Music: Don't Think Twice, It's Just a Song

How I wrote a song every week for a year

Nov 1, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes

Jake Speed presents some of his favorite "songatorials" live at Rohs Street Cafe this Thursday.

Editor's Note: On the first day of 2006, local Folk singer/songwriter Jake Speed began an ambitious project, writing a weekly "Speedy Delivery," his singing "songatorial" which is posted at As Speed's New Year's resolution — to write a song a week for a year — nears its successful completion, he reflects on his experiences in anticipation of this Thursday's "Speedy Delivery Live!," a Storytellers-like presentation of some of his favorite tunes from the project, at the Rohs Street Café in Clifton (7 p.m. start). So how did YOUR New Year's resolution work out?

I didn't have time to wait for any Almighty Muse to sing through me. I knew that if I was going to write a song each week, I'd have to set aside time to write, just like a novelist or a columnist. And that's what I've done. I call it church.

Sunday. 9 a.m.: Everyone I don't know is at church. I'm holding a Stella guitar on my lap. The door is shut.

Coffee is brewing in the background. This is the part that kills me. The beginning. It'll all be over soon. I can do this.

Nobody loathes writing a song more than me. Imagine doing three extra sit-ups when you swore six sit-ups ago that you could never do one more. That's what it feels like to write a song. That's why I decided that my New Year's resolution this year would be to write a song every week for a year. Fifty-two straight weeks of panic and pain. Why? Because nobody loves finishing a song more than me.

Sunday. 9:05 a.m.: Everyone is still at church, down on their knees. I'm still holding my guitar, playing songs I've already written. I open the door to get coffee and pretend like I'm taking a break from hard work. I sip. I wait. I wonder. I get an idea. I don't like it. I go with it anyway.

People always ask me what comes first: the lyrics or the melody. Usually, it's neither. The first step is to figure out what the hell I'm going to write about. My promise with this project was to write songs that responded to the news of the week. I even claimed I invented a new genre: the "songatorial" (song + editorial). Sounds simple. Just read the paper. Listen to NPR. Watch the news. But what do you write about on weeks Dick Cheney doesn't shoot someone in the face? Weeks when the government isn't caught wire-tapping phones? Weeks when you're too depressed to respond once again to war? Those were the weeks when I became a songwriter.

Sunday. 9:43 a.m.: Everyone is getting sick of church. I'm working out a minor-key progression on Stella, searching for a melody. At this point, the idea is worth shutting the door and letting the coffee go cold. So far, I like the chorus: "The mines, the mines they run deep. Where I'll lay my coal-black soul to sleep. In the mines." I like the dual meaning. The West Virginia mining tragedy is fresh on my mind, and I know I have something to say about the harsh life of coalmining. Stare. Think. Worry. Can't turn back. Pain in my stomach.

As I've grown with this song-a-week process, I've battled to define what a "songatorial" should be. Since the songs only exist in an online format, at times I've thought they should be quick and to the point — easily digestible in less than two minutes. Get to the punch line quickly; the computer generation won't wait on ballads. In "Up and Down" (about the State of the Union address) and "Book of Judas" (about the "real" contents of the lost Gospel), I tried the quick approach. I felt like a fake — like I was going through the motions. They were witty for that week, but they weren't the type of songs that people would want to listen to again. So, I added the new challenge of trying to write songs timely enough for the week's news and timeless enough for life everlasting. I'm still working on that.

Sunday. 10:28 a.m.: Everyone is eating after-church brunch. I just settled the dispute over how to word the second half of the chorus. I sing what I have so far into a Panasonic tape recorder that belonged to my grandma. My coffee cup has been re-heated. The pain begins to subside. I have the song in my sights: a story about the lone surviving miner trying to escape from both the mine and the mining life. The first verse will tell the granddad's story; the second verse will tell the father's story. I'll conclude with the boy. Hallelujah. I can do this.

Another one of my goals was to reveal the songwriting process. Every song can't be a hit. That's just not how it works. Ask Bob Dylan. As listeners, we often only hear the songs that made the album in the most polished version. I'm guilty of idolizing writers, thinking, "How did they come up with that — they must be a genius!" In fact, it could've been a work-in-progress for some time. And there could've been plenty of songs that sucked and never made the cut. I knew that many of my weekly songs would suck, but I was willing to reveal those songs to show people how I get from song to song. After I record these songs, I usually go back and make even more changes, but I leave them in the draft version online as an example of where they were after 48 hours.

Monday. 7:02 p.m.: Everyone has forgotten yesterday's church lesson. The song stuck in my mind all day. I'm new-Dylan-album eager to get home and play the song again. A good sign. I grab Stella, pour more coffee, and push record. No more sit-ups. Relief. Nobody loves finishing a song more than me.