Saturday, 3 May 2014

How to Write a Song Part One (1969 - 1984)

Sorry serendipitous finders - this is not really a manual for how anyone can write a song; I thought the title 'How to Write a Song' might Google well. Instead this is a biography of my songwriting development, bearing in mind I had little formal music training. However, it's always worth considering how other people's songs come about and trying some different techniques.

Me and little brother in Sunday best, ready for a trip in the Renault 4 to Avebury

Age 7

I used to make up songs whilst in the car. We lived in Wiltshire, England and my parents thought it good practice to take the children out in the Renault 4 every weekend; usually to a white horse or a hill fort.  I can't remember whether my parents had any input into the songs or not - on reflection, maybe they were based on army or girl guide tunes - but once each had evolved, the whole family would join in. With no car radio, CD player etc,  I suppose we made our own entertainment, because it truly was the old days (and fancy me being alive then!).

My favourite composition went like this:

Reader's Digest AA Book of the Road - 1967 Vintage Road MapIt's the biggest man-made mound in Europe
It's the biggest man-made mound in Europe,
It's the biggest man-made mound
That ever can be found
It's the biggest man-made mound in Europe.

It's the biggest stack of standing stones in Europe,
It's the biggest stack of standing stones in Europe,
It's the biggest stack around
That ever can be found
It's the biggest stack of standing stones in Europe.

The two verses were sung whilst driving past Silbury Hill  and Avebury   respectively. It had an oompah kind of a tune, and I had done my research on the back seat, reading the 1969 AA Book of the Road, which I loved.

White Horse
Avebury, Wiltshire, UK


Songwriting tip 1

Sit in the back of a car driving through the countryside and make up a song. No instruments, bar the 4-stroke internal combustion engine, but that will create some kind of pulse. Think trumpets playing your melody, and get the driver to sing back some of the words as an echo (an echo).

Age 13

I REALLY liked the song Angie Baby sung by Helen Reddy (Written by Alan O'Day)   This version has a stallion bass mix.

Although this did not help me write any songs back then, it helped me identify what I liked in a good song - namely:
* an ordinary setting
* a narrative
* an air of mystery to the ending
* themes of madness and female importance

Songwriting tip 2

Find a song that really burns and work out what the important elements are. Then review your own work and see whether it comes anywhere near.

Age 17

My grounding was not in cool musicians like Bowie, T-Rex and Dylan, but in chart hits; disco, novelty songs, Bay City Rollers. Most of them were dreadful. I was aware of heavy rock and those progressive bands where the men had long hair and sang falsetto, but had written them off as boring boys' stuff. Then punk came along. Not the first wave of American New York Dolls; nor the second wave of Malcolm McLaren's London, but the regional explosion that came with The Buzzcocks and The Swell Maps, and the girls in bands like The Raincoats and Delta Five.
Suddenly there was a reason to write songs. Not for the good of the English countryside, but for the sheer excitement of being 17 and being a powerful girl in a corrupted world. I don't think I hated anything or anyone; I had none of the punk tantrum in me, but I did have energy for sarcasm and two friends that believed. And that is all you need.

I wrote a song with The Devices called 'College Boys' in which I imagined what it would be like at university, where girls were cool and boys were pathetic idiots. In the song, (narrative, of course) I get picked up by a lad who boasts to his friends about his sexual prowess but is unable to maintain his hot rod in the presence of a ball busting princess like me. Well, I was 17.

Songwriter tip 3

Be 17. Get someone to play a bassline. Be sarcastic and joyful at the same time. Just be in a band and invite everyone to hear you. It will be great!

Age 23

The desire to write a song that had a clear political message mellowed into my wanting to tell the story of ordinary people's lives and situations brought about by politics and particularly power relationships. With lots of time and a depressive aura, I would sit and strum my guitar in sequences of chords that were satisfying. This usually included a B minor. I also discovered the sound of a capo on the second fret, which brought my preferred chordage into vocal range. Although I should have experimented more with alternative tunings, I tended to find that the result was too folksy and dreary. Instead I stuck to the post-punk power pop with a few B minors thrown in to show I was serious and down-trodden.

Lyrically, I went through a period of being deliberately obscure. I only half-knew myself what I was going on about, but there was an attempt to intrigue the listener and probably to play the intellectual.

I had a bass-playing friend who would come round to write songs with me. This involved sitting on the floor. I had a book where I had previously written song ideas - sometimes full verses and chorus - other times just groups of words or a concept. He would inevitably say, "I've got this bass run, and I would fit some of my ideas to it vocally, whilst playing the related chords. In this way, we'd work out a basic idea, which I would then work on later before playing it through with the drummer.

Songwriter tip 4

If you get ideas for words, write them down in a book. When you look at them weeks later, they may prove to be terrible, but at least you have them. They might form the basis of a classic song, or, twenty eight years later, you could show them to the world in a blog. Also, on a guitar, never stray too far from the B minor.

To be continued.... including the switch from writing the lyrics first to vocal melody first!