How I write songs

The process for me begins with the guitar, just messing around, trying different things, noodling, until I find something I really like – a nice riff or chord progression or combination of both. Music stimulates emotion. We all know a minor chord feels sad and a major chord feels grounded and positive. As we move from chord to chord through a progression, so our emotions are stimulated, and not just by the chords, but by the rhythms and patterns of notes in the chords, as we pick or strum the guitar. So, whatever new thing I’ve discovered on the guitar starts to stimulate all sorts of feelings in me, and this starts to stir memories and thoughts and so maybe the first glimmer of what the song is about might appear at this stage. I then start to listen for melodies in my head that the chords seem to suggest, or that I think could sound good over the chords. The key here is to try to do something that you’ve never done before, and to not accidentally copy some melody that you’ve heard somewhere before. It’s very easy to be unoriginal without realising it, and the real challenge is to come up with something fresh and interesting and that is completely my own. At this stage I’ll often find that I have a set of chords and a melody that could be either a verse or a chorus. I then fool around some more on the guitar and try to find the other bits of the song until I have a verse, chorus and maybe a bridge, all with melodies that work nicely together. Once the music is handled, it’s time to find lyrics – often the hardest part.

There are two ways I have of approaching lyrics. The first is to let the sound of the words be the most important thing – and let the meaning be less specific or deliberate. So I focus on the sound of the words – I start singing nonsense words to the melody I have, and just enjoy the shapes and the rhythms of the gibberish that comes out until I’ve found nonsense words that I think sound great. Then I start looking for real words that sound like these words, trying to keep the rhythm and sound-impact of the words as alive as possible. Here the actual meaning of the words isn’t so important – it’s not that important that they all add up to some coherent story, rather that each line says something evocative and different and somehow relevant to the feeling of the song. This is important as it means the lyrics are much more free and so there is more chance of finding words that sound really good together. And as I do this through the verses and chorus, what I end up with is a song that’s more like a dream, full of images and thoughts that don’t make too much sense, but are packed with feelings. I think this might be my favourite kind of song. But there is another approach.

In the second approach I’ll have an idea, say while I’m out walking somewhere, and then write a song based around that idea. So, for example, I might think to myself “loneliness is something that people feel, even when they’re in relationships, and in fact sometimes the worst kind of loneliness is when you’re trapped in a relationship where there is no real connection” and so I’ll think, there must be a good song in that, and so I’ll work to think of a concise and catchy way to express that and it might be the chorus of a song. Then I’ll start to brainstorm various ideas around this concept, maybe coming up with example from my own life, or just whatever I think about it, how people might deal with it, etc., and I’ll make these the verses. So this approach is completely different, in that the lyric is directed at a specific subject. The tricky part of this approach is to come up with music that complements the idea effectively.

I often tend to use a combination of these two approaches – letting abstract dreamy lines creep into a song about something specific, or having a more concrete and specific verse in a dreamy song, or having a song with concrete verses and a dreamy abstract chorus that may be about something else entirely, but ties the song together emotionally.

2 thoughts on “Songwriting

  1. So fascinating to hear how your wonderful songs are coaxed out of the ether. Another brilliant songwriter, Chris Smither, also talks eloquently about his process and how he tries to have a conversation with the part of his brain that doesn’t want talk on youtube: the making of “time stands still”. check it out…

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