A blog about the life of a professional songwriter. This blog discusses the nuts and bolts of Song-writing as well as completely random nonsense.Biography Media
One of the jobs I really enjoy is mentoring songwriting students. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of the team at the UK Songwriting Festival for the last few years and also helped on courses including the Masters in Songwriting at Bath Spa University and the Undergraduate course at Leeds College Of Music.
I meet some students who are desperate to reach a wider audience with their songwriting and are frustrated with the songs they are writing as they don’t seem to ‘connect’ with people as much as they hoped. Their aims are often to write a hit or be famous or play Wembley. Then I often meet writers who have little fondness for what is selling at the moment and are often working in less commercially successful genres and their focus is on pushing the boundaries of what they can explore as writers. These two types of writers are often quite defined- the artist and the artisan.
What’s the process for mentoring these very different kinds of songwriters? Well I wouldn’t be lying if I said that helping the frustrated commercial songwriters is a simpler prospect. Firstly, it’s a sphere I am more familiar with and I guess there are more easily identifiable markers of what makes a successful song in the bigger selling genres of Singer/Songwriter Pop or Rock genres. Often those monumentally successful songs in these genres have a universal sentiment expressed in a fresh way, have a memorable melody and a chorus based structure (so simple really!). Troubleshooting songs in this market is often a case of finding the weakest element of the writing and working on improving that.
With the writers who are writing songs that don’t adhere to any of the above markers my job is more complicated. How do you try and ‘improve’ a song that’s 7 minutes long, has no chorus, an opaque lyric and a meandering melody. My first question to the writer would be ‘What do you think is the strength of this song’? If they think the song is great as it is then who am I to suggest it isn’t? If the aim of the song isn’t necessarily to communicate with anyone else but the songwriter then how do we define an improvement? Often these writers would see a chorus as a compromise, a universal sentiment as ‘selling out’. They are happy for their songs to challenge a listener. A listener who doesn’t want to be challenged isn’t a listener they are interested in. If they were running a restaurant it would serve chocolate prawns. Some brave souls would order it and a small percentage would think it was the best thing they had ever tasted. A lot of people would walk past the menu though. What I would hope to do is help the writer to hone a style that is unique to them. I would concentrate on them finding a consistent voice as a writer which ties these songs together and pushing the envelope of experimentation as far as they can. After all, there are a lot of McDonalds in the world but I wonder if once upon a time a ‘burger’ was a brave food experiment that a crazy chef tried. Who knows where these experiments might lead? Perhaps to a totally new genre of music- and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life it is that people like new things.
It’s such a glorious puzzle. The fascinating thing about it all is that the frustrated commercial writers could do well to adopt more of the approach of the experimental writers. These frustrated hit-makers are so busy chasing the goal of ‘the HIT’ that they forget that the song they are writing should connect with themselves firstly and have a unique personality. Often those great songs make us sit up and go WTF?! Rather than copying what’s out there in the charts they shouldn’t be afraid to find their voice and bring those personal quirks to bear fruit creatively. Originality is such a big part of the battle. I’ve noticed that in many successful songwriting teams there is someone who has one ear on what the public wants to hear and then another member of the team who is fearless in trying crazy ideas out. Someone who is happy to maybe experiment, push the boat out and possibly fail but have fun trying is a great person to write with. It’s like the comedy double act. Two straight men aren’t going to engage an audience and two comics can seem like an exhausting experience. The balance is what makes it work.
After mentoring the artists and the artisans it’s interesting to me that they have so much to learn from each other but the history of music is defined and propelled by the artist. The free thinkers and willfully different writers and performers are the engines of progress. So when I’m listening to a song from one of these students that feels too long, confusing, even sometimes frustrating I stop to think that that the writers who on first listen are the least commercial might hold the key to the ‘Hit’ after all.
Hello everyone, I hope all is well. This post was triggered by the fact someone I work with has an ‘Autoload’ for Logic. In fact, the more I looked into it the more I realised I was unusual for not having an autoload for Logic. For those who don’t know, an Autoload is basically a template for a song which might contain your tracks already set up with certain instruments and FX. The idea of it is to save time at the beginning of a session and therefore let you get on with being creative rather than trawling through your soundbanks for the right instrument. Logic even comes with ones already set up for ‘Singer Songwriter’, ‘Hip Hop’ or ‘Bengali Jazz Funk’ (OK that last one I made up)
So what’s wrong with that?
