What’s a songwriter?

Songwriter /’sɒŋˌraɪtə/ (n): A normal person who (1) observes details in the world; (2) hears and connects them in a musical way; and (3) writes them down.

An abandoned object, a dog barking at a bird, a faded book, a new school, a conversation on a train, a misheard lyric, a new take on an old phrase. It depends if you pass them by, or pick them up and remember to take them somewhere.

Anyone can do this. Most people do (1) and even (2) from time to time, but not (3). If we work at all of them, all the time, and go back and squeeze the potential out of – and squeeze our feeling into – what we find, then that’s when the magic can happen.

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The Song Funnel

Welcome to the world, my unbearably adorable, squishy, little coochie-baby song idea. Come with me immediately to the SongKindergarten(TM).

Actually, you are allowed to stay here forever. It’s a free kind of school. No curriculum. No teachers. Play with other little darlings if you like. There are dozens of them! Go crazy. Let things happen. No worries.

Sometimes a SongExpresso inspector will arrive unannounced. Don’t be afraid. Unless you are more or less identical to one of the other little i-dears, you’ll never be ejected. Possibly you will be made to play with other similar ideas. Possibly you will get to come and dine with me, and get fattened up to make you bigger and stronger and more developed. Maybe even grafted together with one of your fellow little ones to form a bigger idea (child metaphor starting to run out of steam).

If SongExpresso sees that you are nearing adolescence, you may be thrust into the SongCollege(TM). This is good for you. You want this. The SongKindergarten is a great place to be but you should really be moving up in life and seeing something new. Here you will get my full attention. There are probably not more than 10 or 15 other spotty young things in this class. You may even get introduced to a collaborator and move in a different direction. Certainly here you’ll get lots of instrument time and this is where you really grow into your full potential. Unlike mammals, it’s not at birth but here where the “labour” really happens (child metaphor starting to get quite weird now).

You’re an adolescent. You’re unruly. You have some bits that are messy and some that no-one really understands. You have some bad rhymes still and some outlandish images. You have 4 and a half verses, which is about 50% too many but no-one is sure which are the good ones. You lack a break or a solo or an intro. But you’re the future. You’ll work your way into my brain and during the night or the shower or a book or being out in the park, a little bit more of you will be finished off.

Until the day where we all smile. You’re good to go. You’re a SongGraduate(TM) – you can now officially use the title “Song” (or any of its translations in any official language of your choosing). You can go out into the world and see whether someone other than your proud parent will love you. It doesn’t matter, because I always will.

Maybe you’re an ant-idea and will progress through all stages in a day. Or maybe you’re more of a diplodocus-idea and will have the longest adolescence of any living thing ever (please do not write in to tell me that this is not a scientific fact and it should be e.g. the Royal or Wandering Albatross). The important thing is to keep moving. Because there are lots more cute little coochie babies being born every day.

A broody SongExpresso is off to re-name his “Song Ideas”, “Songs in Progress” and “Songs Finished” Evernote notebooks. What do you call yours?

Songwriting Resources 4 – Books and things

1. Art of writing

Not about songwriting… But about compelling, truthful storytelling and good writing in general. You: (i) are reading this blog; and (ii) have read this far. So you get it.

On Writing – Stephen King

Bird by Bird – Ann Lamott

Why are these books interesting for songwriters? A few things stick out: daily practice (sorry, that thing again); and writing lots freely and then editing down is easier than perfecting right off the bat (also entitled “shitty first drafts”).

What these have in common is that they use interesting language and a super-relaxed tone. I don’t think that’s the confidence that goes with success – I think probably they got where they are today by finding and sticking with these voices.

And, this was a bit of a revelation, novel writers (these ones at least) don’t know where their story is going when they start out. They don’t have it all planned out. They get the characters and the situation and see where they go. And this is not only OK but much the best way to go. SongExpresso feels better already.

