TPM 60 | Songwriting Tips

 

What songwriting tips can you use to write consistently? Bree Noble sits with Lisa McEwen, who formerly signed as a staff writer to BMG Music Publishing. Putting mindfulness into practice is a great way to start writing music. Creativity comes from within, so you need to learn how to tap into yourself. Another helpful tip is to refrain from writing daily. When your mind is clear and you don’t force yourself to write songs, inspiration often comes. If you need additional tips for more consistent songwriting, this episode’s for you. Tune in!

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Songwriting Tips: How To Tap Into Your Creativity And Build Confidence With Lisa McEwen

I’m excited to be here with Lisa McEwen. We are going to be talking about songwriting. Not only songwriting but how we can implement mindfulness into our songwriting and how mindfulness can help us be better writers. I’m excited about this, especially because she spent some time in Nashville writing. I want to learn all about that and her experiences and what she took from that in order to help people become better songwriters. Before we get into all that, Lisa, we would love to know a little bit about your background, how you got into music, and what your journey has looked like until now.

It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me. I’m Canadian. I was born in a town called Oakville outside of Toronto. I like to call myself the black sheep of the family because I came out singing, and no one else in my family plays or sings anything. The closest there is my grandma singing in the church choir, but my mom didn’t know what to do with me because I sang nonstop. I have a family friend who’s like, “I remember your mom used to say, ‘I don’t know what to do with her. She won’t stop singing.'” Eventually, my parents got a piano and put it in our living room or dining room area.

My parents always loved music but didn’t know how to play it. That was cool because I always loved singing. As a kid, I would sit down at the piano and plunk away. I looked up to all these artists and thought, “They’re doing the songwriting thing. Maybe I can figure this out for myself singing with the music.” I learned some piano. As I got older, I realized the piano was hard to take around, so I learned the guitar.

I’m a keyboard player, so I get it.

I still love piano, but I started gravitating towards country music, and because I was paving my own paths, like no one in my family sang, I was always exploring different types of music. When I heard country, it fits. It felt like home, and my voice suited it. I was like, “I better learn how to play guitar.” I’m set out on that journey. After high school, I decided that I would head off to college for music. I studied vocal. It was jazz-based vocal at Humber College in Toronto, but I had a hard time staying focused because all along, I kept thinking, “I need to get to Nashville. That’s where my people are. I can feel it.”

I’ve taken a couple of trips down to check out some songwriting workshops through NSAI, National Songwriters Association, and connected with some people. I remember chomping at the bit like, “When can we wrap up this college thing? I’ve got to get down to Nashville.” I finished that, and thankfully, my parents were supportive. My dad, who loves old cars, had a Volkswagen camper van. He’s like, “Let’s go.” I loaded up my bare minimum stuff and my guitar. We crossed the border and I found myself a place to stay, and it did. It felt like home. It was one of those things where it was terrifying, and you’re homesick. It’s not like everything fell into my lap by any means. It was that feeling of knowing this was the right place. This is where I need to be and have faith.

I ended up staying with some family friends. I always started I was going to be a singer, but when I realized there was this little songwriting component that people write songs for a living. They write for publishing companies and other people. That’s how a lot of artists get their start. First, they’re a hit writer, then at the time, record labels go, “They’re also a great singer. Let’s have them on our label.” That was the plan I went into everything with. I met some incredible people and cut my teeth like going out to open mikes, waiting your turn in a smoky bar.

How were you supporting yourself at this time?

This is controversial, but I had saved up a bunch of money. Being Canadian, I did some side jobs. I didn’t have a working visa, so that was another goal of mine. I had to get down there where I could be there doing things the right way. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I was like, “I am not going to go home.” I even had my now-husband, but my boyfriend was at home. I had this motivating push to like, “I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to make it.” Retrospectively, it happened fast, but it felt slow as molasses at the time.

I was like, “Will this ever happen?” It was eighteen months, and I was offered a publishing deal. That was awesome because then I got a work permit. I was making a little bit of money, and then I could concentrate on writing my songs during the day and going out to the shows at night. I was doing some babysitting and things on the side.

Music loves you unconditionally and supports you in all of your life endeavors. Click To Tweet

I know the people reading are going to be curious. What were the steps that you took to get that publishing deal?

