When John Freeman took over as music editor at the museum of americana, he asked me if I’d contribute my “rules of songwriting.” I used to joke with John about these rules, and at some point he said, “Hey, those are actually really good. They might help other songwriters the way they helped me.” I don’t put these out there as the end-all-be-all, but they are things I’ve learned that have helped me on my way in my own writing life, rules I picked up studying some of my heroes, people like John Cougar Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, Chris Knight, and others.
1). Write Songs That Help People.
Think of all the times a song was there to get you through something. Songs help people; at the end of the day this is their greatest purpose. Sometimes they help people we don’t even know personally, and because of that they are bigger than any individual’s artistic vision.
2). “Basically I’m going to be basically basic”–The Tommy Hearns Rule Of Songwriting.
Never tell a joke that only the band will get. Keep it south of four minutes and keep it accessible. Think about it like you’re giving someone directions to a certain location. You don’t want them to get lost or have to go halfway across town when the destination is right down the street. The old boxing adage applies: “Precision beats power and timing beats speed every time.”
3). The Hot N’ Ready Rule
Make it affordable. Make sure the song has something for everybody. It’s like when you get a pizza for a party. Everybody wants a slice of that pie. Make sure everybody gets a piece, but also make sure you eat also.
4). Don’t Chase The Radio
If you chase the radio, you’re already three steps behind. Be yourself. You’ve got a voice; use it.
5). Collaborate. Don’t Be Scared To Take On A Co-writer.
If I had to move a refrigerator into my house, I could try it alone, but it’s easier when you got some friends on it. It’s more fun, too. Then you can buy everybody a pizza (see rule 3).
6). Finish The Song.
A lot of people are out there doing things but not a lot of folks are getting things done. Finish the rough draft and go from there; it gives you material to work with.
7). Hill Street Blues Rule
Steven Bochco, who wrote Hill Street Blues, sums it up: “Real characters, real behavior, real consequences.” Bad things happen to good people; good things happen to bad people. But at the end of the day, things happen.
8). “Don’t Hate. Take Notes.”
I saw it on the back window of some guy’s car in big bold letters at a red light once. Embrace other people’s work. You can learn a lot from others if you open your eyes and ears. Your light doesn’t shine brighter when you put someone else’s candle out.
9). Live For It, But Don’t Be Afraid To Die For It
When I first started doing this, I was living for it; there wasn’t a day that passed that I didn’t do something music-related: playing shows, practicing with other musicians, writing songs. But at some point I realized that to really respect the art, you have to die for it, as well. Sometimes that means acknowledging darker realities, waking up in the middle of the night to finish a song because that’s when the idea comes, or not going to bed at all, doing what the song requires even if it isn’t necessarily good for you. Respect the song, and it’ll return the favor.
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Don “Doop” Duprie is a songwriter and fireman from the industrial town of River Rouge, MI. He has recorded four records: Blood River, What Am I Supposed To Do, Everett Belcher, and The Corridor, to enthusiastic critical reception. A current Kresge Arts fellow, his music has been written about in many Detroit-based and national publications, including LA Weekly. He regularly performs solo and with his band, Doop and the Inside Outlaws. He is currently hard at work on his fifth studio record. He played the famed Bluebird Café in Nashville with Sarah Potenza on Saturday, May 5th.