Ever think, “what’s this song about?”

I don’t mean when you’re listening to a song. But the song you’re writing?

These days I find myself often starting a song with a few lines that feel like they really hit home. But then I’m not very sure what the whole song is about.

I remember reading an interview with Iain Archer, my friend who co-wrote Hold Back the River with James Bay.

They were talking about writing the song and Iain said ‘we just had to work out where the song wanted to go’.

I like that approach! I guess you’re saying that the song is somehow already in existence and it’s the job of the writer to discover it rather than just to make it up.

That means you are trying to take away the barriers to discovering something that is writing itself, rather than simply trying to string words together that sound like a song.

I find that when I do that the songs end up having more meaning and value. Your task is to discover the essence of the song and then find the lyrics that express the essence.

Okay that sounds a bit hippy! But the more I read about song writers and about the songs that have stood the test of time, the writer often has had the experience that the song was writing itself inside them. They even dreamt it the night before, like Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday”.

I suppose that means great songwriting also needs people to believe in themselves, not necessarily as simply composers, but as people who were born to generate.

‘Going Home’ or ‘Kodachrome’?

I’ve been reading Paul Simon’s biography. I clearly remember the shift in his writing when he went from Simon and Garfunkel to being a solo artist. It is illuminating to see the way his skill as a writer developed quite consciously.

I didn’t know he started writing songs as part of the Brill Building group with Carol King and the like in New York… when he was a teenager! He ploughed on for years without success, trying to imitate the hits of the time like the Everly Brothers, which accounts for some of the songs like Bye Bye Love in the early S & G repertoire.

Eventually he gave up and tried just writing whatever he felt like (as is quite common, he had no hits until he stopped trying to write hits!). His new songs were rejected by record companies at first – like the Sound of Silence, which are now classics.

Anyway – last night’s chapter is later on in his career, and I was struck by the writing of a pretty big hit in the 70s called ‘Kodachrome’. (see here on Spotify)

When he first came up with the idea the lyric in the hook was “going home” not Kodachrome… quite commonly we start songs with one or two words alongside a melody that feels strong and then progress the song around that hook, building to it and away from it.

But sometimes something tells you that lyric isn’t strong enough even though the hook is. It can feel too bland, or unmemorable with no mystique or intrigue to make someone wonder ‘how can a song be about that?’ or ‘what about it??’

This is a case in point. The concept and sentiment of ‘going home’ is universally emotive, but just using those words is not necessarily poetic enough to stand the test of time as a stand-alone song.

So what did he do?

He tried singing through every other set of words that could be sung like ‘Going Home’, unitl he came up with Kodachrome.

Then he realised that his early life (the stuff that makes ‘home’ important) had all been captured in Kodachrome pictures, which also makes such moments look extra vivid, just like the imagination stores formative emotions… so Kodachrome is the metaphor in a song about going home, and the song just flowed.

Moral of the story – don’t go with your first idea, but retain its feel and build on it. Song writing is usually quite hard work if every word is going to count.

Why do chord voicings matter?

When I refer to ‘voicings’ on my site I’m not talking about singing, but the way you choose to play the chords in a song.

It can make all the difference to a song’s feel what version or inversion of a chord you use. Getting the right mix of notes with additional notes (ie the numbers after the chord’s key) can strengthen the lyric or make its nuance come out very differently.

Try this (with thanks to Leonard Bernstein)…

Play a straight major chord like an A on the guitar or C on the piano and say the words ‘John loves Jane’.

It sounds like you’re saying ‘John loves Jane and everything is straightforward with their relationship’.

Now do the same with a minor version of the chord, and there’s definitely something not going well with with John and Jane.

Try a Major 7th and it feels like John and Jane are besotted.

Try a diminished 7th (normally called A7 for guitarists) and it feels like you’re about to hear more about John and Jane as it’s not as straightforward as it might at first seem.

Try a minor 6th and there is good reason to question the relationship… or a diminished chord will let you know it’s really going wrong with John and Jane (personally I suspect John’s fidelity…)

In general the voicing is telling you something more about the story even though the words remain the same.

Or if you say the same thing with bigger chords stretching across a keyboard (not 3 notes near each other) you start to open up the size of the story… you’ve gone widescreen.

In general the scale of the chords and the choice of their extra notes alongside the 1st and 5th all start to build your story.

That’s why a big open chord on a guitar like when you move a shape up the neck but leave bottom and top strings ringing will often inspire a different lyric – because you’ve set the tone for a different feel of song. Matching these voicings to the lyric can add to its intensity for the listener and if you get it right you have created impact without having to add more instruments or strum louder!

