I have set aside January and February to write songs for the ‘Found’ project so I’m very much focused on my art. So maybe I was more in tune with a blog post by my friend Jon Griffin than I would normally have been, but it’s the best meditation on the dark art of songwriting I have read, it perfectly explains the slow unveiling of the soul that goes on and the vulnerability that follows. At one point he says: ‘..however poor they may be, however unsuccessful in conception or reception, they are pieces of my soul; vented like steam and left behind me like a breadcrumb trail through the disappearing years of my life.’ You can read the piece in full here.
Then, as I finished reading Jon’s piece, I immediately received a message from someone I have shared a stage with on numerous occasions Markus Rill (himself a great song-writer) asking if I would say some words about how I go about writing songs for a book that he is compiling. He asked some great questions and it was nice to be able to elaborate on that oft asked question, ‘do you start with the words or the music?’. For those who are curious to know the answer, here’s the discussion in full.
Markus: I understand songs come in all shapes & sizes. Some come quickly, some take time – some start with a title, some with a couple lines, some with a musical idea.
Please tell us, if you can, how you usually find a song. Or tell us about the different ways you might find one. What gets you started, how long do you work on a song (roughly speaking), when do you know if it’s done?
Paul: Most of the songs I write start with some very small seed of an idea, often just a word or phrase, occasionally a melody, sometimes a chord change or even a riff. From that tiny idea the melody and lyric tend to develop outwards simultaneously. If a lyric suggests itself the chords and melody will follow closely behind and vice versa. I don’t have much patience so tend not to work on a song for very long, certainly no more than three hours at a stretch and that is interspersed with many coffee breaks. I will walk away from a song and come back to it later that day or week. In some instances a song will remain in an unfinished state for months, what usually happens then is that I come back to it and realise it is actually finished or needs some very small addition to make it complete. I find that songs mature very quickly once they’re started and sit there like a piece of new furniture and often an unfinished song sits there for so long that it’s shortcomings disappear and you start to like it in it’s unfinished state.
I never have an urge or compulsion to write so I often set myself tasks to kick me out of my inertia. I’ve volunteered myself to write songs on demand on several occasions, writing two songs a day about festival-goers was a great challenge, and I offer a bespoke song-writing service where I will write a song about you or someone you know. Sometimes I or a fellow song-writer will offer up a theme and a deadline. I love these challenges.
Markus: How do you rewrite? How objective can you be about your own songs?
Paul: I seldom rewrite. However what I do find is that if I have been really struggling with a song and find myself getting deeper and deeper into a hole and the song is getting worse rather than better, if I stop and start again from scratch, a new and much better song can spring up very quickly, unleashing all those thoughts and ideas from the tight constraints you’d been trying to squeeze them into is often very rewarding.
It’s fairly impossible to know how good a song is when you’re inside it and toiling away at it. As songwriters we develop a very individualised and finely tuned sense of what we believe to be good and bad in a song and hopefully apply that taste filter as we write. However, sometimes a song can pull us in strange directions, and sometimes it’s appropriate to throw away your self-censorship to see what develops. It’s why I like to write to very tight deadlines, you have to go with your instinct and first thought where otherwise you would have the luxury of questioning and changing your mind. It’s a very good way of developing your instinct.
A finished song takes time to settle before you can see what it really looks like and if it works. And even after a long time it’s impossible to be objective, some of my least favourite songs are the most popular with my audience and my favourites barely get any interest at all. It can be quite difficult to come to terms with that.
Markus: How much of your song-writing comes from the gut, how much of it is conscious? Is there a difference regarding lyrics and melody?
Paul: That question goes right to the heart of it. It is always a balance, left-brain, right-brain; the art and the craft; inspiration and perspiration. For me I have to create a need to write, an opportunity for the muse to visit, and at first I submit to accident, like a solo brainstorming session, walking around my house with the guitar I just let ideas fall out uncensored making up nonsense until something catches and hits a nerve. Then I use my craft, all the tricks I have learned to tease out the song from that idea, it’s the craft that tells me which chords work, how to pick the right words. As you work your way through the song inspiration will strike at various points but it’s your craft and your practice that gets you to those points.
