Guitar and notepad for songwriting

How I write a song

Unless someone has asked me to write something on a particular topic or I am co-writing, this article describes my songwriting process – most of the time. That’s not to say it the best way or even a good way, it’s just, my way.

How do you I choose a topic to write about?

I don’t try to write and I have no topics I want to write about. What comes out in my songs are the things in my life: the things I’m angry about or interested in or affected by at any particular point. I let the process reveal the song that needs to be written at this point in my life. However, for that to happen I need to find a way to open a channel to my subconscious; a way to bypass my analytical, literate, logical mind.

“I consciously try not to think about what a songs should say. Because I’m interested in what… I find, as opposed to…what I’m planting. I like to discover it rather than plot it out.” Paul Simon in Songwriters on Songwriting

I would speculate that your subconscious has no interest in songwriting technique; it throws out stuff you are dealing with day to day; and perhaps the truth about how you deal with and react to the world. It doesn’t give you cliche’s or copies of other people’s work; it give you access to your true self and you concerns.
That’s not to say every song is some deep meditation; it’s not – because we are also interested in shallow things. Nor does it mean that every song will be about you/me; sometime you just get playful with made up stories, however, they also tend to have a ring of truth to them; simply because of where they come from.

How does the process work in practice?

What tends to happen is that I pick up my guitar and play. I never play an existing song on my guitar unless I need to rehearse for a gig. I am always playing something new – so wherever my hands go – that’s what comes out.

If it sounds interesting I grab my phone play it in to my audio notes app (I have about 1500 ideas on my phone). Even though I’m thinking, ‘I like the sound of this’ – most of the time it’s crap. But writing lots and lots of crap is essential at any stage in you songwriting development; expect it; I expect it. It doesn’t get me down if I’ve just come up with another 20 rubbish ideas.

Now and again I come up with something I like; and it also turns out that it’s not crap. That happens anywhere between 10 and 20 times a year. It’s essential for new songwriters to write as much crap as they can – and not be down-hearted if every song is not a classic. As a new songwriter you need to write all the cliche’s and get them out of your system.

Most new songwriters write in cliche’s or just re-write the songs of their favourite artists; you have got to do that – it’s essential – it’s part of the learning process. Songwriters should learn as many cover versions as they can; cover versions teach you what a song is; how it’s constructed; what works; what the conventions of songwriting are.

To get back to the process. I have written from other people’s lyrics in the past. I wrote a song with Marti Pellow (which is on his Boulevard of Life album); I wrote a song with Jazz singer Carol Kidd (she told me it’s her daughters favourite song); I wrote a song with the poet Paul John Mccafferty while he sat changing the words as I figured out a tune.
However, most of the time I write without a partner; I start with the music. So I take the idea and I just keep playing it on my guitar. Much of this automatic – I’m not thinking – I’m locked in to a feedback loop that involves with my guitar, my ears and my subconscious.

I know there are conventional ways I can go with a song and unconventional ways – it just depends on the song and where it takes me. One of my favourite songs I’ve written is called, ‘The Handle’s broken on my cup’. It has a totally unconventional structure; however, that particular song couldn’t go any other way; that’s just how it goes. But because I know all of the conventional ways a song can go I’m either taking advantage of that knowledge or I’m deliberately avoiding it.

Some songs need to be simple, i.e. they need to go down the conventional verse chorus route and use a well worn chord pattern; you have just got to serve the song. So at this point in the process of writing a song I’m trying to find out how it goes; where it goes; what are the chords of the chorus or the bridge or whatever.

How do I find A melody?

As I’m doing all of the above I’m singing along. I’m singing nonsense words that have the right shape to fit whatever melody that is coming out of my mouth. I don’t overthink anything. There are a million possible melodies for every set of chords; the choice of melody just needs to suit the type of song; the rhythm; the genre the song. I trust my brain to come up with something appropriate and good.

How do I write lyrics?

As I’m singing nonsense, maybe some words will come out of my mouth that I like, so I’ll write them down. There might be a germ of an idea in those words or there might not be.

At this point all I have is belief that I will write lyrics for this song and that this song is worth writing. However, sometimes I can never get words for a song; they just don’t come. That doesn’t happen very often – but it happens – there’s just no route to writing the lyrics. I abandon the song, I have no choice. Conversely sometimes after finishing a song I decide the music is rubbish but the lyrics are good.

Even if I’ve managed to scribble down some lyrics I know those might not be lyrics I will every use. For some songs I can be writing down unrelated phrases for days (or week); just waiting for something to happen – something to move the process forward. During this process I’m usually refining the song structure, and if I get the opportunity, I will start recording it.

In the last 6 or 7 years that I’ve started recording my songs at home; this has changed my songwriting process. Now when I have the basic song structure recorded and maybe a few lines of a verse – I start to sing over the chords – just continuously – recording one vocal line over another – finding lines that work as I go – deleting earlier recordings. At some point – enough words have appeared that I can figure out what this song is about. Up to that point that’s not something I think about.

Once I have an idea of what the song is about I start to fashion lyrics to fit; I’m still trying to let my subconscious guide me; waiting for the story to appear – catching it as it comes in; rather than actively writing it. Despite the roundabout process I can end up with simple unambiguous ‘story songs’ or abstract, surreal songs; it depends on what I think will work and what seems to be working as I write.

I don’t treat lyrics like poetry; I’m not writing a poem; I’m writing words that need to be sung; words that fit well in my mouth; which is why singing is an essential part of my writing process.

Although the words initially come from “who know’s where” once I have them I spend quite a lot of time honing them and ensuring there’s an appropriate rhyming pattern (if I think the words need to rhyme). There comes a point in the process where work (i.e. the craft of songwriting) takes over from inspiration.
Having done this for quite a long time I think my lyrics have a style which is identifiable my own; often they are conversational. As an example here is the first verse of the last songs I wrote called, I’m just an informer:

I’m just an informer
in this game
I see the weather
I report the rain
I see the cadence to your life
I know who’s to blame

I just write what comes and fashion it the best I can.

In conclusion

If the above explanation sounds like a long drawn out process and sometimes it is. However, some songs are written in the time it takes to play them; i.e. if it’s a three minute song, it can take three minutes to write it. That doesn’t happen often but it does happen. The song ‘Fancy Wooden Box’ was written like that; apart from the last verse which I wrote when I was recording it (I felt it needed one more verse).

That’s my process. Everyone’s will have their own way of writing songs but I think it can be useful to know how someone else does it.

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