A lot of it was putting myself out there. Going to those open mics because Nashville especially is a big co-writing town. When you’re new there, you’re like, “Where do I start?” I took a few trips, but I didn’t have any connections. Since then, I’ve talked to people who would go down for a year, so they already had a nice base of co-writers and connections, and I didn’t. Doing things like NSAI workshops are so wonderful. They would have these every Tuesday. There are these meetings and pitch to publisher meetings, and you go. You’re talking to people and seeing the same people at different events, and you’re creating that connection.

There are all different little things, but in a nutshell, that was it. Nashville is a big place, but it feels like a small town. Everybody knows each other. When you talk to somebody and say, “You should write with so-and-so,” you don’t say no. Do you remember the song I Hope You Dance by Lee Ann Womack? I remember thinking and having all these emotions. It’s like you want your life to be planned out for you so you can stop stressing, but that doesn’t happen.

The line in that song says, “If given a choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance,” I thought, “I’m going to say yes to everything even if I’m terrified.” If someone says, “Will you come to play a show?” The part of me inside is like, “I don’t know. Do I have good enough songs? Are they memorized?” All the reasons to not do it. I thought, “I’m going to say yes, and I’ll figure it out.” I started doing that, and I felt like that opened up little doors. People would ask me to pull even though I was terrified. I would show up anyway.

It’s intimidating because you’re like, “They’re way better than me. I don’t have a lot of experience.”

Those are the things that paralyzed me with fear, this whole process of trying to get over. I co-wrote with some great people. The actual story of how I got my publishing deal was I was googling one day on different publishing companies. I heard of a publishing company called Murrah Music. I was gutsy because I went on the website, and I cold emailed. “I’m Lisa. I would love to come to play some songs for you.” Normally, those are always sent to the trash bin. The next day, the lady I had sent it to her name was Lisa as well.

I remember thinking, “We have the same name. Maybe she won’t throw it in the junk folder.” She wrote back saying, “I’m not the person to play the songs, but I forwarded your email to the right person.” That person got back to me, Dan Hodges. He said, “Why don’t you come and play me some songs?” I went in, and back then, I had no money. I would play my song and sing with my guitar. They liked what they heard and saw potential. They sent me up with some of their writers, but it didn’t happen right away. It’s very much like, “How do you fit in?” They’re very family-feeling-oriented like, “Are you a cool hang? How do you write with our writers?” It’s very much a networking thing. I did lots of networking and stayed on their radar for a couple of months, and they did offer me a publishing deal eventually. It was pretty exciting.

Once that happened, then what did life look like?

That was cool because then it was like, “Songwriters will be battling with that. Am I good enough? Does everyone else think I’m good enough?” You always feel like no matter what titles you get, number one song or not, you’re always battling that am I good enough type of thing. When someone takes you under their wing and says, “We believe in you, and we’re going to stand behind you,” it gives you that little boost of confidence.

I remember thinking that I could go and meet people and say that I write for them, and they would help pay for the demos. I could get my music sounding good. It was cool they were representing me. I got to write with some incredible writers like Josh Kerr and Chris Tompkins. At the time, they wrote Before He Cheats for Carrie Underwood. That was when I met them and wrote with them that hadn’t even been put out yet. It was on the cusp.

TPM 60 | Songwriting Tips

Songwriting Tips: Writing for other people is how a lot of artists started.

 

That’s such a brilliant song. I always think about that song, like how the lyrics got it right and the feeling of somebody who’s been screwed over.

Every girl hears that. They’re like, “I wish I wrote that.” There are people like that who are at the top of their game, so you feel like, “I better step up to the plate.” It was a nervous and exciting time because now you got to produce and show them what you can do.

How long did you stay in Nashville? What else did you end up doing while you were there?

I ended up getting some nice Indie cuts. What was exciting were songs put on hold by some major artists like Tim McGraw, and you’re like, “I hope he cuts it.” All of those things were like, “You’re on the right track. Things are going in a good direction.” Unfortunately, our company was sold to a bigger company, and it was out of my deal at that point. I started looking around for new deals. At the time, I met somebody who was doing some cool shows at Fallsview Casino at Niagara and called Six Chips. It was cool. We got to do our own original music and some covers with a beautiful big stage professional band.

I was doing some shows with them. During that time, I met someone and was assigned to another publishing deal, Tom Leis Music, Leslie DiPiero, Bob DiPiero’s wife. I got to hang out and write with him. Some cool, exciting things happened. A few different things happened, but I ended up moving home and starting a family. It’s interesting how the industry goes. It’s like, you’re at one minute, and you’re not.