Well, nothing- if it works for you then great- but most of my most interesting ideas come from serendipity and mistakes I make. While I’m looking for a piano sound I suddenly find a celeste sound…and…. I mess around with it and the song takes on a whole new (fresher!) direction. Personally I would find having an autoload about as inspiring as sitting down for dinner and staring at the same food every night. If I was a painter I don’t think I’d be as inspired by having the canvas already divided up into ‘trees’ ‘sky’ and ‘clouds’. What if I don’t want to paint a landscape?
So, if you find that your song ideas all sound the same it might be time to switch it off. Obviously there’s a lot of generic music and production around but that doesn’t mean you have to follow the pack. Load up a bagpipe or a Shamisen, that free sample of a zither you got with a magazine, that crappy chorus plugin you never use and put it through an amp simulator…. OK- it might be more miss than hit, but originality and an unusual sonic imprint can make all the difference to your song standing out and trigger some fresh melodic and lyrical ideas too.
Switch of ‘Oughta-load’ and switch on ‘Random-load’ instead. You might be inspired by the results. Perhaps go a step further and switch the computer off completely, and your phone and picture a sound in your head- then go and create it.
I hope you kick-start your creativity if you’re lacking inspiration.
Until next time!
Howdy everybody, I hope all is well with you. A bit of a departure from songwriting this week as I wanted to talk about what makes a song ‘radio friendly’. Over the last 6 months I’ve been helping one of the UK’s top radio mixers as a programmer, adding production elements that hopefully make the mixes sound better over the airwaves. It’s been a fascinating insight into the whole philosophy of tailoring a song to a specific medium (in this case – mostly BBC Radio 2) and giving it the best chance of appealing to the masses.
I should backtrack a little first though as some of you might not even know that ‘radio mixers’ even exist! Basically, songs on an album are mixed for the record but then if one of these is chosen as a single then usually the song is tweaked ( by a mix engineer who specialises in making songs sound ‘radio-friendly’. So let’s define what we mean by ‘radio-friendly’ (it’s not the same as dolphin-friendly). In simple terms for a song to succeed on radio it must engage the listener from the outset and maintain their interest to the end. The first area to be looked at might be the structure of the song. Is it too long? Too slow to get to the chorus? Does it lack a recognizable intro? Worse still, does it lack an intro altogether (DJs like an intro to talk over)? Does it have a fade (not popular for radio either)? is it too slow? It’s certainly not uncommon to shift the tempo up a few BPM. On one mix I helped on the whole song came up 20BPM without sacrificing the groove or vocal delivery!
The next area to work on ( where I come in) is bringing more of the following elements to the song namely: impact, drama, momentum, energy, light and shade, modernity and hooks. Hopefully the song I’m working on has a lot of these elements in place but if it’s lacking in some areas that’s where I try to help.
To add momentum and energy I would be trying to add percussive elements (often 16th beat or even 32nd beat) pulsing rhythms, shakers, tambourines, acoustic guitar strums, gated synths etc. All of these things add movement and urgency and make the song feel more exciting to the listener.
To add drama and impact I would be looking at enhancing the mood of the song through sonic elements and to make the biggest part of the song (usually the chorus) feel bigger. This is often a combination of Low Pianos, string pads and lines, Chugging heavy guitars, guitar sprangs, FX into the chorus such as rising FX, impacts, sine bombs, big drum hits and tonal interest.
To add momentum to the song I try and concentrate on bringing new elements into the song in each new section to maintain the listener’s interest. The most common areas to need a boost are the start of verse 2, the middle 8 (or bridge) and the double chorus at the end of the song. These might be subtle flavours like mellotron pads, a high piano figure, Ebow, glockenspiel, mandolin, banjo, Hammond, church organ, Rhodes or Wurlitzer, treated guitars and often Backing vocals as well. If the song has a string line this might be bolstered by an orchestra playing ‘stabby’ strings in the final chorus. Another example would be if the song has double-tracked acoustic strums in the first couple of choruses I might bring a higher part double-tracked to the final chorus. My job is to think about widening the stereo field, bringing high frequency energy and low frequency weight to the proceedings. I try and keep out of the mid frequencies because that’s where the vocal usually is.
