SONGWRITING part 1: looking for something to stumble across

Beginnings. Gathering words and music. Paul Simon. Creating a crate of cassettes. Saying the word ‘bum’ repeatedly. Leonard Cohen redeems the day.

Walking along the beach once with my father at dusk we both observed the distant approach of what seemed to be an extraordinarily tall man.  He strode towards us through the tropical gloaming.  How could one guy be so tall?

He came into focus and thudded past.

He was riding a horse.

Speaking of horses, what if you were a songwriter?

horse-riding-on-the-beachLearning and playing the songs of others lets you get inside a song, to get a sense of how they might be put together. I’d done plenty of this, as a teenager curled over a tape player and guitar, learning the guitar lines of Johnny Marr and the songs of The  Police and Paul Simon. The first guitar solo I learned by heart was The Style Council’s You’re The Best Thing.  Hardly Smoke on the Water. I’d come up with my own riffs too, little repeated bits of music that you can hypnotise yourself with. Things poking into reality that could be part of something bigger. Things you made.

BEGINNINGS. There are novelty songs. I helped a group of girls make a jingle for a school project, finding a musical setting for a shared joke. It’s not all about the music. It’s about fitting in. There are pastiches. You like a song, or style of song so you think you’ll write one like it. My brother and I made a Christmas tape for relatives, which included a song or two we wrote together. Serious-minded, but very twee. You get the sense of the process, the puzzle of putting together the various components of a song.

At a university share house, living with someone who played in a band. A real band. You can see these people play their own tunes to audiences. Behind my closed door I tried too, playing riffs round and round, trying to make words fit. And of course you know that songwriting is a serious art. Practiced by serious artists. And of course you want to be taken seriously, but to do that you’d have to show your work to somebody at some stage.

You channel your influences. You find your voice(s). You wade through the lameness and keep on working . You know there’s meant to be some association between the goings-on in your heart and the shape of the songs you make. As well as negotiating song-craft, you’re thinking about authenticity and fakeness. You sing a song to a girl. It’s about the girl. That’s a step. She goes a bit quiet after.

Not so simple: Lyrics & Chords

Not so simple: Lyrics & Chords

Song writing’s a mysterious art, there’s no doubt about it. How can something so apparently simple be so  complex? It’s a puzzle.

GATHERING WORDS I’m a lyric man. I was first moved by the lyrics of Paul Simon, and keep aspiring to the best of his work. Early on, I’d crib lyrics from anywhere. Joke books, proverbs, posters in Irish pubs, and poetry I loved.  One song Friends of the Iguana played was almost completely comprised of aphorisms about love. First Sigh of Love. It wasn’t that amazing a song, yet putting these clichés and puns in a particular sequence, giving them a musical setting, helps you to apprehend the possibilities songs hold to tell stories in ways that books and movies can’t. Each idea’s a stepping stone. It’s research, even though it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

Here was the spot where I’d made a little audio compile of the first verse of Billy Bragg’s ‘A New England’ and Paul Simon’s ‘The Leaves that Are Green’ for you to listen to. A record company got in touch and said it should be removed. How silly.

a new englandAdapting other’s material allows you to focus on how you put it together, rather than what it is. I certainly felt like a robber at the time, nicking other people’s stuff, even if they were anonymous, to put into my songs. But I was unwittingly learning another songwriting tradition. Billy Bragg did it with A New England, quoting from Paul Simon’s Leaves that are Green, the recontextualisation of the line from idyllic folk images to brutal council estates says something else. It’s not just a quotation, it’s a re-invention.  

Using the words of others can help you focus on  song structure. Looking for hooks, those mysterious ‘handles’ sticking out from the rubbish heap of your life. Things you can worry at until you pull out something that makes sense. You keep these ideas in a book.  Drafting and redrafting, things take shape, swimming up to the surface.

notebook square Lines are grouped,  and re-grouped. Rhyming helps, as the song has a conversation with itself, and a line becomes a verse.  You don’t have a rhyming dictionary then, so there are spidery lines of the alphabet on some drafts, helping the rhyme along. Reading poetry helps you to understand how words thrive when constrained: the  secret liberty of language. Reading poetry dignifies your scratchings. Lots of people have tried to write before you. You are one of them.

GATHERING MUSIC In your little book, there are notations of chord patterns, but they’re vestiges of ideas that mostly live in your fingers, ears and memory. A collection of chord sequences, riffs that you play around and around. It feels good to do. It’s only four chords, but they’re your four chords. You add in or take off a finger ‘just so’ and it sounds like something that belongs to you. They keep cropping up. As you get to know your instrument, the harvest gets richer. You learn a new chord and want to work it in. You hear a songwriter you love working in a new style, so you think you’ll have a go too. But mostly it’s playing round and round. It’s soothing, but not purposeless.

a cassette. yesterday.

a cassette. yesterday.