The Elements of Style – Strunk & White

Read this (once – probably best borrow it). It’s short. And – perversely – usefully thought-provoking. As songwriters, what it shows us is that there are many ways of rewriting lines to give a similar meaning. We’re not interested in writing correctly but in writing beautifully (so for example we can skip the entire chapter on punctuation – hurrah!). So in fact we can go backwards and use some of the “incorrect” forms if they sound right, match our rhythm and convey the meaning we want. Some examples: “The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance of escape” vs. “Although the situation is perilous, there is still one chance of escape”. “On arriving in Chicago” vs. “When he arrived in Chicago” vs. “On his arrival in Chicago”. “There were dead leaves lying on the ground” vs. “Dead leaves covered the ground”. “He was not often on time” vs. “He usually came late”. Less vs. fewer, whether vs. if etc. etc. (Anyone still reading?)

2. Online bits and pieces

Sodajerker on Songwriting – “interviews with some of the world’s most successful songwriters”. It’s well researched and the enthusiastic interviewers Simon and Brian do a great job of keeping a low profile and allowing the guests to tell their stories. They really do get names that SongExpresso wants to hear from – not just from today but from down the years since the 80s. They also have a Spotify playlist for the songs featured in each episode, at the charmingly named “tinpanscally”

Sold on Song – by BBC Radio 2 – sadly discontinued but happily archived (that’s what the web is for – though it seems a shame that the audio seems not to have been preserved). Just look at the song list. BBC Radio 2 is supposed to be for over-26s (and of course as it isn’t refreshed this is drifting backwards in time) but these are must-listens.

 

What would you include in these categories? SongExpresso will be refreshing and imposing some much needed order on these pages soon. Recommendations (but not spam) always welcome and SongExpresso will review the worthwhile ones here.

See also other sections on:

Three Pillars of Fantastic – Part 3. Lyrics: Always Be Diving for Pearls

A post on lyric writing. But everything on these pages is about lyric writing. There are books and lives and a whole universe out there of different lyrics and different reactions. 

All we can really do is listen critically and try to absorb something into our own worlds. Most songs have something if we know where to look, that we can add to our portfolio of techniques.

Where to start? SongExpresso is going for a personal favorite, which I think few would disagree with: “Shipbuilding”. It may have been written quickly but we can feel thought, preparation, feeling and rigour. We won’t ever write this. But can we learn something that might help us tie together the circumstances that we see in something of a similar way?

The entire lyrics are at the end.

If you don’t know it please go and listen to it now – the Robert Wyatt version of course. Or Elvis’s own. Often copied, never bettered. Yes, it’s a political song but that’s not what we are interested in. Actually it’s a really human song about compromise, responsibility, and obligation.

It’s a little bit rooted in time: the Falklands “conflict” (one of the last “old school” wars without Internet or 24 news coverage – I’m sure they still did use telegrams to notify the next of kin. And the British government found out about the invasion of the Falklands by telex). This is a pre-digital time of Walkmen, VCRs. Rumours not Facebook. Heavy industry in decline, strikes, riots, unemployment. Change, class consciousness, political polarism – those days it was quite normal to hear people describe themselves as Marxists. Thirty years have changed a lot of things.

Another interesting thing – Ellis Costello later wrote a response to this song (in true SongExpresso style), from the Argentinean point of view (“Cinco Minutos con Vos”) – also an interesting song portraying normal Argentineans living under an oppressive military regime. All in all plenty of material for writing….

What makes “Shipbuilding” so great? The following things struck SongExpresso:

1. Start Strong

“Is it worth it?” This line sums up the entire song. And even better, does so using an everyday phrase. And even, even, better the melody perfectly matches the music of the phrase. Whenever I or someone else says this, I think of this song. Possible other contenders: “I Should Have Known Better” – The Beatles. “Hold on” (from “Stop Crying Your Heart Out”) – Oasis.

If got right, these types of day-to-day expressions are fertile ground for leading listeners back into the song – “well, I ask you”, “it’s just a rumour” or “with all the will in the world” work in a similar way – this is very spoken language.

2. Match tone/feeling to subject matter

It’s interesting to consider that: (i) the melody was written first and the lyrics added later – so the jazzy, downbeat atmosphere was probably already there; and (ii) it was specifically intended for Robert Wyatt to sing. So we imagine in Elvis’s mind the ghostly, beaten-down, Englishness of Robert’s voice (and I wouldn’t disregard either the evocative combination of sea-dog beard, beret and wheelchair that we later see in the music video). A direction to follow can unlock great ideas.

