What I’ve Learned From Some Of The World’s Best Songwriters: The Initial Approach

From your busker on the street to some of the biggest musicians in the UK one of the aspects of song writing that has always fascinated me is its core concepts. How do other artists approach a subject, what methods do they use and what stylistic elements do they engage to make the song their own. For my own interest and hopefully yours I’m going to explore each of these and possibly more in a series of journal posts on the idea. We should probably start at the beginning so first; how do you approach a song?

 

Songs are a fickle thing. I have touched on the subject before in previous journal entries on how there are many things to consider when writing a song. There’s the lyrics, the music, the melody, the themes, and the mood. To make things easier for this specific exploration I’m approaching the concept as if it were a person with an instrument. The bare bones as it were. So how do you begin to turn words and music into a construct? 

Well, this is where it differs. Having spoken to many musicians over the years there seem to be three distinct ways to approach the songwriting process. The first is to go into it with a story to tell. This may be from a sudden inspiration or a note you jotted down and dwelled on for a while. Having an idea or theme you want to talk about in a song it’s a great starting point. 

One of my favourite “song stories” is Joni Mitchell’s ‘That Song About the Midway’ because it perfectly encapsulates this approach. So, the story goes, Mitchell was dating David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash. He had produced her debut album and they’d worked together for a long time. However, at some point in their relationship he began cheating on her. One night at a party of Peter Tork of The Monkees, Mitchell pulled out a guitar and sang ‘That Song About the Midway’ for the first time directly at Crosby. Without wasting water Mitchell began throwing lines out:

"You were betting on some lover, you were shaking up the dice
And I thought I saw you cheatin' once or twice"

and 

“Was it hard to fold a hand you knew you could win?”

Pointed remarks that, despite being masked under the cover of a gambling figure, told the depth of how Mitchell felt. If Crosby didn’t understand after a first listen, Mitchell then went on to play it a second time to make sure he did. It’s clear there was an intention from the moment Mitchell sat down with her guitar and she knew what she wanted to achieve. Not only did she do it with a beautiful melody but with a performance that’s made an excellent story for the annals of history. 

With this songwriting method you can also expand on your message, adding in better descriptors or metaphors to emphasize your theme and mood. To prove that I refer you back to the masterful lines dreamt up by Mitchell. 

 

Another approach is to have no approach at all. I know many songwriters who have simply sat down and begun writing a song. This is my own personal approach as I find it difficult to reserve time for thinking about songs in my day to day. While this approach can often take longer and lead to weaker ideas it can also be surprising. Sometimes you’ll find a song just flows out of you. The writing and composition in this state becomes second nature or rote. It can take time to learn how to write like this, but there are a special few who can do this naturally and for which I will be forever envious. Writing this way often leads to more subjective lyrics as they often just feel right in the moment rather than making complete grammatical sense. One of my favourite examples of this is ‘That’s Entertainment’ by The Jam. Lead singer and lyricist Paul Weller has said in the past that some songs just write themselves, but That’s Entertainment is particularly special as it drew from what was happening around Weller at the time. Look at the first verse;

“A police car and a screaming siren
A pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete
A baby wailing and stray dog howling
The screech of brakes and lamp light blinking 

That's entertainment
That's entertainment”

Here Weller describes things that could have been happening outside his bedroom window as he played around with the song. Everything he mentions are mundane references we see and hear every day but thrown all together and paired with the phrase ‘That’s Entertainment’, Weller sets up an ironic juxtaposition. That then allows Weller to draw on other less immediate experiences that still fit the theme such as;

“Waking up from bad dreams and smoking cigarettes
Cuddling a warm girl and smelling stale perfume
A hot summer's day and sticky black tarmac
Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away”

Going in without an idea and just observing his surroundings led Weller to create one of the most anthemic and recognisable pieces of music of the 20th century. I only wish I found it that simple. 


The final approach takes a bit of collaboration, and that is through jamming. Sometimes more than one mind is needed to light a spark. If you’re not familiar with every music student's favourite pastime, to begin a jam you might start with a simple drumbeat, guitar riff or rhythmic lyric sequence. Then with other artist’s input, layer by layer you build the tune up and shape its direction. Many musicians have employed this practice over the years. One I recently came across was a young jazz inspired singer songwriter Nectar Woode. Nectar’s main method of songwriting is through collaboration, be it with her friends or producers, because her style of music lends itself to jamming. She was especially inspired by the collaborations of Aretha Franklin. She also sees it as a great way to meet people and bond with them through music which is another benefit of the method. 

Often jam lyrics are a lot more paired back and repetitive than the other two methods as you have less time to think and often come up with something on the spot. It all comes down to vibe. For a great example look at Nectar’s song Good Vibrations from her latest EP; 

"I got good vibrations baby, all the way home
I got good vibrations coming through my headphones
Gimme good vibrations baby, all the way home
Gimme good vibrations
Gimme good vibrations"

There’s not a huge variation in vocabulary but in the context of the song it works perfectly. Especially when paired with Nectar’s wonderful soft tones, the light staccato piano and warm layers of brass. The song conjures this summer evening in the park imagery through being direct in its wording using the instrumentation and melodies as the colour. 


Now the question you may ask is which one of these approaches is the strongest?

The answer is obviously none of them.

Unfortunately, I have to be a fence sitter because as songs are subjective, it shouldn’t be surprising that the songwriting process is too. Having tried all three methods, I can honestly say I do not believe one method outweighs another. However, due to circumstance I often use the second approach and go into a song blind. At times I have come out with something incredible and unexpected. On the other hand, I have also become frustrated and abandoned swathes of ideas altogether. This is something less likely, though not impossible, to happen through a jam or if you have a complete idea and just need to vocalise it. If it is your first-time songwriting, I might recommend deciding the story you want to tell, start to finish, or grabbing a few mates and having a play around. Songwriting is a passion, and passions should be fun. They’re not meant to push you to the point of frustration. 

Of course, deciding how to approach a song is only the first step, there are so many other intricacies involved that I’m looking forward to exploring with you in the coming months. If you liked this journal, let me know by emailing me at samnixmusic@gmail.com. You can also follow me on Instagram and Facebook @samnixmusic