Posts Tagged songwriting

Songwriting Part 1-B: The Creative Process – Sketchbook

The creative process is not an assembly line so don’t expect each phase to move mechanically into the next. At any given time, I’m in any one of the phases with a particular idea.

Phase 1: Research

Phase 2: Sketchbook

After you’ve been marinating creative ideas in your research, the next thing to do is to have a kind of sketchbook where you allow pieces of songs to freely flow from you without criticism or judgement. For this stage, I have used a notebook where I write out ideas or a document that I can access at work or at home. For the visual artist, the sketchbook goes with them everywhere so that anytime they see something compelling or they have time to kill they can sketch their ideas in order to access them later.

Another tool for “sketches” could be the voice recorder on your phone. There’s an old myth of the songwriter in a hotel room calling their own answering machine in order to record a song idea. I’m glad that today most of us have a pretty decent recorder with us at all times in our phone.  When recording a sketch, it’s best to not attempt a “demo” just yet. You’ll be doing that later on. Just press record and then sing every idea that comes to you as it comes. When I’m in my office, I prefer to use a TASCAM DR-05. It sounds really good, it’s easy to use, and it’s easy to transfer onto the computer.

If you literate in notation, a program like Finale can be a big help. However, sometimes when I try to capture ideas with Finale, I end up getting bogged down in an attempt to create the finished product when I should just be sketching.

Sketches of songs can be a single phrase, a chord progression or a melody. The parts may not have a clear formal structure yet and they may be nowhere close to looking like a song. Don’t force them to be a song yet. Give your ideas a place to live in your sketchbook on their own without asking them to get out there and go to work in the wide world. They will get tested and refined in the next phase, but for the moment, let them stand without judgement. If you expect every thought to become a world-changing musical expression then you become either paralyzed with self-doubt or blinded by an inflated ego. My dad, a gifted songwriter and my mentor, always told me something like 1 out of every 30 songs is a keeper. If you expect to have a lot of ideas that will end up in trash, then it frees you to let go of forcing the process and it gives you a realistic expectations of how often you need to working on the process.

The transfer of an idea from your head onto paper or into a recording has a powerful affect that can sometimes ignite inspiration rapidly. Sometimes, the creative process takes over at this point and within an hour or less you have a fully formed song. This happened to me when I wrote a new setting for Isaac Watts’ text “Jesus My Great High Priest.” My pastor liked the hymn, but I found the musical setting in the hymnal to be lacking. He asked to sing it one day in staff prayer and after that meeting, I went in my office resolved to fix it. Within an hour or two, I had a new melody and chorus for the song that has become one of our church’s most loved songs for worship. That rarely happens, but when it does, it’s usually because I’ve been researching heavily and so my mind is ripe with ideas.

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Songwriting Part 1-A: The Creative Process – Research

Creativity is not magic. It’s not mysterious or inspired. The Romantics are wrong about artists as isolated, half-mad geniuses. Creativity is a process of applied skills, experiences, knowledge and craft. You might have met someone who claimed that they were just minding their business when a song came to them as a fully formed product as if inscribed by the Holy Spirit onto their brain. That person is not really acknowledging the thought and preparation that went into the moment of creative spark. Writing songs is a creative process that can be repeated and developed like any other skill.

Stage 1: Research

Song writing research takes many forms. It could be listening to a particular style of music for details about song construction or learning to play the songs of a particular artist. I wrote the song “Search Me” after I read that Paul McCartney said “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys was his favorite song of all time.  Then I learned to play it and analyzed the chord movement. Research could also be studying scripture in a systematic way to generate ideas. A few years ago, I went through a process of doodling the the Psalms. I would read a Psalm and then draw symbols or phrases. This process was the preparation for writing my song of lament, “Hear My Cry.” Sometimes a deadline or a project objective means that the research phase needs to be very focused on a task, but the best creative research happens more fluidly without a goal in mind, giving your brain and your heart freedom to wander through the information without boundaries. Here are some ideas for research direction:

  • Go on YouTube and watch a ton of NPR Tiny Desk Concerts.
  • Look up hymns written by Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley and analyze their form, melody, harmony, content, etc.
  • Get a Real Book and learn a few classic Standards
  • Pick a CD of a style you want to understand better and listen to it over and over and over in your car until you can sing every word and instrumental part by memory. (I did this one summer in college with an Earth Wind and Fire’s Greatest Hits cassette.)
  • Read a biography of a musician you love and respect; then go and listen to their influences.
  • Read all the annotations for a song you like on
  • Watch a documentary on film making, writing, visual art or other creative people (My 1st year after college, I used to watch DVDs of “the Simpson’s” with the commentary on to hear the writers and creators discuss their process of making each episode.)

