I want to help you with your songwriting. My aim is not to help you write an average song but a career-defining hit!
I’m lucky enough to of had a lifetime career in music. My career goes back to the early '90s and due to this, I have written music with some of the most talented names in the field. I have studied with the masters and picked up a few of their tips. This is the stuff that no one told me about, I just saw them do it and took notes. In this blog, I want to share with you all of the unspoken nuances of professional songwriting.
In the early nineties, I had the privilege of writing and working with the legendary Jim Vallance. Vallance wrote hits for Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and most notably he was a co-writer for the Reckless album, which was a collaboration between himself and Bryan Adams. Vallance has evidently written with an enviable list of artists.
When I was 21 years old, I turned up to Jim’s studio and got a complete shock. Vallance wrote songs in a way that I was yet to experience and that was between office hours. Every day we worked from nine to five with an hour off for lunch and aimed to write four to five songs a day. We did this methodically, we never placed a value judgment on a song whilst it was being written, it was carefully catalogued and reviewed a week later.
Vallance felt that you couldn’t be objective about a song at the point of its conception. We reviewed the tracks a week later and we were always much more objective. The astute ethos of Jim’s was well placed, the songs I thought were the strongest turned out to be weakest and the weakest became the strongest. The moral here is to write methodically, allow inspiration to be realised and let the process keep you writing all throughout the day. Catalogue all those songs and come back to them a week later.
This is an extreme production line process of writing songs but what about the other side of the coin. I think the reality for most artists, myself included, is that the Jim Vallance model is too constraining to fully access the creative process. The actuality is that most artists write fairly average songs and get a little boxed in. Habit leads us to always start from the same point. So it is always a strummed acoustic guitar pattern in either a major or minor key, it's a bit “droney" as it’s started from the verse and this leads to the technical problem of the artist trying to stitch on a chorus that never quite works as intended.
So, what do the pro’s do about it? Simple answer, they start varying their songwriting methodology and start songs from different angles. I’m going to give you a few suggestions. The key question is how can we look at writing differently and come up with something a little wild?
(1) Create an inspiring place to work
At WaterBear we have a resident artist, Jim Sanders. He provides all the wall hangings, stencils that complement our visual aesthetic. This sends the message that this is a creative place. I implore you to do the same.
(2) Start with the chorus
Don’t box yourself in by starting with the verse and having to glue something on the end of it that may or may not fit. Start with the HOOK.
(3) Think about tempo and feel
Now its generally accepted that writing up-tempo tunes are technically harder than writing downtempo ones. If you have a lot of slow material then its time to think about the BPM and shifting it up a little bit.
(4) Use classic feels
Whilst we are on the subject of tempo and groove, think about starting with classic feels. This could be a “4 in a bar” Motown feel, a shuffle or a marching snare. Use this as a starting point for a song and see what lyrics emerge.
(5) Dream Diary
Start cataloguing your dreams, analyse them and see what you can pick out for subject matter. Work with the unexpected.
(6) Keep it unexpected
Try the Dadaist or Bowie approach where you cut up random words and stick them in a hat, pull them out in any order and see what lyrics emerge. So you get the idea, vary the approach try different starting points and you will be amazed by the results!
I want to leave you with a final thought about songwriting. There is something that used to happen in the past but doesn't so much happen anymore, and that is the A&R process. What tends to happen these days is that the arbiter of what makes a song good is the artist. We decide if a song is good enough to go on an album and this means we are not accountable to anybody.
We need to apply that extra layer of accountability stipulated by A&R, and ask ourselves the difficult questions such as “is this song as good as it could possibly be?”, “can we take it any further?”. We have to apply the answers to our work and recognise that this is the process needed to take our songs to the next level. We all know there are thousands and thousands of bands out there, how do we step up, compete and have the hit songs?
These days A&R personnel are literally like unicorns, I’ll admit I don’t really know any that operate in the music business I recognise. We have to A&R ourselves however that role has largely been taken by the producer. This means it integral to understand the differences between our engineers and the producer.
An engineer is someone who will make your band sound good sonically, however, we need more than that. We need someone who is going to second guess every single note we play, every aspect of the arrangement, every aspect of the top line and contribute to the songwriting. In an ideal world its the extra member of the band that has an objective view and takes the song to the highest level it can be.
Here are the links to some producers based in the UK we recommend that will be able to do that job for you;
Jag Jago (The Maccabees, Ten Tonnes, Jessie Ware, The Magic Gang)
Ben Thackeray (My Bloody Valentine, Does It Offend You, Yeah?, Nylo, Gruff Rhys)
George Donoghue (The Rocket Dolls, River becomes Ocean, Codename Colin)
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