To really connect with an audience, you have to be able to show them what you see, what you hear, what it feels like when you touch someone or something, how you move, what your surroundings smell like - jasmine scented flowers or a stale beer soaked carpet or what the wine (or his lips) tasted like. By using your senses very specifically in your lyrics, you are able to create a clear and unequivocal experience for the audience - so they feel or smell or see exactly what you do - very quickly. You will literally draw us in.
It's the difference between a car or a little red Corvette, a road or a dark desert highway, footwear or my blue suede shoes.
External details make powerful images
Often the words that will work extremely hard for you in your lyrics creating the details of a scene or describing a specific character are adjectives. Use your five senses (touch/taste/smell/sound/sight) plus movement to sharpen up your lyrics. And put the concrete images you conjure up in the verses, so we find out what's happening where to whom. This who/when/where trifecta gets us on the same page as you - the songwriter - very quickly. How you use verbs will also pump up the interest level in your song. Verbs create action in your lyric - it's the difference between get/do/be and stab/shake/race.
Internal details are what's inside
the hearts and minds
of your main characters.
The feelings and thoughts that motivate the characters in your songs are more intangible, harder to describe, but are the basis for your song's existence. They tend to make up most of the chorus, the emotions that songs can express so well from I Will Always Love You to You make me feel like a Natural Woman, from Unforgettable to She Loves Me (Yeah Yeah Yeah). Here's the place you go to town with expressing what your character is really feeling.
And because you've outlined what's going on really clearly in the verses, we'll be ready for your big moment. The title of the song often encapsulates it. And the more universal the feeling or thought is, the larger your audience will be.
Actively choosing to use this split between external and internal details within the lyric of your song may feel foreign at first. And you don't have to use all your senses all the time! What to leave out is as important as what to leave in, but this technique is a powerful tool to help you write better songs.
Talk more soon
pps here 's the Wanaka Songwriting Clinic crew being awesome
pps for those who have a whole lot more songwriting to do, join us next year on the Songwriters Retreat, Hanmer Springs Feb 2-6. Songwriting 24/7.
It seems blindingly obvious but a song has to say something for an audience to listen. And an audience has to care about what is said before it can hear it.
Note there are two sides to this songwriting coin. What you write and what we hear. This is one of the biggest challenges for a songwriter who seriously wants to improve - to consider what the audience wants to hear and how they should hear it.
What??? Isn't that selling out, writing to order, becoming a puppet for the market?
Not even. It's asking yourself can you create art we want to listen to.
This is Emily Warren. She's a Grammy award winning songwriter.
In a very relevant APRA Songhub seminar, she said this.
Songs are still supposed to be about the truth, like songs ideally are supposed to be an expression of you. The perfect recipe is you’re telling the truth, you’re being honest and you’re putting it in a way that’s simple enough that a million people can hear it and say ‘oh my god, I feel the same exact way, and I can sing along to that'.
If you want to write songs for yourself in your bedroom, then do. That's a wonderful form of self-expression, like writing a sound diary. But if you want us to listen to you, then you have to have something to say that moves us, that we can understand, that makes us dance or at least tap a foot, that is meaningful to us in a bleak moment, that we can sing in the shower, that makes us want to kiss the girl next door. Not necessarily all at once, but your song needs to connect with us wholeheartedly! We need to feel something when we hear your song!
What you say is up to you - the artist. It is your taste, your opinion, your view of the world, your musicality, your experiences that make up your completely unique artistic perspective. No two people can write the same song - there's so many ingredients in the recipe and at least two languages ( words AND music) being created at the same time in a song. Sure, you can be influenced and you can emulate, write in the style of, but you can't write a Bruce Springsteen song anymore than Bruce could write one of yours.
So, unleash yourself! Tell us something - make us an offer we can't refuse!
Don't know how to get started? Try answering these questions as truthfully as you can. Don't analyse your content at this stage - just blurt it out on your screen or notebook.
1. Things I should have said.
2. Things I shouldn't have said.
3. Things I want to say.
Take as long as you like. Write as much as you like. There are no wrong answers. Reckon you'll write yourself some real gold in amongst it!
