Local songwriters share advice for crafting perfect songs | Destination

Dayton-area musician Dave Munsick is a self-professed “songteller” — a man who has made an impact through the words he has written and sung for nearly 50 years.

But it wasn’t always this way.

“I didn’t talk until I was 3 years old,” Munsick said. “I liked to internalize things. But then I got into writing poetry and songs when I was a teenager. Since the beginning, music was the way I felt emotion.”

Indeed, music can have a lot of power — both for the performers and the audience, according to musician and songwriter Sarah Sample. That’s why she’s been writing songs since she was in elementary school.

“All good songs speak the truth,” Sample said. “They touch on some universal truth, and they help people see themselves or the world in a new way. That’s the power of music.”

Even after years of songwriting success, locals like Sample and Munsick claim it’s an art and not a science. Songwriters will have successes and failures, they said, and there’s a lot to be learned from both.

Pay attention to your surroundings

Sample’s sixth album “Redwing” was inspired by her move to Sheridan County. She had just left the religion of her upbringing de ella, and in Wyoming “the wide open spaces felt like open arms to me — the endless skies and horizons leave room for anyone to belong,” Sample said.

“The song ‘Redwing’ I wrote after my first day in Sheridan,” Sample said. “I had taken a drive out to the Soldier Ridge Trail and pulled over on the side of the road. There were redwing blackbirds flying around. The rolling hills were so green and there was so much open space and wildlife surrounding me. I just thought, ‘I could belong here.’”

Similarly, Munsick has taken a lot of inspiration from his Wyoming home.

“My inner soul has been stirred by western culture — the mountains and the people,” Munsick said. “I have played music for weddings, funerals and dances in Sheridan County for 40 years, and during that time, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people’s stories. I’m a songwriter, but I’m a storyteller too, and sometimes I think that story is best told in song.”

Malik Grant, songwriter for alternative folk rock band Wyoming, also takes inspiration from his home. As a minority in Sheridan County, his songs reflect his experiences of feeling different in a small Wyoming community.

“For me, most of my songs are about being that kid growing up in a small Wyoming town and feeling a little different,” Grant said.

Inspiration can come from anywhere

While Munsick has often taken inspiration from his Wyoming home, it is far from his only source.

“It’s a wide open field,” Munsick said. “It can be a love lost or a love found. It can be about confronting something or somebody from your past. Sometimes, it’s the passing of a friend. Sometimes, it’s a place or a person you fell in love with.”

Chad Riegler, songwriter for rock-and-roll group The Jackalope Jockeys, agreed.

“Every song has a different inspiration,” Riegler said. “It can come from a conversation with a friend or something you see on TV or something you see in the community.”

One of Riegler’s favorite songs, “Slow Burn,” came to him while he was watching television.

“I was watching the news during the (COVID-19) pandemic and every channel I switched it to, everyone was saying the exact same thing,” Riegler said. “…I wrote an angry song about it. Whenever you feel a strong emotion like that, there’s probably a song in it somewhere.”

Put some limits on yourself

In addition to writing songs, Munsick also writes books and contributes columns to The Sheridan Press. When he started writing, he quickly discovered his rambling storytelling style of him was losing some readers.

“When you’re unharnessed as a storyteller, you’ll quickly find people streaking out the door running away from your stories,” Munsick said. “One of the best things for my newspaper columns has been having a word limit. That was a great thing the paper did for me, because it forced me to ask, ‘Do I really need this to tell the story?’”

The same is true for songwriting, Sample said.

“It’s kind of counterintuitive, but the more limitations we give ourselves, the easier it is to write,” Sample said. “The limitations of specific cords or a particular rhyme scheme or something are really helpful.”

Munsick said, while limits may seem like a hurdle, they can actually improve the quality of your songwriting.

“As a songwriter, not only are your words limited, but your syllables are limited too,” Munsick said. “You have very set parameters. It may seem like a hurdle at first, but it’s an asset because it helps you focus the story you’re trying to tell through the music.”

Pay attention to what you like

There’s a long tradition of singer-songwriters, Sample said, and you shouldn’t be afraid to learn from those you like.

“It is important in songwriting to emulate what other great songs do,” Sample said. “Deconstruct your favorite songs: What is the structure of the song? What chords does the chorus start on? There is a lot we can learn just from listening.”

Munsick said every songwriter should ask themselves questions about the songs they like.

“Why do you like that song?” Munsick asked. “What is it about that song that connects to you? How could you do something like that? Try to copy the songs you like. Use the same melody and rewrite the words. There’s a lot you can learn from those who came before you.”

Don’t be afraid of failure.

Munsick hoped his song “Forever West” — a song he describes as “a love letter to Wyoming” — would be used in a local tourism campaign. It was rejected, but years later he was invited to play the song at Gov. Mark Gordon’s opening.

“It was hard when it was rejected, because the song meant so much to me,” Munsick said. “But rejection often leads to success.”

Indeed, failure can often lead to something better, Grant said.

“When I started writing songs, I would just scrap the bad songs, but now I save them,” Grant said. “Usually there’s a good beat behind it or a good idea in there somewhere. My theory is eventually there’ll be a time and place where you’ll want to come back to it.”

Sample said that, often, a “bad song is the tributary that can lead you to a great song.”

“My advice is don’t become too protective of new songs,” Sample said. “The first draft may not be where you land. But if you’re open to it, the song will lead you to a place where you can get in tune with what you want to say.”

Riegler acknowledged it can be hard to open yourself up to the possibility of failure. It’s important to have a thick skin and not care too much about other people’s opinions, he said.

“Whenever you write something, whether it’s a song or a book or a newspaper article, you’re putting yourself out there with your words,” Riegler said. “Don’t let that bother you. Make sure you’re not writing your songs for other people. Write them for you because you think it’s fun. The general public can like them or not, but it ultimately doesn’t matter as long as you’re having fun.” •

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