3. Contrasts 

  • Diving for dear life vs. diving for pearls
  • Telegram vs. picture postcard
  • The boy (wanting the bike) vs. the boy (taken to task)
  • Re-opening the shipyards vs. notifying the next of kin

In one of his first jobs, SongExpresso was described as the “however man”. Perhaps I did like juxtaposing opposing ideas a little too much for business memos. But here these are great for showing conflicts of the time: faith against reality, aspiration against realism.

4. Just clever enough

There’s “clever original” and “clever annoying”. Take the line “someone got filled in”. It sits on that dangerous borderline which could become annoying. Yes, it’s there because of the rhyme – but on the other hand is something that the people in the story could easily say. SongExpresso wonders whether and how much Elvis had to wrestle with it. Somehow I hope so. If he was in two minds then it paid off to go with the bold choice: the musicality and “vernacular” of it swings it over to the good side; it does seem right.

This also goes for “take me to task”. This is only real reference to the precise time period (the British navy/air contingent sent to the Falkland Islands was the ‘Task Force’). It’s brilliant in some ways as anyone who was around in Britain at the time will know that this means ‘war’. But as it’s both a play on words and a euphemism, Elvis relies on us to get it or the significance is lost. It’s one of those things that works perfectly locally but is potentially lost in translation to a wider audience. Take the example of “I took my Chevy to the levee”. A levee may be normal parlance in let’s say Louisiana (I’m speculating), but for non-Americans potentially meaningless. These localisms add realism to our characters but we always need to think whether our audience will understand, and how much they’ll lose if they don’t. Elvis needed to get a reference to the war in, and this is a brilliantly subtle way to do that. Just clever enough. The skill we need is to see these amber lights and then consciously decide how to handle them.

5. Verse Structure

You don’t have to have verse–pre-chorus–chorus–break etc.! We don’t know whether the melody already had this slightly off-balance progression that plays with different verse lengths, sometimes circles back on itself and repeats different sections. Maybe it did or maybe the more informal flow fitted the lyrics. Parameters can help, but can and should be disregarded if they get in the way of what feels right.

6. Show don’t tell

“Diving for dear life”. I always see the sailor/airman trying to extricate themselves from sinking wreckage. With some thought that they might have been somewhere else living a full life and not absurdly dying in the freezing South Atlantic. Of course, this is also the thought of the working man back home, making a living from whatever work available, no time for ideals or dreams. Works fantastically for both situations.

7. Is there anything we don’t like?

If this was a SongExpresso song, I would lie awake at night going over and over the line “Diving for Pearls”. It’s the right image. It’s the right rhyme. It’s the right lyric. But – with all the will in world – it really does not scan with the melody. The emphasis falls on the “ving” and not the “di”. It’s just unnatural. Some of the covers try to correct this. That destabilizes the melody and sounds equally jarring. This has been described as “sublime phrasing … of which Stan Getz would have been mighty proud”. I’m going to call that pretentious rubbish and say this was just a compromise. Of course we hope that all options were explored. It’s imperfect: but the good things about it outweigh the slight problem. If we fixed it we would lose more than we gain.

 

More than ever this article makes me ask – who am I to critique. I’m a fan, yes. And grew up with this song. So I feel some pressure to do justice – this is my one shot at this. But if SongExpresso has a goal then it’s to improve the lyrics gene pool. All I can do is pick out some things that I appreciate. And maybe convince some others to listen. What do you think?

 

This is Part 3 of SongExpresso’s Three Pillars of Fantastic:
Part 1: Bring Your Own Feeling
Part 2: Melody (coming soon)

 

Shipbuilding
COSTELLO, ELVIS / LANGER, CLIVE WILLIAM
© Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday
It’s just a rumor that was spread around town
By the women and children
Soon we’ll be shipbuilding…

Well I ask you
The boy said “Dad they’re going to take me to task,
but I’ll be back by Christmas”
It’s just a rumor that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls

It’s just a rumor that was spread around town
A telegram or a picture postcard
Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin
Once again

It’s all we’re skilled in
We will be shipbuilding…

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls.

