My Songwriting Process

Me and Cyrus started up another blog-off contest, seeing who could keep up regular entries for longer, this time at a more manageable rate of once a week.  Deadline is Sunday night; here’s me making sure I don’t eff the dog right off the bat.

I want to talk a little about how my songwriting process works.  Partly because it’s the aspect of my music that I feel the most confident about, but like the green magician I can’t help but divulge the secret behind the trick; but also because I’m curious how other songwriters’ processes might differ.  For me, most every song has a ‘seed’ lyric; one line around which everything else is built.  Sometimes it’s exactly the line you would expect, like the words ‘married to the sea’ in the song “Married To The Sea”, or ‘Either kick me out, or kiss me back’ in “The State Of The Garden”*.  But a lot of my songs don’t really have a catchy chorus (for a long time I didn’t really know how to write them; not that I really know how now, but catchier ideas pop into my head than before).  What do you suppose the seed lyric was for “Come Closer”?  I’m interested to know what you think it was; take a second, I’ll wait.

The answer: “But all the things we used to do, you said you never could again / Well, that’s okay, we don’t have to, though we were pretty good at them.”  If you thought it was something different, you should write it in the comments!  Let’s do a different one.  “World’s Oldest Profession” was actually a whole different song (still a breakup song, but much less angry) that got scrapped, and two lyrics that came from the original should properly be considered its seeds.  And those are 1) the first four lines of the second verse (“Dear, you were an artist”) and 2) “You don’t bring your face so near /unless it’s to threaten my life”.

Then sometimes there are songs that grow out of a general concept, like “Red Balloon”, where I first had the idea of simply portraying a series of moments where one is experiencing one event in reality and mentally reliving another.  I actually made a list of situations I wanted to juxtapose that contrasted sharply but yet seemed to have some shred of a common theme, e.g. not being able to pay one’s bills and being outmanuevered in a fistfight, or the adrenaline rush felt in both lovemaking and being in a car accident.  The theme of loss only began to emerge as I wrote more and more verses, and the red balloon device came at the end of the lyrical process; I think the first and last verse were the last two I penned.

Obviously this is all about the lyrical process; there’s lots more I could say about how it’s set to music, probably for another post.  I’ll just say now that usually the seed lyric has a melodic line or at least a melodic ‘shape’, although it could change later; I actually never like to write any chords until all the words are done, for fear that I might write shitty filler to fit the preconceived phrase.  Anyway, I’m interested to know how other people approach their nascent song ideas.  Comment, goddamnit!  Thank you.

Love, Shareef

*If you’re thinking about joking that the ‘balls deep’ lyric was the ‘seed’, don’t bother.  I already thought of that and determined that it wasn’t fit to print.

9 thoughts on “My Songwriting Process

  1. I have trouble composing both music and lyrics, but I’ve got plenty of lyrical themes. I think I approach it differently than you, where I compose the main rhythm and chord progression first, then compose a melody, then try to come up with lyrics that fit around a theme that I feel works with the music. But I’m fascinated by other songwriters’ techniques, particularly yours, since your songs seem to just pour out of you and your lyrics are consistently brilliant. Thanks for sharing this bit of insight!

    • Thanks for your kind words Mike. Actually that’s sort of similar to my own process when I first started songwriting. I’d start jamming on a chord progression or riff, and then I’d take some lyrics with a pretty generic rhyme scheme and kind of fit them to it. The result for me were not so stellar; usually the melodic lines were very flat and the songs tended to be overly long as I would write a ton of words but didn’t know too much about musical variation yet. When I studied composition in college I started attempting a more classical approach, starting with a melodic line and then harmonizing it. I don’t typically compose the line all the way through anymore, but as I said I won’t pick up an instrument until all the words are done and usually there’s the sketch of a contour for at least parts of it.

  2. I love your lyrics. I’ve never been much of a lyricist but more of a feeling painter. The song starts with an intense feeling that I usually find through the tactile experience of playing the keys (they need to be on an acoustic piano, the feeling comes much stronger with the contact of ivory.) eventually after a seed music/feeling phrase develops I start to either hear words or see a clear image. But that doesn’t work so well anymore as I’m not really feeling the stream-of-consciousness lyric style, so I’ve been stuck.

    • Thanks Danielle! The ‘feeling painter’ approach is one I’ve dabbled in just a little, though not for awhile. I would say for me nowadays the music is generally suggested by the words, not the other way around. One downside (or perhaps simply a limitation) to this is that rhythmic and harmonic events tend to be less emphasized and/or structural. Another thing I’ll note is that it’s exceedingly seldom for me that the lyrics in the songs end up in the order that I penned them; the second verse become the first, what I thought would be the pre-chorus becomes the bridge, and the seed lyric, which at the moment of inspiration I believe would be the centerpiece of the song, is buried in some passing moment.

