Songwriting Resources 1 – Essentials

On these pages will appear the things I use and like. Maybe some of them will work for you. I don’t get anything for recommending them! Send me your favorites and I’ll look into adding them here.

“Ideas Notebook” / “Ideas Journal”

Not optional. My mind is not large or fast enough to remember all of the ideas that come to me. Also, you can’t predict when or where inspiration will strike. And you need it to be digital i.e. searchable. We are incredibly lucky these days to have smartphones, tablets etc. etc. that do this. My favorite is Evernote. You can add text notes, record sounds, pictures (e.g. photos of handwritten notation or tabs), webpages (it has a sister widget called Clearly that cuts out most of the junk from web pages just leaving the bits you want to read), emails and almost anything else. The first drafts of this post were written in Evernote. (Yes, you can use a paper notebook – but: Is it really portable? And do you promise to: (i) write legibly; (ii) be disciplined about writing in different sections for different categories of things; and (iii) remember where things were or even copy out on a regular basis to ensure you can find them? I am old school for some things, but I am not good at any of that. And I refuse.). There are others (e.g. OneNote). Doesn’t matter which one, but you need to find one, get one, and use it.

Thesaurus/synonyms dictionary

Compulsory (see what I did there). The “I’m sure there’s a better word for that” book. I have always used Roget’s Thesaurus (though never quite worked out why the part you need to look at first is at the back). But I also have an Oxford Thesaurus which goes from A-Z. For now I use paper ones. No good reason for that.

Rhyming dictionary

Also not optional. I have a Penguin Rhyming dictionary (also have to look in the back first – what?) – and probably would like to get a bigger one. There are some good smartphone apps out there: I used to really like “RhymeNow”, but it seems now to have stopped working on later versions of iThings. “Prime Rhyme” is OK though words appear apparently in random order and mixed syllable lengths. It also has definitions which might be interesting sometimes. “Rhyme” is the best pick out there for me at the moment – it’s not the most beautiful but it has free version and a paid version with more settings and no ads.

 

Do you use any of these or any other ones? Recommendations (but not spam) always welcome and I will review the worthwhile ones here.

 

See also other sections on:

When all else fails – The Devil’s Motorcycle

Sometimes it fails. Sometimes there is nothing. Henry Miller is quoted as saying: “when you can’t create, you can work”. I agree with that. You still need to exercise your not inconsiderable creative biceps every day. Especially if you have to spend a large part of it answering and writing very unpoetic emails, reading contracts, creating spreadsheets and generally doing (very necessary and remunerative) left-brain stuff (apparently that’s not even a thing – but anyhow we digress). 

A lot of people start by object writing, maybe prompted by Pat Pattinson. But that’s only one type of writing. For example at the time of writing today’s offering on the highly recommendable www.objectwriting.com is “Ding Dong”. It’s ok. I’ve done it. It was actually fine. Though after a while it can get a bit samey and – I think – not that productive. (On the other hand if you’ve spent a few months – or years – off from writing, then do this for 30 days straight and be amazed at the results.)

So we are feeling a bit less than fluent. But because we listen to Henry Miller we know that we should at least be working out. You’ve come to the right place. And have fun doing it? Yes!

What we’re going to use is that thing where you are convinced for years that a lyric is one thing only to find that it’s really something else (usual far more sensible, dammit)? This probably doesn’t happen so much now we can instantly Google or SoundHound anything – humbug.

So for example, Beelzebub – according to me (but not it transpires to Queen) – has a Devil’s motorcycle. Well, what else would he have?! 

How can we not find something to write about here? All sorts of sensual imagery going on. Go on, write about that for 10 minutes using all your senses. I’ll do the same. Done? Here’s my effort. Not a masterpiece but it isn’t supposed to be – it’s a method of getting the mind working in a creative way. Any nuggets? Anything usable? Maybe not, it doesn’t matter, but I bet you didn’t wake up this morning thinking of the devil’s motorcyle… 

What next?

“Been spending most their lives living in a Gangster’s pair of dice…” Sure. Let’s let our minds go crazy like small dogs! 10 minutes… 

So what did you go for – smoky casino, or fluffy ones dangling in the getaway car…?  (Thanks to The Jimmy Fallon Show for that one – I also like “Pennsylvania!”).

