Ideas for 2016: A year to write a song
Great songs tend to be about something, although you can always go with some gobbledegook and then make sense of it later
Paul McCartney initially sang “scrambled eggs” to the tune of Yesterday
Julie Feeney: “I’d have loads of bits written on bits of paper”
Ollie Cole: “The most valuable things you can teach are the classics”
Conor O’Brien of Villagers
Songwriting is the easiest art form. Three chords, a few notes and an interesting phrase and you have the bones of a new song. Everyone should do it.
I don’t remember the first song I wrote, but I remember singing things to my parents, who looked suitably awestruck. Aged 12 I wrote a parody song to the tune of Frankie by Sister Sledge. It was called Ronnie, was inspired by Spitting Image and was based on a sophisticated misunderstanding of the Iran-Contra affair. I sang it to some boys who were sitting on a wall. They were impressed. They got me to sing it for some other boys singing on another wall. We went to three walls. It was my first experience of being on tour.
In my mid-teens I got a guitar and wrote a song for every new chord I learned. I was listening to Dire Straits and Eric Clapton, so I wrote a lot from the perspective of a disappointed, middle-aged, married man. My song Skies of Blue opens with the line, “Maybe we’ll meet again, when this party’s over.” My song I Love You Still contained the lines, “We’re not young but we are free.” I was 15.
At 17 a friend introduced me to punk and the concept that you didn’t have to be good at your instrument to play in a band or write songs.
He showed me a picture that appeared in the zine Sideburns in 1977. It was a felt-tip pen drawing of the finger placement for three chords – A, E and G – with the words, “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.”
We wrote a lot of songs with three chords. We would just rhyme things we had read about in books and off we’d go.
Over the years I joined other bands and added more chords and (arguably) more narratively coherent lyricism to my songwriting. My songs got more personal. One of them even had my full name in the title, like something Prince might do.
My most recent song was a Christmas song cowritten with my wife, Anna Carey, and a friend, Mark Palmer, as a challenge set by my colleague Ronan McGreevy. After writing and recording it, we realised there was already a Bing Crosby song of the same name. This is because there is nothing new under the sun.
The same chord structures and sentiments recur again and again in the history of pop, but what constitutes a great song as opposed to a mediocre one with similar chords is hard to define. And there’s nothing wrong with a bit of imitation initially. Early Rolling Stones songs were failed attempts to play R&B standards.
Great songs tend to be about something, although during the songwriting process you can always go with some gobbledegook, then make sense of it later. David Bowie took inspiration from words cut from newspapers. Paul McCartney initially sang “scrambled eggs” to the tune of Yesterday. This was arguably a lost opportunity to write a plaintive song about scrambled eggs.
Songs can be about anything. The best song ever written, Wichita Lineman by Jimmy Webb, is about a lonely man who fixes telephone lines.
Songwriters are all different. Some write only when the muse strikes them. Others treat it like a job. Nick Cave goes to a room with a typewriter and a piano in it and works nine to five.
Some work quickly (Bob Dylan), others slowly (Leonard Cohen). Some have musical training (Kate Bush). Some do not (Mark E Smith). Some use an instrument, others just their voice. Some work alone. Others like having collaborators.
The role of drug-taking in good songwriting has been exaggerated by music journalists with no imaginations, but you can really grease the wheels of songwriting by putting the kettle on.
The KLF, in their book The Manual: How to Have a Number One the Easy Way, recommend tea-making as a very potent way of keeping a more talented collaborator onside. (Incidentally, this article isn’t about writing a hit song, but if you’re interested in that, you could do worse than read the KLF’s book.)
You should listen to plenty of songs and notice how they’re structured. The classic pop song structure is: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus. But ignore that if you want.
Take notes. Collect song titles and interesting thoughts and tunes that come to you on the bus. Record ideas on your phone. Or don’t record a thing, if you don’t feel like it. Willie Nelson took the view that if he didn’t remember an idea, it wasn’t worth remembering.
Arbitrary rules can be fun to work with. Decide you have to use at least six chords in your next song or that you’re going to write an album about llamas. If you can’t think of any arbitrary rules, get a pack of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards. Or your arbitrary rule could be: no arbitrary rules.
