I get asked a lot about songwriting. Where it comes from, what inspires, and how it all comes together.
Easy question to ask on the surface. Until you start unpacking it. What’s a ‘song’? If it’s just words and chords, then you’d think the component parts would be compelling on their own. But there’s something about the combination that can make it quite a bit more than just poetry and a G-C-D strumming pattern. People spend careers trying to understand this recipe, and opinions on the topic run all over the map.
I think we’re all trying to do the same thing, though… communicate the intangible. Songwriters don’t want to tell you about a sunset. We want you to see the colors of the sky and feel the evening breeze on your face. We don’t want to simply talk about our anger… we want your indignation to rise and your pulse pound with ours.
And that’s the thing that I find so cool about songwriting. It’s open ended. Now, if your goal is to write a pop country hit, there’s things you can, and should do, to hedge that bet (no longer than 3:30, get to business quickly, into the chorus by 45 seconds, write about things people can relate to, have a catchy, anthematic chorus, etc). But really, it boils down to what you want to say and what you want to leave your listeners with.
The down side of that is that inspiration often strikes when least expected, and from unusual places. A visual image. Something you hear on the bus. A smell. A sudden burst of emotion. A memory. An idea or a challenge. Many’s the time I have awakened from sleep with a melody or a lyrical line teetering on the edge of perception. I have learned to try to capture these fleeting moments. Vic and I have both had the experience of stopping on the bike path and scribbling down ideas before they flit away like spooked mayflies. (By the way, I have just given you the specific sources of inspiration for 4 of the songs on the upcoming compilation. True story…)
No matter the initial inspiration, a ‘song’ will usually end up having three foundations. A melody, a chord structure, and lyrics. These foundations help make a song more memorable. You might also use the term ‘hooky’. Certainly you don’t *NEED* all these. Black metal songs don’t follow this rule, with constantly changing chord progressions, dissonant melodies, and unintelligible lyrics. Black metal will also never be as popular as pop music because of it. …Okay, there’s also that whole misanthropic Satan thing that black metal embraces. But you get the idea.
If I am lucky, all of these parts will come together at once. Supercollide was such a song; from the get-go I knew what chords to play and where the lyrics and melody would fit. That doesn’t usually happen, though. More often than not it comes in bits and pieces. I’ll have a cool riff, or lyric sets at varying levels of completion, or sometimes just a new keyboard patch that sounds like it could go somewhere. Rockethead came from experiments with bass guitar tone. More on THAT later.
So. When inspiration is often fickle or incomplete, what do you do? Hard and fast rule: you don’t take it personally. It’s par for the course; good songs rarely fall out of the metaphorical sky on golden tablets. You take a breath, pour a drink, and roll up your sleeves, and Develop the song. It’s a very rewarding (if often frustrating) process.
We’ll get into that next entry.