Somewhere in my mind I am sure that Axelle Red had a song containing the lyric “let’s get a dream and soda”. There are only two possibilities here: either she really did this, in which case she is instantly a member of the SongExpresso hall of fame; or she didn’t and it was something more ordinary (but guess what – that means I invented it so I can use it!). Google doesn’t know this lyric – anyone out there know this song and can fill me in?

A few more while we’re at it:

“Sparing his life from his pork sausages” (Queen again)

“Got my first real sex dream” (Bryan Adams)

“Olive, the other reindeer” (trad. – she was an inveterate laugher and namecaller)

“Four candles” (enough for a whole album there)

Got any more great ones? Share them here… And use them for the times when you’ve got nothing. As Jean-Luc Godard said: “it’s not where you take it from – it’s where you take it to”…

“Will you?” genius; here’s why. But could it have been even better?

This goes back to 1980 – but something of a classic and you’ll probably know it, at least for its epic sax solo.

It’s one of those songs that almost any person can relate to and most of us can identify the situation – invite someone back for coffee and you’re wondering if they are thinking that it’s just coffee, or coffee and something more. 

The way the insecurity of the situation is described so simply from inside the head of the inviter is genius. But this wouldn’t be SongExpresso if we didn’t ask – could it have been even better? Are there any weak links that we could perfect?

Let’s work through the lyrics:

Will You?

(O’CONNOR, HAZEL / MAGOOGAN, WESLEY)

Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

You drink your coffee and I sip my tea

And we’re sitting here playing so cool, thinking “What will be, will be”

We already notice a contrast between Hazel’s character sipping (nervously) and the invitee drinking (possibly oblivious to what is going on inside Hazel’s head…). Already we feel her vulnerability. 

But it’s getting kind of late now

Oh I wonder if you’ll stay now, stay now, stay now, stay now

The repitition of stay now is just remarkable, managing to give a blend of voices to the verb – statement: “I wonder if you’ll stay now”; questioning “will you stay now?”; and an almost despairing imperative: “stay now (please!)”

Or will you just politely say goodnight?

What’s the opposite of passion? Hate? No, politeness. Kapow.

I move a little closer to you, not knowing quite what to do

And I’m feeling all fingers and thumbs, I spill my tea, oh silly me!

The idioms “what will be will be”, “oh silly me”, “much too much” etc. sound totally appropriate for Hazel’s character. We can believe that this is how she would actually speak. When we are trying to emulate this and a make believable character, we should try to develop a profile of them – who are they where are they from how old are they how do they speak etc.

But it’s getting kind of late now

I wonder if you’ll stay now, stay now, stay now, stay now

Or will you just politely say goodnight?

And then we touch much too much

Like “silly me”, “much too much” might have been there just for the rhyme (so be careful!) but it seems extremely apt to describe the crossing of the line that has happened – much too much to ignore, much too much to leave it there etc.

This moment has been waiting for a long long time

Musically it just flows but lyrically it’s interesting how it’s the moment that has been waiting – almost a switch of viewpoints. In a moment Hazel’s character tells us she’s been waiting but this takes it outside of her. This might give a flavour that there is some fate/destiny/outside force going on here. Or perhaps it’s the culmination of a long time of frustration/expectation on her part waiting for the right person to come along. For sure more than just “I’ve been waiting for this”.

Makes me shiver, it makes me quiver

This is where we were headed. Hazel wants to introduce a kinesthetic description of her character’s physical and not just emotional feelings. However, I don’t think I have ever used the word “quiver” in real life or that I know anyone that would. If this were my song, SongExpresso would say: that’s a literary word and not one that Hazel’s character would use – have you considered all the alternatives? Shiver also raises a questionmark – is this is moment when a person would shiver? Trembling, shaking yes. Heart pounding, pulse racing (clichees, but might be more the type of sensation we are trying to describe). So I would probably say go and brainstorm this situation and see what other descriptions or images we can find. We should do some object writing, free writing or mind mapping just to exhaust all the possibilities. Shall we? (Will you?)

