David Knopf | Tips for the singer-songwriter

07/16/2013 3:48 PM

07/16/2013 3:50 PM

Having blazed a trail through the songwriting wilderness, I feel obliged to share what I’ve found.

“The Singer-Songwriter’s Bible” I envision wouldn’t be an altruistic gesture to either give back or pay forward, even though songwriting has been very good to me.

Between the two of us, the bible would be a last-ditch effort to become popular enough to open

just one show

for Cher, that surgically preserved specimen with a voice lower than Sonny Bono’s.

Here are a few things I’d cover:

Song Lists:

Some of my brethren tape lists to the floor or their guitars. It didn’t work for me because: a) the floor was too far away to see; b) my guitar was too close, even with bifocals; and c) the one time I did find the right distance, I spilled coffee and the ink ran on my leg.

So forget song lists. Wing it! Be free! Improvisation is a gift of the gods, at least those with ADHD.

Talking Between Songs:

Telling stories and introducing songs for a captive audience is fine, but it’s only the Johnny Cashes and Merle Haggards of the world who do prison concerts. I’d be lucky to play for the prisoners in the drunk tank in Claycomo. But since the refined people I typically play for are there to talk, drink bubble tea, chat, text or tweet, I focus on keeping my head in the game, playing within myself and not looking ahead to the next song.

Tip Jar, Bucket or 55-Gallon Drum?

You'd think writing and performing songs would be our toughest challenge, but soliciting tips without appearing to beg tests your self-restraint. Personally, I’ve tried every eye-catching tip receptacle and subtle visual cue I could, including pandering to the patriotic with mini-flags, putting people in the giving spirit with Christmas lights and Chanukah candles and hiring a Salvation Army bell ringer. Bob Dylan once said the most tips he ever got was when a beautiful female acquaintance walked through the audience to pass the hat. It might’ve been Cher.

Dealing with Cuss Words in Your Lyrics:

I have a few songs with lyrics that might be inappropriate for things like DAR coffees, PEO gift exchanges and NRA quilt raffles. But when I substitute an acceptable term (for example, “gull-darn” or “cow doop”) for an off-color one, guilt washes over me for being cowardly. So I’ve developed the “Gloss-over Coughing Mumble,” a patented technique where I use the actual word but say it intelligiblyYou can also use the same technique with squeaky-clean words when you forget the lyrics.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize:

Remember, the reason you pursue this solitary creative endeavor isn’t to win approval or collect tips; it’s to stay sane and keep your spouse from prematurely having you committed. The holy grail of the songwriter’s quest is to have fun, hit a few notes on key and knock the living daylights out of the tension headache you got at work. Don’t worry about that woman standing in the audience with her hands over her ears so she can talk on the phone; don’t think about the person with the $40,000 Lexus who walks by without dropping a buck in your tip jar; don’t think about the cappuccino machine that sounds like an E5 tornado and storm siren in one; don’t worry about your kids someday keeping your songs in a mildewed carton in a storage shed along a deserted state highway.

None of that matters if you keep your eye on the prize. Who knows, I could open for Cher before they take her to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Maybe she’ll even bring me out to sing harmony on “I Got You, Babe.”

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