Don’t bore us – with your tedious chorus

Is it possible to write a chorus using just one word? Hmmm. Is is possible to write a GOOD chorus using just one word? Double Hmmm. Probably not as easy as writing a samba using just one note… 

We know repetition can be effective for creating a hook. Repetition = memorable, ey, Jude? And it can be effective at any time for cementing an idea. Yes, a couple of times. Not necessarily consecutively. But three, four, potato, more? Can we pull it off?

But let’s always consider why we would want to pull it off: do we have good artistic reasons, or could it be … (speaking very quietly) that we just don’t have any better idea?

Remember, if you go this way, then you are giving up the opportunity of getting the listeners’ attention with an interesting lyric. Lyrics are – naturally – one of SongExpresso’s 3 pillars of fantastic. If you minimise them, then you’d better be sure that the other two pillars – Melody and Feeling – are rock solid and super-interesting.

Feeling is feeling and is a combination of various things – but definitely within the composer’s power and not just a question of style, instrumentation or performance. If it feels good to you then probably it is good. All we are saying is do it consciously: Does it work in real life? Is there any alternative? Can we vary it next time? Where we don’t have lyrical interest then for sure we need melodic interest, direction and variety.

Warning: unfair comparison ahead!

1. Let’s start with “Sing” (Travis)

Here’s the operative part:

But if you sing, sing, sing, sing, sing, sing
For the love you bring
Won’t mean a thing
Unless you sing, sing, sing, sing

It’s simple but definitely melodic enough to hold our interest. Each “sing” is a litle different so it doesn’t really sound repetitive and still enjoys all the advantages of memorabiliy. On “thing” we are held for a while on the 2nd before satisfyingly being brought back to the root. Taking the song as a whole we have a very cute feeling and tempo, and a wide melodic range. SongExpresso one-word-lyric score: 8!

2. Moving on to “Come On” (The Hives)

We don’t actually need to extract the operative part as in this one minute song the entire lyrics are:

(One! Two! One, two, one, two, three!)
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on…
Everybody come on! (repeat from top)

It’s a fun song. A rare thing, a song with more chords than words! (Though is it really a song? Or just a riff? Or a chorus? Or a chant?) In any event, the energetic feeling and building instrumental intensity are parts of the mix. The other is the variation, including the call and response. SongExpresso one-word-lyric score: a cheeky 7! 

3. Finally, what about “Inhaler” by Miles Kane?

it’s a short song too, so here’s the entire thing: 

I’ve been looking forward to lifting up the veil
Yes is the answer, you know that for sure
The night time, is the right time
Oh, don’t you know girl
You’ve heard it before
Hey

Inhaler, inhaler
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Inhaler, inhaler
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah

Cold is the shoulder, you’ll give me for sure
Dance with your hips, and grind on the floor
The night time, is the right time
Oh, don’t you know girl
You’ve heard it before
Hey

Inhaler etc.

It’s a riffy song – in fact the riff is the main entertainment. That’s fine – the Feeling is good. Melody – in the verse, it matches the riff nicely and gets us moving. We really like the “lifting up the veil” lyric, suggestive and original. “Night time is the right time” is a bit of a cliche but in tune with the “up for it” theme. “Cold is the shoulder” is quite nice too. Some great lyrical potential going on here.

But for SongExpresso, when we get to the chorus it loses its way a bit. The feeling seems a bit flat; the melody lacks interest; and the lyrics seem like a missed opportunity. And the inhaler idea is actually great – it suggests breathlessness, wanting to absorb the night, drinks disappearing, as well as the potential for some other substances… It’s cool – perhaps envisaged as an anthem – simple to remember and sing at festivals. But where does it really go? Couldn’t we have something a bit more evocative? The above ideas could already give us a start…

Perhaps another unfair comparison – think about “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga – another nightclub song but, for SongExpresso’s taste, scores higher for interesting lyrical content and for combining all three pillars.

