How do you write a song?
For me, writing a song comes in a few different steps.
For years and years, before doing any recording, I would come up with songs in my head. I would write the lyrics, the tune that the lyrics would be sung along to, and sometimes some of the other instrumental parts. When I finally got into the studio after many, many years of procrastination, I realized what a difficult proposition it is to try and craft a piece of music around the words and tune that I had come up with. Especially because my own skill with instruments is quite limited.
So, being a pretty independently minded guy, I thought I would have to learn how to make music.
I thought if I could make the beats on the computer, then I would be able to do pretty much everything myself. After many attempts at learning different beat making applications, including FruityLoops, Ableton, GarageBand, Logic, and Audacity, I realized that it just wasn't for me. I made a number of pieces of songs, ideas, loops, and experimented with what I call Sound Shapes, but it was never all that fun. I came to the conclusion that it would be best to leave the beat making to someone else. What I do, what I love, is doing the vocals, the lyrics. That's what really makes me feel good, so I decided to focus on that.
So now I grab beats and go from there.
Adam at Audio Valley Recording Studio turned me on to https://www.beatstars.com/. This site is amazing. It's an infinite scroll of dope tracks of every description. When I first found out about it, I was transfixed, scrolling through it endlessly. I kept thinking that I had to continually load more options, that the perfect track was gonna be on the next screen. I finally realized that I didn't need to be that picky. There was no point. I had found a number of beats that I liked already. I decided that, if a beat sounded good, if I liked it and it inspired something in me, then it was all I needed to start writing. At the end of the day, it isn't just the beat that makes a song great. It's the song that beat inspires, the marriage of sounds and meanings that makes a piece of music what it is.
So that's what I do now.
I have a vibe in mind, be it chilled out and emotional, or trippy, or energetic, and I look for that. Also the vibe so far on this album has been secondary to the sounds that are being used. For example, for the first few songs I really caught hold of something with the orchestral beats. They instilled a creative energy in me, and ultimately, that's what's going to lead to me writing a song that I'm proud of. Not trying to find a motif to mimic anything else that I've heard others do, but one that makes me wanna come up with lyrics. I'll get a playlist of maybe 4-5 songs that feel good when I listen to them. Then I'll start playing them on repeat a few times, to see which one makes me feel the best. Often I'll flip through my notebook and try doing a few lines along with the beat, see what comes of that. A strong chorus part to the beat is pretty important to me. And if I get inspired and start humming or singing a tune along with the chorus, then I've got a winner.
Yeah so the notebook.
That's a pretty important part of how I write a song. Most of my songs come from times of peak emotion. Ever since I was a teenager, writing has been a release valve for when I'm going through something unbearable or indescribable. Which is pretty often when you're a teenager. I've filled notebooks with stream of consciousness rage-outs and fits of bliss. The lofty highs and sunken pits of the human experience. Some of it's good. Some of it makes me hate the guy who's writing it. Anyway, I keep this up today.
For a long time I stopped writing.
Really because I stopped living. I had had a series of episodes or nervous breakdowns or something, and it left me pretty scared and unable to live my own life. I mean, I did stuff. But it was the bare minimum of stuff. I've heard that there are people who take sleeping pills all the time. They wake up long enough to do what is necessary for survival, then they take more pills and go to sleep. I never went to that extreme, but I can understand their motivation, and in my own way I did retreat from reality as well. Inaction can be an escape too.
When you start living in a way, and you've lived that way for a while, it can be hard to break out of it.
And I definitely experienced that. The reason why you retreat from the world, why you don't go after the things you really want, is so you don't have to be faced with disappointment or adversity. I finally got sick of living that way. This is the only life I've got, and I've gotta use it. I've just got to. But with living life, comes defeat, depression, all those horrible unbearable emotions that I used to have to deal with. So the pen came back out. And I started writing to get through stuff. It's better though, I've realized. Feeling bad is worth it, if you're going after what you want.
When I'm going through stuff, I'll write about it.
