John Legend believes gaining success as a songwriter is as much about working hard as it is talent.
“It sounds obvious, but there’s this mistaken belief that everything is about talent, but talent has to be cultivated and developed,” he once told Q magazine. “If it’s not nurtured, pushed and challenged it’s not going to happen.”
Legend says he’s proud of the fact that he started work on his career when he was little more than a toddler and insists he will never apologise for being demanding. “I was four and I begged my mom to get me piano lessons,” he told Q. “I was a precocious little kid. There was a lot of music in our house so I think me wanting to play was me trying to be a part of what was going on. It was a chance to perform.”
With his music inspired by the classic soul and R&B music he grew up listening to, Legend says his songwriting process is “almost the exact opposite” of how most other writers work. He believes the music should drive the lyrics.
“Some people start from a poetry base,” he says. “They’ll write a bunch of lyrics, then try to put them to music. I try to develop a compelling musical idea and make the words fit into it.”
He explains: “I usually start playing a melody and find the chords I like. Then I start singing something to it to see what works.
“I usually write the chorus first because that helps guide me into where I want the verses to go. Then I start fooling around with chord progressions for the verse.”
Most established songwriters would agree with John Legend that hard work is the key to success. The initial spark that ignites a song idea is a gift. From then on, it’s all about putting in the hours to get it right. And it calls for an exceptional level of self-motivation and self-belief, as well as talent.
The truly great songwriters just make it look easy. In reality, though, they have to put in hundreds of hours of hard work—making many mistakes along the way—in order to hone their talent and achieve their greatness.
Diane Warren, one of the most successful female songwriters of all time, says she spent 20 years writing six days a week, 10-12 hours a day before she felt she could finally take the occasional weekend off!
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