SongExpresso one-word-lyric score: 5.5!

So what’s our conclusion? There is a not altogether unfounded rumour that – in pop at least – lyrics may be dispensable. But we say “always be interesting”. And the lyrics are a major opportunity for doing that. So the one word chorus is to be applied sparingly and not as a first resort. If we have looked at the alternatives and are still really taken with the idea, then the feeling, melody, variation and direction had better be good.

What are your favourite minimal lyrics? Including lalalas. Perhaps lalalas deserve their own post, what do you reckon, Jude?

I’ve looked at nuns from both sides now…

Gone Girl. A writer’s dream really – let’s write a chapter from one point of view and then write the same events again from the other person’s point of view to show how things are taken wrongly or interpreted differently. It reminds SongExpresso of that Woody Allen film (the one with the giant lobsters?) where subtitles tell us what the character really means to say. Because we are all trapped in our own language and true communication is impossible and SongExpresso is feeling Sartrean. Excuse me a moment.

Feeling better now. Where this is going is that almost all songs are written from one person’s point of view and we never get to hear the other side. Notable exceptions: “Just give me a reason” (P!nk), “Don’t you want me, baby” (Human League), “You’re the one that I want” (half kidding).

So just recently SongExpresso was looking at Billy Joel’s “Innocent Man” (remember: I know you’re only protecting yourself/I know you’re thinking of somebody else/Someone who hurt you/But I’m not above/Making up for the love/You’ve been denying you could ever feel) and got to thinking – what does the girl think about all this? Billy is showing a lot of understanding. Empathy. Patience! 

Bingo! The girl is thinking this:

“Cause I … need time
My heart is numb, has no feeling
So while I’m still healing
Just try … and have a little patience

Aha! (or Take That!) – there are two sides to every story. If we can’t find material here, then we’re probably a pot-noodle

We can do this big or small. The smallest method is using reported speech (“you say”, “he said” etc.) to bring the other person’s point of view into the song. Check out SongExpresso’s own lyrics from the future classic “Snakeskin”:

“You say the tree to grow has to be cut
That it’s normal for horses to fall
But to me it doesn’t seem natural at all”

Told you it was small. The masterclass in this style would be “Cat’s in the Cradle” (Harry Chapin, Ugly Kid Joe).

Next size up is a duet: “You were / I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar”. As a style, it might come over a little bit too ‘storyish’ for SongExpresso’s taste: it’s definitely telling not showing. But for nominations in this category you can’t argue with “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens (I know, a duet that’s not a duet). Also some powerful stuff came out of a recent Reddit “A wife kills her husband. Make me symphathize with both characters.”

But being SongExpresso, we want to go for the top. So what we aim to do is the Innocent Man-Patience trick. So pick a song, any song. Pick a song you really like. Or one from a random jukebox. Best would be a song ABOUT or TO a person. Then write the other side. Simples.

See what I chose here.

In my case, bad show tunes that would never make it into any show (and certainly do not claim to stand next to Rodgers and Hammerstein) are fun to do and not hard to start (major key! melodrama! perfect cadences!). In minutes I had a couple of pages of ideas – and SongExpresso would always prefer to prune than to be scraping around for material. It’s a little rough and to be a real song would need plenty of honing, but as a basis I’m quite pleased and it reflects what I think she’d say.

For anyone these should be some of the easiest lyrics to start – you have a heap of material from the original song and a character with a ready-made backstory. Aha, again! So you can answer any “allegations” or simply hold up a mirror to the original lyrics. There may be a choice to make – do you somehow refer to the original in order to ensure that your point of view has a context? Usually this shouldn’t be necessary – in Maria‘s case we do have to understand that she is a struggling nun, but in the Billy-Gary example, the songs stand by themselves. 

So go for it. And tell SongExpresso your favorite “two points of view” songs or, even better still, your results.

“Do I wanna know?” – rhyme grit – and no blandarctica

Billy Joel is not Alex Turner. For SongExpresso, Bily is a master of natural sounding rhyme. But for SongExpresso, the best Arctic Monkey’s lyrics are like raps – layering on rhyme and sounds without compromise to meaning. No “rhyme crime” here (“rhyme grit”, anyone?). 

