Read about how to write better songs
I think we’re really lucky being songwriters. We get to say things that many folks will never say out loud in their lives. We can get people to sing them over and over, with every fibre of their being if we do it right. That’s the world we live in. Because a song don’t mean a thing if it can’t make you FEEL something. As a songwriter, it’s the emotion that you need to get right above and beyond pretty much anything else.
So, how do you get your songs to strike an emotional chord?
1. Write Like a Human - sometimes, a songwriter will show me a lyric that I will have no idea has been written by them, because it bears utterly no relation to how they speak. They use words they’d never normally use in everyday speech like old fashioned slang or weird sentence construction just to fit a rhyming template. At this stage, I’ll ask them to tell me IN THEIR OWN WORDS what they’re trying to actually say, and suddenly you get this really interesting or powerful story coming out. And I’ll say that’s what you should put in the song. This is often referred in copywriting circles as the bar stool test. Think of your song as something you’d tell a good friend in a bar - the tone is authentic, real, intimate, conversational, connected, passionate, interesting. Like a human. Make the song like that.
2. Groove Is In the Heart - the rhythm of your song has a powerful impact on how we feel - at a deeply physiological level. It can make us tap our feet, nod in time or dance the night away. In fact, musicians talk endlessly about getting the ‘feel’ right in songs. Partly it’s the tempo and beat you choose, but it’s also the elements you leave out - every 4th high hat, or not strumming constantly through the verse. Whether you ‘push’ the timing of the song bringing a whole bunch of drive or you lay back relaxing the tension can give a completely different feeling to the music. Remember, this is the most repeated aspect of your song and getting it ‘right’ counts - literally. Make us feel.
3. Spice Up the Chords - the chords that you use and the order you use them can hit you right in the heart from the minute the song starts. This can be profoundly simple Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl uses just two - Eb minor & Gb major. The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby uses E minor and C major. But the magic is in how the chords are used. Not always with the root in the bass. Sometimes with added extras - sixths and sevenths - major and dominant. Sometimes missing the third or with suspensions. But wonderful triggers to make us respond emotionally. Learning one new chord can give you a whole new songwriting seam to mine.
4. Contour - the shape of the tune has a huge impact on how songs make us feel. Not just the big money notes but the way a song builds or creates uplift can, well be, uplifting. And there’s comfort in the sound of silence too - making us wait to land on the chorus. I’m not saying every song has to be a box of fluffy ducks - far from it - but I’m more than happy to sing along with the chorus of Radiohead's ‘Creep’ because of the shut down on 'Creep' and the satisfying falling melody on 'Weeeir-do'. Just saying,
The point is don’t tie yourselves up in knots under the microscope of ‘songwriting correctness’. If you create something that makes you feel good or sad or upset - in fact anything but indifferent - then set to and finish it. We need all the emotion in songs we can take!
Talk more soon
ps we’re now taking bookings for both Wanaka Songwriters Clinic Oct 2018 and Akaroa Songwriters Retreat Feb 2019.
Last month, I mentioned amping up your creativity as part of dealing with imposter syndrome (I’m not good enough/everyone will find out I’m a fraud) or in songwriter speak, the ultimate throw your toys out of the cot tantrum, my songs suck!
Well, newsflash! Lots of them will! Not every song you write will be a number one hit, or even a number 53 climber. In the same way no one picks up a guitar and plays a solo worthy of Jimi Hendrix immediately, neither does a budding songwriter have a number one on first attempt. (please someone prove me wrong!) Get used to the long haul, the multiple shots at goal and making incremental improvements with each completed song. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I repeat, completion is the enemy.
Finish what you start. What that does is make you commit to a process and allows you to progress with each finished song. You may have started with a flurry of inspiration and got stymied by the sixth line of verse 1. You may have found an idea for the chorus but run down a rabbit hole with the melody. You may have set up a fantastic groove but not been able to come up with any powerful lyric. But by staying in the room, you will have had to face these problems and solve them, thereby developing your songwriting resilience, confidence and shock !horror!, even a sense of satisfaction. Your completed draft is now also available to show your collaborator, your band mates, your producer or whomever you make yourself accountable to, with the very clear possibility of further refinement and improvement. Note - it's a draft!