I dealt with a lot of different changes but carried on making music. It was up and downs, and you’re having babies. It’s very time-consuming where your heart goes, but the music is always there. It’s so interesting. No matter how hard, I’m like, “I don’t need you. You break my heart, music. You’re not paying off for me in the industry.” As soon as you sit down, you start playing. You’re like, “Why did I ever turn my back on you?”

Many times I tried to break up with music. When I started having kids, too, I was like, “This is my thing now. I do kids. I don’t do music.” After about a month. I was like, “I can’t only do this. I will be so bored.”

Women are reading, and a lot of them can relate. I wrote a song called I’m Here Now. You’ll get it. The idea was I was speaking to my music self, saying, “I’m sorry I turned my back on you, but I’m here now,” because that is true. I love that. It’s so true. It’s like this crazy, love, hate relationship because we want it to be a certain thing, and if it’s not, then we’re mad at it when it’s there to truly love us unconditionally and support us in all of these life endeavors.

That’s very true, and it’s therapy.

Sometimes we forget that. Over time, my music evolved, and I got involved in stuff in Canada and the Canadian Country Musical Awards. I got to sing there with fellow Canadian artists. Things morphed, and I started realizing that there were a lot of the things that I lurched back. I thought, “What held me back from reaching my truest potential when I was in Nashville? I did well, but what was it that was holding me back?” I realized a lot of it was anxiety or that resistance that held me back.

An example I like to use is this friend of mine. We’re friends now, and we would co-write every couple of weeks. One day he said to me, “Did you ever get that co-writing thing sorted out?” I’m like, “What is he talking about?” We got talking, and I realized what he meant was my crazy, anxious, nervous, walking into the room, like, “If we don’t get the best song, he’ll never want to write with me again.” You’re not even letting the room breathe because you’re like, “We got a great song.” When he said that, I thought, “I’m insulted,” then I thought, “He’s so right.”

Do simple meditations before you write songs. Click To Tweet

You thought that this was all internal like no one noticed, and you were covering it over pretty well.

I was like, “What is that? I need to look into that.” There is that part of yourself that’s like, “You’re not good enough. Why bother picking up the guitar? That’s going to sound the same as a song before. Who cares? What’s the point of doing music if you’re not number one on the charts?” There’s a lot of that.

I bet that can get in your head when you work somewhere like Nashville because you work with people who have number one songs.

You’re constantly comparing yourself to these people who are at the top of their game. You’re thinking, “If I’m not there, what’s the point? I’m a nobody.” That’s not true at all when you’re in it. It was taking a step back and going, “I need to reevaluate. Why did I even start doing music? I loved it. It made me feel good. I wanted to connect with people.”

I’ve always loved mindfulness and personal development stuff. I thought, “How can I marry these two things? I know that over time, I got better with my music, songwriting, and networking in the industry because I was doing these practices.” I’m visualizing how things would go before I did them or these little breathing techniques that are simple, but if we forget to do them, we get off track. Even by going to different industry events, you’re nervous. I remember thinking like, “Is everyone looking at me? I look like the weird girl.” It gets all in your head.

I always think like, “Everybody else knows each other. I’m the only one that doesn’t know anyone.”

I started thinking, “I’ve put these mindfulness things into practice. I bet there are other artists, songwriters, creatives out there that feel the same way, and they could benefit from these techniques.” I created my Music and Mindfulness business. The idea of that is to help songwriters tap inward. There are all different elements to it.

Essentially, when I wrote that song, I was referring to it called I’m Here Now, and I’m talking about not breaking up with my music. I was in this meditative state. You call it in the flow or in the zone, whatever you want to call it. There’s a way to tap into that more efficiently and consistently than like, “I’ll wait until it strikes me.” It’s helping songwriters to do that so they can be their most successful, whatever that might be for them.

A lot of songwriters are, “I need to wait for inspiration to strike.” Do you feel like these mindfulness practices help you be more in the zone of writing on a daily basis versus waiting for the universe?

Another thing I learned is that it’s okay not to write every day. I remember even learning from great songwriters, and they would say, “I don’t book myself every day. I need that day off to do those things, gardening or whatever it is to conjure up those cool ideas.” This is the thing, even if you have a deadline or you want to write every day, but you’re like, “It’s not there.”