To add hooks to the song is probably the most challenging of all. I try and find something to go in the intro and something interesting and melodic to fit between the vocal phrases if the vocal line is quite sparse. It might be a case of trial and error trying lots of sounds and ideas until I find a simple idea that works.
Modernity in the song is often down to layering up the original drum sounds with some more contemporary sounds and referencing some songs that have recently charted. So, I might bring a bit of the faded glamour of Lana Del Rey by using string machines, mysterious textures etc or bring some sonic elements from Rudimental, Bruno Mars or Ed Sheeran depending what the track needs and the direction the mixer or radio plugger wants to take it. often the mixer and plugger (and sometimes the A and R) have a vision of where the song needs to go.
I usually get feedback from the mix engineer as I work. I will send MP3 ‘work in progress’ mixes to him and he will give feedback as to how it’s going. When I have finished and he is happy the tracks are bounced out and sent by FTP. Depending on how radical the changes are there can be anything up to 30 new tracks.
When I hear the finished mix on the radio I’m always surprised by how subtle these additional ideas are blended into the mix. Sometimes a lot of what I do isn’t used. It’s not unusual for the Radio Plugger to demand revisions and changes if they still don’t think the song has enough to compete for a coveted spot on the playlist. Indeed, this is what it all boils down to. There are only 28 songs added to the Radio 2 playlist each week (out of around 500 releases!) and the power of reaching 11 million listeners each week can’t be underestimated for breaking a song or advertising an album. A lot is riding on this.
My final thoughts are how much I’ve learned about production from working in this field and how often the elements I’ve talked about above are lacking in my own productions! It’s like a note-to-self. I now have one ear when I’m writing on whether the song has enough drama, momentum, impact, light and shade……It’s yet another thing the songwriter has to be aware of in this very challenging landscape.
I’ve critiqued a lot of student’s songs as part of my occasional job lecturing about songwriting and I am constantly amazed and pleased at how accomplished a lot of these songs are. When I was in my teens my songs were appalling in comparison. I do notice something lacking sometimes though and that is a sense of truth and honesty. I think we all like to hide behind simile and metaphors and not many of us enjoy cutting ourselves open and sharing the contents of our hearts and minds with an audience. But if we’re not doing that then what are we doing it for? Even if we’re not spelling out exactly how we’re feeling I think an audience can gauge whether there is truth in what we are saying. If a singer is brokenhearted we want to know how it feels for them personally and not just a generalized view of how it must feel. I think that part of the problem when I’ve talked to students about lyrical honesty is they think that nobody would be interested in their lives. How far from the truth this is! We are all inquisitive; we all like overhearing conversations and gleaning information about how someone else sees the world. It’s fascinating.
There was one student last year who was trying to write a song about how she drunkenly ended up with the wrong person at the end of the night. She was struggling with the lyric so I simply asked her ‘what happened’ and told her to write it down just like she told it to me. The details in the story like the name of the bar, what they were drinking, the specifics of the words they said were true and the song had so much more weight because of it. It wasn’t a contrived set of rhymes and obscure metaphors. Your life is interesting. You have loved and lost, had loved ones die, had broken dreams, cried, looked at the stars and wondered big things, laughed until you felt sick, helped someone when they were in trouble and seen and thought about life in a way no one else has. Where’s the need to make things up?
Hi guys, just thought I’d post an update on the year so far.
Firstly, I’ve been chuffed to bits to have co-written Gabrielle Aplin’s recent top 20 single Panic Cord . Her album English Rain was number 2 in the album charts last week. I also co-wrote the comeback single for Blue ‘Hurt Lovers’ which Radio 2 played a lot last month. I’ve been busy in the studio writing with Lawson, Ben Montague, Say Lou Lou, Tich, and many other great artists (and some amazing co-writers too). I’ve also been writing some new Farrah tunes and we even got to play a few of them in Spain last month. I’m settling into my new studio which is part of the Tileyard complex near Kings Cross. It’s a great vibe up there and I have some some seriously successful writers as neighbours too.
All in all, except for the crappy weather, all is going far too well.
Hope all of you are doing great too.
