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The Songwriting Process with Dennis DeYoung of Styx

Dennis DeYoung is the former keyboardist and vocalist for Styx, with whom he had five top-ten albums in the 1970s and early 1980s. DeYoung was the writer of some of the band’s most enduring hits, including “Babe,” “Come Sail Away,” “Lady” and “Mr. Roboto.” Since leaving Styx in the mid-1980s, he has released several successful solo albums, and continues to write, record and tour regularly.

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Dennis DeYoung, former lead singer of the rock group Styx, talks about what it takes and what it means to be a songwriter. Writing quality material takes time and determination and a songwriter must be able to criticize their own work in order to separate the bad from the good.

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DY: The Songwriting Process with Styx

I have a piano upstairs that's got three or four really good songs in it, this piano I own. I just have to go out there and hit on the keys long enough until one falls out. I don't know any other way.

Once again, it gets back to hard work. You have to sit there and put in the time. Songwriting to me—I'm a music guy first. Once in awhile, I'll have a phrase that pops into my head that I try to put to music, but essentially I write music ahead of lyric. When I'm doing it, I think, because after all these years of doing it, I'm pretty good at it. I can do it. The secret to it is, is to know when you've done something special. You want a song tomorrow? You need a song from me? I'll write you a song. It'll sound like a song, and it will be a song, and you'll go, “Hey, that's not so bad.” But you have to be able to sit there and know when you're doing something special and be able to get your arms around it. Grab onto it. Hold onto it and realize it.

More importantly, you have to know when you're doing mediocrity, because you're going to do a lot of it. You can't fool yourself that you're mediocrities are brilliant, because they're not. I oftentimes say, at least for me, “If I have to worry about somebody else's opinion about what I've done, I haven't done very much.” That doesn't mean that we're not still desperate for validation of what we've done and approval of it. We are. We want that. But—you must be honest with yourself. If you're not, you're headed for disappointment. You have to be able to say, “That's not really that good. It's OK.” Suddenly, there it is, and you don't know why.

That's why I said before, you have to sit in front of the damn piano and wait for it to pop out of there. I've heard some people say, “I woke up, and I had this song, and I wrote it in 10 minutes.” I went, “Lucky bastard.” I've written small, really good parts of songs quickly, which I have elaborated on, but never have I woke up and fully visualized a thing. These people are apparently smarter than me. For me, it's sitting there and going through the process, writing and rewriting. I never had a singing lesson in my life, and I worked really, really hard to be a singer. I don't think I came into my own as a singer until the middle 80s. Really, most recently, when I went on the road, I was in Jesus Christ Superstar, where I was in the Broadway musical for six months. That's really where I learned discipline. I come from rock 'n roll. It's loose. It's what it is. You do it, and it's in the moment. That experience on the Broadway stage, you can't fool around, because you can't go, “Hey, Cleveland, it's good to see you. I’m Pontius Pilate. A funny thing happened to me on the way to Judea.” It's not going to wash. You're in character. You have to do a thing. So it's discipline.

I think that made me a better singer by far. When I started making solo albums in the middle 80s, that's what I had to be more of a— In Styx, I sang four songs a record, maybe three, four. It was a group. We shared responsibilities. But when you're carrying the whole load, you've got to do more. So I worked really hard at being a singer. I never liked the sound of my voice when I was starting out. Still to this day, I would prefer to sound like somebody else.

The thing I never liked about my voice was it didn't sound like anybody I knew. You know what I'm saying? I'm back to that old thing. Our weaknesses are our strengths. I didn't sound like anybody else, and I didn't like that. I said, “Why is that guy holding his nose when he’s singing?” I thought, I want to sound like— I can remember the early guys I liked—Johnny Mathis, because we'd put on his records, and I'd make out. But seriously, Folks—but it's true. I liked Roy Orbison when I was a kid. I liked Gene Pitney, Paul McCartney, Elvis. I liked real singers.

I didn't sound like those people. As it turns out, because I don't sound like anybody else— I went and I sang Lady. I didn't have a style. I had this thing, the way I sounded, and I went and I sang Lady. Then like I said, the next two albums, I went, “I didn't care. You tell me who I have to sing like.” Then right after Lady was a hit, I said, “OK. I get it. They like me. They like that.” Then I knew that I could just be me.

But if you told me that I had to spin plates and stand on one foot and recite Shakespeare, I would've done that, because I was young. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be successful. You start out imitating other people. Most of us do, don't we? We start out by imitating those people we like. That's what I did. But on Lady, it was me. Then people liked it a lot. So I knew who I was, and from that point on, I said, “OK. I have to be me.”

We're talking essentially about music, but the lyrics—if you figure out a way to tap into something in yourself that's real, really tap into it—you'd be surprised how many people will relate, even though you think it's unique to yourself. The greatest fear you have as a writer in the beginning is that you'll write something that you think is wholly your own, unique to yourself. You're the only one who thinks and feels that way. Who else would feel like I do? But if you get it right, you get the feeling right, you'll be surprised how many millions of people relate and feel like you do.

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