A Guide to Songwriting

It has been proposed that I write a blog about song-writing. It is after all something I do a lot of, and have all my life. So why have I avoided this topic so far? Well, it feels a bit like writing an instruction manual for something which has got lost in the post. Trying to explain the mechanics of it, will not improve your chances of improving yours.

There are 2 types of blog subjects I generally pick:- something I can be faintly amusing about, or to have a good rant. This subject is neither, but I’ll do my best.

The one element which is needed above all, is imagination. Something as ethereal as the concept of a soul. Without it, you’re doing a dot to dot puzzle for some alien artefact. Being able to emotionally connect to various subjects and different points of view I find helps too – empathy in other words.

So, what makes a good song? Frankly – I’m not sure. If there was a blue-print beyond the Stock Aitken & Waterman hit factory method, we’d all be churning out number 1s. As you know, I like to be different and as original as possible (almost impossible), so I try to avoid ‘classic’ forms of song-writing. As in: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, double chorus. Often that is in fact how a song turns out! But as someone who likes to push the boat out, it’s musically very gratifying to veer from the norm.

What really makes a great song, is when a lot of people make an emotional connection with it. And that’s the one thing I can never predict when an idea pops into my head….

I better start from the beginning. My first forays into song-writing happened as a young child. A classical guitar magically appeared in the apartment in Vienna (came in a job lot from the auction house apparently) and I cradled it to my (then non-existent) bosom, pouring all of my angst and unhappiness into writing extremely unsophisticated and dramatic songs. It was the best form of self-therapy available. If I had been born a couple of decades later, I would have probably preferred computer games.

I remember being on holiday with my dad & his then fairly new wife and all of her leggy model friends, and being asked to perform for them. I must have been about 10, and had written an uber-dramatic rock opera of sorts. The ladies looked in part bored and part alarmed by my performance and were visibly relieved when it was over. That much emotion should never be aired in public… Beach anyone?

It may not have been the best start, but surprisingly it didn’t put me off, and when I came to England when I was 12, I immediately formed a band. By my late teens my song-writing had become a lot more sophisticated, and many of the songs on the acoustic album were written when I was about 18. At that point I mostly wrote with acoustic guitar, and hence the songs had to be fairly simple and linear to work well live.

Fast forward to the present (hgfdutfdvzfj – that’s a fast forward sound) and my song-writing modus operandi have become as varied as my music and my influences.

Let’s start with lyrics. I generally write my own, though have on occasion been inspired to use someone else’s. Several years ago I joined the Song-Writers Guild – mainly for their copy-writing service, before Sky-Rocket launched their own – and they offered to feature me in their monthly magazine (imagine the cheapest looking print mag on photo-copied paper). I was delighted and wrote, what I thought was an interesting and engaging article, which they completely stripped of all humour, and turned into a bland name-dropping and achievement listing exercise.

What I hadn’t realised was that there are at least 10 lyricists to every composer, and in order to give the impression of value to the fee-paying Guild members, the magazine loudly proclaimed that I was looking for lyricists! I was horrified. And immediately inundated with lyricists sending me their wares. Most were poor to middling, though not wanting to be rude, I looked at all and replied to everyone with my honest opinions (not always appreciated).

But there were a couple of gems amongst the mediocrity, and I did in fact use a few on the last couple of albums. A particularly liked the lyrics from a chap called Denis Snape – an elderly gentleman with a gift for words – and though I had to bring a few phrases into the right century, his talent was undeniable. He wrote the lyrics to ‘Devil Closed the Door’, ‘No Lonely Girl’, ’Slap Me & You Die’, ’Too Bad to be Good’ and ‘Accessorise’. Alas, he seemed to be under the misconception that there was a lot of money to be earned from a Z-lister like me, and hasn’t put forward any more since I divested him of this delusion. So the next album is mostly my own. Though I have used a lyric from another writer for one song, and Lee has written some as well.