I look forward to hearing more!
ps we have one remaining spot on our Wanaka Songwriting Clinic Oct 20-22
pps for those who have a whole lot more songwriting to do, join us next year on the Songwriters Retreat, Hanmer Springs Feb 2-6
I went to a very enjoyable concert yesterday by Auckland band, the Bads, where one of the band members told the audience a great story against himself. Brett Adams is a formidable guitarist who, along with his co-conspirator vocalist/songwriter Dianne Swann plus assorted musical colleagues is currently touring their latest release nationally. Brett’s guitar skills are also much in demand as a skilled sideman to many other NZ performers, including the legendary Tim Finn.
( This is the Bads live in Napier - Brett on the left and Dianne, right.) Photo Andrew Caldwell
The story goes like this. Brett and Tim are touring just as a duo across the US and have to play a show in Colorado, where the snow piles high in winter - very high. Having chugged a good 9 hours or so to their destination, they arrived only to be told that, ‘due to the weather’, the show had been cancelled. Tim’s reaction was priceless. He said let’s go to the hotel and write a song. As you do. In Brett’s anecdote, he wryly remarked that wasn’t the reaction that he'd had. And that the song Brett had started writing then took a good ten years to be completed describing himself as ‘less disciplined than Tim’, whereupon the Bads played his tune.
As well as a great intro to a song’s genesis, this story highlights the difference between the musician who has songwriting front and centre in his life, and the musician who has a different focus. There’s no doubt the guitarist is extraordinarily disciplined to be able play as well as he does night after night, with such a variety of artists and repertoire. But having your songwriting process so close to your heart so that when you get a block of unexpected blank time, you can pick up where you left off is a state of being to aspire to. There’s never any time wasted because you always have something at your fingers tips to tap into. It’s what tunesmith Jimmy Webb calls continuity and rappers call flow. You ‘re able to switch between writing and ‘real life’ modes quickly and easily
The trick is that the relative effort of getting to that creative sweet spot is far less for those who write regularly, who practice their craft often, for those who, as the weightlifters say, do the reps. It’s keeping a mindset of ‘downtime = song time’ or ‘unexpected delay = songwriting hay’. It’s also being aware of the positive feedback loop that comes from finishing drafts. The more you do, the better you get. No different from running scales or shooting hoops. So, when you get ‘extra time’, that’s seen as an opportunity, rather than a drag and that you have to ‘pass the time’.
My guess is that Tim Finn, a skilled and very experienced songwriter, thought ‘yeeha - snowed in, with no expectations on me, no commitments I have to fulfil…. plus the added bonus of unimpeded access to a really good guitar player …I'm a kid in a candy store’. If indeed it was even that conscious, because I suspect that's just how he rolls but I would love to hear what his final output was from their canned Colorado gig.
Talk more soon.
PS if you'd like to pump up your songwriting muscle, check out our Songwriting Clinic this Labour Weekend in Wanaka
Nowadays, it's pretty easy to record draft tracks on ipads or lap tops, and ping them off as wee mp3s and 4's. This is an important part of songwriting - working up drafts of your songs, listening back with fresh ears and for sharing with collaborators or bandmates. Just even remembering a tune or snatches of lyrics can be so easily captured now and the results backed up on a drive smaller than your thumbnail.
So, then what? Here are some possible outcomes/purposes for a recording of your song to think about.
Is your recording to get your song on the setlist of your band? Is it to show songwriting collaborators? Is it audio for entry into songwriting competitions or to put up on YouTube? Is it for radio broadcast, to entice a publisher, a producer, a video director, a really awesome vocalist to work on your material? Is it to get more live work from venues or festival organisers? Are you going to sell it digitally or physically? Independently or with label support?
Each of these outcomes has slightly different requirements for a recording - some you can easily achieve yourself. With the advent of DAW's and hard drive recording programmes, ever cheaper computers, it's totally possible to knock together a cheap home project studio for a few hundred. You can go piece by piece, get a condensor mic, headphones or powered speakers. Whether you set up in your lounge, your bedroom or your garage, having something you can capture basic and clear recordings of your songs is an important first step. There's always someone with more/better gear than you. Start simple and don't get too bamboozled! As monitor and live sound engineer Gil Craig says 'If you can operate an ATM, you can work a home recording set up'
A harder question to answer is what size audience can you command? What demand is there for your material? A strong indicator is how many folks turn up to your shows and what songs EITHER stop them in their tracks OR whip them into a frenzy in the mosh pit. A crowd pleaser live doesn't necessarily make the best radio or internet delivered song, but if there is strong live support for your work, then there's a good chance you've achieved some market penetration and could monetize that, industry parlance.
