How do you make a song?

'How do you make a song,' someone asked on one of the songwriting boards I frequent. That's an interesting question, and there is no "right" answer to that. I think we all have our own way of working... and I think the manner in which we create really depends on the inspiration of the moment.

My old method of writing was to sit with a notebook & pen and my guitar, and just start playing... I'd fool with different chord progressions and just sing whatever came to my mind until I found a scrap of lyric that resonated with me. I'd continue, improvising melody, lyric and chord progression. During this process the most important thing to me was how the song "felt". The vibrations and energy in my body as I sang were most important... if I was moved in some way, if I had tears in my eyes as I sang or if it made me laugh or feel good, then I wrote it down. Say at that point I had two lines I really liked. Then I'd sing those two lines and improvise a line after them. I'd continue to improvise until I found the next line. Sometimes that next line would come two weeks later... but I'd keep mulling around with what I had until inspiration hit for the next part.

Other times the whole thing would just flow out of me in one sitting. (Nice when that happens - but you can't force it, it comes when it comes, you have to have your antenna up and immediately run to write it down or record it in some way... or sing it over and over in the hopes that you won't forget it before you get home cause it's really hot and is really and truly the perfect next line.)

Obviously the organic response of my inner spirit was and is a big part of this writing process. The sensations within me as I play and sing are my touchstones, my guides to what is "working" for me.

As I put these songs out for feedback, I received critiques that my melodies were meandering (I come from a classical background, I thought repetition within a section was boring) and that the sections in my songs lacked sufficient contrast, my songs were usually too long (5 to 6 minutes long). I began to understand that my organic process was vital in creating something unique, but was just the first step in crafting a song.

Nowadays I usually begin with lyrics. The reason for that is simple: the lyrics set the structure, and form & structure, good rhyming, visual imagery, etc., take time to craft. Once I have crafted the lyrics to my satisfaction, then I keep them on my desk and read them over now and then… sometimes I’ll play a little with music and nothing will come… another time I might get a line or two -- so my process with music is that same organic process as I've described above, but it has a frame of reference. I’ll improvise (singing) repeatedly, trying different chord progressions, and then sing the stuff I like over and over until I can remember it… I’ll usually record a verse & chorus once I’ve got the basics together.

For me, lyrics tend to ‘arrive’ more easily to me than ‘melody’ so it’s always a challenge to be inspired to create music… and good lyrics inspire me.

Sometimes, through collaboration with an awesome musician, I am challenged to create something in a different way. For example, Arie Boom (Netherlands) and I are working on a song. He sent me an instrumental sample he had - it had a great groove and some really awesome change-ups for the different sections. I took the groove and wrote a lyric that matched the pentameter... and then improvised the melody over his cool electonica-styled background & added vocal harmonies. We both think it's great & are working on putting it all together.

Another thing I enjoy doing is working on back-up vocals. I'll improvise harmonies around the lead, just following my organic process. It's fun and refreshing.

I have several lyricists I work with, Michael Kavanagh in particular. If they send me something which instantly leaps out at me - to which I respond organically in some way - then I use that inspirational response to improvise and come up with music that reflects my reaction to the visions their words create in me. Again, the process can't be rushed and may take two hours, two days, or two months (in one case, I think it took 3 years lol).

Sometimes people say to me "is there anything you don't do" (and the answer is, 'yes, there are many things I can't do lol'), but I believe that diversity is tremendously important in keeping the creative spirit engaged. So if I work on painting a picture, or cook a nice meal, or make a piece of jewelry, or edit a book, or go for a walk in the rain, or smell the newly blossoming lilacs, or hug a friend, or have a really yummy cup of coffee, it's just as important to my process as taking guitar lessons or participating on a songwriting board, or singing. My teaching is also very important to my process... I am honoured that my students share their individual vocal & creative journey with me, they keep me focussed... and everything I say to them I also say to myself... which is often a very good thing lol.

My soundclick page is a collection of various things I've worked on, in various stages of completion (some are masters, some are roughs).

Songwriting boards I recommend:

Creative resources:
- if you have the motivation, I highly recommend "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron. It was the reading (and DOING) of this book that galvanized me to begin painting, songwriting and 'playing' again... and paying attention in my life again;
- I also highly recommend Bob Baker's blog & books - always inspiring --;
- for songwriters, books by John Braheny, Jason Blume and Pat Pattison are great resources as well;
- my “wise bird” blog contains info & tips about the music industry… I enjoy posting on songwriting boards and the info is hopefully helpful, so I thought I’d start a blog with the Q & A’s that have come up --

Let me know if you found this helpful/interesting. You can always post a comment here or email me at I'm a little slow at answering emails and sometimes read them and think I'll answer later and then forget... lol... I'm just a kid. Which reminds me... I got several projects on the go... what do I want to play with today?

1 comment:

Sultress of Swing said...

I find you thoroughly inspiring. Thanks for sharing. I'll keep coming back to read up on your stuff. When I get discouraged, you keep me going with my stuff, y'know?

Take care & God bless