Songwriting - Insight From Well-Known Musicians

Need advice? Hear what some well-known musicians have to say about their songwriting methods, as well as some ramblings and other tips.

Ultimate Guitar

Instead of sharing my own thoughts, I thought it'd be cool to share some insight from artists that you might listen to, or artists that you might have just heard of. Whether you take up on what they've said, I think it's just great to be privy to their thoughts.

Conor Oberst:

"The starting point is feeling a strong emotion or mood, whether it's happy or sad or anger about the country going to war."

"The mood points me to the direction of the song and the mood can strike you any time. The next step is to find a melody that fits that mood, then try to write words that fit the melody."

"I learned a long time ago not to have a set of rules because that tends to limit your options [...] I do, however, have tendencies that I may fall back on.

"My favorite rhymes are sort of half-rhymes where you might just get the vowel sound the same, but it's not really a true rhyme. That gives you far more flexibility to capture the feeling you're trying to express. But sometimes it's best not to have any rhyme."

"I finally realized that anything is OK in writing a song, whatever tricks or cut-and-paste technique you want to try as long as you end up with the right feeling [...] Obviously most of what I write is sort of drawn directly out of my life because that's what I have the most access to. But anything else is also fair game, anything that stimulates ideas -- observing people, watching movies, listening to records."

Jack White:

"I'm not someone who writes 50 songs a week and then picks the best one [...] I don't bother going through the process unless it is good from the get-go. The songs usually arrive by accident, and the idea has to mean something to me."

[About writing "Seven Nation Army"]"I played the riff again and it sounded interesting, so the next thing I usually do in a case like that is try to think of the first thing that comes into my head -- how it makes me feel. I think I said something like 'I'm gonna back it up,' which suggested I was up against something. OK, now what's going on? Why do you feel that way. I thought of this character whose friends are all gossiping about him and he feels so bad he has to leave town, but you get so lonely you come back."

[About lyric inspiration]"I learn a lot about myself through the songs, but I try to avoid talking about my own problems because it's boring. I like to see what's going on with other people and then write about that. It's a much bigger canvas, and I can learn from their experiences."

Both the Conor Oberst and Jack White quotes are from this article.

Elvis Costello:

[In response to the question "How do you go about writing lyrics?"] I write passing thoughts, overheard conversations, discovered quotations, advertising signs, mumbled threats and words of kindness and endearment on scraps of paper. Sometimes I mutter them into dictaphones or record them onto my answer-machine when there is not an eyebrow pencil to hand in order to commit them to the page. Only very occasionally do I actually write directly into one of the numerous beautifully bound notebooks that I have purchased for the task. These usually contain lists of probable titles or 'long-form' descriptions of possible songs that some might call short stories. In the end they are filled with the various drafts of songs in progress.

When I begin to write, I sometimes like to transfer fragments - collected weeks, months or even years apart - on to a page in an A2 sketch pad (very large, very white paper). Connections can then be established and the page quickly resembles a mad equation of fluorescent pink arrows connecting one stanza to another, circled in lime green highlighter.

Eventually, some sense and rythm emerges and they are married to music. Sometimes it's then better to remove dull, literal sense once the meaning is clear to oneself. It is this space that the listener's imagination may choose to reside or invent.

It is easier to cheat the rhythmic structure of the musical material when one is composing alone. Many of my early songs have irregular structure for this reason. A computer is only of use to me to type a final legible draft. I have a writer friend who only writes on one model of typewriter, because the quirks of the mechanism and the appearances of typeface are reassuring. I find that, despite the variety of fonts available, the ordered appearance of the computer screen kills the rhythm of the written word. Sometimes the page needs to be tiny and crumpled. Sometimes it needs to be vast and pristine.

Some small tips:- 1) Always get up in the night to write down that line that comes to you just before sleep. You won't remember it in the morning. 2) Practice writing legibly in the dark. 3) Make sure that scrap of paper by your bedside is not a valuable cheque or priceless antique manuscript or something that you will not want to deface. It will also make your nocturnal script hard to decipher. 4)Some of the best songs arrive in the imagination, complete in words and music. 5)A song that you heard in your dreams just before you awoke is nearly always impossible to recall. Anyway, it was probably The Teddy Bear's Picnic played backwards.

[In response to the question "Any golden rules - like there's no rhyme for 'orange'?"] I disagree. I think 'revenge' can be made to rhyme with 'orange', though I accept it is not a pure rhyme. They are also both dishes best eaten cold. A few random observations:- 1) Assonance can be very liberating and tart. 2) Puns are better saved for bad greeting cards that you could buy your annoying uncle. 3) Could rap exist without the simile? 4) There is music in words and meaning is music. This is probably why so many show singers over emote. They do not seem to trust the music because they are actors at heart and trust in words. 5) Maybe they are all just dreadful hams.

Bob Dylan:

[About environment] "Now for me, the environment to write the song is extremely important. The environment has to bring something out in me that wants to be brought out. It's a contemplative, reflective thing. Feelings really aren't my thing. See, I don't write lies. It's a proven fact: Most people who say I love you don't mean it. Doctors have proved that. So love generates a lot of songs."

Tom Waits:

[In response to the question "In your artist's statement for the new record, you say that your voice is really your instrument, which certainly seems true to anyone who has ever heard your records. Some of my favorite singers are the ones who sound a little out of control. Are you ever surprised or offended by what your voice can or cannot do?"]

"If you're still pushing the envelope and wanting to find out what this baby can do, or if you're still trying to imitate things-- most people start out by imitating. Slowly you develop your own voice. I like vocal word stuff. But I don't always write with an instrument, I usually write a capella. It's more like drawing in the air with your fingers. It's closest to the choreography of a bee. You're freer. You have no frets to constrict you, there are no frets on your voice, and that's a good feeling. So for composing melody, it's something you can do anywhere."

I won't quote from it, but Nick Cave has some interesting thoughts on 'love songs'.

Anyway, I hope that this provides some encouragement and some inspiration for you songwriters out there. Keep writing!

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