Still on lyrics (are you bored yet?) – Writing my own. I’m very bad at writing straight forward love songs or insipid bla bla lyrics. Anything really banal makes my skin itch. Sometimes I do it as an exercise (‘Thank You’, ‘Beyond Words’), but I prefer the dark corners of the psyche. As I’m generally quite happy and have a nice life, I have to seek inspiration in other peoples’ miseries, or in imagined scenarios. For example ‘Why Are You Still Here’ which is about a wife beater; ‘She Just Won’t Eat’ (Annorexia), ‘Still Running’ PTS syndrome, ‘Sorry’, about a chap I used to work with who constantly cheated on his wife.

Some lyrics I keep very generalised, so that people can read in their own meanings (Latest Fantasy, It’s Time), and some are closer to home: ‘You’re So Not’, a scathing critique on one of my Exes; ‘The Last Adventure’, about the death of my mum, ‘Adored’… yes well..

A really important aspect of my life in general, is seeing the funny side of things. In fact, I find it hard not to! So humour in lyrics is a big aspect of my writing. It’s often very subtle, and listeners often miss it altogether, but I do like to be a just a little naughty when writing. Obvious examples are ‘Get A Life’, ‘I’m Not Old I’m Experienced’. But even ‘Sorry’ is very tongue in cheek – the point being that the cheater is not sorry at all. He’s just been caught and is trying to talk his way out of it.

Are you still with me? Well done! I knew this would be a bit of a mammoth one.. So – how does it all turn into a piece of music? (You ask..) I have a multitude of methods.

Sometimes it is all about the lyrics, and it’s a case of setting them to music. Often the music therefore, has to be very simple so that the words are at the forefront. Good examples are ‘Ebay’, ‘Get a Life’, ‘What Have I Done’.

Conversely, sometimes it’s all about the melody, and even the sounds at particular points. Vowels can greatly change the sound of one’s voice and the mood of the song. An ‘Ahhhh’ is much more uplifting and dramatic than an ‘Ooooh’. When I write with the piano in particular, songs often become about mood and sound, and then it’s a jigsaw puzzle of writing lyrics to fit the musical concept. A great example of this is ‘Kind to be Cruel’.

It can be a simple case of noodling about on the piano and finding some interesting chords or arpeggios, and then trying out some vocal lines to fit (eg Conflicted, The One, Latest Fantasy). But more often I have ideas in my head first, and then try to work them out. In fact some songs have been written in their entirety in my head, riffs and instrumental lines included. ‘Why are you Still Here’ for example I wrote in the back of the van. Most of the Holy Cow stuff was written like that as well – usually on the tube on the way to rehearsal.

Some songs are written in 5 minutes. These are usually written on guitar as I know my way round a lot more than the piano. They just pop into my head and done. Such as ‘Last Adventure’, ‘Be My Guitar’ and ‘Get A Life’. But some I play around with for months. I keep going back to them – sometimes those are discarded along the way, but sometimes they turn into something really good. ‘Kind to be Cruel’, ‘Passionate Weekend’, ‘A Little Act of Defiance’ all fall into that category.

Another consideration on any album, is balance. Though we don’t pander to the whims of our audience in general, we do appreciate that a certain amount of rock and prog is expected and, like on the album we’re working on now, we found the balance wasn’t right. Consequently we analysed what was lacking, and I wrote some more songs with that very specific aim in mind.

We did something similar on the last album by including ‘Devil’. It’s a bit ‘old hat’ compared to what we generally do, but we knew that the album needed it. So Lee wrote a whole bunch of riffs and I picked one to turn into a song.

One thing I really like to do, is to include the musicians I work with as much as possible in the process. I want them to feel a part of the album they’ve played on. Consequently we did a song-writing exercise with Lee and Lincoln (bass). I turned up with a basic piano riff and chorus idea, and a few other bits, and then together we wrote the verses and all chipped in with ideas. The result is an 8 minute prog extravaganza with weird timing, and 4 key changes.

As you can see, this has turned into the Kamasutra of song-writing. The only thing which is important to add, is that it’s easy to come up with ideas. It’s not so easy to make them sound good. And that’s where Lee comes into his own. Not only does he have to interpret my ideas and to add his own, but he has to produce it in a way that makes it far more than it started out as. Now that takes real talent!

If you made it to end of this blog – congratulations! You deserve a nice cup of tea. Or perhaps something stronger…



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