One of Submittable’s Founders Wrote a Song a Week in 2019 (And Here’s What He Learned)

02/13/2020

As any woodland fairy in Montana will tell you, Submittable was founded by a writer, a filmmaker, and a musician. John Brownell, the musician of the trio, stepped away from the company in 2018, determined to refocus on his art after putting in a decade of hard work on our burgeoning tech company.

What would he do next? The songwriter, guitarist, and singer had a long history of writing and playing for various staples of the Missoula rock scene, including the Oblio Joes and the Protest Kids. But he didn’t feel like he had a path forward to fully reenter the creative world. His solution? He’d write a song a week throughout 2019, no matter what.

We asked him to share his thoughts on that big, huge, scary project with us (and our readers), which he kindly did.

He’ll take it from here.

Why did I decide to do this? 

I’ve been playing guitar, singing and making up songs since high school. But although I’ve played in Missoula bands for almost 30 years, released records and CDs, played hundreds of gigs, I’ve never really considered myself a musician or a songwriter. 

I’m not sure why I’ve always felt this way. Maybe it’s my sort-of-Catholic, midwestern upbringing that taught me music and art is a hobby less worthy than “real work.” Maybe I use a lackadaisical attitude as a shield against criticism. Maybe I suffer from chronic imposter syndrome. Likely, it is a combination of all of the above. Whatever the reason, I’ve always put other musicians on a pedestal while downplaying my own work.

As 2018 came to a close, I found myself in an unfamiliar place. I’d left my day job at Submittable and realized I had the time and space (and privilege) to do, well, pretty much anything. I was surprised to discover just how uncomfortable that realization made me and I decided that I needed to force myself into action. I decided that 2019 would be the year that I took writing songs and making music seriously.

Social media post by John Brownell about beginning the song a week project

What did I do? 

I decided that I’d challenge myself to write and record a new song every week for the entire year. In order to force accountability, I would announce it publicly, post every song online, and include them all in a free digital album. I wanted to see what would happen if I approached the process of writing and recording music the same way I approached my “real job.”

On New Years Eve, I created a new website and made my announcement. I came up with a set of rules for the challenge:

  • I will write a new, original song—with lyrics—every week.
  • A new, original instrumental is acceptable in a pinch.
  • Reworking previously written songs is okay if it includes changes to words or arrangement.
  • I’m allowed to record a cover but hope I don’t have to go there.
  • Every song will be posted on my website and included in an album on Bandcamp for free.
  • I will try to make a video of some sort for every song.
  • I will post each song Wednesday night before I go to bed.

“Happens Every Time”
Week 1 kicked off, appropriately, with a song about writing songs and making resolutions.

Week 1: Happens Every Time

WEEK 1. More here: https://www.repeatandfade.net/songs/2018/01/07/week-1

Posted by John Brownell Music on Friday, February 15, 2019

 How did it go? 

Top line: I didn’t miss a single week. I only released a few instrumentals. I did record a few songs that had been at least partially written, but I never resorted to posting a cover of someone else’s song.

I’m proud of myself for finishing, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. This project consumed me. Most weeks, I was up until the wee hours of the morning the night before my release deadline, filled with self-doubt, and close to giving up. It was lonely and isolating. I work out of a small studio in a windowless room in my basement. The environment is perfect for staying focused, and for not annoying everyone else in the house with loud noises at all hours. But, it became disorienting at times. I’d work for hours straight and eventually walk upstairs to be surprised by a dark house, realizing that it was much later than I’d realized.

Week 47: This Machine

WEEK 47 of my 2019 song-a-week project: This Machine.

Posted by John Brownell Music on Thursday, November 28, 2019

So every week became a roller coaster of effort and emotion. I’d struggle through the process of writing, recording, making a video and posting it all online, all the while dealing with nagging self-doubt. But then every time I posted felt like a victory, followed by satisfied sleep, only to wake up and start all over again from scratch.

What did I learn? 

Accountability

Personal challenges and resolutions are an effective way to push myself. And public declarations of those challenges provide great motivation when I felt like quitting. The deadlines forced me to avoid waiting around for inspiration to hit and just get to work. 

Shortly after deciding to take this task on, I discovered a Song-A-Week Challenge forum on Reddit where other musicians gather to do the same challenge. This group provided support and companionship throughout the entire year and added another layer of accountability.

New techniques

I learned a lot of new techniques and strategies for getting started and moving along when I feel stuck. Some things are simple and seem obvious. For example, I found a set of simple chord charts and always kept them in front of me when I was working on new music. If I got stuck, I might pick a random sound or instrument to see where it led me. If I sat down at my desk to work on lyrics, one of the first things I’d do is open a rhyming dictionary and thesaurus in my browser. And if I drew a blank, I would find a book or two and open to random pages to find a line that I liked and see if it triggered any cool ideas.

“Hidden Hand”
This song was inspired by finding a book on Google Books (Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard) and reading a few random passages. I ended up writing about someone realizing they are living in a simulation – and not a very good one, at that.