The bit you keep waiting for…

Song content is nearly always more important than the way it is recorded.

It’s not an either / or, but as they say in all studios ‘you can’t polish a turd’. If the song’s content hasn’t got enough interest no matter how many sounds, embellishments, vocal tricks you throw in it won’t have the longevity you want.

Often it’s because the actual song content is over and done after the middle section.

Typical song structure: verse / bridge / chorus / verse 2 / bridge / chorus/ middle 8 / verse 3 / bridge / chorus x 2 (or to fade)

Notice that after the middle 8 the song is just a re-run of earlier elements. Of course, often with a different mood and a final over the top chorus, but that’s it.

And that’s not quite enough. Something else has to happen. Preferably a moment that emotionally encapsulates the song. Let’s think of a classic – end of Bridge Over Troubled Water… repeat of ‘I will ease your mind’ as the vocal soars to a new melody. Wonderfully complete. Imagine if he’d just sang the chorus a few more times and ended on the low at the end of the other choruses?

Key point – does the song have something you keep waiting for?

Caveat – it it’s only a 3 minute pop song the fact that it’s over so quickly might be OK… otherwise, you need the bit you keep waiting for.

What is the difference between recording and production?

Well, every production is a recording. But not every recording is a production.

When we play live we may start quiet, get louder, drop down to a middle section then get big to finish. So one person with a guitar has a presence in the room and that person’s visible emotions are in the performance that brings the song to life. The listener has two dimensions to experience: the audio and visual.

But when we make a recording we want to convey all that you are seeing in the live performance. And somehow you have to reproduce the visual element when you don’t have it.

That’s where production comes in. It assesses how to convey the wider emotion of the song through the arrangement and its dynamics.

In a recording the dynamics aren’t just about loud and quiet. They are principally about the frequency bandwidth in the song’s arrangement.

What does that mean? It means that the song, when it is recorded, will feel like it’s getting louder because you add more instruments or sounds in the low frequencies or higher frequencies. So the spectrum of sound gets wider givvng the impression of loudness.

If you simply record the perfromance that works at a club, going from soft to loud won’t have the same effect, principally because the quiet bits will be inaudible when someone listens to it at home. The song will make no impression.

A production has to compensate for this in a number of ways. Instead of simply starting quiet, it has to imply intimacy in the quieter sections by making the vocal drier (less reverb so it sounds closer to you) and maybe some of the accompanying instruments too. And then should the vocal get louder you need to increase the scale of the track to get bigger. For instance you will add more depth of the sound through the right reverbs and delays, and you will make the vocal sound like it’s filling the acoustic space you are creating in the recording. You’ll probably slightly overdrive some of the instruments to give the impression of being in a room when the singer has got loud, as our ears naturally start to crunch or distort the sound.

So the second thing the producer is listening to when you bring a song to them is how they will interpret the emotional range of the song thrugh a good arrangement. (The first thing is of course, ‘is the song in the right order?’, with the right flow and pace to make the best use of its components)

You want to keep all the feel of the song that made it work in other settings, but now in a recording. That’s an art and craft in itself.

How do you know when you’ve finished a song?

Often we write great songs under pressure. Like when there’s a gig coming up and you’ve got an idea you love so you press on as the deadline for the gig means you’ve got to have it ready.

In reality the song is then usually 80 – 90% finished. But it’s not quite there.

I remember in 1989 our manager persuaded Madonna’s manager, Seymour Stein to come and hear us play. I’d written a new song and he thought it was a hit. The manager that is, not Mr Stein.

But it wasn’t really ready. Bad move. Not that we would ever have gone down that well with him… turned out that our manager had to meet him off the plane with a bag of cocaine… (one way of getting past customs)

Heady days – but now I think there is an answer to this. I was reminded of it when my son was watching the video and lyrics for George Ezra’s ‘Shotgun’ which are just doggerel IMHO.

If you want to sing a song that’s finished this is the test.

Every new line that comes up feels satisfying. It feels like it’s you that is really talking; you’re anticipating enjoying the next line and you’re proud of what you’re saying in its own right; the poetry fits the mood and tone of the song and is consistent with the other sentiments; it’s never too abstract or just thrown in to fit the rhyming scheme, but it’s part of the whole piece and develops the big idea of the song. Then you’re pleased to sing it from start to finish with conviction in your own style, from the gut. You don’t dread that line you’re going to mumble through.

And it doesn’t matter to you that much whether guys with cocaine like it – because first and foremost it’s what you wanted to say.

Does that ring true for you? If it does, you might just be familiar with the experience of taking half an hour to write 90% of a song and 3 months for the other 10%.