Thom Southern’s Songwriting Survival Kit

Thom Southern’s Songwriting Survival Kit
Thom Southern's Songwriting Survival Kit

Thom Southern’s Songwriting Survival Kit: “If the song doesn’t hit as a voice note played on one instrument, it isn’t going to be a good song.”

Uncover a creative arsenal that includes vintage guitars, coastal living and visual inspiration taken from YouTube, movies and TV shows

Belfast’s singer-songwriter Thom Southern caught our ear last year with his poignant alt-folk ballad, Love Hz – ending up as No. 10 in our songs of 2023. Now returning with explosive new single Hey What’s Happenin?, released under his indie label Mighty Good Later, the fuzzy guitars and urgent drums show his wilder side. Co-written and produced with musician Stevie Scullion, the song captures a carefree spirit that will transport you back to days spent jamming with friends in school practice rooms.

Following on from projects such as Southern and MMODE, Southern’s solo career started in earnest in 2021. His debut album, PLAZA, came out the following year and earned him a NI Music Prize nomination. Hey What’s Happenin? is the first of several singles planned for this year. Just as charmed by this ebullient rocker as we were the sentimental Love Hz, we were keen to learn all about Southern’s essential writing kit…

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1. MY GIBSON J45

I’ve got a few acoustic guitars and previously had about five Jazzmaster electrics (I sold most of them during COVID… devastating). The acoustics I mostly use are my Martin D-28, my Big Baby Taylor, which looks amazing now, bought brand new it’s about 20 years old today, and my Gibson J45. These days I absolutely adore my J45 though.

I bought it brand new a couple of years ago but I think recently it’s just ventured into that age after a tonne of playing where it’s starting to feel ‘vintage’. The feel of the back of the neck is starting to be more worn and the body just sounds so beautifully warm. I mostly write all my songs in standard or DADGAD tuning, but detuned about two or three octaves lower to get a super baggy sound with a lot of low end depth. I love when the bottom notes rattle…

Anyway this guitar tuned in this way is doing wonders for my writing at the moment. I think the guitar detuned like this makes everything sound ‘cool’ all the time so even the simplest vocal melodies or lyrics I write over the top of it always stay in the same mood consistently.

Thom Southern

Thom Southern: “My lyrics all have a lot of me and my life experience in them but they’re usually aided by fictional characters, ideas or stories influenced by the feelings that TV and film give me.”

2. MY MOBILE

Trying not to sound like a bore but I like to avoid my mobile a lot these days by turning it off and hiding it at the back of a cupboard when I can and I rarely take it out with me when I go for a walk or run. It’s too easy to start going on social apps which, apart from laughing at funny videos of comedians or dogs, I find it all very distracting and kills my creativity.

That said, I really love using voice notes to get my ideas down, whether it’s just me humming a melody I heard in my sleep in the middle of the night or me playing on my acoustic/singing, so when I start writing something cool out of the blue I immediately go and grab it before I forget what I wrote. The compression on the microphone sounds awesome too if you get it sitting in the right place.

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For production purposes as well I usually try to have the song mapped out playing it live on a voice note with the perfect bpm/drum beat playing out of my studio speakers with Logic Pro. I keep recording new voice notes like this until I’m happy with the arrangement and tempo before starting to do any proper recording, even when I’m writing with or producing other people this is usually how I start. For me personally, if the song doesn’t hit as a voice note played on one instrument, it isn’t going to be a good song, mainly with vocal-fronted songs anyway.

3. MY LAPTOP/LOGIC PRO

I couldn’t do anything I’m doing the last few years without my laptop because I produce all my solo project’s music from my home studio with a simple setup. For a long time in previous projects I wrote most of my songs in the rehearsal room playing with drummers and then my label would send me into a posh studio with a producer who would press all the buttons. That was an unbelievable experience and I’m so glad I got to do it, but nowadays I do absolutely everything from my home studio with my laptop, an audio interface and one or two microphones.

On a couple of occasions, I’ve been in my friend Stevie Scullion’s studio writing but he’s got the same set up as me so it’s all pretty fluid in terms of how we work. Once I think I’ve got something good written I take it to my laptop’s notepad and really hone down the lyrics and structure of the song.

Most of my productions revolve around drums and bass so Logic Pro is totally key to developing the songs sound and, quite often, I write better lyrics or melody ideas feeding off the new rhythm section. I’ve tried Pro Tools before but for me creatively, I just find Logic Pro so quick – especially for getting the song right while you’re feeling inspired. A lot of my lyric or vocal melody ideas come from drums or percussion, so having the laptop nearby when I’m writing is really important.

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Thom Southern

Thom Southern: “A lot of my lyric or vocal melody ideas come from drums or percussion.”

4. WHERE I LIVE BESIDE THE SEA AND FOREST

I grew up with my parents always living very central in different cities and I continued to do so for a long time after I moved out. Only recently in the last couple of years I’ve been living on the North East Coast of Ireland, right beside the sea and a beautiful forest where I go walking everyday. I honestly can’t imagine myself living any other way.

I do love the energy of city life but only in small doses now. My mind is much quieter living close to nature and breathing really amazing clean air all the time. I think I’ve grown so much as a person since being here and as a result, I feel my writing is really coming together. It’s probably just life and work experience as well, but I do think living here has focused me more and I’ve become more mindful.

5. VISUALS/YOUTUBE/MOVIES

Anyone who knows me well or has written/recorded music intimately with me, whether it’s been in high end recording studios, small budget studios or home studio setups, knows that unless I’m editing something I never look at Logic Pro/Pro Tools while I’m putting down ideas or mixing… all I watch is YouTube videos.

Absolutely everything I’ve worked on has been made while I’m getting inspired by something visual on YouTube. The videos I watch always change from song to song as well. For example, a song I recently finished up the writing and recording for (my next release in the coming months) the only thing I watched on YouTube for days on end were Black Rebel Motorcycle Club music videos and their live gigs, or at one time I think I watched a Quentin Tarantino movie trailer on repeat, I think it was The Hateful Eight. It totally focuses me inside the sound/genre of what I’m making in that moment.

TV programmes and movies are a big influence on my writing too. I think I watch at least one great movie every night of the week. Paul Newman and Scorsese movies are a huge influence on my writing mood at the moment, and what I’ll be releasing in the coming months. My lyrics all have a lot of me and my life experience in them but they’re usually aided by fictional characters, ideas or stories influenced by the feelings that TV and film give me.

6. THE MUSIC I’M LISTENING TO IN THE TIME I’M WRITING (& ONLY LISTENING TO A HANDFUL OF OTHER ARTISTS)

I love all kinds of music, from The White Stripes to Aphex Twin, Nick Drake to The Smashing Pumpkins, or Nine Inch Nails to Harold Budd/Brian Eno. It’s kind of a blessing and a curse, but I have a bit of a problem with accidentally sounding like what I’m listening to at the time (or at least I think I do), so I really have to restrict myself to a couple of artists at one time.

For example, at the moment I’m listening to a lot of Suicide, Neu, Eyedress and The Spirit Of The Beehive, and my writing flow feels really good so I’ll stick with that for a while until I need to move on to something else. Whether I sound anything like them to the listener when they hear my new music, it doesn’t matter to me, but the vibe and mood of those specific artists is giving my work the energy I need to feel inspired and get the songs done.

Thom Southern’s new single Hey What’s Happenin? is out now ON Mighty Good Leader and there’s lots more music on the way. Find out all the latest via his Instagram page instagram.com/thomsouthern__




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