At least when you tap in and do these practices, you’re going to get whatever it is. You can call it whatever you want, source, universe. Whatever they’re trying to say through you, you can tap into it. If it’s no good, it doesn’t matter. That’s the difference. You’re doing it because it’s beautiful and enjoyable. If it doesn’t work, you’re okay with that too. There’s such a difference than like, “I’ve got to beat myself up until I get the right thing on the piano.” There are two different lanes.

TPM 60 | Songwriting Tips

Songwriting Tips: We have the power to control what we’re thinking.

 

In my experience, I have not done mindfulness practices in relation to songwriting, but I do find that when my mind is clear, not trying to focus on it, that’s when suddenly these ideas come to me.

That’s your subconscious. I talk about all these because I have a course with my Music and Mindfulness called Successful Songwriter Within. It’s all about learning those different states and doing things subconsciously like long car rides, showers, or going on a walk. That’s true. It’s almost like you’re turning off that analytical mind. There are different ways to tap into it, but you can also do that through simple meditations before or during your writing. When you learn about the brainwave states, you learn to tune into them. It’s pretty amazing.

Give a little overview. What are some of the subjects that you cover inside of your course?

There are a couple of different modules. I’ve got one songwriting from the inside out. The different brainwave states how things work and how to apply them. I have different actual visualizations that I walk people through and meditations. They’re not extraordinarily long. There are things you can implement throughout your day or before you start co-writing. I also have things on co-writing because that was a big struggle and still is. It’s still something that you need to practice, getting out of your head into the music and knowing that you’re bringing your best self.

Those are different things like affirmations and self-talk. Talk to yourself nicely. I constantly would be thinking in co-writes like, “This person’s going to think I’m this. They’re going to think I’m that. I wonder what they’re thinking of me now. Am I contributing enough?” We have the power to control the things that we’re thinking. They make such a huge difference if you can steer them in the right direction. For me, it’s affirmations and even different audio things to reprogram your subconscious because you’re so conscious. It drives a lot of what you do.

I’ve also got a section there for connecting within the industry. Things are going to help people connect those dots because it’s one thing. Not everyone wants to go into the industry. That’s fine, but a lot of people do. They’re like, “Here’s my music. What do I do with it? I want this to be heard on some level.” What’s holding them back is they’re afraid to send that email or go on that call. They stop themselves before they even get a chance to start. I uncover things that I’ve done that have been helpful to get out of my own way and get those things done.

I’m sure you’re familiar with Julia Cameron in Morning Pages. For me, getting out of my own way and writing whatever comes into my mind, even though it could be the dumbest thing ever, would get me into the flow state. How do you do that in a co-write? It’s because you’re constantly thinking, “I can’t give them any idea or let myself float to the point where I could be giving nonsense or the dumbest thing ever.” How do you navigate that? Sometimes the best ideas come out of that, but you had to go through a bunch of crap first to get there.

I have loved Lori McKenna for years. I used to go see her little clubs. No one knew who she was. Faith Hill would be sitting in the back, and I’d be like, “This is the best.” She always says, “Dare to suck or say what’s on your mind.” I remember thinking like, “How do they do that?” It comes down to two things. It’s trusting the other person and yourself. You have to have that relationship. That’s something that, in Nashville, it’s very much like, “Get it on the calendar and sit down with a person and bang out a hit.” You have not even know them.

It’s important that you develop that relationship, even if it’s spending that first hour talking and catching up and getting to know each other. When I say trust yourself, I mean calming yourself enough to know that it’s okay. Take that hour. Get to know each other and be your best self going into that. When you have that calm and stillness, you can trust that the rest of that co-write is going to work out even if you say those dumb things. It takes time to get there, but that is when the good stuff comes.

I have not done a co-write when I’ve been in the same space with a person. That would be so much more intimidating. I’ve done more like, “Someone sends me a voice memo of this melody that they came up with, and I’m working on the lyrics.” I’ve never experienced that in the same space. I can imagine it would be so intimidating.

It can. That’s funny too because I enjoy the type you’re talking about, where it’s like, “I can do it on my own time. No one’s judging me.” When you’re sitting in a room with someone, you have to talk yourself through it and try to relax. As I said, that’s been a process for me. A friend of mine, a co-writer, Victoria Banks, went on to say she loved the process so much of making music but realized that she was a deer in headlights and co-writes the same as me.

