Songwriting from the Ground Up

I'm working on three new songs at the moment. I've just finished one called "Shadow Play Clan," and I thought I'd give you a tour of the process. What I'm about to describe is fairly typical for me, with the caveat that not every song I write happens in this way, and certainly not every songwriter composes music the way I generally do.

In my experience, listeners often assume that a musician sits down and says, "I think I'll write a song today," decides what to write about and methodically proceeds in writing said song. Now, I've heard of people who really do work like this, as if it's a job for which they set aside blocks of time and literally punch in and out. My process isn't quite like that.

For me, the germ of a song comes at an unexpected time; I may not even have access to an instrument when the first flush of inspiration strikes. In this case, I did. I was warming up to rehearse for a show when I found myself playing this chord sequence and thought, "Hmm, that's nice. I should develop that." But first things first—I need to get it down before I forget it, so I'll whip out my mp3 recorder and do just that. If the chords are unusual, plenteous or non-standard, I may speak the fingerings onto the tape before I play, write them down, or both. ("Tape" = Vern showing his age.)

Sometimes multiple sections of the song arrive at once as I play through the changes and try to figure out what might come next. Other times I'll get only the one part and will later string it together with previously recorded (compatible) bits. If I have no such things, that's when I might actually reserve a chunk of time to write the next part(s). With "Shadow Play Clan," I think two parts came at once and I had to figure out the rest later, then stitch everything together. Anyway, eventually I'll end up with a skeleton of a song, an extended chord sequence that makes sense to me as a possible intro, outro, verse, chorus and bridge.

A quick digression: I usually write on guitar, but have (so far) also composed music on bass, piano, dulcimer and on occasion just voice. (Sometimes a strong melody comes first, in which case I'll sing it into my recorder and figure out keys and chords later. "Linden Tree near the Water," the title track of my forthcoming album, started with me warbling a melodic snippet in a parking lot on a windy day with trucks roaring by. And I have the work "tape" to prove it!) As a musician, I'm fascinated by the way one's choice of instrument in a very real sense determines the song's form and composition. I've heard colleagues say that if you're stuck in a songwriting rut, try composing on a different instrument, maybe even one with which you have limited facility.

Back to our embryonic song, I've now got my skeleton, which in this case is a sequence of guitar chords. What's next? Some composers will immediately write the words, if they've not done so already. In fact, those whom I'd call lyrics-first people usually start with the words, then hang the chords and the melody around them. I'm a lyrics-last kind of guy. Generally I need the melody before I can write any lyrics. So, armed with my skeletal chord sequence, I pick up my instrument of choice, run through the tune and start humming: la-la-la, doo-doo-doo, ooh-ooh-ooh, bah-bah-bah, whatever. If the odd word wants to assert itself, I'll sing it, too. Some aspect of the melody, even a fragment, may work especially well and if so, I make sure I record it before it vanishes. This may include variations on the melodic theme that'll happen in strategic places: for example, singing in a higher register on the last chorus. I often work on isolated bits of the song, stitching the melody together much like I did the chords. Taking the same excerpt used above, I ended up with this melody line.

Once I've got the whole song, top to bottom, with chords and melody, it's finally time for the words. I may have a few lines I've scribbled down somewhere that I can start with, but it depends. Often the cadence and accents of the melody itself suggest certain sounds, rhymes, maybe even specific words. At this point, if I've not done so already I'll give the song a working title—in this case it was "3-Minute Pop."

Another short digression: sometimes I'm asked, "How do you decide what to write about?" Well, it chooses me. I don't "decide" anything other than whether to follow the muse or not. Something I've read or heard or seen or experienced or felt will light a fire under me and I'm artistically constipated, as it were. I need to get it out. Again, some songwriters may sit down and decide, "Today, I'm going to write a song about butterflies" or whatever, but I don't operate that way. For better or for worse, my particular process results in a lot of first-person writing. I'm reminded of John Lennon's quote: "I write about me because I know me." In fact The Beatles, those master tunesmiths, are a case study in contrasts, Lennon's predominantly "I" viewpoint counterbalanced by McCartney's "he/she/you." Think of the difference between, say, "Help!" and "Eleanor Rigby," "I'm So Tired" and "Hey Jude." Of course, both could (and did) swap roles when it suited them, like John's "Dr. Robert" and Paul's "I've Just Seen a Face." That's why they're masters, folks.