As readers will by now have realised, SongExpresso is universally unimpressed by contrived or forced rhymes; but what we have in “Do I wanna know” is something more sophisticated than rhyming couplets. It’s wordplay with half-rhymes, internal rhymes, and eclectic but never stilted sounding vocabulary. The rhymes keep coming, maybe 10 obvious ones to a verse, not counting the ones we feel but don’t see, that season and spice the remainder of the lyrics.

This is really structured and disciplined – we might try to emulate by sitting with the rhyming dictionary open and going for a rhyme at the end of every line. Could be a good exercise but almost inevitably boring.

So let’s take a moment:

  • to feel the “organic-ness” – I don’t believe there’s a dictionary that would give you all the rhymes here (verse 1: the “ee” sounds – verse 2: the “uh” sounds). This comes from feeling – and perspiration.
  • to chase the rhyme – it seems to start at the end and wander backwards into the middle or even near to the beginning of the line. That reminds us of some (modern) rap techniques – the rhymes seem to be attracted together and to chase one after the other. It creates an accelerating and decelerating flow – more natural, more rhythmically varied and attention-keeping.
  • to enjoy the Englishness – “summat”, “settee”, “you’ve ‘ad a few” – of course this wouldn’t be Arctic Monkeys if the language was some kind of mid-Atlantic, estuary, blandarctica. This takes some self-assurance to pull off – but in reality they always had it and haven’t changed much since album 1. For the rest of us, daring to use details like this can help us inject a pinch of credibility, sincerity and personality. Of course, if trying to write from the point of view of a character from a culture that isn’t yours, best get these right.
  • to notice how the flow of the lyrics matches the beat – there are no scanning issues here. This depends to an extent on Alex’s delivery, and using short words helps – but the emphases fall all in the right places. The mix of shorter and longer phrases also makes for a more spoken feel and avoids dull symmetry.

Let’s not try to be rappers if we aren’t. (If you do want to, please try first in the safety of your own home and not on 8 Mile Road.) And I don’t think we really need more pop songs with rap breaks. But we can try some of the techniques to add interest and variation to the lyrics and rhyming patterns of a rock or any other style of song. What other non-hip-hop songs use elements from or could be raps? As always, SongExpresso wants to hear your favorites.

 

DO I WANNA KNOW?

Have you got colour in your cheeks?

Do you ever get the fear that you can’t shift the type that sticks around like something in your teeth?

Are there some aces up your sleeve?

Have you no idea that you’re in deep?

I dreamt about you nearly every night this week

How many secrets can you keep?

Cause there’s this tune I found that makes me think of you somehow and I play it on repeat

Until I fall asleep

Spilling drinks on my settee

 

Do I wanna know

if this feeling flows both ways?

Sad to see you go

Was sort of hoping that you’d stay

Baby we both know

That the nights were mainly made for saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day

 

[Chorus]

Crawlin’ back to you

Ever though of calling when you’ve had a few

Cos I always do

Maybe I’m too busy being yours to fall for somebody new

Now I’ve thought it through

Crawlin’ back to you

 

So have you got the guts?

Been wondering if you’re heart’s still open

And if so I wanna know what time it shuts

Simmer down and pucker up

I’m sorry to interrupt

It’s just I’m constantly on the cusp

Of trying to kiss you

I don’t know if you feel the same as I do

But we could be together if you wanted to

 

Do I wanna know

If this feeling flows both ways?

Sad to see you go

Was sort of hoping that you’d stay

Baby we both know

That the nights were mainly made for saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day

 

[Chorus]

Crawlin’ back to you

Ever though of calling when you’ve had a few

Cos I always do

Maybe I’m too busy being yours to fall for somebody new

Now I’ve thought it through

Crawlin’ back to you

Too busy being yours to fall

Ever thought of calling darling?

Do you want me crawling back to you? 

 

Songwriters: Turner, Alex

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

http://www.arcticmonkeys.com/song.php?id=136