Also, as any songwriter will attest, often you don’t know what you’ve written until it’s finished, you can let yourself write a load of nonsense that at the end can be the most profound thing you’ve ever written. Sometimes, even if a line makes no sense I’ll go with it because it often develops it’s own meaning.
Markus: Do you co-write? If so, what do you like about it, how does it differ from your solo writing process?
Paul: I’ve done very little of this, when I have it has been a very separate process, though I think that was because I was inexperienced and unconfident of my abilities at the time. I’d like to give it a go now and see what happens.
Markus: Do you remember a song you wrote that taught you something, that provided a watershed moment or an epiphany?
Paul: When I wrote ‘Vapour Trails’ on my first album I was really struggling to find the right chords, I was trying much too hard and losing the idea, the thread and the spark of the song. The melody seemed to suggest something much more complex. Eventually I realised that I had the chords there already, it didn’t need any more, the four chords I had were more than adequate. Kentucky Fried Chicken has an acronym that it uses as its business model ‘KISS: keep it simple, stupid’, that’s now my mantra.
Around the same time I began writing in my head rather than with the guitar in my hands, it allowed me to come up with ideas beyond my limitations as a guitarist, and stopped me starting every song-writing session with an obligatory ‘G’ chord. I also stopped writing with chords, just using a bass note and the occasional 5th or 3rd, this freed up the creative process immensely. Get the bones of the song down as quickly and as simply as possible, you can flesh it out later, it also leaves the song in a better state to write arrangements around, much less limiting.
Markus: What’s a song by somebody else that you learned from? What do you admire about it?
Paul: Pretty much everything by Tim Hardin, I’m not his greatest fan but what I did realise from his songs is that they can be very small and all the more beautiful because of it. I don’t mean short, I mean a simple idea, a simple chord progression and no real development. We covered his song ‘Misty Roses’, a perfect song, but the verse is only 3 chords and the chorus is the same pattern played a fourth up. The lyrics have one simple idea that is repeated in each verse with slight variations. All his songs have this similar structure. It’s a combination of his blues background and his own drug induced laziness, but the smallness and simplicity is beauty enough, the lack of development and ornamentation makes them as simple and concise and as perfect as a Matisse line drawing.
Markus: Some of our songwriting workshops deal with the effects of perfect rhymes vs. imperfect rhymes, the number of lines in a verse or chorus, long lines vs. shorter lines and other tools. How conscious are you of these elements as you write?
Paul: I love writing without rhyme, I try to do it but often fail. I wrote a song this week that started off with no rhyme but soon fell into a pattern. There is nothing more satisfying in a song than a clever rhyme that you don’t expect, when it falls mid-word or carries over into the next line or comes earlier than it should. For me songs can and should breath new life into words. Not just the rhyme but the overall soundscape of the words, where they fall in the rhythm and meter and how they sound when sung are all important. The music should give the words a new dimension.
Markus: Do you use metaphors often or sparingly? How do you come up with metaphors?
Paul: Cocteau once stated that ‘all art is poetry’ and I believe metaphor is central to this idea. A metaphor serves to make the familiar strange, to make us view it from a new perspective. A song should do this. Words are our bluntest tools as we use them every day and so we need to make them strange, not just with literal metaphor but with putting everything into a fresh context so people listen. This applies too to the song structure, there should always be a curveball, be it an unexpected chord, a note that falls or rises as it shouldn’t, a middle 8 that goes somewhere else completely. The whole song should be a metaphor, presenting the ordinary in a surprising and new context that makes you listen and take note.
Markus: Do you consider yourself a prolific writer? How many songs do you write in a year? Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with it?
