Whether you’re a singer-songwriter charting new and familiar territory to explore, or a singer looking to add more depth and diversity to your song sets, the following can serve to help get you started on that journey to the promised land of deeper satisfaction and greater potential.
Think of the songs you’re seeking as pieces of a bigger picture puzzle. That bigger picture may be a simple theme of some kind, such as recovery or renewal. It might be a theme of reconciliation or moving on. The theme could based on an old adage such as, “be true to yourself,” or “there’s no place like home.”
Your Playing Space
It might be an incident or series of incidents. It could be a time and place in history or a time and place to make history as you live a better story in the future. This sense of the bigger picture defines your playing space, while the songs you find or create serve as stops along the way or highlights of your playtime in that space.
Let’s say you’re a singer that’s been doing a lot of mid-to-slow tempo, darker, moodier pieces. Let’s also say these songs serve your voice well, showcasing certain textures and strengths. But you’d like to add some lightness for contrast. This will provide relief for you emotionally, and it will likely make the journey of your performance a more gratifying experience for your audience.
Find Or Create New Scenic Views
In this case your initial bigger picture puzzle is something like, “going on a retreat” or “letting go” or “not taking things so seriously.” So, you start your search by looking for songs that provide an escape or that have humor and lightness in them. You could choose three or four pieces that celebrate getting away from it all or simply laughing at yourself.
If you have friends that are songwriters, you can share your bigger picture puzzle and suggestions on some of the stopping points you’d like to visit as a singer. Then, invite them to create some of those places of escape, letting go, and having fun.
If you tend to do a lot of lighter pieces that some people say (like your band or accompanist) are just too frivolous, or they all sound alike, you can then search for substance or heavier material. In this case, you might let that bigger picture puzzle be something like “the dark side” or you might choose a few serious issues or social causes that you care about. You can then find existing songs that appeal to or represent the spirit or substance of those causes. Or, you can enlist the aid of your songwriter friends to bring your personal passion and perspective to life.
Kick It With Contrast
Something to bear in mind when looking for new material, or even when you’re rethinking your set for an upcoming gig, is to provide some contrast and variety. You want to certainly stress your vocal strength in terms of style, tempo, mood, and so on. But you also want to mix things up with tempo and style so that you avoid sounding like the film score for a story about crowd chatter.
It’s also to your advantage to counter perspectives thematically in the bigger picture puzzle of the pieces you sing. In other words, if you have a lot of “falling in love” songs, include a piece about breaking up or being alone. That way you set the stage for a richer, fuller experience to take place emotionally for your audience.
Look At What’s Cooking
What about the songs you’re already singing? It’s vital to also lay out your existing catalog of material that you regularly perform. Once you have those pieces laid out on paper so you can physically see each title, take a closer look to note recurring themes, settings, and situations, as well as tempos, genres, and styles.
Make note of the songs that seem to get the biggest response. Then, see if there are any connecting themes or subjects. Then, determine your bigger picture puzzle or puzzles. There may be several themes to invest in more depth down the road or for a specific gig or two. Once you complete the process of laying out the bigger picture puzzle of your existing song set, look for any opportunities to fill in gaps or holes or find material that can counter the recurring themes.
For example, maybe you sing a lot of songs about recovery and healing. It’s critical to consider adding in a piece or two about being hurt or having hurt someone. Even a song about how much it hurts to heal can add more depth, color, and texture to that theme. That gives the audience a deeper, fuller experience and provides you more shapes, colors, and textures for painting and piecing together that bigger picture puzzle.
Find Focus And Frame It
So look at your existing material. Identify recurring themes and subjects and any that you’d like to further explore. Look for any gaps or holes or deficiencies in the bigger picture puzzle of those themes and stories. Find material or create material to fill in those spaces.
When charting new territory, find a starting point such as a theme, subject, incident, popular phrase – whatever you want to use to define that bigger picture puzzle that will determine your play space. Once that’s identified, then start mapping out places you’d like to go, or feelings you’d like to explore. Also consider points of conflict that create drama on that journey. Find specific songs that speak to these stops on the journey, or create original songs to put on the map.
Wrapped + Packaged
The bottom line is to keep your song sets fresh, provide contrast and depth, add variety in style, as you bend and stretch your voice to its fullest potential. This investment in song selection, and the overall bigger picture puzzle of the stories you’re telling, will provide a more meaningful, deeper experience for your audience. It will also create a positive buzz for you as an engaging singer and storyteller of substance.