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Song for Advent: Come Again Lord Jesus

“Advent” is the time of the church calendar when we look for the coming of the Lord Jesus. It has elements of past, present, and future longing for the coming of the Messiah. We read the Messianic passages from the prophets that long for a suffering servant to come, a child who will bring light from darkness. Then we celebrate that Jesus did come as a baby in the time of Caesar Augustus.

In the present, we look for the Messiah to come now in the present into the hearts and lives of broken people, structures, and communities. We cry to the Lord for his Spirit to fill us and to be present in all our thoughts and give us purpose and vision. Then we celebrate that his promise is fulfilled over and over to be the living and ever-present Emmanuel, God with us.

For the future, we look to the coming of the Lord in the full consummation of the story of redemption. All the saints from the past, present, and future, along with the whole universe of creation groans with anticipation that the Lord Jesus will be forever present as the King of Kings in the glorious New City of God. We celebration in Advent that he has always been faithful to his promises and he will not fail to come again.

I wrote this song for Advent that doesn’t have any stable, shepherds, angels, star, or even mention sweet little baby Jesus. However, it does get to the heart of the longing for the Lord Jesus to come again and be our King in the past, present and future.

Come Again Lord Jesus

Come again Lord Jesus
All creation join and sing
Come again Lord Jesus
Come again and be our King
Come again and be our King

To the poor and the forsaken
brokenhearted and alone
Come again and bring us hope
The one true Son of David
Worthy Lamb upon the throne
Come again and bring us peace

As you came before, Jesus come again
Oh, we need you Lord, please come again

To the victim and the prisoner
with no power and no name
Come again and bring us joy
Be the one true Righteous Shepherd
Calling lost sheep to reclaim
Come again and bring us love

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Throwback Thursday: some of my older songs added to

I just posted a bunch of my songs to Here’s what I added today:

I wrote Your Presence is Here early in the morning on Easter Sunday in 2008. I remember that because my son was born a few days later, and I had a million contingency plans in place if my wife went into labor at any point during Passion week. The song is about the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus in our regular worship practices. He is risen, and he is present in every worship service. It was kind of a response to the gospel hit that was popular at the time, “The Presence of the Lord is Here.” The song as well as almost all the others on this list are included on my recording, “Guardian Grace”.

Restore Us  was written when I was in college and listening to Coldplay’s first CD a lot. It’s based on Psalm 80. This was one of the first songs that I wrote that really seemed to click with people in worship. We’ve only sung it once at my church even though we have a ministry called “Restore St Louis.”

Rejoice In The Lord  comes from my jazz performance days in college. I was interested in what it would be like to use “Rhythm Changes” to create a song for worship. The verses were inspired by the Steely Dan tune, “Peg” The text is from Philippians 4. It’s a real harmonic work out for all you music nerds out there. I had so much fun arranging the horn parts for the pros I hired on the recording.

New Creation was written after I was living in St Louis for a while. Our church had a large group of Liberian immigrants who were struggling with some pretty serious sin issues in their community that called into question their understanding of what it means to be changed by the gospel. So, I had the idea of writing a song in an African style using the text from 2 Corinthians 5:17. The bridge is composed in the typical African worship fashion where the group repeats a short idea over and over and the leader embellishes/preaches over top.

Walk the Talk was the theme of the 2002 Urban Camp at New City Fellowship in Chattanooga. It was composed for that purpose and a team of African American  high schoolers  (including NCF-Chatt musician Nikki Ellis) helped sell it to the kids. Among the other things that were created at that camp were the “Afro Man” videos and friendship with a certain counselor that would turn into an engagement a year later. Good times.

Greater Is He Who Is In Us was also composed as a song for kids in our ministries at New City Fellowship in Chattanooga. There was another song we were singing by the same title that I was really tired of, so I composed a new one.