Speak nicely to yourself and ask yourself, 'Do I need a break?' Click To Tweet

In the early days in Nashville, she decided to go to therapy for it and thought, “I’ve got to figure this out because I love my job and want to change being a writer and a co-writer.” She used similar techniques like self-talk. You wouldn’t talk to a child the way you’re berating yourself in your mind. Ask yourself, “What do I need? Do I need a break?” When you’re in that room with someone, and everyone’s trying to get that next line, and you can’t do it, maybe you need to go on a little walk, take a breath, whatever it is.

Are you still co-writing, or are you mostly writing on your own?

I do a little bit of both. It’s whatever time permits because I got three kids and do the music and Music and Mindfulness. It’s a little bit of everything.

I’m assuming during the pandemic, many people who were used to co-writing in person had to co-write over Zoom. I’ve never done it before. I’m curious how that changes the dynamic.

That was the neat thing that did come out of the pandemic. For example, for me, it’s like, “I can’t get to Nashville as often as I’d like, so why don’t we meet on Zoom?” It’s different. It’s not the same as being in the room with someone, but it certainly is the next best thing. I was working with someone who said, “I’m going to mute, and I’m going to mess around. In ten minutes, we’ll come back on and see what we got.” That’s cool too. In person, it’s always like you’re messing around on the guitar, and so am I. Sometimes we need that.

That is a great way that Zoom could help. As you said, it opens up more possibilities to co-write with more people that are not in the same location.

In their time zone, maybe it works better for you at night, whatever their schedule is. I can be flexible that way.

Is there anything we haven’t covered yet that you wanted to be sure and mention to songwriters that are reading this?

If you’re struggling with the same things or want to tap into that creativity in a smoother, easy way on a regular basis, these mindfulness practices do help, and I zone in on how they help this singer-songwriter. We’ve had some people have some good success with it.

You mentioned you have a podcast. How can they find that? How can they connect with you on social media?

My Instagram is @Lisa.McEwen.Music. My podcast is called The Successful Songwriter Within Podcast. I’m on Facebook under Lisa McEwen. My website for all my Music and Mindfulness is MusicAndMindfulness.co. One more thing I wanted to mention that your audience might like is my song Because I’m a Woman.

TPM 60 | Songwriting Tips

Songwriting Tips: Mindfulness practices help when you want to tap into your creativity.

 

Tell us what the inspiration for that was.

I was supposed to co-write with another female friend of mine that day and didn’t quite have an idea ready, or maybe I did. I did a meditation that morning and the phrase, “Because I’m a Woman,” came to me because I had been listening to another podcast. It’s called The Table Women. It’s about two women in the country music business talking about the injustices of females versus males in the business.

It’s interesting. They interview all kinds of people. The phrase, “Because I’m a Woman,” came to me and the thought was, “Wonderful things are on my side because I’m a woman. There are also these frustrating things that are against me because I’m a woman.” I was supposed to co-write with a friend and she couldn’t make it over Zoom. She ended up having to reschedule, and I thought the song would not leave me alone. It came to me, and it felt like a powerful message to get across. I wanted to mention that too.

Is that released?

I ended up releasing that in the summer. I compiled a cool music video. I took women who have inspired me and created a little music video, all walks of life, whatever they’re doing, moms and career women, and friends of mine who beat cancer. It’s the strength that women everywhere have.

Is that on your website?

If everyone wants to search Because I’m A Woman on YouTube, that’s certainly on there, and all my music and music videos. They’re on all the different platforms for streaming music as well.

Thank you so much. This has been great. I love talking about this, especially the co-writing thing. I don’t have a ton of experience with it. It’s helpful for those reading who want to co-write more and feel comfortable in their own songwriter’s skin when they’re doing it.

If you ever need anything or want to ask me any questions or advice, I’m happy to chat about it. Please reach out and connect with me.

Thank you so much.

Thanks for having me, Bree.

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About Lisa McEwen

TPM 60 | Songwriting TipsFormerly signed as a staff writer to BMG Music Publishing as well as Tom-Leis Music in Nashville, TN, Lisa has had the opportunity to write with and share the stage with some of country music’s top writers & Artists. She says, “Before I heard my songs on the radio, I heard voices in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough and that my fears would keep me “safe” from the goals I wanted to achieve.” So she created “The Successful Songwriter Within” Course where she helps songwriters overcome resistance & self-doubt in order to achieve songwriting success.