Writing a song is easy. Writing a song is hard. (It doesn’t have to be that hard.)
These are the balanced truths with which singer-songwriter Dar Williams demystifies the writing process in her new book, How to Write a Song That Matters.
Williams has long been considered one of the finest songwriters to touch the craft. Though she is most often featured at folk music festivals, her songwriting seems to exist outside of or beyond the confines of genre. “Spring Street” and “I Won’t Be Your Yoko Ono” have serious radio-friendly pop vibes, for example, whereas “When I Was a Boy” and “Mortal City” are solidly folky. “The Buzzer” and “FM Radio” are decidedly more rock and roll. (She has masterfully covered Pink Floyd, after all.) And so on.
Lucky for her fans, about a decade ago, a friend convinced Williams to start a songwriting retreat and she’s been holding it ever since. The annual gathering is called Writing a Song That Matters, and it includes Williams and a handful of other songwriters and musicians walking the folks who’ve forked out the tuition through a weeklong journey to a full, meaningful composition.
As she details in the book, Williams’s students range from folks hoping to forge a living as songwriters to retirees who always wanted to try songwriting, to younger people who write songs in their spare time.
On Zoom recently, she told me, “A song that matters is something that gives a certain reality to poetic thinking in a way that helps us understand all our thinking. … We’ve said the thing that either values poetic thinking or brings together poetic thinking with the world that we have to live in.”
A song doesn’t have to matter to an international audience, in other words. It can matter to the writer alone, and that is enough.
Williams says she experienced first-hand how some songs matter to a wide audience while others remain mostly just meaningful to her. “Just saying to a person, ‘That’s a song,’ I think is also very important.” She adds that, in her retreats, as in the book, “[We] then go from there, to see what we can do to make the song deeper [and] wider.”
Indeed, How to Write a Song That Matters is thick with advice, ideas, prompts, and solid intro-to-music-theory education. Granted, there are plenty of professional songwriters who claim to know nothing about music theory, but Williams argues that being able to at least talk about basic theory makes it easier to collaborate with other people.
Besides, she told me, “It’s actually very spot-on what people do [when they write a song for the first time,] because we listen to so many songs. It’s like learning a language. We have thousands of Beatles songs and Donna Summer and folk tunes, and we have those patterns inside us. No matter what you know or don’t know, the language of songwriting is in us.”
Speaking of language, Williams digs into the wells of language to discuss how each song is its own theme, and each theme has its own set of language. She ruminates on why artists sometimes employ “nonverbal words” to convey additional meaning.
She admits to going back into a recording studio to swap out “a” for “the” in a line. She tells about how “As Cool As I Am” originally had a completely different line where she now sings, “I don’t know what you saw, I want somebody who sees me.” In sourcing her own songs and exploring her own evolution with songwriting, she models both the way she has trusted her gut and the careful attention often necessary for bringing a song fully into itself.
When we see other people struggling to convey an idea, it makes it less scary to attempt to convey our own ideas. In this way, Williams gives the songwriter permission to trust themselves as they embark on the process of songwriting.
“I had to trust myself in order to write my first songs,” she explains.
“I did a Eurail pass after college, super cheap and great, you know? Like, went around Europe, ate a bunch of baguettes, had a lot of song ideas in my head as I went, and picked up music spilling into the streets. I just knew I had songs to write.
“On the way home, I thought about … how The New York Times has a way of making musicians seem different—good-different, like they came from a special place and had a special knowledge. I thought, ‘I’m just going to have to get past this idea that only special people can do this and keep on pursuing what I’ve been doing: sitting cross-legged on my bed with a guitar trying this chord and then that chord, this word and then that word, and seeing what rhymes.’
“It seems like that step-by-step process would be too simplistic for people who play at Carnegie Hall,” she adds and giggles, shrugs. “And yet I’ve played at Carnegie Hall.”
Indeed, permission and trust and taking thing step by step are useful in all creative processes, whether someone is putting pen to paper for the first time in this way, or whether someone is a seasoned, professional songwriter whose time-tested process has begun to feel monotonous.
Both—and everyone in between—will find incredibly useful guidance here.
Listen to Dar Williams on the “Why We Write with Kim Ruehl” podcast HERE.
How to Write a Song That Matters is available HERE.