So, you love your song, you’ve spent days working on the lyrics and the chords, you sing a melody and record it and TADA! The song is finished. You listen to it and play it to people and it’s OK but it’s not ‘grabbing’ people. They can’t put their finger on what the problem is. It sounds OK, nice or worst of all ‘pleasant’. How are we meant to spot the weaknesses in our melodies? It’s like trying to draw with smoke. It’s intangible isn’t it? Either it’s catchy or not. We either nail it or we don’t. Well I wonder if there aren’t a few areas worth looking at to improve our melodies. Let me try to explain.
A melody is a series of notes in time.
Simple isn’t it? No, not really.
When I analyse and try and improve my melodies I look at the following attributes.
- The tension and resolve in my note choices
- Which beat I start each melodic phrase on
- The contrast in range and rhythm between sections of the song
- The length of the melodic phrases
Let me expand a bit. The tension and resolve in melody is absolutely fundamental to creating something special. If each note of the melody lands on one of the notes in the underlying triad then it can seem too ‘nice’ or ‘pleasant’ or God forbid- boring. Put simply, if you’re playing a C major chord and you sing the note C, E or G it fits, but can sound too, well…. Blah! Conversely, if too many notes of the melody lie outside the chord below and don’t resolve to where the listener’s ear wants them to go then the melody can seem ‘uncomfortable’ ‘challenging’ and more importantly- hard to sing and to remember.
Let’s take ‘Yesterday’ as an example. The first note of the song (‘yes…) isn’t in the chord below (it’s a second). When this note resolves to the root of the chord (…terday) the listener feels that tension resolve. Ahhh! Feels good doesn’t it? Why not have a look at one of your melodies and see how many notes fit the chords too closely. The notes that build the tension are an important ‘rub’ or ‘grit’ that stops a melody sounding too neat and possibly boring. Does your melody have tension and resolve?
The beat you start the melody on is really important. The earlier you put it, the more momentum and energy the melody will have. Notice how in Katy Perry’s Firework the melody in the verses starts on the second beat of the bar so it feels like the music leads the melody. However, when we get to the chorus the melody leads the chords. Here, it starts with a pickup on the third beat of the bar before the chorus (baby you’re a….). This brings excitement and momentum to the chorus. Also listen to how the chorus melody works primarily with stresses on the beat baby you’re a fire…. These kind of melodies could be described as ‘statement melodies’. They have confidence (especially married to the ascending chords). Why not have a look at one of your melodies and see whether you start each section on different beats? Altering the start point of your melodic phrases is a useful way of giving each section an identity.
The contrast in range between sections of your song is also worth looking at. Often the chorus of a song has the highest notes. This helps it stand out and catch our attention. Also have a look at the intervals between your notes in each section. If one section has a lot of intervals that are one note apart then to contrast that with larger intervals in the next section can be very effective in creating melodic identity. A good example is in The Beatles ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. The verse has a lot of single step melodies, the bridge has a larger intervallic leap (do you need anybody…..) this is effective in adding interest and variation. It’s worth mentioning the verse starts on the first beat and the bridge starts with a pick up on the 3rd beat of the last bar. This is the same trick as Firework. Maybe I’m onto something? Both songs also have a strong shift between high legato notes in one section and lower staccato phrases the other. Does your song alter the rhythms between sections like this?
Finally, the length of melodic phrases is pretty vital. If all the phrases in your song are the same length it can get boring. It’s a bit like. If I wrote. Each sentence. the same length. It would get. Quite boring. And predictable. Quite quickly. Often the hooks of successful songs are one are two bar melodic phrases as they can be repeated lots of times! The shorter melodies are often more memorable (with many many exceptions!). Most writers seem tied to writing melodic phrases that are 2, 4 or occasionally 8 bars long. Why not try a 3, 5 or 6 and a half bar melodic phrase? It could keep the interest of the listener.
I’ve only scratched the surface here of the important attributes of a successful melody. Perhaps the most important of all is writing a melody that has a ‘clear sense of direction’. A meandering melody undermines the power of a song like nothing else! It’s like watching a public speaker constantly referring to their notes or losing their place. The listener doubts the veracity of what they are saying. The other massive part of the equation is how well the melody supports the lyric. Perhaps we’ll explore that another time.
Keep on writing!
My mum used to say this to me on rainy days when I was moping around the house as a small child. I remember being bored was part of growing up. I wonder when the last time was when you were bored? What seems to be apparent to researchers on creativity and innovation is that boredom is good for you. I’ve been reading a book called ‘Imagination –How Creativity Works’ by Jonah Lehrer and it’s well worth a read if you’re interested in where inspiration and ideas come from.