Shiver and quiver have a good sound (important) and actually don’t jar the ear of the normal listener; but Song Expresso is very attuned to these things and when we come across this, we need to work through the process – is this as good as it can possibly be? In this case, they do hit the required note and we see exactly how Hazel’s character is feeling. And also importantly they work with the flow and structure of the song which any of our alternatives (so far) wouldn’t do in the same way. There might be an element of poetic licence here but the good elements outweigh any reservations we might have. I wonder if Hazel also considered this? The lyrics are really honed so she might just have.

This moment I am so unsure

This moment I have waited for

Was it something you’ve been waiting for, waiting for too?

Take off your ice, bare your soul

Gather me to you and make me whole

Wait a sec! What just happened? Gather me to you? Seriously, Mr Dickens? Aren’t we in 1980 not 1880? We just moved into a whole new register, that’s what happened. Like the music, we swoop upwards as Hazel’s character puts her desire into words and wills her partner to come with her. This isn’t just reality, we’ve escaped into a world of reciprocated passion and this is how she describes the feeling. What a contrast – from “oh silly me” nervousness, lyrically we move into an expressionist land where biblical language is required to do justice to the emotion. “Gather me to you and make me whole” – could be from a Psalm… Wow again.

Tell me your secrets, sing me the song

Sing it to me in the silent tongue

The silent tongue – still biblical but also carnal. Magic. We have some assonance between song and tongue; a true rhyme could have brought us back to reality with a bump. It just feels right – and we get just enough flesh to get us right there with what is about to happen. 

But it’s getting kind of late now

I wonder if you’ll stay now, stay now, stay now, stay now

Or will you just politely say goodnight?

We’re still there. Nothing happened yet. Wishful thinking, arousal, anticipation but we’re still waiting. The last “goodnight” feels a little bitter, as we’ve seen what passion could come but we know that it might not unless someone makes a move now. And sure enough the sax brings us – anti-climatically – down to disappointment. Goodnight, then.

The sax hesitates but the situation is too compelling and the drums (there’s the heart pounding we wanted earlier) gather us to them and lead us into the epic solo. No analysis of that here, but it’s around half the song – it’s the soundtrack to the movie in our heads – we imagine Hazel’s character and her lover bursting into a tender new room where no words are needed. (The song was also used in a movie – but we are all imagining our own).

We may never reach these heights. But what can we take from this?

– situations – a situation that everyone can relate to but never named. We know it’s dark, after-midnight, we know they are sitting on a bed in small room etc. without being told.

– develop your characters – how old are they? what do they do all day? what do they want? How do they speak – use their words.

– contrast – to develop our plot we can use different types of language. In Will You there is a definite before and after. Can we show this (not tell) by using contrast in the language used, the point of view, rhythm, light and shade, key changes, dynamics…

– rewriting/hard choices – if things feel right they may easily be! But think it through – each word can add or subtract from the situation. A bad rhyme or a word that doesn’t fit can break the mood. Review all the options, change structures and orders, change them back if needed. Work it through, SongExpresso style.

– structure – in this song the sax solo has a particular purpose. If we want a solo, have we thought about why? (Les Paul owners and jazz drummers look away now.) We need a break to consider what’s just been said? We need a break to show a before and after, and a new chapter in the story we’re telling? It can feel right – but would it be more effective in a different place, a different length, different key etc.

– instruments – replace the sax with an electric guitar and we have a totally different song. Probably something acoustic was always going to be the choice here. This is verging on production but songwriters should know what is right.

As you may have realised, SongExpresso can’t get enough of this song. Independent of style, musical preferences, it seems to tell a timeless story (there’s another thing – timelessness – do you want to place your story in time? Did he call her on the bakelite telephone or the iPad? etc. If not, avoid).

What’s your iconic song that you would aspire to write? Think about each word. What can we learn? Tell me and I will analyse it here.

“Turn me on”: I scored 10 goals (hurrah!) … in a 9-1 defeat (oh…)

SongExpresso is frustrated. This song was high on my list of songs to review, and I have often used its first line as an example of a great simile/analogy in songwriting. It may be that Norah Jones’ version lifted the entire song up to a new level and made it sound smooth and glorious. But I was really looking forward to analysing this one and when I actually saw the remaining lyrics my heart sank (with a sound like a penny falling into a wishing well – ha!).

