How to write a song – a personal view
Writing a song
I grew up around music, and people who could really play. I never excelled at any individual instrument but after I got my first guitar I did plug-in a microphone and record myself singing and playing almost straight away. I guess in an effort to make these recordings more interesting to my imagined listenership I wrote some words. At some point I must have realised that I might need to theme the ‘song’ or somehow tell a story, or make it about something, people might get bored if I didn’t. I think this is pretty much how I’ve continued with song-writing; the rest is just adding a shine or emoting more effectively in my opinion. The core to writing a decent song is storytelling, but using the extra power of music to support the words you want to deliver. You can get all fancy about it, use the music to express a subtext, play with the form in some self-conscious way, but in the end it’s about packaging up and sending off as much connection and emotion with the song as you can.
During the process of writing connecting one’s heart and soul to the words, the music and to the playing of your song are for me all essential elements of successful song-writing. I feel that this is the key to creating something with longevity, a song which will speak both privately and in a wider sense to your listeners. I always hope that the resultant song, even though it is only words on a piece of paper will have a hint of the spirit and magic of your emotional connection with it, somehow captured in the moment of your writing of it, if you keep live that spirit of emotional engagement present when creating it. Basically I believe this is what separates a good song from a bad one.
Here’s how I try to do it.
There are lots of ways to get to the point of having created a finished song and some work better than others, I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way; there is only your own way to get to that point. A few ways work better for me than others, I’ll list them here.
1. Starting with the title! – Probably the worst way to begin the process and normally the precursor to a world of pain, struggle and multiple re-writes. However there are times when you just can’t ignore the idea or concept expressed by an imagined title popping into your head. Sometimes the title alone can summarise the concept of the song, and so makes a decent point at which to kick off the process. A good trick is to let this happen, but keep yourself open to letting the concept drift, or to throwing the title out of the mix at some point. I guess the trick here is not to hold on too tightly to your original concept as prescribed by that wonderful title idea you came up with. This is a sort of upside down way to do things, personally, more normally I would write the song and go looking within it for a catchy one liner that echoes the song’s concept, but was arrived at by way of creating the body of the song. I have heard it told that titles are very important to publishers and to anyone touting your tunes, frankly I think you should call it what you want, after all as the writer, you’ve probably got considerably more creative nouse than someone who sits behind a desk.
2. Rolling with a riff – This approach works well for me as I love to just sit and noodle on my song-writing instrument of choice, the guitar. I’m always on the search for a new set of chords that work nicely together, or create a vibe. Sometimes this atmosphere gives rise to some thoughts and words, a theme and the start of a song. Get it down; keep a scrap of paper, your writing book/pad or a portable recorder with you when you play in case you need to get some ideas down when you hit a creative patch. Often I find this method of playing the guitar and just opening up to saying or singing words a wonderful way to get things flowing, you just never know from one second to the next if you are going to spark the next million seller, or just mumble incoherently for the next half an hour, until you give up and go off do something useful. It’s probably not the sort of advice to give, but I find that a glass or two of red wine in particular just lets me take the edge of self-conscious efforts to verbalise my thoughts. Of course it can lead you up the garden path too, so in moderation and carefully if you want to utilise any stimulants to your writing.
Generally, once I’ve got some of these ideas down, I leave it, pursuing the finished article at this point can cause problems I think. In your enthusiasm to complete your work it’s easy to distort the ideas you’ve got down in that moment of clarity and creation. This sort of energy is worth holding on to and it’s all too easy to iron then out, edit them away as you try to impose ‘the song’ on the nascent ideas you have now committed to paper or tape. So go back to it later, it’s like reviewing a song you’ve recorded, last night after 9 hours of trying to perfect the Bongo take you thought it was utter rubbish. Then the following evening you spark up the mixing desk and play the rough mix, and it sounds great. Song writing is a bit like this too, so going back to review your work at a later date can give you the editorial distance to see things clearly and work towards the finished product. If you like I find it very difficult to see your work from distance and judge it accordingly; this is a worthwhile ‘trick’ to employ.
3. Write about what you know – This is really simple, no one wants to hear a song written by an eighteen year old about the travails of a long-term relationship breaking up. But they would listen to an eighteen year old telling them about divorce from the perspective of a teen whose parents have split. Authenticity is important. Not to say that I’m not guilty of going against my advice in the pursuit of some goal I feel is worth it, it’s all about balance and you’ll be the one that knows where that balance is struck, listen to your heart, and trust your instincts. For example I’ve written a song about Black Rhythm and Blues performers from 40s and 50s New Orleans, I’m not Black, I’ve never been to New Orleans and the closest I’ll get to a direct experience of this is listening to old 78 records of the original artistes, but the story I want to tell is about how their music and culture was taken and used by later White artistes and the parallels with White abuse of Black people. I decided that this was something I could tell from my perspective, I’m not speaking for anyone, and my general knowledge of the subject is good. It’s personal, writing is, trust your position and know in your heart that you can trust your judgement.