Finally, what resources do you have to devote to the process? How much time do you have? It does take time and resilience, a willingness to try things out, to say yes and sometimes to say no! Who do you know? A strong rhythm section, a great guitarist, an electronics whizz that can give you the beats you need? Do you know someone actually already involved in the recording, mixing and mastering of contemporary music, someone who's released material before who can advise you on arrangements and production? Check out your favourite local recording credits, and approach folks. Reach out! In my experience, NZ musicians are really generous with time and energy, they want to play and will consider a 'development' rate, even a shout for the right person. What money can you bring to the table? For beers and pizza, for petrol, for lunches? If you can offer those who pursue music professionally a little folding, it can go further than you think. But you don't want to outstay the 'favour' welcome. There's mates rates, and then there's get off the grass! Be appreciative and give credit where it's due. Folks can always say no too.
Whatever you can put into recording your music will pay off in your development as a songwriter and each improvement in the quality of your songwriting, your musical taste and judgement, your recording equipment, rehearsal process and personnel used and time you put into developing your skills will definitely show as you make more recordings, just as the more practice you do, the better you play.
Talk more soon
ps email me if you'd like to do my brand new online songwriting course - How do I write better songs? It's short and free!
Just put COURSE in the subject line of the email.
pps click here to join us this Labour Weekend for the upcoming Songwriter's Clinic in picturesque Wanaka
KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is a great acronym to have at the front of your songwriting brain at all times. Here’s why. It reminds us that songs are short and they travel in real time. It reminds us that songs are heard. We hear them. It reminds us of the purpose of songs – they provoke emotion – we should be feeling something. It reminds us that we, your audience, should be able to remember something about your song after ONE listen. It reminds us that we should be able to sing along – not necessarily professionally, but at least in the shower or in the car in a traffic jam,or while we’re vacuuming or when we’re slumped on the couch heartbroken, sobbing under a blanket. Oh yes, my friends – keep it simple, stupid!
Simple does not mean shallow or dumbed down.
Simple does not mean easy to write. If it was everyone would be doing it!
Simple can be two chords – Eleanor Rigby, two words - Anchor Me, or two notes -Yesterday.
Simple means one story well told, one emotion well reached, a connection made with an audience.
Simple asks what are you trying to say, and expects an unequivocal answer.
Simple is authentic. Simple is uncomplicated.
Simple touches your heart and makes you listen.
And it’s not just my view….
Concision, admittedly, is the essence of pop: its discipline, its challenge, its genius. To tell a story or sum up an attitude in a handful of sung verses or a salvo of hip-hop rhymes, and to unite them with music that lodges those words in memory — and, at best, also summons the feeling behind them — is a songwriter’s job description…. Yet musical or verbal complexity can easily add clutter rather than depth, not to mention idle pretension. That’s why popular music regularly goes through back-to-basics purges like punk (both the 1970s and 1990s editions), electro (with iterations in every decade since the 1970s) and for that matter rock ’n’ roll itself. New York Times
Here’s how. Look at each of the building blocks of your song and see if you can do things, well, simpler!
1. The Point. What are you trying to say? What is the intention or purpose of your song? Is it easy to understand? Will enough of us care about it? Can you explain clearly what your song is saying in one sentence? Universal messages of love in all its forms, songs of longing and hope, sorrow, collective anger or outrage or something upbeat and danceable to get you through all have their place. From my experience, this is the bit that most newbie songwriters skip over.
2. Lyrics. Do you use everyday, conversational language? Like you're talking to us. Is there at least one image that helps us see what you see, clear as day? Do you have the title in the chorus? Does the title tells us the point of your song? Does your story keep reinforcing your song’s purpose?
3. Structure – does the shape or form of the song allow the purpose of the song to clearly unfold. We know where we’re going. There are verses, a chorus, maybe a bridge. It has pieces that are put together in a way we expect, with
a beginning, middle and an end.