Just how you deal specifically with the ‘problems’ in your songwriting process is part of what makes you a unique songwriter. It’s what’s in the personal toolkit you bring to the table. Everyone will have a slightly different take on how to come up with a great hook or smash out an unforgettable chorus. Everyone has different strengths for the curious recipe of a good song, which is partly why collaboration works so well. A better sense of harmony, an infectious rhythmic sense, a bent for melodic contour – each of these facilities is at a different level in all of us, just as our varied backgrounds in musicianship, vocal ability or vocabulary contribute.
Finishing what you start also brings up the idea of constraint as a spur to creativity. Songs have form and expectations for listeners. Songs have multiple identifying features, which tells us they are songs, even when fabulous iconoclasts and innovators subvert them or fashion changes them. Songs don’t exist in anarchy. This contributes to the sensation that they have brick walls we sometimes bang against – arghhh! my lyrics don’t fit that eight bar phrase or I can’t sing that high – only Mariah Carey could sing that high or my song sounds like cheese…arghhhh! But constraint reduces scope to manageability and makes you focus on creativity with borders. I’m not talking about a crossword mechanistic type of formulaic approach but recognising here’s the raw material I can work with and here’s the rough sketch of what I need to build. Right, let’s do this. Time is one of those constraints you can easily apply – as a defined session - I’ve an hour to work on this – I’m going to finish that verse at lunchtime, or as a deadline – Song One draft by Thursday, ready to sing at Saturday’s open mic.
Talk more about er, constraints next time but right now, I'm finished!
ps these folk completed their Songwriting Clinic at Akaroa. Fun much!
(left to right) Robyn-Lynn, Cindy, me, Sol, Matt, Yve, Jake, Hanni, Lisa and we were joined by Neville on Songwriting Circle with his new tunes under production
Some of the folks I work with are exceptionally good musicians –really great guitarists or sensational singers – for whom putting songwriting as a front and centre occupation is a relatively new experience. They face a disconnect between their skill level (and comfort level) for something they may have been honing for ten, twenty, thirty years and something (songwriting) that they’ve recently felt the need to focus on. It’s a particular type of frustration that presents a divide which can appear impossible to cross. Sometimes, this comes as a real surprise for the musician, but more often than not, it presents as a nagging sensation that ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘I’m not good enough’ highlighted by their contrast in seriously competent performance ability. Result – loss of momentum and enthusiasm, loss of patience, personal disappointment, and feeling, well, a bit shit!
I think this is a particular version of good old imposter syndrome. And the shock that comes from realizing that musical performance ability doesn’t have as much to do with the songwriting skill set as expected. It also means that a very good musician might actually be a rubbish songwriter at first attempt. And here’s the thing – folks that spend a lot of time working on their songs and finishing them are songwriters! They may not be famous (yet) or critically acclaimed (have mercy!), but they’re on task.
The kid holed up in his dorm room writing shitty songs is still a songwriter.
The kid worried about writing shitty songs so much he doesn't write anything...just isn't.
The feeling of not being immediately excellent can put people off trying and learning new things – including songwriting. It reduces risk taking – one of creativity’s most important tenets. It literally stops us offering ideas – however ‘dumb’ and stops us playing. (Remember, we play music!).
There are a number of ways to combat this. The first is evidence based. Look how long it took for you to really learn an instrument – lessons, training, the number of productions or gigs you’ve done. Think about applying the same amount of effort your songwriting to be of an equivalent level. How many songs have you written? Workshops or lessons taken? Seminars attended? Tutorials watched or attended? Have you had any songs performed? Sent to competitions or masterclasses? Had any independently assessed? How many songs have you co-written or let’s be honest, re-written, post critique. Here’s a very big reality check to life in the professional songwriting lane. Sure, there are levels of talent but most musicians have added a ton of homework and experience to their natural flair before they consider themselves ‘good’. Cut yourself some slack and look at the relative time/money/commitment you can or want to put into your songwriting. Any moves forward in that direction will increase your growth and output as a songwriter, one step at a time!
