This month, all-singing, all-songwriting columnist Lisa looks at the songwriting process and reveals some of her own sources of inspiration
aul Simon once said in an interview that “much of songwriting is simply a mystery” and it definitely seems magical. I’m fascinated by songwriting and love hearing how my favourite artists wrote their great songs – how often it can be an unconscious thing, songs coming to them from nowhere like a gift. Songs can be so powerful, can make you happy, make you cry, evoke memories and transport you to a special moment or time in your life. Here I’m going to share what I do…
I’m a sucker for a great melody so for me, when I write, it’s often the melody or a phrase that comes first. Sometimes this has come when I’ve been doing something else unrelated to music but usually it starts when I’m playing my guitar while singing the melodic idea over and over. I like the rhythmic quality of the guitar and have certain chord progressions I use. I have a fondness for major sevenths and minor sevenths which have a lovely warmth and sweet melancholic quality. I love how on Tapestry, Carole King combines the minor and sunnier major on timeless songs like It’s Too Late and You’ve Got a Friend – very inspiring.
I always have my trusty notebook with me to write down ideas. It becomes a great record of how the song is developing. I try not to record too much on my Dictaphone when I first get something. If I forget all about the melody and remember it later on that’s a great indication that’s it’s memorable. However, lately I’m getting into the habit of singing into my phone or laptop, just in case – hate the thought of losing something that could’ve been a potential hit! When I get a melody that I’m happy with, I then start to develop a theme that I want to sing about. Sometimes I’ll have a specific idea reflecting what I’m going through. When I feel really inspired and have some words and a title, sometimes the song can be very quick to finish. It’s a dream when the process is fast and instinctive, when you write something you’re really excited about and you can’t resist playing it over and over.
“Some of my songs seem to have written themselves”
Obviously sometimes it differs but the lyrics usually come last. Somedays it’s easy and words flow, others take some time for me to feel satisfied with them. Michael Stipe believes you should “trust your unconscious. Allow that to do the real work,” and there’s a lot to be said for following those first instincts. Sometimes a random phrase just comes out, ideas flow and it just feels right.
If the title is interesting and evocative to me, I will use that as inspiration for the theme and include it throughout a song. Some of my songs seem to have written themselves once I’ve gotten the title. My songs Never Was A Yesterday and Makes Your Heart Sing arose while having a conversation with friends. There might be something people say that triggers my imagination and it turns into a song. Another song, Slipstream, felt like an interesting metaphor for striving forward with my career and not getting left behind.
Dolly Parton has said in interviews that she’s always written from a personal perspective and her songs connect with fans because of her truthfulness. “The first songs I wrote were gospel songs because it was what I felt and knew.” I write about what’s happening in my life and there’s definitely a personal strand running through most of my songs. New York Song, Summer on the L and Dreaming In Crowds are all inspired by my time living in the Big Apple.
I’ll also feel really inspired after certain books and films that have captured my imagination while other songs have had a more general message. Live Your Life is about chasing your dreams and not letting things stand in your way despite facing setbacks and pain. I’m fascinated by the music business and the nature of fame: When You Come Home looks at the aftermath, someone who has had the adulation and success and lost it.
“It’s important that you visit your worksite every day”
If you’re feeling stuck with your writing, taking a break from a song, letting in breathe and revisiting it later fresh is definitely a good thing. However, Burt Bacharach’s advice is worth keeping in mind: “It’s important that you visit your worksite every day, even if it’s just to improvise, touch the piano, play some chords. Be in touch with your music.” I try to follow that by keeping my notebook and instruments close by in case inspiration strikes.
Neil Young reiterates this importance of keeping at your writing despite other distractions in life and not letting a good song get away. “Once you have an idea with music, nothing else matters but that idea..Your responsibility to the muse is to follow it.” He also stressed that excitement of writing instinctively and how just letting ideas flow can produce the best work, “I’m proudest of my work when it comes really fast [and] I don’t edit it. It’s the purest form of creativity…you just have to be there.”
As songwriters we observe and absorb all that’s around us and as well as being open to inspiration, the key seems to be keeping focus and persisting at it. When everything comes together it feels so rewarding and you never know what gems you’re going to create! I would love to hear about your songwriting process and how your develop your material, is it usually melody or lyrics first for you? Do you prefer to collaborate with others? Drop me a line and share your thoughts…
Regular Songwriting columnist Lisa Redford has been described by BBC Radio 2′s Bob Harris as “one of our finest singer/songwriters.” She has earned acclaim for her heartfelt acoustic music with gorgeous melodies, stunning pure and soulful vocals. Lisa recently released an EP called Reminders, recorded with musician and producer Jeff Hill who has worked with Rufus Wainwright and Teddy Thompson. It has received glowing reviews and BBC radio airplay.