Week 4: Hidden Hand

WEEK 4. More here: https://www.repeatandfade.net/songs/2019/1/27/week-4I'm out of town next week, not sure what I'll do yet. I'll probably have to make it up by squeezing an extra song in down the road.I think I've officially written more songs this month than I did all last year. Finger guns! 👉👉

Posted by John Brownell Music on Sunday, January 27, 2019

Also, the moderators of the Reddit forum would throw out a theme to the group at the beginning of each week. The themes varied a lot. One week it might be a specific chord progression, the next it would be a vague concept, like “The Road.” When I was stuck, sometimes the theme would be the thing that unstuck me.

“Restless Legs”
The Reddit theme was “The Road”. My wife was struggling with Restless Leg Syndrome and it made me think I should write a cheesy song about how I gotta “hit the road” because I got some “restless legs”. I went a different direction lyrically, but it ended up being one of my favorite songs of the project.

Week 46: Restless Legs

WEEK 46 of my 2019 song-a-week challenge: Restless Legs.

Posted by John Brownell Music on Thursday, November 21, 2019

New tools

I found a fantastic composition tool, hooktheory.com. It allowed me to play with chord progressions and melodies before I ever even pick up a guitar. Because it works in the browser, I could tweak songs on my laptop in bed at night or sitting in a bar. Probably one-fourth of the songs I wrote used this tool, and several were entirely composed in the tool before I ever started recording instruments.

Overcoming challenges

I learned that I can find ways to get work done in situations where my resources are limited. One week I wrote the majority of my song in an outdoor bar in Punta Mita with a tiny keyboard and a USB microphone.

“Doubters” 
You can hear the loud, Punta Mita waves (slightly effected) in the background of this song. I initially tried to remove it, but fell in love the atmosphere it adds – and the memory it evokes when I hear it.

Week 5: Doubters

WEEK 5 of my song-a-week challenge. I wrote and recorded this one while on a trip to Mexico with a webcam microphone and a tiny Casio keyboard controller. I made the video after I got home (why I'm posting this after week 6). The waves were so loud they demanded to be included in the song.More info here: https://www.repeatandfade.net/songs/2019/2/5/week-5

Posted by John Brownell Music on Thursday, February 14, 2019

Another week, I was in a hotel in Las Vegas without a microphone and I ended up recording my vocal parts on my phone, transferring them to my laptop, and then adding them to the music.

Mentality

Perhaps the hardest lesson for me—I learned how to ignore my inner critic. I am the product of my influences and I can lean on that fact when it feels like I have nothing left. If I push through when it feels impossible by following whatever ideas come to me, no matter how dumb or clichéd (or whatever stupid thing my stupid brain is telling me to abandon it), I found that I almost always surprised myself. A lot of the good stuff happens after you start, so it’s good to avoid spending too much time planning.

“Square Wonder” 
I wrote this one at a point when it felt like I had no more songs left in me. I was frustrated and ready to give up. I decided to sit down and record whatever came into my head and see where it went. Once I started, things kept rolling until I had something that felt finished.

Week 34: Square Wonder

WEEK 34 of my 2019 song-a-week thingy.

Posted by John Brownell Music on Thursday, August 29, 2019

What am I still figuring out? 

To be honest, I still can’t seem to shake the feeling that a song (or painting, or story, or whatever you make), created in a void, has intrinsic value. Turning songwriting into an assembly line at times made me feel like a “content creator” more than an artist. And these feelings are compounded by social media. After working so hard on something, you release it into the world for a handful of likes and heart reacts from friends and family, only to find that a picture of your cat earns significantly more engagement.

Week 52: Repeat and Fade

WEEK 52 of my 2019 song-a-week thingy. The subreddt theme this week was "time".IT'S OVER! I'M DONE!

Posted by John Brownell Music on Wednesday, January 1, 2020

What are my final thoughts? 

The song-a-week process certainly helped me grow a lot as a musician and a songwriter (that’s right, I am both of those things!). I finally feel like I have a process in place for writing music, which gives me a level of confidence that I’ve never had. I plan on taking my new strategies, tools, and all of the new material, into the new year and to keep this momentum going. I’m currently moving my studio up out of the windowless basement and into a bright room with lots of windows. And my band, Protest Kids, has started recording our second record, which will include several songs I wrote as a part of this project.

Week 7: Figure It Out

WEEK 7 of my 2019 song-a-week challenge. Figure It Out.I scrapped the song I had been working on all week and did this one in a day. Finished up around 1am the night before an early dentist appointment. Yessss! Find more here: https://www.repeatandfade.net/songs

Posted by John Brownell Music on Friday, February 22, 2019

In the early months of this challenge, I confided to a friend about some of the desperation I was feeling. He paraphrased Carl Reiner when he said, “You gave yourself an impossible task and you are figuring out how to get it done.”

This task often felt impossible, but I got it done. 

What impossible task will you do? 

Some final song a week stats

  • 52 songs
  • 8,037 words
  • 2:31:14 total time
  • 47 brand new 
  • 35 on-theme
  • 5 instrumentals
  • 32 songs posted after midnight release day

To listen to 14 of the 52 songs, check out John’s new album, Repeat and Fade

Follow John and his music on Facebook, Bandcamp, and YouTube

Sarah Aswell head shot
Sarah Aswell

Sarah Aswell is an editor and content strategist at Submittable. She’s also a writer and stand-up comedian who gets rejected via Submittable all the time. You can read her comedy criticism at Forbes, follow her on Twitter, or learn more about her creative work on her website.