J R Harbidge’s songwriting tips
The rocker from the Black Country shares some techniques to help make your melodic ideas and song structures more palatable
Birmingham singer-songwriter James Harbidge has been playing, writing and producing for over 20 years, racking up over a million streams of his original music. As a teenager he played in his first band, Powderfinger before forming cult grunge band Third Bullet in the mid-noughties, whose song Resistance Is Futile was picked up and used in a Harley Davidson advertising campaign.
With more than two decades of experience, James is in a good position to share some helpful advice. As he explains, “Although a lot of what I do in songwriting terms is organic, I do follow some methods and structures that I have gleaned from other songwriters, A&R and producers.”
What’s the matter?
I find it almost impossible to write a fluid and meaningful song without having a specific subject to write about. I used to write line by line and see where the lyrics took the song but that was a long and frustrating process and it would take me months to finish lyrics.
Songs, specifically lyrics, started to come easier when I chose the subject matter up front. It all started with I Won’t Support Your Wars, a protest song. The lyrics came very easy. You can plot out your ‘story’ and pin feelings, emotions and finally lyrics to the musical framework (music always comes first for me). So, for example, in the first verse you set out your stall, inform the listener and make them aware of the intention of the song. The bridge at the end of the verse needs to be the signpost to the chorus and take the song from first to second, and then you hit the chorus at full speed (usually).
The chorus is the main point you want to emphasise, lyrically. The lyrics to the middle eight (if it has lyrics) should be you resolving the emotive aspect of your song. So if the song is, thematically, a negative song then it’s nice to have a positive spin in the middle eight so your listener isn’t tightening the noose by the end of the song.
Music always comes first for me and is the most organic part of the process. First I choose the style of music I want to write, be it a rock song or folk song. I then pick up a guitar and play. By the time I pick the guitar up I will have a notion of the tempo/feel of the song.
I will just play until I hear something I like. Once I hit on something I then decide if that will be the intro, verse, etc. You kind of know instinctively which riff or chord progression should be the intro or verse. I then get the musical sewing kit out and arrange the rest of the song.
I have been writing songs since I was 10 years old. I always asked people who were better than me how they did it and what advice they had. The best advice on song structure came from the bassist in the pre-Busted pioneers The Dum Dums. He told me that all the producers and A&R men at the time were only interested in bands that wrote to the following formula:
Intro > Verse > Bridge > Chorus > Verse > Bridge > Chorus > Middle Eight > Chorus x 2
This ‘perfect pop formulae’ translates perfectly into rock music too. I spent years hanging my songs on this framework and it improved my songwriting no end. I once knew an A&R guy for Gut Records, Anthony Johnson, who gave me some amazing advice concerning middle eights. He said “You are writing your song and your chorus is the catchy bit that everyone’s after and the pinnacle of your song”. He then said, “Once you have that pinnacle you have to make the middle eight a step up from that so if the chorus goes all the way up to 10 the middle eight should be 11. Once you have heard the chorus twice you need the middle eight to really capture the listener and seal the deal before you go out in a flurry of choruses.” Some of the best advice I was ever given.
Musically I usually go to the relative minor or major for the middle eight to get the desired effect but I do come unglued when I use the relative minor as the chorus. I am stuck on a song at the moment where the verse is major and the chorus is in the relative minor. And it’s a the song that’s taking me longer than any other song to finish. I’ll get there though. I’m in no rush to finish it. I know it will be perfect for the next album whenever that may be.
Follow the leader
A great melody can carry some below par lyrics and ultimately turn your song in to a great song. Melody is something you either have or you don’t. It’s the vital ingredient in songs that seldom gets talked about. I’ve read countless interviews where the emphasis has been on lyrics or music but melody rarely gets a mention.
I think the only way to write good melodies is to immerse yourself in the kind of melodies you want to write, Paul McCartney, Ryan Adams, Ben Folds are all at the top of the melodic tree and I listen to endless hours of their material. I try to absorb it and hope some of it rubs off.
Out of the blocks
I used to struggle with writer’s block and I used to beat myself up a lot if I couldn’t finish a song, which happened quite a lot up until very recently. I took some advice from Ryan Adams on this subject. He said, “Writer’s block doesn’t exist. If you get stuck you should keep playing and if you keep playing you will finish the song. You are a songwriter so write songs. The more you play the more you write.” That really struck a chord with me (pun intended) and since then I just keep going until the song is finished and if it gets to a point where I am at a loss as to what to do next in a song, I don’t worry or stress about it, I know it will get finished eventually and I will put the song aside and start a new one and revisit the song maybe a week later with fresh ears. I have to say, though, I have only been stuck on one song in the last five years.
The final word
Nine out of the 10 songs on my debut album First Ray Of Light were written for the album and only one song was written prior to me starting to write the album. I used all of the techniques above to compose and write and the songs came quite quickly. I played around with the structures of the songs a little and sometimes used a bridge after a chorus and on one song, A Side Of You That Cares, I took the middle eight down to one instead of up to 11, just to prove to myself it can be done and ‘rules’ can be broken successfully.
There are no rules in songwriting but what I have highlighted above will, if you stick to it, give you a basic foundation to build your songs on. I can’t promise you will have hit after hit because although you have a successful structure it’s the original material that you pour from your soul that will touch people not the nuts and bolts but the nuts and bolts will make your ideas and songs palatable to the masses.
J R Harbidge releases his debut solo album, First Ray Of Light, on 5 October via Absolute Label Services. Check out the lead single Turn The Screw below and get the lowdown at jrharbidge.com