We all have our musical idols – the ones that push us to improve our craft as songwriters and musicians whether we know it or not.
Much of the time this happens organically. We listen to lots of their music and it “rubs off” on us.
But if you pay close attention, you can actually distill an artist’s career into actionable lessons that you can learn and implement in your own work to see better songs emerge.
My favorite singer and songwriter of all time, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave fame, died last week – apparently taking his own life. Just a few weeks removed from me seeing them live here in Tampa as they kicked off what would become their last ever tour.
It’s been a somber few days for the music community and for me personally as his music has shaped my music more than anybody else. I learned to play guitar and sing rock music while listening to Soundgarden as an 11 year old.
Put simply, Chris Cornell was a master songwriter.
And while you may or may not be as big of a fan of Chris’ music as I am, I think there are some powerful lessons we can distill from his body of work in order that we might become better songwriters and musicians.
Today I want to share five of the biggest ones that have helped me and my music. My hope is that they will help you as well.
1. Don’t Write Music For The Radio
Ironically it’s because of radio in the early 90s that I even heard of Soundgarden. They were HUGE from 1991 to 1997 on rock radio, with 1994’s Superunknown (featuring the mega hit “Black Hole Sun”) being what propelled them to fame.
But Chris never tried to write music for radio.
Instead he, and the rest of Soundgarden, wrote music for themselves and their fans.
It just happened to blow up on radio.
There is a songwriting strategy that goes like this: listen to what’s trendy and popular right now and then try and create your own version of that.
And it is a completely valid way to write music.
But, if you follow Chris’ career in Soundgarden and later on in his solo endeavors you can see a pattern. He kept changing up the music and writing whatever was interesting him at the moment. Some got popular, some didn’t. And that was OK.
At the end of the day, Chris was an artist. A craftsman. His goal was to create art that HE liked. Art that his FANS liked. If anybody else liked it, great. If not, that’s OK too.
Were all of his songs amazing? No. And that’s coming from a diehard fan.
But they were authentic to what he was feeling at the time – and that’s a huge reason why he was such a good songwriter. His eyes weren’t outward on what the world was doing, but down on his guitar and pen/paper.
Write music that YOU enjoy, that your FANS enjoy, and then go from there.
2. The Music Comes First
Which comes first in songwriting, the music? Or the lyrics?
Except for a couple of his solo outings, the majority of the time Chris would write the music first THEN the lyrics.
And this is a huge reason why his songs are so well constructed.
If you write lyrics first, you are essentially creating poetry and then trying build a song around it. While this can work, it usually comes out sounding…well, like a poem set to music.
If the music comes first, then it can stand on its own without any words – which in my opinion is paramount to having a song that can stand the test of time.
Lyrics are very important, but they should only add to great music.
If you listen to any Soundgarden song you’ll hear a well arranged, thought out, and meticulously composed piece of music. It never seems random or like it’s trying to fit around some obtuse lyrics.
It all just fits.
And that’s what happens when you write the lyrics AFTER the music. You’re forced to fit your lyrical idea into a pre-determined musical grid, which is just another wonderful way to use “limitations” to make better music.
It’s much easier to write good lyrics to fit great music, than it is to write great music to fit good lyrics.
3. Create Memorable Melodies
So closely tied with the second point is that you must create memorable melodies.
It blows me away how many songs are just plain boring. Nothing that even remotely sticks in your brain melody wise.
The goal of every great song is to have listeners walking away humming your melody.
This only happens if you take the time to craft a singable and memorable melody. Something that Chris has done so masterfully for over 30 years.
From “Black Hole Sun” to “Outshined” to “Burden In My Hand” to “Like A Stone” – Chris wrote songs that revolved around at least one memorable melody. Most were incredibly simple – and that’s why they worked.
For example, just yesterday I played “Black Hole Sun” in the car for my 8 year old daughter. She had never heard it before and I was trying to explain that “Daddy’s favorite singer just died”.
Hours later, back home, she was walking around the house humming the hook of that song.
That’s amazing considering most songs come in your ear and are immediately forgettable. Even good ones!
A great song is only as great as its melody. Period.
4. Don’t Create Music Alone
Chris Cornell is what some would call a triple threat. He could sing, play guitar (and drums!) and write songs.
When you can write the songs, play the songs, and sing the songs it can easily fool you into thinking you don’t need anyone else, save for a backing band to make you look awesome.
And this is the way my prideful brain operates.
But in watching Chris’ career I was shown a better way – one in which you grow as a musician and songwriter when you create music with others.
Starting with Soundgarden – it was a very collaborative band with all members actively contributing to the writing and arranging process. It wasn’t just the Chris Cornell show.
What came out of those 4 guys (Matt, Kim, Ben, and Chris) was something unique – and better than just if Chris had done it all himself.
Chris then moved on to do four solo albums, collaborating with a wide variety of musicians and producers in a wide variety of styles, ranging from country, to indie, to hip hop, to orchestral scores.
The result was fresh new music and constant moments of creativity, instead of stale repeats of yesteryear.
If you’re a solo musician working alone in your little audio cave (like me), I highly suggest you team up with someone else to squeeze out something new and original.
I’m currently on a collaboration with someone who is completely outside of my musical safe place and the result is turning out to be amazing.
At the very least, a simple partnership with someone who is not like you musically will become like an instant creativity switch that can lead to a slew of new ideas!
5. Always Move Forward To The Next Project
Finally, one thing that I always respected about Chris was his desire to always move forward to something new, never looking back for long.
When Soundgarden broke up in 1997, the questions started coming in for the next 15 years – “Will you ever get back together as a band?”
And his answer was always “Why? We had a great run, made lots of great music. It’s done. We don’t want to do the same thing again.”
And so he moved on to a solo career (four albums including the theme song to a James Bond movie), another platinum selling band, Audioslave, and lots of creative acoustic covers of famous songs.
He was always interested in what was next. Something new.
And I think that’s critical to your development as a songwriter. You must learn to write something, share it, and then move on to something new.
Don’t live in the past of what you already have written. Write something new.
Just the act of completing an EP or album project makes you a better songwriter and engineer. It’s far better than trying to “perfect” one project. So complete as many new projects as you can!
The exciting thing is, you just never know what kind of music you have locked up deep down inside of you – just waiting to be un leashed.
If Chris had been content with the success (and sound) of their first 3 studio albums and handful of other EPs in 1991 (and Soundgarden had finally broken onto national rock radio and gone platinum) then we would never have heard “Black Hole Sun” – something completely out of left field for that band.
If Soundgarden had been content with the MASSIVE success of Superunknown, then we might not have the haunting and powerful solo outing Euphoria Morning or the in your face flawless rock experience that was Audioslave’s self titled debut album.
And even to Soundgarden reuniting in 2012 with the incredible King Animal, featuring killer songs like “Bones of Birds” and “Rowing”.
The point? Keep writing. Move on to the next song, and the next song, and the next song. It’s the only way to unlock your best material.
The Good News About Songwriting
Let’s be real for a moment – I will never be Chris Cornell. He was a uniquely gifted individual and a rare talent. And he will be greatly missed.
But the good news for you and me? Getting better at songwriting isn’t that hard – we simply need to do more of it.
Songwriters write songs.
Have you ever thought about that? It sounds obvious, but that’s what they do.
So if you want to be a great songwriter but you’re not writing a lot of songs, something is wrong. Songwriters write songs.
So I have a challenge for you: given your current schedule and commitments, how many songs do you think you can write in the next 30 days? One? Four? Ten?
Leave a comment below with how many songs you plan on writing in the next 30 days and then come back here in a month and let us know how you did!