I’d really like to be able to tell you that writing a song is a simple linear process where you start with an idea of what you want to do and you simply go through a series of steps to develop the lyrics, the melody, the chords and the entire song structure. I’m not sure if this is actually how it is for some artists but it’s not how it is for me. I don’t have defined way of writing a song and the only thing they all have in common is that they all start with the smallest of ideas. These ideas can be as small as a story concept, single word or two, or a particular sentence. They can also start by simply doodling around on the guitar and focusing in on an interesting melody. What I tend to do is to keep records in either written or recorded form of all of my ideas.
Now some of the ideas work themselves into a song fairly fast. One of the songs that appears on the album, How Can We Be Wrong, was actually written in 30 minutes and the version you hear on the album is pretty close to what was written and recorded in that 30 minutes. In this instance I had a few friends around and we were having a songwriting competition. We put everybody together and into pairs, and gave them a challenge to write a complete song in 30 minutes. On that particular day there was a strange chord progression I had been playing with on the guitar that morning that became the chords for the verse on this song. When my co-writer, Bryan, and I started our 30 minute challenge I simply played to him the chord progression I had discovered that morning and suggested a topic that was on my mind, and 30 minutes later we had a song. If I played you the recording we made using my phone that day and you compared it to the recording that ended up on the album you would see that it’s very similar.
Other songs aren’t as easy as that. There are songs on the album that began with a lyric idea from 10 years ago and I can’t seem to shake them. Of all the small inspirational ideas that I have many of them never develop into songs and some of them shouldn’t develop into songs. But there are quite a few they start out as ideas that embed themselves in my brain and I try and try and try to turn them into songs but they just won’t turn into a song at that particular point in time. So when I was writing this album there were two or three songs where I went all the way back through my journals and found ideas, and even combined different ideas and turned these into a song. I definitely believe that some songs don’t come about until the time and place is ready for them.
And of course the other way to write a song is just to sit down and work your way through it step by step. Generally speaking my preference is to start with the lyrics and I will always focus on the story I want to tell. I will generally spend a bit of time getting the first draft of the lyrics together and organizing it by what I think will end up being the verse and chorus and bridge structure. Once I have this first draft of the story written I then start playing around with different chord structures and try to use the chords to emphasize the message of the song – which often results in the lyrics being changed to suit the music. At this point I’ll also work on the melody for the song but I must confess that melodies are my weakest point. If I end up working with another songwriter it’s generally to develop the melodies and make them more sophisticated than my natural inclination would be.
So I guess if I was giving any advice to anybody else on how to write songs I would simply encourage them to accept that there isn’t one particular right way to write a song and they should find the way that works for them. They shouldn’t be afraid to reach out and collaborate with others in the songwriting process as well.