Trust your ears. If you’re having a good time, then you’re off to a good start.
At some point, if you want, play your songs for other people. This will help you to figure out what you really feel about what you’re playing. If you find yourself wincing at certain bits, you know they need work.
As I have said, songwriting is the easiest art form. On the other hand, writing a really good song is the hardest thing in the world. I’m not sure if I’ve ever written a good song. But I have had a lot of fun trying and I still have hope.
CONOR O’BRIEN: ‘EVERY IDEA IS VALID’
Where Have You Been all My Life?, an album of reinterpretation of songs from the Villagers frontman’s previous albums, will be out in January
What was the first song you wrote?
“It was a song called Psychic. I was 12. I had just learned three chords from my brother, and a week later, when I could kind of strum them, I knew I’d write a song. Then I learned a fourth chord – a G – and wrote a middle eight. It was about knowing that a friend was psychic and that they could read your mind. It sounded really like Green Day.”
Is emulation okay?
“That’s how music evolves – not thinking about your songs as something that are your property. All you’re doing is filtering this beautiful tapestry of history that has built up. You’re saying, ‘I’ve heard this now and I’m going to put my version of it out there.’ ”
Do you remember any particular songwriting milestones?
“[In school] we were messing around and we decided to start a tacky gameshow, and someone said, ‘Well, we need music.’ And I went home and made a theme tune on a Tascam four-track. I remember thinking: cool, I can do that; I can write to order. And when you find out how to write to order, you start thinking a little bit more about, well, what is the order?”
How do you write lyrics?
“The only time I’m ever able to write lyrics is when I’m thinking of them as this secondary thing. At the moment I’ve got into synths again – modular deep synths – and as soon as I got into that, I started writing words again. I hadn’t written a word since releasing the last album [Darling Arithmetic]. The moments I live for are when you find something you really feel expresses more than the sum of its parts or more than you thought you could express.”
Do you work regular songwriting hours?
“I think it’s good for your life if you work the same hours as other people. But the other night I couldn’t sleep and went down to the kitchen. I was playing the acoustic guitar really quietly and thinking, This is amazing, and then I couldn’t find a pen for half an hour. When I have to be quiet because people are sleeping, that makes the mischief part of me come out, and stuff you had wanted to say suddenly comes out.”
Do you write quickly?
“Sometimes. With Memoir, I only had one verse for about three years and I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. Then Charlotte Gainsbourg’s record label asked me to write a song for her, and, as soon as I went back to the song and imagined her singing it, I found myself feeling really free and could write the rest of the song. It became a game for me;suddenly it wasn’t me writing it.”
Any other tips?
“Record everything. [I just found] this recording and I love it and have no memory of doing it. The more you do that, the more you realise there’s some sort of pattern in the things that interest you or in the world around you. A theme will develop based on your deep obsessions or subconscious world. I think the most important thing to realise is that every idea is valid, no matter how early-stage it is, how cliched it sounds or how much it sounds like the latest song you heard. It’s fear that stops people being creative. Don’t worry about showing it to anyone. Just try to enjoy it. Play with words and know in the future you can, if you want, change them. But don’t initially try to edit or fix things; you’re trying to get away from that world of editing yourself. Music is a playground.”
JULIE FEENEY: ‘I LOVE TO WORK IN SILENCE’
Feeney is currently working on an opera and a fourth album
What was the first song you wrote?
“I was 12. I wrote a song about my pony. I think it actually ended up turning into my song Aching. I recorded it on a cassette tape. I played piano. I felt a compulsion to express myself through writing down how I was feeling. A pony that we had called Prince died, and I remember being very upset about it. Songwriting is very therapeutic.”
Did you have an approach to songwriting?
“It changes for every album. [For the first album, 13 Songs] I had these wisps of things everywhere and I needed to pull them together. Writing a song for me is the whole thing: the arrangement, everything. I think from an early stage I had a disparate or rather disjointed approach. I think of [musical ideas] as moments, either melodic moments or word moments. They come in separate globules. They often just hit me. So I’d have loads of bits written on bits of paper.”
Do you use an instrument to write the music?
“I definitely love to work in silence. I really find it the purest form. The best version is the one that comes to me in my head. Maybe it’s because I’m a singer, but if I go to a keyboard I will immediately be limited by what I do. I just jot things down in tonic sol-fa [doh, ray, me].”
