In this episode, I’m going to talk about song writing secrets. We’ll look at some basic ideas and concepts of writing music, the overcooked tune and the quick composition.
You’ll also hear about my leather box with 76 cassettes in it, the song I couldn’t sing twice, and my fear of song selection. So lets get started.
It’s said music makes the world go round, right? Do you ever find yourself in a trance when your favourite song comes on the radio? Does it take you on a journey to the place where you first heard it?
Have you seen a great movie lately? I’ve seen a few recently, and although they’re few and far between, there’s nothing better.
When you’re watching a killer movie, have you ever found yourself being detached from reality and become subconsciously absorbed in the character?
In To The Wild directed by Sean Penn had that effect on me. When the movie had ended, I looked around and felt a little odd as I was in my lounge room, not in a bus in Alaska.
So, is it the script or the cinematography that makes it? Is it the direction or acting or even the soundtrack? Or is it maybe all of the above, weaving magically together to gently lift you and take you on a journey?
I think it is. And it is just like songwriting; you have to weave a tune, melody, rhythm, harmony, and storytelling all together to take the listener on a journey.
When I hear an amazing song, it does the same thing for me. When I no longer hear the bass line, the guitar lick, harmonies or solo, I know it’s a great tune because it’s distracted me from the technicalities i usually get over focused on.
Unfortunately It doesn’t happen much, mind you. But when it does, I immediately take notice, and wonder how incredible that a song can do that me, even after all these years of instinctively studying arrangements.
Apart from all the song writing components we’re about to discuss, there’s always an intangible element in an amazing song that just elevates it to another place.
It can be the particular mindset of the band, the vocal performance, the sound of the recorded space.
It can be the dissonance or slightly off tunings between two guitars, the plate reverb on the drums, the monaural aspects of a mix, a slightly pitchy bass guitar, and so many other things working together.
So having a great song is one battle, having a superb song that transcends everything, is a rare bird indeed. Just think of all the bands that have managed to do this on every album? Sweet FA.
And when this rare bird flies your way, you need to grab hold of it, and not destroy it, which is so easy to do if you’re not careful.
I Will With You
I wrote my first song when I was 17. It was called I Will With You, and was written for my first serious girlfriend. When I played it to her she cried – tears of joy, I hope! It had such a profound and powerful effect on me.
I was stunned that a piece of music could emotionally move someone enough to cry. It was perhaps the moment where the door swung open and set my destiny in motion?
Had she laughed and walked away, I might have ended up having a stress free normal life in IT or selling shoes!
This happened a lot to me over the years. I wrote a song in 1992 called My Little Sister.
I asked an incredible female vocalist friend of mine sing it, who by the way became the singer for Porcelain Jane, and people sobbed regularly for that one. This always reaffirmed the power of songs to me.
How music can touch people in such a personal way, and to be honest, this has always been one of my primary motivators as a songwriter; reaching people emotionally, and sharing a moment through music.
It’s glorious and there’s nothing quite like it.
You’ve Lost That Emotion!
The song called Gone was the second single released by my band Five Mile Sniper in 2014. I mention this because something happened with that song that we never could get hold of again.
One night, I was having a disturbing dream about my partner leaving me, and I was singing to her in my dream, “You said you loved me, but now you’re gone”.
When I woke, the melody was so vivid I picked up the acoustic guitar sitting next to my bed and sung it directly into my phone.
Later that week, I found time to go out to the studio and demo the track. I kept it pretty simple with a drum loop, piano, acoustic, and lead vocal.
I was pretty happy with it, so I let it sit for a few weeks as I normally do, so I can come back with fresh objective ears, and decide whether its a keeper or not.
Many months had passed and we were tracking songs for the Sound of Trees album and everything was coming together beautifully. I was truly blessed to have such talented and incredible bunch of guys in the band.
When time came for me to sing the vocal for Gone, I just couldn’t cut it. I tried day after day, but each take sounded odd and unnatural. Something magical had happened on that demo when I was still feeling the raw pain from that dream.
You could hear that I was almost weeping as I sang it, but as expected it was a far from perfect take, and even a little pitchy.
I’m not sure what mic or preamp I had used either. Sure, we could have used a new version of the vocal I suppose, but it just didn’t feel right.
There was just no way I was able to recapture the essence of melancholy I was feeling at that time, so we had to use the demo version of the vocal! Yes, warts and all.
We also had to use the guitar riff from that demo as that was virtually impossible to recapture too!
Let me say, writing a great song will not come to you easily. Who knows? Maybe you’re one out of the box, and every song you create will be a hit! However, for most of us mere mortals, we need to work at it, and over time improve.
Irrespective of what you might think, there is no such thing as an overnight success. Reality TV finalists aside, everyone had to learn their craft through trial and error, and through the hard slog.
That applies whether you are the Beatles, Radiohead, Bon Iver, or the Kooks. In fact, it was the slog that made these acts brilliant.
As I mentioned in episode one, this is the one thing in your entire music career, you actually have total control over. You can be brilliant or you can be mediocre – and it’s up to you and the amount of work you decide to put in.
I believe your level of success as a songwriter is one hundred percent attributable to you, and only you. You cannot blame someone else for your composition. It is yours. So own it, work hard and do amazing things.
So write, and then write some more. And when you’re finished, write again because inspiration can be elusive and you just don’t know when the stars will align and the magic begins.
Like almost anything you do in life, consistency and repetition always gets the results. Don’t expect to sit down next Thursday at 3pm and write a hit song, it’s not gonna happen.
My Leather Brown Case
I’ve got a tattered little brown leather case I keep nearby. I’ve had it for thirty years, and in that case are cassette tapes.
