When writing songs, be like Fog City.
You’re looking at the best Bloody Mary I’ve ever had. It’s the creation of the Fog City Diner in San Francisco, an eatery so cheesy to look at you just can’t believe it would be any good. Oh, but it is good. Everything I have ever had at Fog City has been clearly killer. But what’s so special about this drink? And what does it have to do with songwriting?
We’ve all heard the phrase “less is more”, and unless you’re talking about, oh, stuff like ammo, it’s probably true. And Fog City’s Bloody Mary is a study in this phrase. There is no stalk of celery, no garnish, save for a thin slice of lemon, no ice, no garish splatter of pepper over the surface of the drink. Even the glass looks plain, almost disappointing. When the drink arrives, you might think the bartender a layabout. But bring it to your lips and it reveals something else entirely. For the bartender that makes this drink knows of what he mixes. The flavor is bold, rich, complex, cold… right.
Despite its minimalist appearance, a drink such as Fog City’s starts from a place of abundance. Bartenders who work at Fog City have it all: The finest booze, the freshest vegetables from the kitchen, mountains of clear, cubed ice, every tool a mixologist could want, a clientele willing to pay for whatever, so long as it’s not whatever.
But they know that abundance is a mixed blessing. Because the best drinks are not created from more they are created from less. And so Fog City's mixologists always start with a simple question: what does this drink need? And once needs are met, work stops.
Songwriting is the same way. The English language offers up more words than any other. Chords can be voiced myriad ways. Tempos and beats adjusted. Add the cornucopia of cacophony – and, yes symphony, too – that can be created with mere movements of a mouse on today’s computers, and there’s just no other way to put it: modern songwriters start with an embarrassment of riches.
What to do? Be like Fog City. Ask what your song needs, and, though this is most certainly a subjective question, err on doing too little rather than too much. Is this an invitation to be a little lazy? NO. It is always harder to take away than it is too add. And the real work starts not when asking yourself what more you can do, but when musing on what you need not do.