Write about what you feel – As distinct from the above, writing about something you have an emotional engagement with is important too. Of course if you are going to write professionally day in and day out you may want to ask yourself to write about any old thing, the latest thing or someone else’s perceived ‘thing’. But hell, let’s be honest, what of real worth are you going to create doing this? It won’t mean anything to you, it won’t engage you, and why did you start doing this in the first place? Wasn’t it to express yourself and to give your version of events, your view of the world? Isn’t it a bit of immortality that you are seeking with this something that you may leave behind you when you’re gone? Well what’s the point in spending your hard-earned time and energy on anything but something that is meaningful to you?
4. If something isn’t right, you’re right, it’s wrong – Basically don’t let your standards slip, if you aren’t happy with an element of what you are doing, then you’re right, it’s not right and your song isn’t finished yet. There is a point though where a balance is struck and you will adjudge it to be ‘good enough’. If you get to this point you might just have a finished song on your hands. You might also get to a point where you keep on polishing but the sheen you’ve created isn’t getting any brighter, the song isn’t improving, in fact it might be getting worse. Careful, you’re probably overworking the tune.
5. Sometimes fresh is better than perfect – It’s easy to think that everything you write has to be a heavily worked example of song-smithing, the truth is sometimes awkwardness, less than perfect alliteration, poorly chosen rhymes or previously well-trodden themes can all be easily ignored or forgotten in the face of a raw rendition of something emotional played out on paper when you’re writing. Sometimes it just so happens that you’ve got something urgent and real on paper, on your guitar and in your heart and working on it will destroy that reality, urgency and soul. Learn how to recognise this, integrate it into your work and to trust your instincts. You may want to take this energy and refine it somewhat; this I think works very well if done carefully and sensitively. Let it go, let it flow, get it down and then refine it, trim it, compress it. But be careful, again, not to overwork it. It’s a fine balance.
6. Try different mixes – Play around with what you have, move lines, keep trying new ideas, particularly in the early stages of piecing something together. Just like recording, you can with writing a song keep more than one take, write the song out on another sheet of paper and then go and destroy what you’ve written elsewhere, you can keep going and going until it all just slots into place.
As an aside to this, I find often that my first verse is weaker than subsequent verses. I think this is probably because when you write this first verse it’s the one that establishes your idea for the song as you begin the creative process, it is this verse that is the point where you originally negotiate the idea. Because of this it can be less well-formed or complete than the rest of the subsequent verses. It’s a cheap trick, but you could try moving this verse further down the line. Sometimes it’s not worth keeping at all, so chuck it out and try again, but if you like it, but just not enough for your strong opening verse, as I say, move it on down the line and replace it with a later verse. Only if this works of course, in many cases this won’t work within the structure of your song.
7. Sing as you write – You won’t thank yourself for making it impossible to breathe when later performing your masterpiece, and if you are lucky enough to find someone who feels like creating their own rendition of your hit song, don’t make it impossible to sing. A good way to create a song that is comfortable to sing is to sing while you create it. This way you won’t create any passages that lack the natural resting places a singer needs to find their breath. This way you will naturally integrate resting places, and doing this may also inform the way the song is written, the structure of it and therefore, sometimes, the very essence of the song.
8. Write stuff down – Keep a pad, write anything down, if it’s a line, an idea, a title, a rhyme, a concept, whatever, loads of these ideas will never come to anything, but, and this is born of experience, years later you may be looking for that one idea or line to complete your song and fall across the answer you’re desperately looking for in your notes.
9. Play with your friends – Play with other people’s songs, look for tricks of the trade, ways they get round problems, themes, ideas. Every song that needs to be written, probably has been, in the end the only thing that will help your song to stand head and shoulders above everything else out there is YOU. Your way of doing and seeing things. On the way to finding out how to do this, it’s not bad idea to copy others, play with their ideas, nick them, purloin them, steal them. Don’t feel bad about being a copyist, it’s part of the learning process, and lots of fun. Most people’s songs are copies of other people’s songs, it’s really really hard to come up with something truly fresh and new.