Most Monday nights when he’s not on the road, the singer-songwriter Bob Schneider tests at least one new song in front of an audience at the Saxon Pub in Austin.
It is often just a few verses and a chorus, with a quirky working title like “No Need For Candy,” “The Day My Sweater Played Golf Without Me,” or “Your Father’s Money.” Each is written two or three days before it is performed, and each is the result of his weekly songwriting game, which involves an invitation-only email list that challenges musicians to turn in a new song every Friday. The song has to incorporate a preselected term or phrase like “mailman’s tears” and “can you keep a secret?”.
Schneider has been running the game since 2001 with a rotating cast including high-profile participants like Jason Mraz, Patty Griffin, and Matt Nathanson. The game has no winners or losers. Its sole goal is to force productivity.
“It’s all process, all utility,” said Schneider, 47, long one of Austin’s most popular and prolific musicians.
“If this game were a business, it’d be an office with a desk and nothing on the walls,” he said. “There’s no master list of the titles or even any kind of real documentation of who’s been in the game. It’s about turning out songs, not keeping score.”
Virtually every song from Schneider’s last five records can be traced back to the game. Earlier this month, he released Burden of Proof, a twelve-song set featuring eleven from the competition. In recent years, Schneider said, he has struggled to find time to write; he believes he would not have written one-fifth of the songs he has completed if it were not for the game. For him, the key component is the deadline.
“The primary factor stopping people from finishing songs is the critical voice in your head that says it isn’t good enough,” said Schneider, who in 2001 created the game with his bandmates Billy Harvey and Bruce Hughes and the songwriter Steve Poltz. They wrote twenty songs on a 21-day tour. “Then there’s the part of your brain that thinks every idea you have is wonderful. Those two are in constant battle when you’re writing. With this, you simply have to turn it in. If it’s bad or mediocre or half a song or maybe just a good idea not realized in a workable way, it doesn’t matter. Even the worst songwriter in the world, forced to write a song every week, is going to write some good songs from time to time. Law of averages.”
Turning in a song each week or facing expulsion from the game is one of only two rules. The other involves incorporating the phrase of the week somewhere in the song. “The less it means, the better,” said Schneider. “The more esoteric, the better. The less it can be taken literally, the better.” He said that “bicycle versus car,” which was one of the required phrases in 2004, was the hardest one he had encountered. Nonetheless, he turned it into a song that closed out his 2009 album, Lovely Creatures.
Schneider said that to his surprise no two songwriters had ever paired a phrase with a similar rejoinder or rhyme. Titles are another story: on numerous occasions, songwriters have released albums featuring songs with the same title. Near the beginning of the game’s run, Schneider and the Austin singer-songwriters Jeff Klein and Kacy Crowley each put out albums that included songs called “Holding In the World.” (Full disclosure: With Schneider’s permission, I appropriated the game for three Esquire magazine articles that included songwriters like Dierks Bentley, Raphael Saadiq, and Rhett Miller.)
Schneider’s favorite strategy is to ignore the phrase of the week until the last possible moment; he says that helps him not to feel handcuffed by the phrase or simply to use it in an obvious way.
“Sometimes I’ll write a chorus or the verse without pulling up the email with the phrase,” Schneider said. “Then I’ll have to wedge it in. And that can take the song in a direction or place it would have never gone if it didn’t have to be incorporated. It can do some really cool, nonlinear things to the song writing. “
Schneider generally records full-blown demos of his game entries, although some participants record rudimentary acoustic versions on their cellphones. When it’s time to make a record, Schneider typically picks one favorite—for Burden of Proof it was a song titled “Hop on the World”—and tries to find other songs from the game that would add up to a cohesive album. Even at the fast clip he has been making records—he has released twelve solo albums since 1998—Schneider said the game had given him a backlog that could cover his next five releases. He doesn’t plan to stop writing, though.
“By the time I get to that fifth record, I hope I’ll have enough songs for five more waiting,” Schneider said. But there is no guarantee. “That’s what makes it fun. I could write what I think is an incredible song this week. But next week, I’m starting from scratch. With this game, there’s no way to rest on two-week-old laurels.”