  3. My writing process is actually pretty similar to yours, Shareef. I often start with a line that pops into my head, which often but not always comes with a melody attached. Often it does actually become the first line of the song or the hook at the end of the chorus, but not always.

    I find if I write melodies and lyrics away from an instrument, they tend to be melodically stronger and more interesting than if I write the musical structure first. But I also have more trouble remembering the beginnings of the harmonic structure that I was hearing under the melody if I’m going to come back to it, so I’ll try to get to my guitar pretty soon. I tend to start putting changes under the melody once I have one section down melodically & lyrically — like a chorus or a verse. From there the melody, lyrics and changes kind of go back and forth, but almost always with the lyrics and melody leading. Sometimes this can lead to filler lyrics as I flesh out the accompaniment, but I allow myself to write lots of lyrical options and then come back and figure out what I’m actually trying to convey — move everything around and cross things out until the best narrative and lines come through. It’s not always the most efficient process, but it works for me.

    • Exactly! There’s so much more of a melodic *identity* when you’re not already tied to a chord progression. Although as a rule in rock/popular music you’re allowed to hang onto one note and stay in one range for a lot longer than in classical, and pushing those bounds even by a small degree carries a lot more weight.

  4. Like you Shareef, I’m all about the words. My default tendency is to convey maximum verbal content in minimum time. I’ll bang out lil stanzas in Notepad until something grabs me, then I’ll usually get a whole verse done. Open Ableton, flip through my funk records, mess with drum breaks until I’ve got the right groove, then add musical layers/more words as inspiration dictates.

    Due to my typing speed I tend to be more verbose on a computer than on paper, so I usually type raps (since I can afford the wordcount) and pen the more lyrical stuff (since it’s gotta be sparse). At this point I’m comfortable enough on Notepad to write a good 4-16 lines before I first sing ’em, then I’ll chop and revise and reorder until things sit right.

    Some interesting quirks I’ve noticed: first, my lyrical density has a LOT to do with my column width (wider column = more words per line). One line of rap often would not fit on one line of paper, which is another benefit of typing. Secondly, breaking from normal stanza formatting has been rather liberating. What might look gross on the page (phrase breaks mid line, asymettric line lengths, strange rhyme schemes) can sound great on the record. It can be exhausting to write this way–feels driving without a map–but you can get cool stuff done.

    • I like the idea of generating a lot more content than you’ll end up eventually using, and then composing by deletion. Though I usually write in a notebook, I absolutely agree that page width affects verse. I don’t know if I told you, I used to write some ‘rhymes’, some ‘flows’…I went to college, I ‘experimented’…sometime we should spit together…

  5. wow…i actually have a ton of thoughts on this that i guess i’ve never quite expressed, will have to do that on a note on fb and tag you later, but a few short words here, for what they’re worth:
    My muse hits me from all different directions. Sometimes entire songs hit me all at once, music and lyrics, where i write like a madman to get it all down…sometimes entire lyrics but no music, music but no lyrics…sometimes bits and pieces, a simple phrase that becomes the rock in my shoe…i once had a song about a man being led into the hills, seduced and murdered come to me while driving thru the Appalachian foothills in East Tennessee at 2am (a VERY disconcerting experience, as it was a style and subject matter i had no experience with)…the best stuff (in my admittedly biased opinion) seems to somehow write itself…if i get too analytical or try to force the process things tend to come out…well…sounding contrived and like i forced the process. Then again there are those wonderful moments when i KNOW a line just isn’t right, but can’t for the life of me figure out how to fix it…those Don Music (from Sesame Street) bashing his head against the piano moments (sometimes music hurts).
    That said, perhaps the best chorus i’ve ever written was a project for a songwriting class which started as a challenge to see if i could write a country song:
    Out of reach, out of touch,
    Out of the arms that long to hold you so much
    Out of my house, out of my hair,
    Out of a world that crumbles when you’re not there
    Out of love, out of time,
    Out of control, out of my mind
    Out of my hands, out of my heart
    And out of my life.

    Having received much positive feedback on the song, i did what only came natural: shelved it and refused to play it for years…i don’t just write about self-sabotage, i actively engage in it :D But nonetheless, i did gain a great appreciation for the technical aspects of crafting a song (though i have completely and intentionally purged the Nashville Number System from my mind).
    Ah, but i’m rambling on in a self-obsessed way that i usually reserve only for my songs…i’ll try to post something a bit more cohesive (and perhaps relevant) on fb…thank you for writing this, it’s really gotten my rusty gears a-turnin’…

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