In a recent blog post, my colleague (and blog editor) Howard Massey wrote about how to know when a recording is done. I’d like to talk about how to know when a song is done … or to put it another way, how do you know when it’s over? (No, that’s not the title of a break-up song — although it wouldn’t be a bad one. ☺)
There are some simple, pat answers: That there are no more i’s to dot or t’s to cross. That you’re pretty sure you won’t wake up the day after mastering your single and realize you dreamt of a stronger opening line.
But I think there’s more to it than that.
For songwriters, our songs are our babies. Like real babies, we want to protect them and ensure that when they go out into the world they’re ripe. Ready. Prepared to do their job. But until we set them free, they’re still a work in progress. A work that needs time to breathe, to simmer. A work that needs to be rolled over this way and that, looked at from all angles.
(And like babies, when you send your child off to college / send your song out for consideration and ask yourself, “Did I do everything exactly right?” the answer is: probably not. But they usually turn out pretty wonderful anyway.)
We songwriters are all too familiar with that sinking feeling when we realize we might have signed off on a song too soon — when a tastier chord progression or a more natural, unique or quirkier phrasing occurs to us after we’ve left the studio. Do we call the engineer on the way home and tell him (or her) we’re making a U-turn? Maybe. How much does that engineer love you?
I have, on more than one occasion, felt my body tense up at a certain spot in a song when playing it to a prospective artist, producer or record label. Not until that moment was the weakness so obvious. Why now? I’ve often wondered if there’s some kind of psychology to the mind pushing a boundary only after we’ve committed to the mix.
There are those whose nature it is to overthink. They can drive themselves (and their collaborators) crazy. A work-in-progress can go on indefinitely if we let it. My friend and one-time American Idol judge Kara Dioguardi once posited (and I Kara-phrase), “If it feels inspired going in, it will feel inspired coming out.” Touché. Maybe that’s enough. “Done” is so subjective!
I’ve found that mornings are an opportune time to assess a new work. Our slates are clean and batteries recharged after a night’s sleep. We can be more objective about things like: Have we left out a piece of information that will leave a listener unsatisfied? Have we included enough emotion and not just fact, so the listener can feel you, not just hear you? At the end of the day, we have no choice but to trust our instincts. The good news is that the longer you practice your craft the sharper your instincts will get.
For example, I know that, when it comes to lyrics, I over-write. I ramble. Until I stumble — usually quite randomly — on the final thought about the point I’m trying to make (something called the “sum up.”) It arrives on its own clock. Luckily, my seasoned antennae usually recognize it as a golden nugget, at which point I put my pen down (or close my laptop) and make a beeline for the fridge.
Look on the bright side. If down the line you have some buyer’s remorse, it’s not the end of the world. You’ll write another song. The thing is, you’ll never move on if you can’t put a period after your last creation.
So don’t rush to cross a finish line just because you’ve written something amazing and you’re dying to play it for everyone ASAP! Take your time. Marinate. Eventually, after reasonable consideration and assessment (and instinct!) you’re gonna have to take the damn thing out of the oven and invite some guests to dinner.