Music News
7:23 am
Sun November 24, 2013

For A Few Musicians, Beating Songwriter's Block Is A Game

Originally published on Sun November 24, 2013 12:50 pm

Bob Schneider finished writing "The Effect," a song from his latest album, Burden of Proof, in just a few days. That's how he does it: For 12 years, the Texas musician has beaten back the urge to procrastinate by writing a song once a week, every week. It began casually, just him and a friend sharing their songs with one another.

"I'll go home, write a song, you'll write a song, and then we'll come back here in two days and play 'em for each other," Schneider says. "That's basically how it started."

Now it's grown into an Internet-based, deadline-driven songwriting motivation strategy which Schneider calls "The Song Game." It's a game without winners or losers — just productivity. He's filled five studio albums with songs from the game since 2001, and says he still needs it all these years later.

"There's the critical voice inside your head and it stops people from writing," he says. "I try to eliminate that voice by saying, 'Look, I'm gonna write a song. I'm gonna try to make it interesting.'"

Every Friday night Schneider's email inbox floods with songs from the 30 or so writers who play the game. Eventually word of The Song Game spread — as things tend to do online — and writers like Grammy award-winner Patty Griffin and Ben Folds of the recently reunited Ben Folds Five jumped on board.

"Some of my favorite songwriters in the world have been in the game at times," Schneider says, "and they would write a song, or two, or three, and then they would stop writing. And I would be like, 'Please, please write some more songs, because I love your songwriting!'"

Jason Mraz hasn't had a problem keeping up. The platinum-selling musician joined the game in 2006, and admits he's been so desperate to make Schneider's Friday deadline that he's filed a track from the seat of an airplane.

"You look at the clock and it's like, 'Uh-oh,'" Mraz says. "I don't wanna get kicked out this week, or have to come crawling back, begging for a chance to stay in it."

That's one of the ground rules of the game — fail to submit a song every week, and Schneider will cut you from the invite-only email list. And here's another rule: the phrase. To keep songwriters from working ahead, he sends a short phrase to the group that has to be in the next week's song.

Mraz says honoring that rule has taken him to some unexpected places. "Coyotes," a track from his breakthrough album, We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things, was born of a game phrase: "I wish the wind would blow me through."

"I let that phrase, metaphorically, like a tumbleweed, blow me through this setting where it eventually became about a coyote that ran away to New York," he says.

For many of the songwriters involved, the game is a system that forces productivity; for Mraz, it's been so helpful in that respect that he actually credits it with his career. He says he wrote more in his first two years playing the game than he'd ever written before.

"I like it. In fact, I think I need it," he says. "I really do. Anything you want to be great at, you have to practice — and The Song Game gives me a reason to practice."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's no one way to write a song. Some writers work on it and then pick it up again later. Sometimes they hit a snag and give it up altogether. But one group of musicians has devised a unique kind of songwriting system.

Acacia Squires has this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EFFECT")

BOB SCHNEIDER: (Singing) I can't say your name without my mouth all filling up with flames...

ACACIA SQUIRES, BYLINE: This song's called The Effect and it's off Bob Schneider's album, "A Perfect Day."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EFFECT")

SCHNEIDER: (Singing) At first, it gave me quite a scare, and now I like the effect...

SQUIRES: He wrote it, in just a few days. That's how he does it. For 12 years, he's beaten back the urge to procrastinate by writing a song once a week, every week. It began casually, with just him and a friend, sharing their songs.

SCHNEIDER: I'll go home, write a song, you'll write a song, and then we'll come back here in two days and play them for each other. And that's basically how it started.

SQUIRES: Now it's grown into an Internet-based deadline-driven song-writing motivation strategy. Schneider calls it the Song Game.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EFFECT")

SCHNEIDER: (Singing) And, hey, who am I to say? It's really good company any way. And there's a...

SQUIRES: It's a game without winners or losers - just productivity. He's filled five studio albums with songs from the game since 2001, and says he still needs it all these years later.

SCHNEIDER: There's the critical voice inside your head and it stops people from writing. And I try to eliminate that voice by saying, look, I'm going to write a song. I'm going to try to make it interesting. I don't care if its good or bad.

SQUIRES: As the deadline nears on Friday night, Bob Schneider's e-mail inbox floods with e-mails from the 30-or-so songwriters playing the game. Once he moved it online, famous musicians like Grammy Award winner Patty Griffin and Ben Folds - of Ben Folds 5 - jumped on board.

SCHNEIDER: Like, some of my favorite songwriters in the world have been in the game at times, and they would write a song or two or three, and then they would stop writing and I would be, like, hey, please, please write some more songs because I love your songwriting.

SQUIRES: But musician Jason Mraz didn't have a problem keeping up. He joined in 2006 and admits he's been so desperate to make Schneider's Friday deadline that he's filed a track from the seat of an airplane.

JASON MRAZ: Hey, look at the clock and its like, uh-oh, you know, I don't want to get kicked out this week or have to come crawling back, begging for a chance to stay in it.

SQUIRES: That's one of the ground rules of the game. If you don't submit a song every week, Schneider will cut you from the invite-only e-mail list. And here's another rule: The Phrase. To keep songwriters from working ahead, he sends a phrase to the group that has to be in the next week's song. This phrase, Digging for Icicles, became the title of a song on Schneider's latest album, "Burden of Proof."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIGGING FOR ICICLES")

SCHNEIDER: (Singing) Digging for icicles, only finding rain...

The opening track, "Digging for icicles," I definitely would have never written that song if that wouldn't have been a phrase.

SQUIRES: Jason Mraz has written tracks for nearly all of his albums with phrases from the song game. The phrase: I wish the wind would blow me through, made it into this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SING, WE DANCE, WE STEAL THINGS")

MRAZ: (Singing) I wish the world was alive like you...

I wish the wind would blow me through, another opportunity to approach you. And it just - I let that phrase actually metaphorically blow me through, like a tumbleweed through this setting where it eventually became about a coyote, you know, that ran away to New York.

SQUIRES: And that week, Schneider used the same phrase in his song that wound up on his album, "Burden of Proof."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SING, WE DANCE, WE STEAL THINGS")

SCHNEIDER: (Singing) I wish the world would do what I want it to. The wind would blow me blow me, blow me back to you...

SQUIRES: Some artists say they are so inspired, so full of ideas, they just can't stop writing. But that's not always the case with these songwriters. They force productivity on themselves. They've built a system to keep the ideas flowing. So much so that Mraz actually credits the Song Game with his career. He says he wrote more in the first two years of playing the game than he'd ever written before.

MRAZ: In fact, I think I need it. Anything you want to be great at you need to practice, and the Song Game gives me a reason to practice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SING, WE DANCE, WE STEAL THINGS")

MRAZ: (Singing) There's no one else I would rather go out with...

SQUIRES: For NPR News, I'm Acacia Squires.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SING, WE DANCE, WE STEAL THINGS")

MRAZ: (Singing) I made mouth, wait, don't mean to be rushing. We talk about these freely 'cause we're crushing. I'm only...

MARTIN: And you can read more about the Song Game. Plus, hear how two writers interpreted this phrase, copper leaf, very differently at nprmusic.org. Also, check out our Facebook page, nprweekend. You can follow the show and me on Twitter at nprweekend and at rachelnpr.

MRAZ: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SING, WE DANCE, WE STEAL THINGS")

MRAZ: (Singing) Every notion is close to destruction, the coyote sing when they call on your loving...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello.

MRAZ: (Singing) We're coming back for more. You know why we're coming for you. You know why... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.