVE to play with. If you’re having fun, you will never sop playing and writing.
What topics will you be covering in the Songwriting Workshop on February 3rd at the Long Center?
We’ll talk about how to start collecting inspiration every day, how to tackle the fears that keep us from creating, and we’ll do some writing exercises to get us exploring our own stories and passions. We’ll work in groups and individually to start to understand how to build songs around a central idea and how to write lyrics we love.
We’ll talk about things like inspiration, finding your own creative voice, song structure, rhyme scheme, building songs around a central theme, lyrics, melody and chord theory. But everything we talk about and all the writing exercises we do are specifically geared to be immediately applied to your own songs! I don’t want to hear myself talk all day, and you’re not going to be tested on this stuff. So a lot of our time is spent actually writing songs. You’ll write individually, in groups, and co-write. You will also learn about the music business and have the experience of recording your own original song in a professional recording studio. At the end of the two weeks, we have a public performance where you’ll debut a brand new song(!!).
So get those creative juices pumping! We’ll see you back here for Saturday’s Songwriting Workshop (go ahead and sign up here!) and, while you’re at it, check out alllll of the opportunities that Texas Arts Project has to offer this summer. Registration is open now!