Songwriter Interview – Ian Sherwood… talking about his ideal songwriting process, how to write better songs and his best advice for new songwriters
Ian Sherwood is an award winning singer/songwriter based in Nova Scotia. He spoke with me about songwriting in a phone interview. I met him recently between sets at one of his shows.
Thanks for the great conversation Ian… we will definitely have to make the time to talk shop again!
Note: for easier reading our conversation was slightly edited.
The 12 takeaways at the end of the article are my opinions, drawn from the conversation.
Contemporary Singer of the Year, 2013 (Canadian Folk Music Awards)
Best Male Artist of the Year 2012 (International Acoustic Music Awards)
Musician of the Year (Music Nova Scotia, 2008 & 2010)
Bring the Light, 2017
Everywhere to Go, 2014
Live at the Hive, 2013
And Now the Fun Begins, 2010
Art of Conversation, 2007
Ian Sherwood, 2006
Ian, can you describe your songwriting style for those that haven’t heard your music yet?
I describe myself as a singer/songwriter. Like James Taylor, Paul Simon and Lyle Lovett, I don’t write in a specific genre or style. To me singer/songwriter is a headspace or a feeling… I write what I am feeling in the moment and the musical style grows out of the song.
I know many songwriters who are very successful in their particular genre, but I grow more as a songwriter and as an artist by keeping myself open. My advice to a developing songwriter trying to figure out your style is don’t think about your genre. Let your songs reveal their genre they want to be.
Ian, what is your musical background and musical training?
I studied jazz saxophone with Don Palmer while I was at Dalhousie University. Then I moved to Toronto and studied with Kirk McDonald and Bob Mover. I learned jazz improvisation and composition, including jazz theory, song forms, chord progressions.
Do you have any formal songwriting training?
I started listening to and analyzing popular music, using what I had learned about jazz theory and composition.
When I started songwriting, I didn’t really have any solid idea of what I was doing. I wrote songs… I thought they were good but in retrospect they were relatively weak. My best ones were story songs, I still play some of them in my live shows.
I learned how to emulate solid songs by picking them apart. I started questioning: Why are the songs I like better than mine? What is it about them that I’m missing in my songs?
Here’s the thing, to make a living you need to get gigs. To get gigs you need to get songs on the radio… Why is that song on the radio and not mine?
I started to hear what was important in the song structure… how many times the chorus was played, how many verses…. It wasn’t some much my lyric writing that needed work, but how I was assembling the songs, how I was putting them together.
This helped me write better songs that my audience could understand and relate to.
Ian, can you describe your songwriting process?
The way I love to write, my ideal process, is to have a moment of inspiration and go for a walk. Moving gets my creativity flowing. It might be thirty minutes or two hours, but when I get back I have most of the lyrics and a melody. Then I figure out the chords with a guitar or piano.
So you can write a song in a few hours?
Sure (laughing)… like I said, that’s my ideal process. While I was preparing for my last album I wrote five songs in a week. I also have some songs that took years from start to finish. But, yeah… when it’s working I can write a song quickly.
How consistent is your songwriting schedule?
When I was starting out I wrote everyday. For a couple of months, I challenged myself to write a verse and a chorus by noon. I created some great songs that way and built up my songwriting chops.
My life isn’t quite as conducive to daily writing, between family, performing and taking care of business. I still spend a lot of time writing, thinking about writing and listening to music. I also love talking to other songwriters: I find out how they do it, I try new things and keep what works… I’m still growing.
You have to figure out your own songwriting process. It’s different for everyone, but you can learn from anyone if you listen and pay attention.
What advice would you have for yourself 10+ years ago?
The easy answer would be to go back and explain hit songwriting to myself… how songs are constructed. But then I would have missed all the mistakes that I learned from that let me write the way I do now… I’d lose some of what makes me, my “unique” factor.
No, I’d offer myself encouragement.
- Keep moving forward.
- Don’t listen to negativity.
- Don’t give in during discouraging moments.
- If you keep writing, you keep learning and improving!
What is your best advice for a developing songwriter?
Get over the thought that “every song is precious.”
Don’t be selfish, share your music, offer your songs for people to listen to. Don’t be afraid to share them.
Write songs that are based in your personal experience but find a way to express them that everyone can understand. If you want people to listen to your music, write songs that will affect them, they need to be able to relate to them.
Great songs come from personal experiences that you craft with universal appeal.
How do you get your music to the people, Ian? How do you promote yourself?
I am weak at this… it’s something I need to spend more time on.
I have an email list, I send out an email every month and use it to update everyone about upcoming shows. I also use social media… FaceBook, Instagram and Twitter. When it comes to big stuff like an album release, I have a publicist that takes care of press releases and spreading the word.
How to Connect with Ian Sherwood
Join his email list
Buy Ian Sherwood’s music
Ian’s YouTube Channel
Host a House Concert with Ian Sherwood
My Takeaways from the Interview
Mostly in the order they appeared in the interview
1. Write everyday, create a consistent schedule
2. Set goals: Ian set a challenge, write a verse and chorus by noon… a concrete goal (verse and chorus) and a concrete time, noon.
3. Singer-songwriter is a mindset, more than a genre.
4. Don’t get stuck in a genre or confine your writing… I do this too, I write songs that could be rock or pop or could go country….
5. Let the song define itself… don’t let your preconceived notions get in your way.
6. Go for a walk… take a break, get out of your music cave, move your body to find the music instead of sitting around waiting for inspiration.
7. Curiosity: find out why, find out how
- Listen to great music and figure out why it’s great,
- Talk to songwriters and musicians and find out how they do it
- Try different things, keep what works, try other things
- Figure out what songwriting process works best for you
8. Great songs are personal experiences with universal appeal.
9. Get over your “my songs are precious” problem. Finish your song then share it, instead of letting your songs take forever to become perfect … a shared song is worth ten “almost finished” songs
10. Song structure is crucial… it can make the difference between good and great.
There’s a reason that so many great songs follow similar patterns in how they are constructed… because those patterns help audiences relate to the lyrics and understand the songwriter’s message.
11. Learn from the best… listen to the best music and figure out why they are great… then borrow those ideas to create your own songs.
12. Hire professional help when you need it, either for time or skills you don’t have… especially when it comes to publicity, if no one hears about you they can’t hear your music