DEMOING Sometimes you might collect these sounds you’re making on a recording device. I began with tape. Initially a reel-to-reel player my Dad brought home from work. Then cassette. Then you work out how to overdub yourself, and you can build up your music in layers. Chords and a riff. Nifty. You’re beginning to listen to yourself. That’s a nice thing to do. Then listening back. You’re making history. Only on a C90 cassette, but still. You label each cassette. Much later it’s computers. But whether it’s a box of cassettes or a group of files on a desktop screen, it’s a body of work you’re building.

You start to look for the universal in the particular. Yes, you’re channelling your heart into music, but you notice that when you’re at your most desperate, when the lyrics and music are a direct transcription of the crap you’re going through, it’s boring. Kitsch. Uncomfortable. Like reading someone’s diary, or worse, having someone describe a dream they’ve had to you. Intriguing only for the person who’s had the dream. Some songs drop off the twig. But you need these duds. As your body of work grows, they’re crap, but they’re compost. Good stuff grows out of them.

Sometimes you take the long way round, thinking ‘it can’t be as simple as that‘. So you complicate matters. Then strip back away. And it can be. So simple. But you needed to go there to find out.


Farewell Draft LyricsThen the words and the music get together. As you’ve tended to both fields, you start to see associations between the two crops. These lyrics might go with that sequence of chords. This is often the hardest part. It feels like alchemy. How do you make a tune that can carry it all, marry it all? You can’t read or write music notation. You hum to yourself. In a quiet space. As you practice this puzzle, occasionally you might be lucky enough for a tune and chords to come at the same time. Even lucky enough for lyrics, melody and chords to appear simultaneously. A rare visitation. Other songwriters often talk about the sense of channelling something larger than themselves, of being merely a conduit for some greater force, and these moments of ‘flow’ being evidence of the mystical nature of songwriting and artistry in general.

I’ve read a lot of what songwriters have to say about the craft. Or art. When thinking about whether you’re looking to leap over something (or stumble across it) this quote springs to mind from Paul Simon:

paul simonI don’t consciously think about what a song should say. In fact, I consciously try not to think about what a song should say…

Because I’m interested in what…I find, as opposed to…what I’m planting. I like to be the audience , too. I like to discover what’s interesting to me, I like to discover it rather than plot it out.

…Because three consecutive thoughts imply direction. They don’t necessarily imply meaning. But they imply direction. And I think direction is sufficient. When you have a strong sense of direction, meaning clings to it in some way.

People bring meaning to it, which is more interesting to me than for me to tell meaning to somebody. I’d rather offer options to people. Options that have very pleasing sounds. Paul Simon (in Zollo 1991:95)

before a gig, Room 60, Brisbane

at the threshold, before a gig, Room 60, Brisbane photo: Grant Heaton

TAKING IT OUT If you have a band, you might take the song to them. They might like it and want to build their work around it. The song is then ‘arranged’. Maybe certain bits are made longer or shorter, or sections are shifted. Harmonies, riffs or grooves might be added or consolidated. Maybe you take the songs out and play them live, seeing how they go over with an audience. Maybe you come up with some stuff you might say before a song to set it up for an audience. This is part of the song too. A frame.

Recording Maybe you’ll take the songs into  a studio and record them. You’ll hear them played back with a fidelity you’ve never heard before. But because the song is so fresh, you can’t actually listen impartially. You’re listening for mistakes, wobbly bits. You’re searching for a ‘definitive’ version of something that not so long ago  had not existed at all. It’s crazy, really. You’ll get more intimate with a song that you ever thought possible. It’s repetitive work.You might add backing vocals. Here’s Sam Vincent, Tom Green and I working on bvox for Tyrone’s first album in 2011, saying the word ‘bum’ repeatedly.  

1_3_3Maybe you’ll release the music and one day there’ll be someone who might learn one of your songs and sing along, you might see them mouthing the words at one of your gigs, or maybe you’ll never know.  Maybe they’ll listen to your song and laugh. Fast-forward over the crap ones. Rewind the good ones. Just like you did and still do. Maybe they’ll take a meaning from the song that you never intended. Just like you did and do.

I can look up the APRA site where I register all my works and count hundreds of songs I’ve written. Some I’m quite happy with; others deeply proud. Much is mulch. I’m really into co-writing now, with a focus on the lyrics – or when I’m writing solo, writing in role. But that’s for Part 2.

I still see the giants galloping along the beach, but now I have a stronger sense of what they’re riding. What they’re writing. I found my own horse and got in the saddle. Sometimes it feels like a Shetland, but it has its own life. Many have ridden before, but I’ll only know how to ride this one. Sorry, I’ve trotted out an irredeemable metaphor,  but it’s a work in progress. I’ll try to rein it in.

leonard cohenZollo: Do you generally begin a song with a lyrical idea?

Cohen: It begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite.  

Leonard Cohen(in Zollo 1991:333)


part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5

One response to “SONGWRITING part 1: looking for something to stumble across

  1. Pingback: CD4CD : How? What? Where? and other musings | theweatherballoon·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s