Do you write quickly?
“I feel that first batch of songs came out really quickly because they were probably building up for a good few years. On the second album [Pages] I put all the paper in front of me and rewrote everything into a book. I did six drafts. I whittled all the words down to 12 poems. That became a very rigorous process. Some had melodies as they came out, and for others I had separate instrumental pieces and I matched them up. And then, after that, I played around with that in the studio; I took out bars and notes to make it more rhythmically interesting. On the third album [Clocks] it was a sort of a halfway house. I wanted it to retain some of the naturalness and directness of the lyric-writing on the first album.”
Any advice for aspiring songwriters?
“Write everything down. Every single thing. Walk out to a shop and buy a really nice journal. “It’s amazing. If you write things down, the next thing you’re adding on to it and the next thing you’re reminded of something and . . . ‘Oh my goodness!’ ”
Do you need a lot of musical training to write songs? “It’s handy in the studio. But I was at a musical a few months ago, and there were a number of very trained singers and one girl who just stole the show in 10 seconds towards the end with the simplicity of her delivery. I know that’s not exactly what we’re talking about, but I think it’s related. It’s about the honesty of expression.”
OLLIE COLE: ‘YOU CLEAR A PATH BETWEEN YOUR SOUL AND MOUTH’
The singer-songwriter and former Turn frontman has written songs for the Coronas and The Voice Belgium winner Glenn Claes. He is a songwriting lecturer at BIMM Music College. His album Year of the Bird was released earlier this year
What was the first song you wrote?
“I think I was about 12 and I wrote a song about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I wrote a lot of songs about things I didn’t know anything about. When you write your first song, you think, This has to be important. It’s my art.” He laughs. “Even as a 12-year-old.”
How did you write when you were younger?
“I’d bring a kernel of an idea to the rehearsal room, and we would jam it for hours, and I would make up the lyrics there and then. A lot of those lyrics I now look at and go, ‘You idiot, why didn’t you spend 10 more minutes at that?’ ”
Is technical musical ability important for songwriting?
“If you want to write that really classic, Billy Joel-type song, you’re going to have to have some awareness of harmonic structure, but I have a few songwriters [in my class] who wouldn’t be technically great guitarists or piano players but they’re really great writers.”
Can songwriting be taught?
“You can teach ways to come up with better lyrics and better melodies; ‘better’ being a subjective word. The most valuable things you can teach, really, are the classics: getting them to learn to play Cole Porter songs. They’re complex, but you come out the other end of it with a good idea of how melody and harmonic structure work.”
Do you write on guitar?
“Guitar, piano. I’ve written loads on the ukulele in the last year or two. It’s a handy little instrument to carry around; a weird sort of atonal instrument that allows you write better melodies.”
What’s the most common mistake people make?
“Their song isn’t really about anything. I’ve let songs sit for ages because I don’t know what they’re about yet. I revisit them and listen to them and go: I love so much about it but I’m still waiting for that last piece to reveal itself.”
How do you write these days?
“Someone once told me this: never try to use the left and right parts of the brain at the same time. The right brain is the creative side and the left is the organised part. When I have the initial idea, I know my right brain is firing. I make myself play the idea for 15 or 20 minutes and I record it on my phone, and if I start repeating a melodic phrase too often, I change it to something else. I collect ideas like that.”
So when do you engage the left side?
“I have a little recording studio in my house, and on another day I’ll sit back in my studio and listen back and start to arrange. Then I take that 15 minutes [I recorded] and organise it into something. Interestingly, a lot of the lyrics come from that 15 minutes when I wasn’t even thinking about what I was singing. Sometimes there’s a lyric that you don’t even remember saying, and you’re so happy with it. In a weird way, you tap in to your subconscious, clear a path between your soul and your mouth.”
- The Manual by the KLF: http://freshonthenet.co.uk/the- manual-by-the-klf
- Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies: rtqe.net/obliquestrategies and http://stoney.sb.org/eno/oblique.html
- Get a copy of Paul Zollo’s excellent Songwriters on Songwriting book
- Australian comedy trio Axis of Awesome demonstrate how easy it is to write a hit in a Youtube video