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June 2024
Vol. 23, No. 9

Ask Charlie...

Change It Up

by Charlie LoachJune 2024

Hello Troubadourians! In a recent column I wrote about having written a new song. It was the first one I’d written in many years and the first one that I’d written by myself. As far as I can remember, every other song I’ve written was in collaboration with someone else. That may remain my preferred method of writing, but at this point in my life I felt like I needed to figure out how to write a song on my own. And not just any song, but a good song. My biggest impediment to writing had been that I primarily see myself as a guitar player, a side man, and a band member. My job is to play. Even back-up vocals were simply adjunct to my playing and strictly voluntary, not that I was very good at them. Singing in general was not what I was known for, mostly because I felt so limited as a singer. I would often say that my voice was “vanilla flavored” and not interesting to listen to. There was a brief exception in the late ’70s where I was the only vocalist in a newgrass trio and where I started to develop as a singer. This was enabled by the opportunity to choose songs that I could actually sing my way and arrange them in a key that was comfortable for me. Also, since it was an acoustic band, I could hear myself better and really learn how to sing. More on this later…

My favorite focus was electric guitar in an electric band. This predated and postdated my initial foray into being a singer. I never felt comfortable singing in an electric band, either because the songs were in an uncomfortable key or vocal range for me or because I simply couldn’t hear myself well. Whatever the reason, my singing didn’t translate to an electric format very well, so I didn’t do it very often. I’m telling you this story about being a limited singer as a way to explain why I also wasn’t proficient as a songwriter. I believe that because I didn’t sing, I didn’t know how to write singable lyrics. Instead, I wrote very juvenile prose. I had no voice as a singer and, as a result, had no voice as a lyricist. Definitely not a singer-songwriter. What I could do was come up with music and riffs on demand, so that was where I placed my emphasis. On occasion, I’d come up with a few words that outline the story for other people to finish and I figured that since they had to sing the words, it was fine for them to write them. This served me well for a very long time and I’ve collaborated with some excellent writers on some excellent songs. Still, they weren’t completely mine

Working with actual songwriters, I’ve seen the process from many sides. Sometimes things were spontaneous and rapid-fire, other times more thought out and methodical. For me, whenever I tried working on my own, all of my attempts were painfully slow and dissatisfying. Collaboration was the only way anything of quality was going to get written.

Back to the singing part… A little over two years ago I found myself in an acoustic band, similar to the situation where I first was able to sing with proficiency. Leaning on past habits, I figured I was the guitar player, especially since the other members had been singing together for years. Despite my efforts, they’ve made me into a singer. And, in that, they sparked in me a renewed interest in writing songs. Please read my “Time and Water” column ( for the full story of my first new song in years. What is the big difference? My songs have always started from the guitar part; now I’m starting with the words. Finding a cadence and rhyme scheme that serves the lyric rather than a guitar riff has opened up my ideas of what to say and how to say it. Which words express my feelings? How do I say what I’m trying to say with the fewest, most effective words? How can I make those words more interesting and thought provoking? I’ve always admired that the best songwriters can establish a rhyme scheme that works but doesn’t telegraph the next rhyme. I want to do that, too. It’s those lines and lyrics that just flow out the ideas so smoothly that you want to say, “Why didn’t I think of saying it like that?” I find Jackson Browne to be a great inspiration to me for that kind of thing. For example: “Running on empty.” How often have we all said this in mundane situations? Then he follows it with “Running blind, running into the sun, But I’m running behind,” masterfully turning the mundane into a beautiful lament and a statement of near hopelessness. Yet he surrounds this chorus with a story of hope and perseverance. He writes—and sings—about himself and his story, yet he leaves a little bit of ambiguity so that we can insert our own lives and experiences into his narrative. Genius. It is to this that I aspire. Of course, this is easier said than done. Learning to say and sing what I think and feel without being weird about it is difficult for me. I know what I’m saying even if the listener doesn’t… I remember Stephen Stills being quoted as saying, “Playing your songs for a live audience is like doing a mental striptease in front of a thousand people.” Indeed. But flipping the script and starting with the words has pushed me in the direction that I want to go with my songwriting. It also is teaching me patience to let the song come to me in its own time. When it has given me the words, it will tell me how it wants to be played. That’s exciting!

So, whatever you’re doing—songwriting, playing, practicing, just working on or learning something, or anything, and you find yourself feeling stale, stagnant, or non-productive, try doing it backward, upside-down, or out of order. I’m betting you’ll find new inspiration in your endeavor. I know I did…

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (

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