To check out all the songs that I have on you can hover over the “My Songs” tab at the top of the page.


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The God Who is Able (Take 2 the Stevie Remix)

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New Song: “With Trembling”

This morning, I was reading Psalm 2 and this song came to me. I’ve been enjoying listening to Gary Clark Jr. these days, so I’m sure the blues sound is coming from that inspiration. I had originally intended to make the song a metric psalm but then the idea of a narrative verse about Nebuchadnezzar came to me. Spirituals and Blues have so much story telling in them that it seemed a natural fit. I’m not totally sold on the title but it seemed the only hook in the tune.

Psalm 2 is kind of hard to read through the lens of grace and personal salvation. It’s certainly a warning that we aught to look to the Son as our only refuge or else we stand condemned. However, it’s not the picture of the gentle  “Buddy Christ” that the American culture likes to cling to. This morning, Psalm 2 spoke to me about the sovereign rule of Christ over the nations to do justice and righteousness. The kings of the nations will not be able to stop the movement of this kingdom.

With Trembling

O, Great Son of David
Anointed forever as King
We serve You, Lord, in fear
and we rejoice with trembling,
With trembling.

Why do the kings of the earth stand against You?
Why do they rage and conspire in vain?
For all the earth is your possession
And from holy mount Zion You reign

All you kings who rule by oppression
You would be wise to take heed
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry
or you’ll be broken like pottery

to chorus

One day, old king Nebuchadnezzar
Looked out on the gardens of Babylon
He lifted his voice in pride and said
“See what my mighty hand has done”

But the Lord of Heaven was listening
and He laughed at the king and said
“You boasted in your own strength in power,
so now you’ll become like a beast instead”

to chorus

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Do We Really Need More Worship Songs? – Stuart Townend

Read this: Do We Really Need More Worship Songs? – Stuart Townend.



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Let’s Write a Song Together

This morning I was reading Deuteronomy 10:14-22 and it struck me how great this passage would be as a hymn. It covers a lot of ground: creation, grace, justice, service, praise, and redemption are just a few things that are packed in here. I was thinking a hymn because there’s a kind of strophic pattern to the the prose. Here’s how I imagined it:

Verse 1: To the Lord belongs all creation and yet he particularly set his affection on us, chose us and all generations. 

Verse 2: Humbly consecrate your heart to the Lord because he is the God of gods, Lord of Lords, holy and awesome. 

Verse 3: The Lord defends the fatherless, widow and alien and so we, as former aliens, are now empowered to do the same. 

Verse 4: Fear the Lord and serve him, holding fast to him and trusting in his name because he is “your praise” who is YOUR God who has performed awesome wonders for your deliverance. 

Verse 5: The Lord is faithful to his promises as demonstrated by the covenant to Abraham fulfilled in the blessing and redemption from Egypt. (This could poetically connect to the ultimate covenant fulfillment, Passover and freedom/exodus of Christ)

I’m more a composer than a poet and lyrics have always been my Achilles heal. Help me out O blog readers and friends. Send me a few lines of poetry, one verse or more and lets make a song as a community.

If I had to pick a form for the verse it would be anapestic tetrameter (Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house) and maybe the rhyme scheme could be ABCB. But send me anything that comes to you in the comments and we can always negotiate a compromise.

Come on y’all! Let’s be creative!!

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New Song: We Have a Promise

We have a promise, a promise from Jesus our King
We have a promise, a promise from Jesus our King
He’s prepared us a place
Where we’ll meet him face to face
And by the power of his grace
We can finish this race
We have a promise

We have a promise, a promise from Jesus our King
We have a promise, a promise from Jesus our King
He’s chosen us by name
And now Death has no claim
His promise will remain
Now and forever, the same
We have a promise

We believe, we believe
In the promise that your servants have received

We have a promise, a promise from Jesus our King
We have a promise, a promise from Jesus our King
Though inwardly we groan
And at times feel all alone
He’s sealed us as his own
And he’s reigning on the throne
We have a promise

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The story behind “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us”

I love to hear other songwriters talk about their craft. It’s a mix of mysterious inspiration and intentional choices. I’m a huge fan of Stuart Townend’s songs.

At about 1:00, he starts talking about the poetry. There’s a lot there that reminds me of the tragedy of adoption and the tragedy of the cross that I wrote about previously.

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