Anyway, for this particular song I thought I'd try something new. Second- or third-person lyrics still seem a bit distant to me, both in terms of their emotional gravitas and my ability to pull them off, but I thought I'd try an experiment while sticking with first-person. So, "Shadow Play Clan" is written first-person from the viewpoint of someone who isn't me. She's someone quite dear to me, someone I want to understand better, someone with whom I aim to empathize but have at times had difficulty doing so. Once that light bulb clicked on, bingo: fire lit, motivation in place to write words. Here's the result, over the same bit as before, taken from the demo recording of the song.

You'll note that the with-words version doesn't exactly match the cadence of the raw melody. It's close, but there's some variation. Adding words and making them rhyme will do that, and that's fine, but here's where you can really tell the difference between lyrics-first and lyrics-last writers. To a fault, a lyrics-first writer shapes the melody around the words, even if the result is hard to sing and it seems like there are 37 extra syllables in a particular couplet. Example: Bruce Cockburn's "Silver Wheels." Now, don't get me wrong: I love this song and part of me wishes I could write like this, but I just can't wrap my tongue around that many syllables. Besides, I lack the literary chops. (Check out especially the "radio speakers gargle Top 40 trash" verse at 3:06. He almost makes it rhyme, too!) In contrast, I will delete otherwise lovely words that weigh down the melody with too many syllables, hard consonants, awkward rhymes or anything that doesn't sing well. And on occasion, I'll insert a word that may not make literal sense or express precisely what I want but sounds so bloody good.

While we're on the topic, a word about rhymes and songwriting crimes. (Just checking to see if you're still with me. Okay, good.) I've not yet learned how to write without them, though I'm pretty sure my rhyming schemes vary from song to song, more through blind luck than a deep awareness of what I'm doing. The trick is to avoid rhymes that are dead obvious, bordering on cliché (think moon/spoon, love/dove or fire/desire; my own pet peeve is change/rearrange) while at the same time resisting the temptation to go all clever-clever, pseudo-literary (like, say, bluesy/Jacuzzi or lamb/cardiogram). When you're stuck, a rhyming dictionary can be helpful if used sparingly. My personal rule: if the rhyme jumps out and says, "Aha! The only way you'd ever have found me is by using a rhyming dictionary," don't use it. In the chorus for this song I originally had "shadow play man," which I was reluctant to ditch because it sung very well. Ah, the perils of being a lyrics-last guy. I went through alternates off the top of my head, all of them nice, one-syllable non sequiturs—"ran," "pan," "fan," "tan"—before consulting the dictionary, where I found "clan." Jackpot. It's not quite as lyrical as "man" but I could make it work, and the meaning was much closer to what I'd originally intended, so I stuck it in and there you are.

And the title? For us lyrics-last folk the title comes even more last, if that's remotely grammatical. That said, I have done the reverse: my song "That '70s Lifetime" started life as just that title, everything else proceeding from there. Now, hit-maker gurus will tell you that your title must be in the chorus, must be short, must be catchy and must be repeated 736 times before fadeout. As you might expect I don't subscribe to that theory, though neither am I fundamentally opposed. If things fall that way, all well and good, but I like to pick an evocative phrase in the song that also (ideally) encapsulates the overarching thrust of the tune. Sometimes that's in the verse or even the bridge. As it turns out, this time my title is lifted from the chorus. As for its catchiness, "Shadow Play Clan" is, I admit, more Robert Pollard obscure than Garth Brooks straightforward; fine by me. Actually, one of my favourite titlers is the legendary Arthur Lee, whose song titles usually appeared nowhere in his lyrics and could well cast the entire song in an ironic light, such as "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This." Take a listen, and you tell me he should have called it "Pigtails in the Morning" instead.

So, there you have the anatomy of a song from the ground up. The next step, of course, involves turning the demo into a finished recording. Having just written it I'm not at the production and arrangement stage with this one yet, but when the time comes I'll be asking questions like: stripped-down or full-band treatment? If it's the latter, what will the rhythm section (bass and drums) do? Additional percussion, tambourine maybe? Do I want any keyboards? How about backing vocals or a second guitar? Other instrumental colour? How's the tempo of the original recording? Do I want to make any last-minute changes to the lyrics or phrasing? All these and more considerations come into play, but that's another post for another time.

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Photographs by Carol Witwicky. Instrument illustrations and GZ logo © 2017 Grinning Zone Studios.
Album and lyrics page artwork © 2017 Gabriel Altrows. Web design by Vern Nicholson.
Sour Landslide and Benvereens archival footage courtesy Neil Whitlock.
All pages and contents © 2017-2019 Vern Nicholson.