4. Chords – the progression is strong, maybe even the same throughout the entire song. This is trending in pop songwriting now. Royals uses the same three chords throughout and they’re all major. (D/C/G).
5. Melody – the tune is easy to sing and easy to learn, in a range that everyone can sing (not more than an octave plus two). The melody is made a repeated motif (small group of notes that builds the melody, like words make a phrase). Yesterday uses a three note motif made of just two notes. Key professional songwriters like Max Martin start with the melody. Just saying....
6. Rhythm - your song has a clear groove or beat. It makes people move - a little or a lot. At same stage, preferably in the chorus, all the elements in your song hit the first beat of the bar.
7. Unplugged – if the song works with just you and a guitar, or just you and a piano or just you singing, and people get it, you’ve got a song!
8. Repetition – you repeat stuff – the chords you use, the melodic motif, the title in the chorus, the chorus, the groove.
Simple means that we can hear and understand each of the building blocks of the song. How all the pieces of the puzzle fit together is what makes the magic!
Talk more soon,
Charlotte Yates +021 685 561
ps I'm running a free workshop on this material this Saturday 13 May 10.30am-12.30pm @ Te Takere, Levin.
One of the principle tools songwriters use to tell their stories and weave their magic is rhyme. Why is that and do you really have to? Beginner songwriters often do it badly while more experienced writers make it look effortless and feel so natural sometimes you don’t even notice their lyrics are packed with rhyme. What’s with that?
First off, even though we may spend hours, days or even years working on a rhyming scheme in our songs, lyrics are words to be heard. They are audio first and foremost. And the audio travels in linear real-time – it’s a delivery of a chronological narrative. Yes, of course, it’s wonderful pouring over beautifully designed gatefolds and inserts, but a song has to hit us in the ears before we feel it in our hearts and minds. Rhyming is a big part of that. It sets up expectations in the sounds of the words used and the patterns that they are placed. This helps our understanding of the lyric and seriously helps us to remember it. That’s a key objective of songwriters – memorability. A Reddit post from WoutervD explains this further.
"I think this has to do with your brain reacting positively to expectations becoming reality. In music, we tend to recognise patterns in the notes and this causes your brain to develop an expectation of what will be next. Check out this video to see how strongly (and how well) that works. I think rhyming might be the linguistic equivalent of this. Your brain hears a word and then another word matches the first. If you know this will happen (because you're listening to a song or poem) your brain considers it to be very gratifying."
Secondly, lyrics are words to be sung. Singers spend 90 – 99% of their airtime on vowels. If you can line up vowels of a similar nature, your mouth stays in the same shape and makes the song light years easier to sing. Rhyme improves singability. It’s not the only tool you can use to develop this but it’s a biggie. Rhyme is considered part of the melody of a poem.
"Melody refers to sound effects, such as rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance, with each producing a unique melodic effect. Rhyme is a type of melody, and rhymes can be perfect with identical vowel sounds (“guy” and “high”) or slant, when the sound of the final consonants is identical, but not the vowels (“shell” and “pill,” “cement” and “ant”). "
So yes, rhyming is a huge convention in contemporary songwriting. There are families of rhyme – the extent to which a rhyme is ‘perfect’ or near enough, and there are patterns of rhyming – the way the rhymes land within the song - to learn and try out. But there are also a few tricks to pop up your sleeve.
1. Don’t put a rhyme just for the sake of rhyming. It will feel forced. It’s more important to be authentic than chained to a rhyming scheme. Try writing out what you want to say as if you’re copying someone’s conversation, and then refashion it. You’re the boss.
2. Put ‘unexpected’ rhymes second in your rhyming scheme. Instead moon and June, drown us in a monsoon, or draw us in a cartoon. It will help your imagery too.
3. Rhyming dictionaries – all over the internet, as well as in print. Use them willy nilly. You’ll find prompts for words you won’t ever have considered, and that’s good! Here’s one to try.
4. You can use rhyme within the line, not just at the end – a favourite Paul Simon technique and he wasn’t called Rhymin’ Simon for nothing.
5. If you use one rhyme scheme in your verse, do a different one (or none) in the chorus. It improves your song’s contrast. If you’re using the same rhyming scheme all the time, stop!