Seventy six cassette tapes, in fact. Each tape is ninety minutes long; forty five minutes per side.
Each cassette is full of songs I have written over that time. So, at a guess, that’s roughly 6840 hours of songs I’ve slaved over.
Now, I’m not saying all the lyrics, hooks, songs, and riffs on those tapes are world-beaters. But, there are some gems that were harvested, and then used on most of the eighteen records I have released over that thirty-year period.
What I’m getting at is, that it took that 6840 hours OR the equivalent of 285 days of struggling, battling, and cursing, and sometimes feeling like giving up, to get to those gems.
I have something like one hundred and twenty songs that I’ve written or co-written currently registered with my Performing Rights Organisation: APRA.
Although in the bigger picture of thirty years, it doesn’t seem like a lot, when considered against the number of songs I have written that didn’t make the cut, you’ll understand why you need to just keep at it!
Now here’s the flipside. You can slave over a song forever but then, out of somewhere deep in your subconscious, comes a tune and it comes abnormally quickly.
You hear songwriters talk about this phenomenon, and it has happened to me a lot.
Most of the songs I’ve had success with either through radio airplay or syncs and placements were those quick compositions; literally a 5 to 10 minute composition.
It’s not easy to understand why or how it happens, maybe it’s because you’re continually working at it?
God Entered The Room
You sit down pick up your guitar (or other instrument), and almost immediately out comes a melody, tune, and lyrics. Legendary producer Quincy Jones once coined the phrase: “When God enters the room” to explain it.
While making Michael Jacksons epic, Thriller, God was present most of the time apparently. I apologise if it sounds corny, but that’s what it feels like; some kind of divine intervention, it just comes out ready to roll!
At the other end of the quick composition spectrum is the laboured, overcooked tune. You can chase this kind of elusive song for months. It’s like chasing a butterfly in a meadow blindfolded.
You know there’s something really good there but you – just – can’t – reach it.
Like a madman, you continue and tweak this and adjust that, change keys, try it on the piano (or other instrument), search for that perfect pre-chorus and middle eight, which only fans the flames of failure.
When you finally pin the sucker down after five months of struggle, it’s a pretty uninspiring, average tune that almost always feels forced. And it is absolutely heartbreaking.
But I’ve learnt one thing from these overcooked tunes, that it’s important to complete them, even if they are dull and boring. You always learn something in the process, and you put the song to bed.
The songs I couldn’t complete would hang around, and haunt me like an unpleasant odour. Whenever I began to write fresh songs, the unfinished tune would rear it’s most unwelcome head looking for a place to belong and drive me insane in the process.
It was the act of completion that closed the door, and allowed me to move forward.
What’s a Great Song?
So all that said, it begs the question: what is a great song then? Is it a technically perfectly arranged song with stunning vocals or an oddball left field number with heaps of mojo? Is it a unforgettable lyric?
A lot of the hugely popular tunes over the decades, I didn’t really like.
I was always perplexed about the mass appeal of these over-produced, contrived songs that were seemingly constructed for commercial success.
I have always loved that quirky oddball song with unusual arrangements and unpredictable key modulations.
When realising an album or collection of songs, you’ve sometimes got to try to make unbiased decisions on which songs will be released as singles.
Which songs would likely be popular and which would be best left toward the end or omitted completely. For me as the primary songwriter, this has been excruciatingly difficult.
I’ve learnt over the years to stay clear of the decision making process, because the songs I like are again usually the least popular tunes.
So, I usually defer to others in the inner circle, like band members, manager, publicists, and friends.
And even then, things won’t always work out. I find it impossible to predict what others will like particularly the you’re the composer.
I did get it right however, with a song called Rescue Me with the band Prettymess in 2004. I had written that song in late 1999, and always felt it had some magic about it.
It was recorded in my apartment, in the low ceiling lounge room in fact, and that feature root and third harmonising slide guitar lick was pitchy and rough, as were my vocals once again, highlighting how accidentially, magic can happen quite unitentially.
My good friend and mix engineer, Craig Lewis in Adelaide put his hand up to mix the song. Fortunately he adored the song and as a result, slaved over the mix, which was nothing short of stunning.
The guys in the band liked the song but didn’t particularly love it, but I stuck to my guns on this one.
It was the second single from the band’s debut album on Shock Records that went top 20. The song was added to high rotation on two of Australia’s biggest commercial radio stations for months.
It had a stack of syncs on Fox Network and came runner-up in the ASA songwriting competition. The songs profile allowed us to begin to tour with bigger acts but ironically close the door to others, more on that later.
There are a number of online resources for helping you decide which songs are best received, such as crowd reviews. Some people question their credibility, and they can be pricey.
Reverb Nation and Audiokite have amalgamated and they offer a reasonable service, but unfortunately, it will be costly. I’ve found it useful to use a little of everything to try and get a gauge on which song is the strongest.
In the next episode, I’m going to dig deeper into the practical technicalities and secrets of songwriting. There is so much to cover and there are many schools of thought on how to approach songwriting. And most have their place.
Through trial and error you’ll need to find what works best for you as a writer. Picking up tips and tricks from other writers is an enormous help, and over time, you can refine your own technique into a structure that’s more predictable – and less stressful, when inspiration dries up.
Read books, go to seminars, check out what your Performing Rights Organisation has on offer, listen to podcasts and audiobooks, and keep learning. It’s a life long journey.
I’m really curious to hear your stories about songwriting. It’s different for everyone and you just might have some ideas and concepts that will help us all.
The next episode will dig deeper into songwriting and cover things such as modes, music math, space and co-writing.
I’ll catch you next time.