The second way is to amp up your creative input. This comes back to fostering your curiosity and imagination. When you’re a grownup, you sure can forget this bit! When you’re a kid, you don’t think twice. Look for ways to experience and appreciate creativity long term. Listen to your favourite songs and writers, deeply. Read up about them. Try working on things with your musical mates. Go to concerts. Go to exhibitions. Find new music. Find new songs by established artists. What are they doing? How are they doing it? Get nosey! You’ll be surprised by the habits of many artists who continually stoke their own fires to create new and distinctive work. Suddenly, the feeling of fraudulence and stalling dissipates, and profound involvement returns.
The combination of effort and enjoyment can bridge the gap between what you want to write and what you do.
Talk more soon
ps I look forward to seeing those of you coming to the Akaroa Songwriting Clinic real soon! (June 1-3)
A question often asked by upcoming songwriters is how do I record my songs? My answer is straight away! With a marked proviso - use whatever facilities you have but use it as a songwriter. Start with your phone. Why? Because you probably have it with you all the time, it will have a large enough memory to you can easily capture all your chords progressions, notes, snatches of melodies, dumb ideas and good ones, and then you can download those audio files direct into your DAW (digital audio workstation) and start drafting. You can build on your ideas rather than 'iterating the life out of them'
Here are some the things I use: my iphone ( trademe special!), my backpack studio (laptop, headphones, interface, mic) and my project studio. Yes, everyone's got different specs and you can lose yourself down a tunnel of gear at the start, but the point is, start somewhere, start capturing. Think of your studio conceptually, as you would a pen and notebook.
Hit songwriter Ester Dean (Rihanna, Nikki Minaj, Selena Gomz) says this:
'Get a mobile studio so you can record from anywhere. There are three places I record songs: I have an office recording studio, a smaller home studio, and my "backpack studio," which is basically just my laptop, microphone, and headphone set. I can put together a song whenever, wherever. When I was on set for Pitch Perfect, I was still recording songs this way and sending out audition tapes to do voiceovers on films like Ice Age.'
Our own Dinah Lee at 74, not out, says this:
'I have all the latest technology. It's incredible how easy it is now compared to back then. You've got to keep up with it, be in the race. ...with my music I do it all myself from start to finish.' ( recording, mixing, mastering, artwork creation, uploading)
The basics are :
1. A computer - laptop/desktop, with enough brain (RAM) to operate the....
2. Software ( Digital audio workstation - for recording/editing and mixing, even mastering)
3. An audio interface - to translate vocals and real instruments from analogue sound to digital information the computer can manipulate.
4. A microphone - yep, start with one!
5. Monitors - headphones or speakers.
Not too tricky really - it's easier and now cheaper than you think, but the point is to start with what you have. And I bet you have a phone and a heart!
Talk more soon
ps bookings are trucking along well for Akaroa Songwriters Clinic QueensBirthday Weekend. Come along - I'm bringing my backpack studio! Check out the view from the venue.
Photo by Ivan Karczewski.
17 March 2018
Auckland Town Hall
Love Me As I Am
by Mahinaarangi Tocker
Performed by the entire cast of the Auckland Arts Festival's tribute concert.
I had the privilege of performing in a musical tribute to the late singer/songwriter Mahinaarangi Tocker last weekend on the tenth anniversary of her untimely death in 2008. She was a close friend, and while the event and its preparations elicited a high degree of emotion, it also made me think a great deal about her music and my experience of her creative process.
Mahinaarangi chose to make her music a priority. She had trained and worked as a nurse, but she actively decided her songs and her unique voice would take precedence in her adult vocational life. She described a clarifying conversation she had with her father at this time. He was profoundly aware that this was a challenging lifestyle, but wise man, supported her decision.
Estimates vary pretty wildly as to the actual amount of material generated by Mahinaarangi – in the last week I’ve seen figures cited from 600 to 1000 songs. But there was no doubt that she wrote often. There was a wellspring of words and music within her that she drew on. And it generated a significant repertoire.
