Songwriting Part 4: writing with community

In June 2011 I was approached to do a songwriting tour of schools in the central west of Queensland. It was part of a larger project the Queensland Music Festival was doing. The idea was to write songs with (mainly) primary school children about where they lived. I agreed to go, assisted with shaping the project, then set off with producer Ashleigh Wheeler by my side and co-composer Sam Vincent working on compositions back in Brisbane.

Qld_region_map_2With about an hour in each of the eight schools we visited over 5 days I made the decision to focus on coming up with lyrics and an agreed musical ‘feel’ for each song,  rather than attempting to complete a song there and then. I’d work on the lyrics and music,  send it back to Brisbane, where Sam would work on it,  then we’d leave behind audio, a demo, lyrics and a lead sheet for the group to perform as part of the larger project.


We visited Longreach, Winton, Muttaburra, Alpha, Ilfracombe, Aramac, Barcaldine and Jericho

I’ve had a fair bit of experience working in schools, and know how artists can kind of seem to blow in and blow out, a blip in the day. I wanted to start the workshop with a musical moment that would introduce what I was trying to do in concept,  set a mood and focus and gain some kind of swift trust. The best song about ‘place’ that I could think (that wasn’t a set of cliches) of was The Go-Betweens’ Cattle and Cane (Grant McLennan). so I played that, sang the first verse,  and then talked about what we were going to do while playing the guitar. It seemed to work most times. Once the song was done,  we sent the results back to the school in the form of two demos one with vocal,  one without,  so they could sing along, lyrics, a lead sheet, photos of the process, and the notes on the songs & process that follow. Some of these songs were performed by the children that wrote them, and the ‘Ilfracombe’ song was played, after an interview I did on statewide radio, between Cold Chisel’s ‘Flame Trees’ and Gang-Gajang’s ‘Sounds of Then’.


Workshop in Aramac

Workshop in Aramac

Some elements of song writing craft were touched on, such as the use of symbol and rhyme. Lyric ideas were generated and shared, and where possible, (in written, spoken and pictorial forms) agreement reached about the main idea and musical style of the song. Some audio was recorded in each of the workshops, for later use. They liked hearing themselves recorded.


Lyrics in Alpha

Lyrics in Alpha

Later that day, or night, I went through the workshop materials and generated a set of lyrics (usually 2-3 verses and a chorus) that might work for the song. Most songs went through two or three ‘drafts’ of the lyrics. It was important that they rhyme and ‘scanned’ rhythmically so they could easily be adapted into musical form,  but it was crucial that the creation of the lyric was led by the words and images made by the children. I’d say 85% of the words in these songs belong to the kids: the other stuff was structural,  and joining material I had to create to give it shape. This made it tricky to attribute authorship, especially as the songs were made in collaboration with a group of up to 30 minors.

The easiest thing to do would have been to say the songs were ‘inspired by’ and just write what I pleased,  but I was determined to use the words the kids had made,  which were often quite beautiful, and follow their ideas about what music should accompany them. The mantle of ‘the guy from out of town’ means you can ask the (sometimes dumb) questions which can enable them to describe their familiar environment in ways they ordinarily wouldn’t.


Motel room demo studio

Motel room demo studio

A demo was created in the hotel room that night (recorded on a laptop, using  a microphone, acoustic guitar, ukulele and drum loops), usually based in ideas of musical style, or experimentations in music from the workshop. A ‘demo’ is short for ‘demonstration’ and it means a rough (sometimes incomplete) audio recording of a song that captures basic ideas of music, lyrics and melody. This demo was converted to an mp3 and sent, along with the draft lyrics, to Sam in Brisbane, to work on the melody.


The demos were built on, and more instruments added (a list of these instruments is below). Most ‘demos’ are very simple, but I enjoy layering lots of different instruments on top of one another as part of the songwriting process, and seeing what happens. Samuel Vincent also added double bass to selected tracks.  I also incorporated some sounds from the workshops in the demos.

Lots of ideas in Barcaldine

Lots of ideas in Barcaldine

The lyrics were polished up and lyric sheets created which included details of the author/composers, chords and notes about the workshops that inspired the songs. Sam composed most of the melodies which carry the lyrics, and these were turned into ‘lead sheets’ which give a basic idea of how the melody goes to someone who knows how to read music.

Finally, vocals were recorded, and the songs ‘mixed’ which means that the volume of each of the instruments are raised or lowered to give the best sound possible.  I’m not a very strong singer, so an instrumental  backing track has also been provided, so you can learn and sing the song too if you feel like it.

Instruments used: electric, acoustic, nylon string, bass and slide guitars, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, keyboard/piano, electric accordion , harmonica, shakers, drum loops (and loops created from  audio recorded in workshops), glockenspiel, snare drum and cymbal, double bass. Nature sounds recorded in Central Western Queensland are also incorporated in some of the demos.

Ilfracombe State School 24 June 2011

Greeted at the front gate on a cold morning by a welcoming party of students in big hats and thick jackets (it was free dress day) we entered the IlfracombeStateSchool main classroom, an old building filled with quiet industry and preparations for the last day of term, and Josh Pyke coming out of a little boom-box. Josh was soon replaced, at the children’s’ request, by T-Pain, but it was clear this was a happy place. The children, mainly upper primary, were brightly focused on telling us about their place and, while familiar with the history of the town, were at their most enthusiastic when talking about the natural features in the region they enjoyed. They were frank and direct  about how happy and safe they felt in Ilfracombe. A lovely way to finish our songwriting tour of the Central West.

Muttaburra State School 22 June 2011

Notes: A small school of a dozen children, across the entire age range from P-7.  They had clear ideas about the town and its surrounding landscape,  and the role of the people in the place, who balanced it ‘like yin and yang’. A number of them really got into the symbol and metaphor for the place, and there were ideas about the Muttaburra wind in their hair, and their overwhelming desire for a skate park (which they will get) were some of the ideas that couldn’t fit in this song. Younger children were interested in ‘country’ as a musical style. One older student requested ‘nothing remotely connected to country music’, in a deep and determined tone of voice. I tried to go with that.

Barcaldine State School 23 June 2011 

Notes:  The last workshop of the day on a quiet Thursday, this group of year threes and fours had an earnest focus as they drew features of their town and surrounds. Their first answers were related to the Tree of Knowledge monument in town, but they were excited when talking about the nature spots just out of town: places where they found both peace and play. They were animated and competitive when it came to naming watercourses. One child talked about an occasion when there were so many fish they had a go at catching them with their bare hands. Another talked about climbing on top of a shed so they could see all around, so I incorporated this idea into the song – a place where they could survey the place where they belong. There was a love of camping in this group, so the song is a soft campfire strummer.

part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5

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