Paul: I am not prolific, I need to create projects and artificial deadlines to get me started. I find it better and easier to create periods of time when all I will do is write songs, that way I remain in song-writing mode rather than having to spend time ‘warming up’ and ‘tuning in’. I love these periods as I often find once the juices are flowing that I wake up thinking of ideas and struggle to sleep because I can’t stop. When I worked full time running a bookstore it was difficult to find these periods of time, I remember writing my second album in the two weeks spent recovering from surgery. I seldom experience writers block, it’s good to persevere with a song, no matter how bad, as you learn from each mistake, and you can always salvage something from every discarded song.
Markus: What’s your demo process? Do you use a cell phone or something similar for rough ideas and demos? How fleshed out are your demos?
Paul: I sing into my iphone. I do this when I have an idea even when not writing. Every little idea no matter how small is always a great starting point when you do finally sit down to write. And as I write I record my progress at each stage, you never know when that phone might ring and make you lose your thread. Also, even the best song can be forgotten overnight.
Markus: Who are usually the first people that hear your songs? Your partner, your band members? How important is their feedback?
Paul: My wife! I find it almost impossible to write if anyone else is in the house as I tend to need to walk around as I write, getting inspiration from different rooms; sitting at a desk feels like too much pressure. However, when she comes home I always play her what I’ve done. It’s not always great as often I’m having to remember it all for the first time and it’s often very stilted. She’s usually kind which is quite important at this stage when I’m quite proud and protective of my new baby, but I can usually sense how she really feels and can usually get her to tell me what she doesn’t like about it.
Markus: When do you start thinking about arrangement? Is that a part of the songwriting process or does it come later? How does the song change when you bring it to the band?
Paul: Often I write with the end line-up in mind. My second album was written very much for the band I was touring with, playing to their strengths. As a result, very few of those songs could be performed solo on guitar so the next tranche of songs were deliberately written to be performed alone. At the moment I am writing with a defined sonic idea in mind and also with the idea of a complete performance, so I am very conscious of the overall tone of the finished collection, and am trying to make it interesting overall with variations of tempo and mood.
Markus: Do you perform songs live before they are recorded? If so, how does that help shape them?
Paul: Usually no, what works live seldom has the same effect in the studio and vice versa so I try to keep the two mediums separate.
Markus: How do you separate the weed from the chaff? How do you pick the songs that’ll go on an album?
Paul: Not being that prolific I seldom have too much choice, usually there are just a couple of excess songs which is enough to enable me to choose a selection that works together as a whole.
Markus: Do you sometimes go back to discarded and/or unreleased songs/song ideas and find you are now able to finish them to your satisfaction?
Paul: Not often, but there are many times when I will pick the bones of an old song, or when I am writing a line that was previously thrown away fits just right in the new context.
Markus: What inspires you? Music, books, movies, art?
Paul: All of the above, but mostly life. I think it’s very hard to write in a way that is not to some degree autobiographical. I’m inspired by the lives of my friends and colleagues. Nothing that comes out hasn’t gone in somewhere.
Markus: Have you ever studied song-writing or read song-writing books? Have you studied literature or creative writing? What did you get out of it?
Paul: I’ve gone through periods where I’ve been particularly admiring of a particular songwriter and have been interested in their routine and modus operandi, the internet lets you satisfy your curiosity immediately, so I’ll seldom read a whole book about it.
Markus: Any tips for aspiring or beginning songwriters? Any firm beliefs that you hold about song-writing? Any wisdom you’d like to impart?
1/ Don’t sit at a desk to write.
2/ Think how you will stand or sit when you perform the song, sometimes the right stature or attitude can be a good starting point.
3/ Begin! Prevarication and postponement is not your art-form.
4/ Write on the biggest piece of paper you can find.
5/ Don’t write in a straight line, if you come up with a great last line write it down, write the bits that come easy then fill in the gaps.
6/ Try writing without an instrument.
7/ Limitations are good, set yourself some artificial ones (eg. don’t use the letter ‘T’, write as if I were a horse, only use two chords etc)
8/ You’re not Bob Dylan, three verses is more than enough!
9/ Don’t shy away from the obvious
10/Avoid the obvious