Claim Your Personal Experiences for Song Writing

At the WitzEnd in Venice
YouTube Creator Program Winner Kat McDowell shares insights for all songwriters.

What is your top advice for a songwriter looking for a deeper inspiration?
Travel, make friends outside of your typical comfort zone, read books, and be open to interruptions and surprises in your day to day.

It seems you live this advice – can you share an example?
I was living in Tokyo when the big earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011. It was frightening enough in Tokyo as I had never experienced an earthquake of that magnitude before and hearing about what happened up north and meeting so many people who had been affected was heartbreaking.

A gig at Gravlax

Going up to Northern Japan to play for survivors at refugee camps right after the tsunami was definitely stepping out of my comfort zone and, to be honest, I couldn’t write songs for almost a year as I honestly felt like I didn’t have anything to say.  But I felt such strength and warmth from the people there; I decided I wanted to share that side of this story through a song called “3.11”.

That’s pretty dramatic – what about those of us who haven’t been in an earthquake?
Stories are everywhere and, since you are human, you are a storyteller. Your experience is unique and yet, sharing that uniqueness makes you relatable.  When we put these stories in to song form it’s more memorable, maybe because it has to be simple enough to fit in a song, and can pierce the heart in the way only a song can.

Do you have a method for transforming your personal experiences into songs?
No method – it’s always different, some of my best songs come to me while I’m sound checking at a show or sometimes I take an instrument to the beach (I think “Language of My Heart’s” melody first came to me while playing Ukulele on the beach.) I ALWAYS carry my iPhone to record voice memos if I have a melody in my head.

I often write at my workstation where all my instruments are and my laptop and interface and microphone are set up

Do you experiment with the way you write songs?
I have recently been co-writing a lot to get out of my songwriting habits and it’s been great to talk with other songwriters about their methods for writing. I talked with a lyricist who said she listens to a song that’s on the radio and write lyrics to that rhythm and melody, and then give it to her collaborator. (Of course the collaborator doesn’t know what the original song is.) I was so inspired by this process and I usually start with melody so I might try this next.

I have a vision board :-) And recently I have started to paint and I feel much more creative with a bit of color on the walls.
Some of Kat’s paintings

Which song of yours most powerfully reflects one of your personal experiences?
“Dianna” was a song about a little girl I met in Nicaragua. She was born in a trash dump and had been severely malnourished, but Dianna and all the other children there had such a spark in their eyes. I was moved by their humanity and wrote a song about it.

You write songs in English and Japanese (!)  Do you have any top tips for singers who are bilingual – and who are not bilingual?
Music is the universal language. A great melody and performance transcends and will reach in to the heart of your listener so focus on really feeling what it is you’re singing no matter what language. People will get it! (Which is what my new single “Language of My Heart” is about.)

When did you start reflecting upon your life experiences in your songs?
I was always making up melodies as a kid and coming up with dumb songs but when my school principal died when I was 14 I was devastated (I had already lost a teacher to a heart attack when I was 10), and I remember my friend and I writing a song for him and singing it at assembly.

Is there a question you had wished we asked about the songwriting process, but didn’t?
Yes, that would be: What’s your favorite part about song writing?  My favorite part of songwriting is the little adrenaline kick you get when you have just written a song you can’t get out of your head! It’s an addiction that keeps me coming back to my instruments and keeps me wanting to write.

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