The main thing is to understand why rhyme is used, and play with all the options at your disposal. More fun, better songs.
+021 685 561
PS We cover rhymes and their families and friends in our Songwriting Clinics.
It would take a very brave friend to tell you your songs are boring. It’s so easy to be over invested in songs you’ve poured your heart out in and spent a great deal of time and energy bringing to fruition. Sometimes, the worst people to give you feedback on your work are your nearest and dearest, but, if one of them has the courage to give you the ‘boring’ comment, you should immediately show your profound gratitude with a massive hug, or if that’s not your style, shout them a beer or two.
Because this feedback gives you clear way forward to how to improve your songwriting. No shit, Sherlock! Sometimes, it’s hard to know exactly why your songs aren’t connecting with your audience. And a boring song is relatively easy to make, er, less boring.
Think about it this way. Most songs are running at 3 to 4 minutes in radio format, with optional longer video, dance mix and live versions. So, once you capture a listener’s attention, you have to work quickly to keep it. One of the principle ways to do this is heighten your contrast. Contrast between your songs and contrast within them. Contrast within your song will give it shape and dynamic. Contrast between your songs shows the audience the range of topics, feelings and styles you have to offer as an artist.
You can do this in a myriad of ways and the trick is to be aware of contrast as an issue and be active about manipulating it. Tempo is one key ingredient – are all your songs in the same mid tempo groove? In some of your songs, is there a section you naturally rev up – even 1 bpm. This can give a real shove to the feel of the track and generate propulsion. Key is another. Are all your songs in minor keys? Imagine the feeling if you wrote one in a major key just for the mood change or, within one of your songs for once, you introduce a key change.
Then there’s pitch. What is the overall trajectory of your melody? Is it building at any point, preferably the chorus? Or is the range of your melody only within two or three notes? Are you putting the beginnings of your phrases on the first beat of the bar all the time? There are other beats, you know.
Song structure gives a great chance for tension and release by making the verse note lengths different from that of the chorus, changing the chord sequence for the chorus and again for a bridge. Having a song with a bridge for a change or starting your song with the chorus can spice things up too. Do all your songs have extended intros or does at least one of them rip straight into the vocal? And how long are your songs - can you say what you need to in 3 rather than 7 minutes, outstaying your welcome much. Are there any instrumental hooks that are essential to the structure of the song?
Time signatures give a real contrast between and within songs. Most contemporary music is sitting pretty in 4/4 but there are other places to go.
Lyrically, are you using repetition in the chorus enough, varying the rhyming patterns between your verse and chorus, giving us some instability in the verse rhythmically so we can’t just wait for the chorus to land. Are all your songs on the negative side of the love story or is there some light and shade? Are all your songs in first person? Are they all just about you or are the topics ones we can all identify with? Do you have some songs that have a short chorus – (one line repeated can work a treat) and others with a longer message? Do you have some vocal hooks without any meaningful lyric attached?
Remember, I’m just talking about the song here – not about production, either in the studio or live. This is about contrast within and between your songs. If someone tells you they can fix it in the mix, walk the other way and write better! And the elements I’m suggesting you try varying are just scratching the surface of the possibilities of improving contrast in your song. Get into it, play around with the options and your songs will never be called boring again.
Talk more soon.
We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand close to the rumble of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tyres sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.
This excerpt written by American crime writer Raymond Chandler comes from a review of his biography by the contributing editor James Meek in this year’s first edition of London Review of Books, (5 January 2017).
Meek points out that Chandler ‘has a genius for the rare and obscure prose skill of putting exactly the right number of atmospheric elements in place to enable the reader to both grasp a topography and feel a mood’
And that ‘between the dialogue, the action, the fierce eye and ear of Chandler fastening on each cadence and fingernail and accessory of his characters, there are moments of intense experience of place that are both sensual and precise’
What on earth has all this got to with songwriting? Well, basically, everything!
Berklee College of Music’s Professor Andrea Stolpe points out in her book Popular Lyric Writing, that a songwriter’s objective is
‘to cause a significant experience in the mind and heart of our listener. As writers, we have the power to determine the intensity of the experience we cause…. Any idea can succeed or fail in causing an experience with the listener. The effectiveness is not contained with in the plot itself but in the ability of the story to connect emotionally’
She asks the challenging question ‘Are you connecting with your listeners or providing background music to their busy lives?’
