Saturday 14 October 2023

The Saturday List #420 - My top ten songwriting tips

 I enjoy writing songs. It is something I've been doing almost since I was able to talk, with varying degrees of success. The song which has probably been heard the most, was a song I co-wrote with Connie Abbe and Fil Ross for the False Dots called "Spotight". This was used by the Manchester CIty website for their goal of the month show in 2011. This received millions of listens. Most of my songs have been collaborations, which I think means that there is better critical control and a different energy. In the 1980's I did a professional songwriting course. Everyone else attetnding was hoping to build a career writing songs to sell. I just wanted to improve the quality of my own music and write hits for myself. Sadly for me, having learned the art, the band disintegrated and I didn't really put the skills to good use for a long time. The band was inactive from 1990 until 2000 and it wasn't until Connie joined in 2009 that I really took writing seriously again, although I passsed on tips and guideance to a whole raft of musicians who passed through the studio. Perhaps one of my fondest memories was when Amy Winehouse was rehearsing at the studios and she picked up a guitar and played us a tune. Myself and Fil Ross, our chief engineer had a listen, suggested a few tweaks and had a chat about how we felt songs could be optimally structured. Amy listened and appreciated the input. The following reherasal, she brought Fil and I a few beers to say thanks.

Anyway, I thought it might be a good idea to share some of these with any aspiring songwriters. 

1. If you get an idea, get your phone out and save it for posterity. I get some of my best ideas walking the dog in the park. I'll record the snippets. If I get a melody or riff, I whistle it. I'll then get in the studio and play them through, and edit them on the guitar. I also find having a piano handy, as I find it easier to pick out melodies on a piano than a guitar. Once I have  a bare bones format, I present it to the band. About one in four survives this. biut the key is to capture it when your brian is in a creative mode. 

Here is where I first captured a song that became "Oh no Sharon" 

And this is what it sounds like fully recorded and arranged.

2. Have a clear idea of what exactly you are trying to write. One of the biggest mistakes many aspiring songwriters make is that they will find a guita riff, or a nice chord sequence and then try and shoehorn a song around it. It is better to record the music and save it until some lyrics that actually suit the music come along. The best songs have a strong theme, which simply needs a decent arrangement to fully bring out. 

3. Do not mistake arrangement for songwriting. One of the things I learned on the course was that if you write songs for other artists/producers, they will often take a chainsaw to them and completely change the arrangement, add/take away all sorts of things. if you are writing for other people, don't try and complete the perfect song. Make sure all of the elements are strong. If you want to write hits, then songs need strong hooks, but often these are added in the production stage, the Do Do Do's etc, where the producer/arranger will say "It's great but it needs a really strong hook"

4. Understand the artist and the audience that the song is being written for. If you are writing for yourself, then the audience is the key. What do they want to hear. Currently, the highlight of the False Dots show is a song called "Longshot Didn't Die", where the audience joins in the Ah-Ahhh's after the chorus. The people who see the band want to dance and join in, so we have a few songs that have such sections. If you are writing a song for a dance artist, then do some homework on what is currently doing well, in terms of BPM, structure, vibe, hooks etc. If you are writing a breakthrough song for a new artists, make it very immediate and in your face as it has to catch attention immediately. 

5. If you are writing for someone else, don't be precious and think of the bigger picture. When I did my songwriting course, I wrote a song as part of it. The guy running the course contacted me a  year or so later and said that a major artist was looking for a song and it would be ideal. It wasn't a song the band were playing, so I was happy to sell it. However, one of the stipulations was that the artist got a 50% songwriting credit. I refused and that was that. It was idiotic. The album that it would have been on sold millions and it would have established me and earned a lot of money. I simply didn't understand the industry. 50% of  a lot of money is better than 0% of nothing.

6. Write songs that excite you, rather than simply things that sort of sound like you think might get a bit of interest. If you are writing for an artist, do your homework. Listen to their work and see what excites you about their back catalog. Once you get excited and understand their groove, it is far easier. 

7. Structure the song so you can capture the emotion of what you are saying. Referring back to the conversation with Amy, she was a young, unsigned artist when she first came in. She played us one song she'd written. It sounded OK but it wasn't anything special. Fil or I (can't remember who) said "It would be great if you let a couple of those words hang a bit so people can get the emotion out, slow it down and extend a couple of the line endings". Amy thought about it, strummed a couple of chords then said "Like this?". She then did it again, slower, a couple of pauses inserted. Fil and I looked at each other. We both had goosebumps. I think that was the moment that we realised just how good Amy was. When she recorded an early demo with Fil, she told him that when we'd said that, she had ati bit of a eureka moment and realised that She had to be the boss, not the song. She really was a wonderful musician and she was able to take a very simple suggestion and process it in a way which was beyond my comprehension at the time. She told me that she wouldn't sing a song that she couldn't own. Perhaps the best example is her cover of Valerie by the Zutons. 

8. Be ruthless in your editing of songs. It is really easy to fall into the trap of making every song an 8 minute epic. Less is more. Perhaps the worst mistake up and coming songwriters make is over long, boring instrumental intros which take a minute or two to develop. It is almost impossible to get a song past the industry gatekeepers for new artists if a hook doesn't kick in within 5-10 seconds. The number of time I've said this to artists and they quote some obscure Beatles or Queen track and say "You are so wrong". This is missing the point, they are established megastars and don't need to impress the gate keepers.

9. Learn to write to a brief. Back in the 1980's, Channel Four used a Big Audio Dynamite track as the title music for the American football coverage. As a BAD fan, I was delighted. I happened to bump into the director of the show in town. I mentioned that it was great that they were using the track. He explained that it was ideal for the show, as it had stop starts that worked really well when edited in with videos of tocuhdowns and goal celebrations. When we wrote Spotlight, I had that in mind for the into. When it was used by Manchester City, I realised I'd got the formula right. When you write, set yourself a brief for the song. Work out how long you want it to be, work out the themes and try and develop them musically. Work out the hooks and how you can best exploit them. 

10. Use themes which resonate with the intended audience. Last year, the False Dots had a rather unexpected minor internet hit with The Burnt Oak Boogie. We hastily cobbled together a rather dodgy video, featuring clips of Burnt Oak, to promote a gig we had at the Dublin Castle. We were gobsmacked when it started chalking up thousands of views and people started stopping us in the street and telling us how much they loved it. It resonated with people who had links. What surprised me even more was that people listened to the lyrics and music and they loved them. The lyrics were nostalgic and the music had a ska beat, which was the sound of Burnt Oak in the late 60's and early 70's. It worked. When you make a connection you have a chance. 

Good luck with the songwriting. My life would be infinitely poorer if I didn't write music. 

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