52 songs, 52 weeks. It might sound overwhelming to pen a song a week for an entire year, but it seems like these kind of marathon-like challenges are everywhere these days — The FAWM challenge (28 songs in 28 days each February); The 50/90 challenge (50 songs in 90 days); and even the Fearless Songwriter weeks of 7 songs in a week that I’ve partly taken part in (as in, writing one or two songs in a week).
Still, 52 songs in a year is still mighty challenging, particularly if part of the gig is to post a video on YouTube each week — which means you can’t hide any tunes in a half-hearted pile. Every song is out for the public to listen to and judge. And a year is a long time — it’s easy to drop out halfway through.
I saw Carolann the other day when she hauled song #52 with her to the New York Songwriter’s Exchange for feedback. She seemed tired but happy. Carolann has a brand-new album up for grabs, called Steel & Salt, which features several of her RealWomenRealSongs efforts. Here’s what she had to say about her year-long songwriting journey:
Q: How do you feel now that 52 weeks of writing one song a week are complete? Emotionally? Mentally? Physically?
I feel equal parts inspired and tired, if that makes any sense. I am proud that I was able to complete the project in that I posted a song every week for 52 weeks, regardless of its degree of polish or refinement, glad that I was able to break down a few of my own emotional and musical roadblocks in the process, yet afraid I might have repeated myself thematically, or even melodically. It was a long journey, but worth it in so many ways.
Q: How did you get involved with RealWomenRealSongs, how did you get involved and how did you feel a year ago when you started?
Cary Cooper gathered 13 other women songwriters who were brave — or maybe crazy — enough to agree to write and post brand-new songs weekly, written around a prompt. Pairs of writers were assigned to each day of the week, so as to ensure that at least one new song would be posted on the RealWomenRealSongs YouTube channel every day for a year. Part of Cary’s hope for the project was not just to spark creativity in the “official” writers, but to awaken the creative spirit in others following the project. Along the way, we picked up a few adjunct songwriters who posted songs to the Facebook page right along with the rest of us, plus a photographer who used his visual composition skills to illuminate weekly prompts. My hat is off to Cary and to everyone who participated!
Q: What were the biggest challenges of writing a song a week for a year?
The biggest challenge for me was differentiation. Is that even the right word? I strove to write different types of songs as much as possible and not sink too far into my “comfort zone,” either musically or lyrically. I’m not sure I succeeded in that, but I’d like to think I gave it my best effort.
Q: What were the biggest things you got out of the project? What did you love most about it?
I developed a concrete writing process for the first time in my career, which helped stave off the anxiety of staring at a blank page. Every week, I tried to start the process with a little freewriting exercise in my notebook, riffing on the prompt. This allowed me to write whatever popped into my head, whether or not it rhymed, made grammatical sense, or even any sense at all. This untethered me from the constraints of my own “rules” about writing, and allowed me to be emotionally honest on a page I knew no one but me would read. Later, I’d return to those disorganized, uncensored ideas, sift out the emotional core, and begin writing the song around that. That said, I also learned to be flexible. If the freewriting didn’t really spark something that worked, I’d often try to approach the song from the other angle – exploring musical ideas first, and letting the melody lead the lyric. That’s not my natural way of working, but it inspired some good stuff, I think.
Q: Of the 52 songs, how many ended up being ones you really liked? How many were total throwaways?
I haven’t counted yet, but I’d guess that at least half of them will stay on the scrap heap for a long time, if not forever. Of the better half, maybe half of those will (or have already) ended up on a recording somewhere…
Q: What do you think the biggest benefits of this type of project are for anyone?
Tenacity and sisterhood. Having a weekly “deadline” gets us away from the trap of waiting for inspiration to magically strike. To write better, write more, and then some more. Also, working with a team of other songwriters who are all in the same boat fosters community, and allows us to appreciate where other minds go from the same starting point. We learn to rejoice in each other’s work rather than competing with each other.
Q: Did you ever feel you were about to throw in the towel?
Oh, sure. Every. Single. Week.
Q: What was your favorite song of the 52? Is your new album composed of songs mostly from this project?
Five of the eleven songs on my new album, Steel and Salt, grew out of the RealWomenRealSongs project. A few of those were recorded the same week they were written. I’m pretty jazzed about that. I think that nervous energy helps give the record a certain immediacy and edginess. As for a favorite – at the moment, my favorite is the one I just submitted, “Goodbye,” week number 52. That happened quite a lot, as a matter of fact…
Q: I know your son was really by your side through the entire year…sometimes even on video! Can you tell me about that just a bit?
My seven-year-old is a budding writer himself, I think. He was very interested in the whole process – asking me about each week’s prompt, talking about what that meant, offering suggestions about how he would approach the topic… I think he appeared in three of the videos with me (those got the most views, of course) and actually co-wrote two of the songs. That was great for both of us. It allowed him to feel fully vested in the project and allowed me to write in the voice of a child, and get a little window into the way he thinks. It was a wonderful way to make creativity a part of our daily life as a family, and not just something I do all by myself.
Q: What now? Are you taking a songwriting break for a while, or are you still raring to go?
Well, I thought I might take a little break from songwriting, but then I was inspired by a story someone told me the other day and immediately knew I must make a song from it. So, I guess the wheel rolls on…
Here is Carolann’s very first effort from 52 weeks ago — the prompt was “Patience” — enjoy: