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Improving your Songwriting with Greg Holden

Posted on 5 m read

Written by Greg Holden

I’m not always sure why people come to me for songwriting advice, especially if it’s to write for other artists, as half of the time I’m still trying to figure out if I even know how to do it myself. Songs are such a subjective art form. A “good” song can really only be called that by a listener who believes it to be so. For example… I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who think “Blackbird” by The Beatles isn’t that great of a song (surely not?), and those same people might think “Look What You Made Me Do” by Taylor Swift is the best thing they’ve ever heard in their lives. Do I agree with them? Absolutely not. But are they wrong? No.

In my mind — which is neither correct or incorrect — the best kind of song is the one that is the most honest, the most brutal, the most heartbreaking, and the most socially aware. What would probably be labeled as a “protest” song these days… Those songs affect me profoundly and inspire me every day. Thing is, not everyone wants to hear those songs. Some are offended, and some feel yelled at. Most people have just had a shitty day and want something they can air drum on their steering wheel to. For decades, there have been protest songs, love songs, heartbreak songs, and completely contrived pieces of dog turd songs that sell millions and millions of copies, and no one will ever understand why one works and the other doesn’t, but that’s the nature of popular music. Some songs just make people feel good or bad in the right kind of way. It’s an absolute crapshoot, which leads me to my first piece of likely useless advice…

When someone asks me how to get started as a songwriter for other artists, or how to write “better” songs, I assume they’re into the kind of songs I’m writing, or have me mistaken for someone they think I am. Otherwise they’d be asking someone more suited to their needs. I don’t write for DJ’s — even though my most unlikely songs have been remixed by DJ’s — so I won’t be suggesting they look back through Pitbull’s catalogue for inspiration. Nor however, will I climb up onto my high horse and demand they listen to the White Album, because if I sent my publisher “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” tomorrow, she’d probably call my manager worrying that I had picked up a drug problem…

What I usually suggest first, is that if you’re going to write a song, try and think about your intentions. Forget the publishing deal for now, that will come. Are your intentions to impress a guy/girl? To change the world? To get rich? To get a publishing deal? Those are all valid reasons to write a song, but you’ve got to pick one and stick with it. A girl/guy isn’t going to swoon over you with your devastating song about an African refugee or the state of the political climate — trust me I know — but you’re also not going to change the world writing a song about a girl’s ass, nor are you likely going to get rich writing in support of LGBT rights. A good publisher will sign someone who believes in themselves. Someone who creates authentic songs and doesn’t create total bullshit. A bad publisher will sign anything they think they can sell, but good luck with that. Be honest with yourself about why you want to write songs, then focus on that. It’s not as easy as you think to make that decision.

Greg Holden

Here’s a little something about me: 

I’m not good at writing “fun” or “wacky” songs (actual descriptions from publishers); the kind of songs that usually end up in a commercial, or on a summer anthem playlist or something. I take what I do too seriously, to a fault. I’m not even comfortable covering “fun” or “wacky” songs, it just feels wrong to me. You’ll never find me singing covers in a bar or my own songs at a party unless I have everyone’s undivided attention, which ironically I’m deeply uncomfortable with too.

What’s important is I’ve accepted I will never be the funny guy singing songs for the laugh and I’m okay with it. I respect those kinds of writers and artists, I just can’t do it. Instead I try to focus on songs that move people, or me, or both. It doesn’t always work, sometimes it pisses people off, and more often than not, nobody cares. But I made that choice when I decided I wanted to fit into the “change the world” category. For better or for worse, that’s what I do.

The second thing I would suggest is practice and practice and practice and practice. Write and write and write and write. Whatever you do, do not upload that initial round of horse shit onto the internet, because one day it will come back and bite you in the ass — trust me I know. Don’t send your first 10 songs to a bunch of publishers. DO NOT DO THAT. Wait a while, share with friends, family, people you trust. Unless you’re the next Bob Dylan or Ryan Tedder or Max Martin (whose first songs were probably shit too), chances are people will just insult you on YouTube, and publishers will never write you back, ever. Even when you start sending good songs, they’ve already judged you and will likely never listen to anything you send again. Get good at your craft before you start trying to get people’s attention, because if you’re fortunate enough to get it, and you’re not ready, you’re going to lose it.

As far as “getting started” or “getting cuts” or “getting more followers” goes, there really is no logic to it. Some of the best songwriters I know are bartenders, and some of the biggest writers in the industry — people I’ve worked with numerous times that have sold millions of records — are totally fucking winging it. I am still trying to crack the code myself, but what I will say is this: Every single successful person I know has worked hard. They have mastered their craft, chosen their category and are working endlessly to get what they want.

Fame may come easy sometimes, but long term success most certainly does not.

Check out Greg Holden’s new video for “On The Run” below!

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