This is a great benchmark to use to measure your songwriting success.
An audience has to feel something to connect with your song. Telling them to feel won’t work, but showing them how to see what you see, hear what you hear will help them feel what you feel.
This means using your senses as points of connection, just like Raymond Chandler did so effectively. He told us what the tyres sounded like (they sang), what he could smell (kelp) , what the colour of the window was (yellow), where he was leaving from (Las Olindas), what the concrete felt like (moist), what the weather was doing (fog, moist, dank) and how he was travelling (driving) – in other words he employed every sense he had, plus movement. This increased specificity makes us literally reconstruct his experience for ourselves.
Same in memorable songwriting. Not just any shoes, but blue suede shoes - not just a car, but a little red Corvette, not just a road but a dark desert highway, with the smell of warm colitas rising up through the air. Senses are being seriously stimulated here – sound, visual, smell, taste, touch and movement.
Incorporating sense-bound writing into your material enables your listeners to experience what you want them to. They can connect with your songs more fully through the choice of specific details you provide.
When next you write, intentionally think about what your characters look like, sound like, what they smell, or smell like (!), how they're moving, what or who they're touching, what they're drinking or eating. You might start to unearth some new images and lines you hadn't previously thought of, taking your song from good to great.
Talk more soon.
ps sense-bound writing is something we look at really closely in our song clinics.
It seems to me that one of the most challenging times in songwriting is finishing. In fact, I’ve often said in workshops, ‘completion is the enemy’. Beginner songwriters often struggle with completing the first draft of their songs. They may have ideas for the first verse and the chorus, an idea or riff from where the inspiration sprang or a really cool chord sequence and feel. But when it comes to getting all the various bits of the song structure, lyrics and melody in one transmissible package, something stymies them.
‘Not finishing’ is one of the main issues that provokes folks getting some more input into their writing. Generally, the conversation goes something like this: ‘I have heaps of ideas floating around for songs’ or ‘I’ve got pages of lyrics and poems in a folder/notebook’ or ‘I’ve been working on this groove for a while now and I think it’s got some legs’.
Then comes the‘Big But’. ‘But I don’t have time to put it all together’ or ‘but I don’t know how to get it happening’ or ‘but I don’t know where to go next’ followed by ‘then my brain turns to mush’ or ‘whatever I write is so cheesy’ or ‘I know I need to get back into it – I’ll do it next summer.’
Remember, the trick isn’t to be number-one-hit-perfect with your song draft, but just to finish it. There's a bucket of psychology behind why we don’t want to finish work or put barriers in our own way – partly fear of failure, partly self-doubt, partly fear of leaving our comfort zone and more, but here’s three useful things to help you write your way out of this quagmire.
1. Reduce the size of your task. I read about one chap who was going to the gym and never quite made it, so his task reduction became “I will do two push ups each day for five days”. Now even one of our guinea pigs could manage that, but it meant he actually completed a very manageable regime and could then progress to something more substantial. What if you lowered the bar for a minute, dropped your anxiety load, and said to yourself ‘I’m going to write the next line of my verse each day for 4 days’. Now note – there’s no quality control, no editing, just a small bite sized chunk of songwriting designed to help you finish ONE song.
2. Give yourself a time limit. With the suggested bite-sized goal, I said ‘each day for 4 days’. You could put whatever time works when you were going to write – ‘I’m going to write the next line of my verse each day for 4 days at lunchtime’. So I’ve now linked the writing time frame to a (hopefully) pleasurable activity, but also one with a defined limit to help your focus. Schedule theory – if it’s scheduled, you’re more likely to action the task.
3. Switch off your devices when you write. This reduces temptation, distraction and pester power. You want to encourage creative flow, not dissipate it. Anything that helps you avoid having to use the limited supplies of willpower we have is a boon. Willpower is over rated. Help yourself to help yourself.
Let me know if any of these techniques work for you and see you at the finishing line!
ps If you want to really spice up your songwriting process, try our clinic.
Hi, I'm Charlotte Yates and I can help you get better at writing songs.