Every songwriter has their own way of approaching writing. Some have to go to a specific place, writing with certain people, or even use a specific instrument. Some songwriters start with lyrics, whilst other start with the chords or a melody.
I have always had a similar approach to writing since the day I wrote my first song ‘Big City Elephant’ (yes, it was a song about a lonely elephant lost and isolated in a big city – don’t ask). So without further ado, lets get into how I write my songs.
Creating a creative space
This is really important to me when it comes to writing. I cannot write in a messy space. If I’m writing at home in my room (which is where I often write) I have to have it clean and tidy so not to distract me. If I’m in the studio I try to set up some moody lighting with fairy lights or dim the lights so the room doesn’t feel so clinical, and create some kind of achilled vibe. Having a space that makes you feel comfortable and relaxed in to write creatively is really important to me, as I struggle to write in un-inspiring spaces.
Picking my instrument
As I said earlier some songwriters cannot write without a certain instrument. For me I cannot write without my Epiphone Masterbilt EF-500RCCE guitar I purchased in Memphis back in 2015. It is my songwriting guitar (although I do use it for performances as well). All of my songs on my upcoming record have been written on it. When I found it at the Gibson factory in Memphis I knew I had to have it after playing it. The sound of the guitar and warm tone sung out to me and told me I couldn’t leave without it.
Now every song since my USA trip has been written on that guitar. It was also the first guitar that I had ever saved and paid for myself, as the others I own are all handed down to me from various friends and family. So I have a very special connection to my Epiphone being the first guitar I bought for myself. I even named her Memphis Blue Bell after the city of music I found my songwriting guitar in.
What comes first? Lyrics, chords, verse or chorus?
I’ve been told the way I approach songwriting is rather different to the majority of songwriters. I am first and foremost a lyricist. Words are my thing. A lot of my songs come from my poetry or are inspired by the books I read (I read a lot – so much so I started a book blog so I could nerd out about the books I love). Words are very important to me, and in Americana music, are cruicial to the story being told. I don’t like to waste words, and usually I try to layer multiple meanings in the lyrics. Sometimes I write the lyrics with a melody in mind, and sing it as I’m writing. Other times I will just write an entire song’s worth of lyrics and then pick up the guitar. 99% of the time I will always start with a verse too, as chorus’s are harder for me to write without knowing the story of the verse.
The music part, chords, riffs and melodies, usually comes after. By the time I pick up my guitar to figure out a chord pattern I have a fairly strong melody in mind that I’m trying to find the structure for.
Sometimes I will write lyrics and the music together at the same time, but this doesn’t happen very often. Usually this only works when I’m writing with another songwriter, with one of use working on the lyrics whilst the other is figuring out the music to go with it.
Refining the finished piece
Once I’ve got the music and lyrics for a song I sit on it for a while. If I think it’s good and worth using I’ll spend a decent amount of time trying to refine the lyrics and make sure the message of the song is clear, that I’m not wasting words. There is always room for improvement. This is the stage where I’ll also experiment with swapping some of the chords for some more interesting ones and play around with the structure to find the best fit for the song. Sometimes a song might sound crap until you swap verses, or add a bridge it desperately needed.
Creating a record of the finished song
Yay, we have a finished song! The worst thing now would be to forget it. As soon as a song is finished I always record a copy of it not only for memory, but for copyright security. Your song has to be tangible (aka recorded/written down somewhere) for you to claim the copyright on it, which is really important if you hold onto a song and release it years later and someone says they wrote that melody first, you can prove when you wrote it. Depending on what I have available and where I am writing, the recording can be a quick iPhone recording, or a full studio set up that is professionally recorded.
My songwriting process has almost always been the same, with slight tweaks here and there depending if I’m writing alone or co-writing with another artist. Co-writing presents a different situation to writing on my own, and how I approach that is very different to my own writing style.
When writing with others my chief concern is making sure they’re comfortable and working with them to adapt to their writing style. Sometimes that may mean forgoing the lyrics at the start to work on a vocal melody and chords. Other times I let the other songwriter decide, do we start with a verse or the chorus first. It’s about figuring out how they write, then trying to fit your way of working within theirs.
I hope you enjoyed this little snapshot into the way I approach my songwriting. It is a different experience for everyone, and the way I write is constantly adaping and changing.
Until next time,