Sometimes in just a blur of thoughts, but, mostly, lately, because I've got this album in mind, it's been in poetry. Little lines of verse, little turns of phrase. Just poetic stuff. I keep a notebook where I scrawl out these ideas. I don't carry it everywhere though, so a lot of times I'll have an idea and I'll just plug it into my phone then if it's any good it'll get transferred to the notebook later.
You know, this cool thing happens when you're thinking about poetry and writing it down a lot.
You'll just get these ideas pop into your head. Sometimes I'll be falling asleep, or brushing my teeth, and I'll feel my hair stand up on end when I know I've had a good idea. And I get it down on paper right away. I've learn that ideas, even awesome ones, can be forgotten and it's best to write them down.
So I'll be constantly jotting things down on paper.
They'll just be stray lines, rhyming couplets, a cool word, a stanza, nothing with any structure. I'll go through my notes from time to time and circle stuff that seems really good and cross out stuff that seems bad. Sometimes a line is so good, I'll know I wanna start the song with it, make it the chorus, or have it be a final line. These are important parts of the song I feel, and they should have your best stuff.
Then, after I've picked my beat, I'll take it for a walk.
Basically I just throw it on in my headphones, and stroll around the street. Listening to it over and over, a complementary tune will start to emerge in my mind. Not only that, but I'll start mumbling gibberish along with it, and a rhythm will start to take shape. Maybe the vowel sounds that I want to use will become apparent. During this phase, I'll often come up with some of the lines, or even the chorus that I wanna use. Many times I'll try and fit a cool line that I've written into the chorus. And not all my choruses have been written recently I should say. A few of them are reworked from ideas I've had over the years. Cool phrases that I've always planned to use and finally am.
Now comes the hard part.
I've got the beat, the basic structure of how the words should be spaced apart, and usually the chorus. All that's left to do is to fill in the chorus to the rhythm that I've come up with. I scour my notebook trying to find lyrics that will fit nicely. At this point, I'll be super motivated because I can see the song forming on the horizon and I can't wait to sing it. I've learned it's better to just get some rhyming thoughts down, then play around with them later. So I'll keep working on it until the song is full.
I like to have different styles of passages in each song
Like a rap part, then a singing part, then a chorus. Maybe some interesting stuff like spoken word pieces or really subdued vocals. Stuff to mix it up. Creating that sense of tension and release. I feel that having changing textures to the song makes it dynamic and produces something that's more of a joy to listen to.
Once I've got the first draft of the song written, I start singing it again and again for a couple days.
I have to make changes while I do this. Sometimes things that I've written work in my head, but they're just so dense or awkward that they don't sound good or they're unsingable by human vocal cords. In the song I wrote last year, I forgot to write spaces for breaths. The audio engineer I recorded with had his job cut out for him, chopping up the shotgun spray of microbreaths that I peppered throughout the vocals, stealing precious oxygen in between words while trying to get the song out. Now I give myself some breathing room.
It's also during this time that I'll start to not like some of the lyrics.
Remember I feel it's better to just get the writing done so that I can get to singing it, but this usually ends up with me having a few parts that make me wince because of their content. I call these problem lyrics. I've got a phase after I've been singing the song for a while when I'll go back and replace these with some better ones that've popped into my head.
Once I've got the version of the lyrics I know I will stick with, I'll keep singing the song as often as I can, coming up with all the cool little intonations I wanna use.
I'll feel my way through it, getting pumped when I come up with a cooler tone or vocal effect that I think really works. Once I know how to sing it, I'll keep practising until the lyrics, and the way I wanna perform them, are memorized. By the time I record, I've got it so down pat that once when I was in studio, I was doubling up a vocal part that I had done earlier. My sound engineer Adam cut the beat by mistake, and I just kept on singing. He layered what I had done over the existing vocals, and the two matched up exactly. I would've just practised it so many times that I could do it even without the accompaniment. And for good reason too. When you are in the studio, time is at a premium. I don't wanna waste any of my session having to figure things out. I go through it beforehand until I've got it down just the way I want to perform it, so that as soon as I get in front of the mic, I'm ready to roll.
Anyway, that's how I write a song.
I hope that it helps give you some ideas on how to work on your own masterpiece. Man, all this talk about making music has made me psyched to get back into the studio. I've got one track left to record the vocals for. I can't wait.