ADVICE FOR SONGWRITERS

This afternoon I stumbled across an email, dated four years ago to the day. It’s a list of songwriting tips, put together at the behest of a good friend. At the time I was playing in four bands, and writing the best songs of my life for The Bluffhearts. I stand by it all, and offer it unconditionally to my fellow tunesmiths.

  1. The only thing worse than being too obvious is not being obvious enough.
  2. The first song I ever wrote was a literal account of a carefree afternoon. It had three verses, a key change for the chorus, a bridge and about eight chords. It took several weeks to finish. The last song I wrote has just three chords and took half an hour to write. It is a much better song. Distil, distil, distil.
  3. If you hear the same chord progression in more than one song, that means it’s up for grabs. Talent borrows, genius steals.
  4. You don’t always have to live it to write it. Songwriting is about feeling – if you can conjure up what it would feel like, write about that. You don’t have to be cuckolded to imagine how it feels. Diane Warren, writer of Aerosmith’s smash Don’t Want To Miss A Thing, answered “Oh god, no! I have a life!” when asked if she had ever lain awake just to watch someone breathing. If you have no imagination, you will struggle to write songs.
  5. It’s fun to write in character. Take a step outside yourself.
  6. Your limitations + your influences = your style. Accept your limitations as hidden strengths – for example, if you have a limited vocal range (like mine), you are forced to write melodies that more people can sing.
  7. Lyrically, it’s best to start with the title. You can build a whole song (or album) out of one good phrase or thought.
  8. Performing songs is entertainment. Therefore, they should be entertaining. Too many people forget this.
  9. The best way to win over a crowd? Be really, really good. If you’re not very good, act like you are.
  10. Never apologise on stage. Never. Never make excuses (“I have a cold tonight…”). Nine times out of nine the audience won’t even notice. But if you tell them you’re shit, they will believe you. Har Mar Superstar would finish a song and shout “Give it up for me I’m fucking awesome!”. People believed him.
  11. If you can’t think of something to write about, you can’t go wrong with sex.
  12. First thought, best thought. Overthinking is the death of creativity.
  13. I use a rhyming dictionary from time to time. If I know what I am trying to say but can’t find a way to make it fit, then I look up options for the first or second part of the couplet. I used to consider this cheating, but it’s the same as looking up a chord. It has made me a better songwriter – ’nuff said.
  14. Collaboration rules.
  15. If you’re stuck, start humming and strum G. It’s The People’s Key for a reason.
  16. Not every song you write has to be THE BEST SONG IN THE WORLD. If you are trying to write THE BEST SONG IN THE WORLD every time, you will end up with an awful lot of overblown songs. Don’t force it – you don’t have to use every trick in your arsenal every time.
  17. If you do write a song that you think is just ‘okay’, step back and see what you don’t like about it. Are the lyrics lousy? Is the melody too plain? No song is ever all bad – take out what you don’t like and start again.
  18. Never waste a melody. If it’s not strong enough to be the hook, use it somewhere else in the song. Transfer it to another instrument, use it to spice up the bass line, make it the outro, just don’t waste it.
  19. Keep everything. If I think of a good couplet or melody, I write it down or record it on my phone straightaway. Paul McCartney used to say that he never wrote down a tune – if he didn’t remember it the next day, it wasn’t worth remembering. There’s probably some truth in that, but I ain’t no Paul McCartney.
  20. A strong theme really, really helps. That’s the cool thing about country music – everything relates back to the chorus or hook. That returns to starting with a good title or phrase – the rest of the lyrics are just tangents from that, like a fishscale. Writing something without knowing where you are going is much harder and generally makes for an ambigious mess of meaningless piffle. If you can’t extrapolate a whole song from your title, then it ain’t a good title.
  21. Quantity is not the inverse of quality – once you’re on a roll, keep banging them out!
  22. I like religious imagery (Outta Bablyon, the Tower of Babel in Fruit First, Noah and his ark in Try Not To Think About It). To paraphrase Tom Waits – a little religion, a little weather, a broken heart and some sex. Put three chords under it and voila!
  23. The lyrics don’t always have to match the music – sometimes it’s better if they don’t. Not every minor key song should be a lament, and vice versa. Hank Williams knew this well – catchiest songs about suicide ever written.
  24. Confidence is key. Have faith in yourself.
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