There are way more many distractions in the world we live in than the one I grew up in. When I was young there was no internet, no mobile phones, half-day closing on Wednesday and all of Sunday? Imagine that! Wow, no wonder I have memories of staring out of my bedroom window tracing the raindrops running down it and trying to guess which would get to the bottom first. Compare this to the world we live in now, this constant background static in - this chatter- means that we experience less silence, solitude and space for ideas to germinate.
This is why that first quiet cup of coffee in the morning or a long bath (technology doesn’t like water), or a run, can spark ideas for me because my brain is empty and waiting to be filled with something from the outside. Whether you call it inspiration, the muse or divine intervention, the genesis of a melody or lyrical idea often depends on these moments of calm. For some people this is traditional meditation, for others it’s a quiet walk somewhere (Dickens used to walk 8 hours a night and he was pretty creative, as well as being an insomniac). Burt Bacharach used to drive in silence to let those synapses loosen a little. However you plan it, try and make time in your day to have nothing to do.
According to research, and also anecdotal evidence from the many song-writers I’ve worked with, the wheels of the unconscious are always turning but often our conscious isn’t aware of this. This might be because we’re busy playing Angry Birds, Facebooking, Tweeting, Texting, calling people or frantically rechecking our emails for the fifteenth time. Sound familiar? It does to me.
So it seems that if you want to feed creativity don’t starve yourself of boredom. Those fifteen minutes of staring out of a window might just save you three hours of slaving away trying to make an uninspired idea sound better. Perhaps my mum’s quote could be re-written as ‘boredom is the father of the most interesting ideas’. I hope this wasn’t too boring to read, no, actually- i hope it was and you drifted off into a more creative place.
I’ve been doing some guest lectures on songwriting recently. One lecture was on ‘writing to pitch sheets’. Pitch sheets are kind of ‘who is looking for songs lists’ that are circulated by the major publishers. it is frowned upon if songwriters pass these around and especially give them to unsigned writers. The elephant in the room at these lectures is the audience thinking and sometimes saying ‘it’s alright for you with your publishing deal but how do we get into this industry? The doors are shut and i’m tired of being ignored’.
Ah yes, the frustration of the unsigned writer. I know it well and I sympathise. I thought long and hard and thought about this conundrum and came up with this answer.
firstly, i wanted to get this chip off everyone’s shoulder. I explained that there was a very good reason that publishers don’t circulate the who’s looking lists to unsigned writers. Unsigned writers are unknown. The publisher has no guarantee that a song sent in by an unsigned writer is available, or even written by them. By that, I mean that if you send in a song that’s perfect for One Direction and by some longshot the publisher thinks it would be great for that artist, the publisher would want to hear you have other amazing songs before making you an offer of a deal, and then you’d probably approach other publishers to get a better offer and then 6 months has passed….. Why would a publisher need this? They already have a roster of writers writing great songs that are available. so what’s the answer?
The answer is to write with up and coming artists. I pointed out to all the students in my lecture that a couple years ago Ed Sheeran most likely played in a pub to 30 people within 20 miles of where they lived (he was playing 200 shows a year). At this point he was talented and unsigned and may have been open to a co-write if approached by a great writer with a good showreel of songs or by a talented fellow performer. Some time in the next 3 months, the newest great unsigned artist will be playing a venue near them and they should be going to see as many gigs as they can to network and discover new talent. If not playing at a venue, these new artists will be on youtube covering songs and trying to make inroads that way.
But that’s the A&R person’s job I hear you cry. It’s your job too. As a songwriter in today’s industry you have to be a songwriter, producer, A&R and hustler sometimes. There may be other skills you can bring to the table to help you get in on the ground floor. I know many songwriters who started off playing guitar, keys or singing (often for free) with new artists. I know other writers that would spend their evenings being the sound engineer at local venues (getting paid to discover new artists!).
It’s all very well turning up to Wembley in your England kit, standing by the tunnel and hoping someone will give you a game, but it’s much more likely you’ll get a Sunday league game and work through the ranks that way. The music industry is no different. This lack of interest in your songs isn’t because you’re not a great writer-the bottom line is that banging on the locked door of the music industry is a waste of time. What you have to realise is you come through the floor.