How Our Songs Get Written

Where the heck do they come from?
What stages do they go through between initial idea to finished recording?

 

Well, I’m glad you asked!

I have been paying attention to “songcraft” for many years. Songcraft is a set of widely-accepted guidelines – dare I even say RULES – that are accepted and employed by many top-teir professional songwriters.

These writers of hit songs tend to mention songcraft in the same breath as the widely professed practice of writing songs every day – to develop the habit of songwriting.

I have no doubt that these tips, tools and practices are awesome and will result in noticeable improvement in anyone’s song writing efforts.

I utterly ignore them.

I have written about one hundred songs and the vast majority of them have lyrics. Some of them are closer in format to something a “real” songwriter would approve of: verse, chorus and bridge. Frankly, when a song comes to me, I take what is offered and try not to cloud this ethereal gift from, well, wherever, with over-thinking and too much effort.

I guess the place to start is the faraway fanatasy land known as Inspiration.

I am of the opinion that inspiration is always there. It just doesn’t always whisper great song ideas into my ear. It may whisper any number of things – and half the time it has something to do with NOT speaking what I’m thinking. I was “inspired” to not put my foot in my mouth by voicing what I thought was a hilarious idea out loud. This kind of inspiration took decades to hone and is probably the kind I value the most. It is close to, if not the same as, intuition. Trusting it is what takes decades.

There seems to be a widespread notion that inspiration is the one that chooses when – or if – it will appear. I don’t think that’s true. While sometimes it will hit you over the head with an idea, then not leave you alone until you act on it, other times it just sits there, as if it is looking at you and waiting. Saying, “Well…???”

Every now and then I have to sit down and write a song for some reason not related to the dawning of inspiration. A request for an original song is a good reason. With inspired ideas nowhere to be found, one does what one must: grind it out! Here’s where things get kinda weird sometimes, for me at least.

I’ll write down a list of subjects, I’ll try on first person voices, second, third. I’ll write lists of rhyming nouns or verbs or other parts of speech that fit the subject. Busy work, nitty-gritty stuff.

This is usually all done with an acoustic guitar on my lap, a guitar pick and a pen in my right hand (at the same time), and paper in front of me. Still other times (more rarely), the lyrical content will come and I’ll put it to music later. Setting words to music is a million times easier for me than coming up with lyrics to an existing musical idea.

There will be iterations – except on those rare occasions when inspiration just wakes up suddenly and a sonic gem pours forth. That is rarely the case, however.

The iterations can bounce between musical genres (now its a ballad in waltz time, now its a reggae tune, now its fingerstyle blues…), or between what will be the chorus, what will be the verse? Will the chorus and verse be stuck together? Will there be a bridge? Will there even be a chorus? Will there even be rhymes?

Along the way, inspiration can jump in at any time. Or it might not. When it doesn’t, then you’re left with pure invention. And shameless copying…er, ummm…borrowing.

At some point an idea solidifies around the subject and there is some sense to what is coming out. A form and a theme take shape. Things tend to go quicker then.

Even still, there may only be two verses…no further lyrics are forthcoming. At this point, I just accept it. That’s all there is…guess this song is supposed to have a lot of guitar solos!

There are always those inspired moments in the past that were captured on recordings, too. I have turned a few of these into songs over the years. It is a case of inspiration first, invention later – often prompting still more inspiration.

Occasionally, in the midst of a jam with friends, with some form of recorder running, an entire song beginning to end, music and lyrics, just flat out appears and needs next to nothing to call it complete. They may not be the very best songs, but their miraculous nature sets them apart – for me, at least.

Other times, sitting in front of blank paper, I feel like William Friggin’ Shakespeare and the words won’t stop coming through. Clearly, in such a case, inspiration has decided to hop on the train and ride it to the end of the line. I only recently discovered that invention in the absence of inspiration will sometimes evoke inspired creation after all. You hardly notice the shift until suddenly you realize it all has become automatic.

I will say this, though: invention without any inspiration rarely results in “keepers”. Those wind up in the trash can most of the time. They feel contrived, or they would be too “untrue” for me to attempt to sing.

I’m not the type who can just sing anything – and it isn’t about my vocal range at all. It has to be somehow true for me (AND fall within my very limited vocal range). This is the case even with cover tunes.

So now there I am with a song that has been written on acoustic guitar and is more or less complete. A whole range of questions now need to be answered. Is this song going to stay acoustic? Will this song get recorded? Will this song get an arrangement for three or four peices (also known as a band)?

It is here that most of the changes occur. Particularly in cases where the song is getting a rock band arrangement. More than once I have gotten inspired during this part of the process – coming up with a gorgeous melody line for the lyrics I wrote – only to find after hours of programming drums and recording rhythm parts that I literally cannot sing the damn melody!!!

Other times, this part of the process stays in the solo acoustic guitar domain until after weeks or months, a viable lyric/melody combination falls into place. Then arranging for a rock band format goes a lot smoother. During the time that passed, drum, rhythm and bass parts will have settled into my head, just needing to be made official and permanent in the recording process.

Lastly, some of the most inspired ideas I get come during recording – and even mixing. Small changes may happen that affect the whole musical direction, or a backing vocal part comes to me that really makes the melody stand out.

Sometimes, it is a subtractive process. In the mixing of a song, more than half of all the recorded parts may just get deleted, because a more refined sense of the final product got clearer – and the discarded parts muddied things up and had to go.

No matter what, the best song I ever wrote is the last song I ever wrote and I hope it stays that way – until I write the next one!

Speaking of the next one…IT’S HERE!!!!

Our new CD is out and the only place to get it is our very own web site.

Whether you want a CD or digital downloads of the album (or single tracks from the album), we got it!

If you’re going to buy it, please buy it from us…

The Merry Jaynz ONLINE STORE

Peace and Music,

-Tom