Listen to this:

Like a flower…. Waiting to bloom 

I’m just sitting here waiting for you

To come on home and turn me on

Press pause. Wow. I’m thinking “this guy is a genius” – what a fantastic image – a closed flower, waiting to become fulfilled and complete, full of antici — pation, so quiet but so sexy. And perhaps best of all (without wishing to get into plant anatomy) equally applicable to males and females, same effect. Compare that to “your sex is on fire… consumed by what’s to transpire” – same idea, right? Which do you prefer? (I already know – but then I do like new and outlandish images and metaphors).

He’s taken the ball from the kick-off, run 50 yards and hit a screamer into the top corner. 1-0. Should really count double. Maybe it’s an away goal, like if this was the Champions L… (hey, cut it out, Ed.)

Memorable. Like a delicious white prawn in a Spanish beach café. This meal is going to be amazing… 

But then I wake up. The match continues. I stumble over my feet and put the ball into my own net. I don’t really want it back but manage to mis-control it and it rebounds again past my own goalkeeper. Now I really want to get out of here. Ball comes back, ouch, in the goal again. Is it half-time yet? My whole body is tense like an elevator cable. I gesture to the half way line to be substituted, speechless as if I am breathing sand. The ball bobbles again across my own goal line like an oblivious puppy. I am desperate and frantic and trying anything to control the situation. Same result. The whistle blows. 9-1.

But wait. Before starting to criticize the writer (the prolific and respected John D. Loudermilk), let’s do a little research. Here we get some explanation (great resource by the way).

Aha. Turns out these are not the original lyrics. John D.’s version is here. We are told (caution, internet speaking) that Nina Simone changed it. Qué?! The original is really quite different (and I think much better – the tides and stars images really work). A whole different tone really – it was about lost love and the despair of the writer that his ex won’t be coming home and he will be waiting for ever. 

So, not John D.., but Nina…? Nina, what were you doing?

John D. started it so well. Really got my hopes (and stamen) up. I do understand the decision to take the song in a different direction. That the lover is not gone forever, just maybe tantalizingly round the corner (did they have an argument?) and we’re imagining the scene when he/she reappears tonight. But…

Nina’s version is just so, well, ordinary and – for me at least – actually not good at all. Bad rhymes. Clichees. Metaphors that are really the opposite of sexy (school kids? glass of water?). Contrived lines like “you’re the one who turns me off; you’re the only one who can turn me back on”…. All sounds so rushed and careless, and so not SongExpresso. You gave me the prawn; but then the wine was rough, and the steak was (ahem) tough…

What do you think? Am I wrong? Is the opening really that good? Is the rest really that awful? What are the good bits? Could it be improved with some better rhymes and images? Should Norah have gone back to the original? How would it sound then? Do you think she considered it? But on the plus side, note the change of direction – do you have a song about “lost love” that could actually be a song about “delayed love”? Or vice-versa? Could be a great way of turning an interesting song into SongExpresso.

Here are the full texts. Have a think and let me know…

 

TURN ME ON

By John D. Loudermilk

©1961 Acuff-Rose Publ. Inc.

Alt. lyrics as recorded by Nina Simone (1966) and Norah Jones (2000):

Like a flower waiting to bloom

Like a light bulb in a dark room

I’m here waiting for you to come on home

And turn me on

 

Like the desert waiting for rain

Like a school kid waiting for spring

I’m sitting here waiting for you to come on back home

And turn me on

 

My poor heart, it’s been so dark

Since you’ve been gone

After all, you’re the one who turned me off

Now you’re the only one who can turn me back on.

 

My hi-fi’s waiting for a new tune (or tube? Ed.)

And my glass is waiting for some fresh ice-cubes.