She most definitely had one. Both vocally, and compositionally – from the topics she chose, the rhythm and melodic tics she wrote to the vocal inflections and largely improvisational guitar technique she played. Nothing was particularly studied – she didn’t read music or take tuition, but her songs were inherently and deeply hers, and she didn’t particularly care for comparisons!
And I mean catholic with a small ‘c’ as in her capacity to listen to other artists' music – she had one of the largest NZ album collections I’ve seen and a voracious appetite for reading all sorts, even on one tour devouring Harry Potter – the first adult I’d seen do so! She loved watching others perform across genres from folk to classical, on the marae and in church, with allies and affiliates across the musical and cultural spectrum.
She connected with many people at a highly personal and authentic level - in the music industry, in her whanau milieu, and across a myriad of causes from mental health to adult literacy, Maori rights to gay/lesbian issues. She had a view and wasn’t afraid to defend it. Though she was respectful, good humoured and polite, she could call it when needed. And when and where she could, she would help.
I hope you continue to enjoy and explore her music – it’s all over the internet, but here’s a live clip from early days. And if you have an itch, scratch it. If you have a loose end, lose it. Fill your life with things that really matter to you and forget the rest.
RIP Mahinaarangi Tocker
The exercise reiterated for me why co-writing is such an important skill to learn and practice, so much so that when fact checking for this blog, I noted that Berklee College of Music is now offering a senior level course in Collaborative Songwriting. Of course, many great songs have been written as collaborations between two or more songwriters. In musical theatre, collaboration was the rule, with lyricist and composer working in separate domains, yet with a combined output that contributed some of the most popular songs of the mid-twentieth century from The Sound of Music to Oklahoma. Perhaps the premium example of collaboration where artistic success translated into commercial reward was that of John Lennon and Paul McCartney whose individual efforts subsequent to the Beatles' collapse aptly illustrated that the sum is greater than the parts.
Back home, the 2017 APRA Silver Scroll Award for Songwriting went to a three-way collaboration between Ella Yelich-O'Connor, Joel Little and Jack Antonoff for their song, Green Light. Furthermore, of the eleven #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, six were collaborations, including the #1 song of 2017, Shape of You. Let's just say collaborative songwriting is seriously trending!
Whether you're a track and topline writer or prefer the immediacy of hands on instruments real time in the band practice room, there are some tangible benefits to co-writing. Firstly, it can stimulate you. You can wind up interfacing with songwriters you may not know very well, if at all, and create music you never would have written on your own. Secondly, it makes you aware of what you have to offer. Sure, you'll have strengths you may already know about but co-writing can often reveal new aspects of your own creativity you haven't uncovered. Thirdly, you can learn a thing or two from other writers, be it a go-to technique or a more general problem solving approach you can put to good use.
Working collectively can really nail a song's intention too, giving you a good reality check on a song's ability to capture a audience. And from a personal style perspective, you have to be present, leave your ego at the door, yet know when to speak up and put your nose to the grindstone to make the fledgling song its best.
The good news is that the joys of technology are so helpful that you can work collaboratively with folks everywhere - in different towns or different countries, in real time or overnight- all useful for shaking up your songwriting. And co-writing can be socially supportive, bringing new creative compadres into your network. You know, like fun, as singer-songwriter Jason Mraz describes his co-writing experience with Raining Jane.
Because they’ve been a band for about 15 years, they have this awesome ability to create foundations of music... Everyone brings a different instrument to a circle and we start jamming. Maybe somebody has a progression in mind, or maybe we just collide until we find something we like. Once that bed is happening, the four of them start rocking out like a band, and oohing and aahing, putting backing vocals on sections to create a beautiful wave of music that I then begin to improvise on, surf all over, and start telling my stories....
When we all agree that we like where something is going, we stop and everybody goes off and does free writing. They pass them all to me and I go through them and I decide what feels good to sing, what works with the story. It’s a ton of fun. Lastly, it’s great to collaborate because you have to show up. If I’m collaborating with only myself and my guitar, it’s easy to put it off, and then I am tired and I don’t give myself the best experience. But when I create a date with Raining Jane, we say we are going to start at one o’clock, we start at one o’clock, we jam it, and it gets things done.
