Some singer-songwriters perform the same material over and over, year after year, to the point that they’re often tuned out. Then there are others that rarely sing the same song twice. They run the risk of never quite bonding with an audience. The vast diversity of their repertoire is impressive, but that’s more cerebral or abstract. The songs become just a bunch of numbers that don’t add up because nothing has regularly hit home in the heart and stuck to the soul of the listener.
Having a song set that your audience relates to and looks forward to hearing again is vital to your success and continued development as an artist. But you also want to change things up now and then so that the audience doesn’t start to dismiss you. So, always stay open to new material.
Start With Your Existing Set
If you’re looking for new material and aren’t sure where to start, here’s a suggestion. Make a list of the current songs in your set. Then, song by song, ask the following simple, pointed questions that invite a response and imply a life beyond the story or feelings of the song.
The first question is: what’s next? In other words, ask what happened as a result of the mood or action expressed in the song. If it was a break up song, then look for a song of recovery, loneliness, healing, reconciliation, or falling in love again. If you’re a songwriter, write a sequel, or another spin on the situation as seen through the eyes and heart of someone else.
The next question is: who cares? This question invites a defense of a piece that for some reason has been a part of your set for sometime. What is it about this song that you like? Now go find a song that pushes those same buttons.
It may be a groove or something stylistic that appeals to you. It might be the subject matter or the attitude of the piece. Identify what it is about the song that made you care enough to keep singing it. Then find or create its worthy replacement.
Now ask yourself what if I changed the song, what would I like to change? This gives you an opportunity to rethink a song in terms of style, tempo, or a fresh interpretive approach. In other words, how could you rework the song so that it feels and sings like it’s a brand new piece.
Another somewhat freaky approach is to see each of your songs from the perspective of an artist you admire and are influenced by. Pretend you’re asking this artist what they like about the song. Why would they sing it? What would they choose as an alternative?
Even if you just step back and look at your set as if it were to be handed over to the artist you admire, it gives you a chance to get a little distance on your songs and a more objective perspective on the material. By making a connection with a musical hero or mentor you might trigger new interpretive spins for existing material. It might prompt you to wipe the slate clean and stretch a little as an artist.
Pool Your Peeps
Finally ask three to five people that are familiar with your work what they like and don’t like about the songs you sing or play. Start with asking for favorites and why they like them. Then ask about the pieces they don’t mention and see what they say when you tell them you’re considering new material.
Starting with what you already have implies an ongoing living, breathing, creative process that is a natural part of building your career, shoring up your fan base, making connections. It makes your song set a vital part of your life as an artist.
Refresh + Revive
Of course you can throw caution to the wind and decide to search for material that is the vastly different from what you’ve presented so far, but you run the risk of alienating that fan base that is just beginning to get a feel for your work that strikes a familiar chord, something they can relate to.
So you might want to consider adding an experimental element to your existing song set. When you perform, you can literally set up these songs by letting your audience know that you’re trying something a little different. Then, by the response to the new material, you can gauge whether or not the change should be further pursued.
By starting with your existing material it gives you a sense of connection and growth. It reminds you that you are part of a living, breathing, creative process. It also allows your fan base to grow and develop right along with you.