I’m just sitting here waiting for you to come home

And turn me on

 

Lyrics on the original recording of Mark Dinning (1961):

 

Like a flower waiting to bloom

Like a light bulb in a dark room

I’ve been waiting for you to come back home

And turn me on

 

Like a puppy waiting to bay

Like a jukebox waiting to play

Like I’m waiting, so come on home

And turn me on

 

My poor heart, it’s been so dark

Since you, since you up and said goodbye

Lord, I don’t eat, I can’t sleep

I just sit here, I just sit here, and I cry

 

Like the moonlight turns on the tides

Like the sunset turns on the stars

I’m here a-waiting, oh, come on home

And turn me on

 

(source: Standard Songs Pop/Country/Blues/Folk/Instumentals/Novelty, Acuff-Rose Publications Inc. 1956-1973)  http://www.ihesm.com/jdllyr/LyTurnMeOn.html

Noodle-doodle-don’t

Robbie phones up – “hey, need a new song – thinking anthem! Let me know, thanks!” Mariah leaves a message – “hey, need a ballad, romantic, you know, thanks!”

Whoa. Where to start. Review nuggets stored in Evernote. Boff. Play guitar five minutes (all I get is “Stairway”). Look at notebook for three minutes. Lots of lines. Page a bit curly at the bottom. I draw a cat (actually two circles, two triangle ears and some whiskers). I shade in the cat, tail, eyes, looks quite g… I throw the cat into the bin. Robbie must never know.

On the other hand: “hey Sherman Brothers, need a song that demonstrates Mr Banks’s realization that he needs to spend time with family and has been overworking. Needs to show that deep down he’s a good person and not an ogre. Should be something playful, needs to be suitable for all the family and friends to join in, something social, outdoors. OK?”

Now we’re talking.

It’s easier to write in context – if we have a movie scene in our minds then we see characters, places, activities. How do they feel? What do they say? Where do they go? What are they thinking? How do they feel inside? How did they get there? 

So if inspiration is short, don’t sit down with a guitar (noodling) or a pad (doodling). Your mind is like packet soup. Powdery and dry; looks like nothing; tastes like it was made in a lab (actually it was); smells like anything except teen-spirit. You can shake it, pour into a cup, put your fingers into it, but it won’t be dinner. It needs something from outside to awaken it, bring out the taste, and reconstitute those molecules. Water, heat, recipient, utensils, attention. Maybe a herb; cheese; I know, croutons! Now we’re cooking (ahem).

Do something active but song-focused. Don’t watch a movie and come back later. Watch a movie and dig into the characters, situations, senses. What’s going on? See anything you like? Press pause. Write down everything and see where it takes you. Go for a walk, sit in a café (of course!), watch people, dogs, plants, things… Where do they come from? Is the man in the gabardine suit a spy? Let it flow. Write everything down now, rearrange, look up You Tube. Try the I or the he/she. Dust off the rhyming dictionary, go wild with the thesaurus. Let it blossom, let it grow. You’ll get something (not necessarily a song). Keep it. Tomorrow you’ll get something more (maybe something good).

Do this before Robbie or Mariah call. They won’t know you didn’t prepare it especially for them.

FAWM? No it isn’t.

February is album writing month! No it isn’t.  

Just ship it! No, please don’t. 

50/90? No, no, no, 0.5555555 times no.

I get it – the idea is to have confidence in your work and not be so worried about imperfections that it never gets out the door. And also to get some songs finished rather than having them languish while you add yet more ideas and half-done projects into the funnel. Guilty!

However, these “get it out of the door” challenges generally promote derivativism, tediousness, cliches and rhyme crime. The opposite of what SongExpresso stands for!

Expresso can be quick; but it must always be rich. With the best ingredients we can find…

Our aim on here is to take some time and get some inspiration to make those songs as perfect as we can get them – and at the very least to make us feel we’ve given them everything we’ve got. To produce lyrics that are thoughtful, colorful and attention-grabbing. To get those songs out of the door – but in the right way.

If you need a middle eight, or even just a non-awkward-sounding word, SongExpresso won’t let you hack something together – let’s take some time, smell the coffee and get it right…

It’s like having yet another Expresso when you don’t want one (there is a limit even to that).

The “write a little bit every day” challenge? Yes, it’s like the “have a coffee for breakfast challenge” – let’s sign up for that.

Do you disagree? Do you think these challenges are useful even if just as a means to an end and not an end in themselves? Let me know…