Talk more soon
ps bookings are now open for both the Akaroa Songwriters Clinic ( 1-3 June @ Queens Birthday Weekend) and the Wanaka Songwriters Clinic ( 19-21 October @ Labour Weekend).
First of all, she was at pains to point out the time commitment it takes to creating a full length album, particularly with the number of artistic hats she sports. Utopia has taken her two and a half years to make. For a long time, as is her wont, she was creating it without a huge idea, just working.
Björk fills in more details – 'I write one song per month, sometimes two months'… 'Eighty per cent of my music is me sitting by my laptop, editing. Weeks and weeks on each song'.....'It took me three months to mix the album'
Time is also spent on rehearsing other musicians who perform on the recording, arranging, conducting, tracking, mixing, editing, working with producers. She spoke of the Friday Flute Club, the 12 piece all-female flute ensemble who met at her cabin every Friday for some 50 or 60 days to rehearse and prepare for recording.
And here’s she revealed another aspect to her musical make-up - Björk has played flute from the age of 6. Songwriting is an amalgam of musical creativity and experiences as well as an individual’s linguistic heritage and influence. I’m not saying that every songwriter should rush out and learn the flute, but that what has helped shape each songwriter is never the same, and this hugely contributes to each person’s unique output of lyric and melody. Those with some experience of learning an instrument tend to be more comfortable with creating and manipulating music, but not always. Sometimes, it’s just means the ability to be quicker explaining what you want to achieve to other musicians.
Thirdly, she spoke about how she works with her own emotions, up and down, often at a profound level, binding them eventually with music, refining them into a single album. Her music involves her exploring small triggers connecting ‘emotional coordinates’, matching technical difficulties with musical aims…
In some ways, Utopia is a ‘lighter’ reaction to her previous ‘break-up’ album, Vulnicura described as ‘bleak’, with one song Black Lake having Björk at her most vulnerable and bitter. The point being that she’s not afraid to dig deep, but neither will she shy away from using her full palette of feelings.
Finally, she spoke almost incidentally about being an active listener. She’d come to the interview after going to a gig the night before. The reporter described her as ‘off-duty’ then, but somehow I think that’s not often. Another time, she wrapped herself in loads of coats, lay down on the moss and listened to an audiobook of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And she worked with a friend who researched flute myths around the world on her behalf, ping-ponging ideas back and forth by email. But all ingredients are put in Björk's pot to season her heady brew.
Look forward to hearing some of your own heady brews!
ps If you’d like to season your own songwriting this New Year, join us for the Songwriters Retreat @ Hanmer Springs over Waitangi Weekend (2-6 February).
pps Just a reminder, early bird tickets close this Friday January 5.
3. Intervals and rests.
A word about what's actually not even there in songs. Space! Where will you put your nothing? The space vertically between notes is called an interval, and it can be up or down in pitch. The space horizontally between notes is called a rest and it can be a very short time or several bars worth. It's space that makes us wait and long for the next line or the next beat. Think about where you put nothing in your song. We need some of that too!
Try this exercise today. Here is a short lyrical phrase: I want you in my life forever
Use this lyric above, write and record the following variations a capella ( with no backing - super basic!) on your phone
1. An eight note melody that rises throughout the phrase.
2. An eight note melody that falls and rises throughout the phrase.
3. Try it at 120 beats per minute - an uptempo rhythm
4. Try it at 90 beats per minute - the downbeat version.
Feel the difference! Let me know how you get on.
ps Pleased to announce that the Song Doctor Mailer has been awarded one of the Top 75 Songwriting Blogs & Websites for Songwriters in the world. Well, fancy!
pps Preparations are going well for the upcoming Songwriters Retreat this Waitangi Weekend Feb 2-6, 2018. Thanks so much for all your bookings and inquiries so far - exciting! Prosody, and how to really incorporate it into your songs, is a topic we'll cover in detail on Monday Feb 4 ( first session) Retreat Day 3. Get into it!
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.