Katie Melua’s 10 top songwriting tips
The Georgian-British singer and songwriter shares her advice on lyric writing, the creative process and studious approach to making music
Last year Georgian-British singer, songwriter and musician Katie Melua was joined onstage by the 23-piece Gori Women’s Choir for her winter concert series. Masters of the ancient Georgian tradition of polyphonic singing, the vocal orchestra was an inspiration to Katie, not only in terms of their disciplined performance but also their creative process. This led Katie to question her own approach to songwriting and so here she outlines 10 of her key learnings that will hopefully inform and inspire you, too…
1. Don’t think too much
“I think I struggled with songwriting in the first place because it is one of the only art forms where even us, the makers, believe in its mystique. It is surrounded by an almost religious mysticism and people don’t think it can be a learned craft, you either have it or you don’t. I’ve worked as a songwriter and I’ve struggled as a songwriter and I find one of the hardest things is having too many options. If I’m thinking too much as a leftfield creative then I find it only takes me up to a certain point and it’s really by learning about the refinement of technique that I’ve been able to move forward.”
2. Don’t just wait…
“‘It just arrives’ seems to be the loudest and most far-reaching explanation of how great songs get written. That’s why I struggled with it for so many years, because I believed that same thing. So I’d sit down and try and write a song, maybe spend a day on it or maybe a week on it and if it wasn’t brilliant pretty much from the get-go I would feel pretty dejected about it. That would affect my self-esteem as a writer and my self-belief. I had written songs in the past that were great but the moment you have, what you perceive to be, a bad writing session it can knock you. It’s actually just a slow writing session and so that’s why I think I struggled with it, because I also believed the discourse that everyone says, that it is a mystery art and you shouldn’t try to dismantle it or dissect it.”
3. Find your inspiration
“I found the work of the Gori Women’s Choir majestic, inspiring and so alive but when I started working with them I also saw how scrupulous they are and how much they dive into details and how unafraid they are of working microscopically. I guess it was the first time for me, in the music-making space that I occupy, where I got to see that something begins in a state where it’s not good at all and then you watch it progressing. In the past, when I didn’t have belief that something very raw will become truly great, I wouldn’t pursue that path. It happened for the first time with the choir because they were brilliant but the songs I took to them were new material and they hadn’t sung them before. They had to work really hard and just by witnessing how the conductor was able to hone it and where it went from take one through to take sixty was amazing to see.
“Seeing that process come to life made me think, ‘Why do I believe that lyric writing is something that is a mystery art form that is almost holy?’ I decided to assume that was all false and instead believe that it can be worked on and developed. I started to learn everything that might affect songwriting and lyric writing and it’s been fascinating.”
4. Remember, everyone struggles
“I’m not just interested in writing great material and coming up with the songs that I need for my job. I’m now actually interested in the songwriting process itself and how it works. To begin with I would work on writing for Katie Melua the singer, but I would also write down observations on how the writing process was going and what the frustrations were for me. The struggle never goes away, no matter what level you are or what you’ve already achieved with your craft. Have you had the chance to hear Eminem’s new single? I love the fact that it’s Eminem and he still talks so openly about the struggles of writing. I came across the same stuff with T. S. Eliot, within East Coker, one of his Four Quartets, he also talks about the difficulty of trying to fight with words and say what you mean.
5. Get in the groove
“The first big technical point that helped me move forward was understanding the rhythm of lines and composing a lyric line with the same sort or artistic architecture and design that a melody has. That’s to do with the sounds of words and also the speed of words. Certain words have different speeds, they might have the same syllabic shape but actually they’ll have different speeds and you can play with that to build an interesting lyrical shape.
“I also really value clarity in a lyric, I want it to sound like a conversation so I’ll always try and have a clear distance in my mind between the voice on the record and the listener.”
6. Deconstruct songs
“I think it’s essential to deconstruct your own songs and every writer should also do it for the songs they love. We all have artists and songs that we adore and artists and songs that we loathe and it’s a good idea to figure out what is going on technically that makes you love one thing and hate another. I’m a huge fan of the Great American Songbook, it’s something that Don Black got me into. He’s got a shelf of the entire lyrics of the likes of Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter. I started with Rogers and Hart last year and I then got the Cole Porter one and I recently bought the Johnny Mercer one. They all created incredible lyrical constructions.
“The other thing that I love about those songs is they will have very deep technique but will sound quite simple. Take a song like Moon River and on the surface it seems as simple as an apple, you listen to it and you think there’s no technical science there but when you look at it written down and see the relationship it has to the music and the vowel patterns, you’ll find some incredible stuff going on in there. I think that’s why we believe in the mystique, because on the surface people like The Beatles and the Great American Songbook sound really clear and simple.
7. Look at songs you don’t like
“I think it’s also important to look at songs that you don’t like, at least one or two, because it helps you compare techniques. It’s really difficult if you look at something that’s really isolated, you can’t quite perceive all of its qualities, but if you compare it to something else then you suddenly can. Then if you take a third thing and compare it to the other two you suddenly start to see a clearer pattern.
8. Learn to be spontaneous
“Spontaneity will come back into your writing when you become so good at the technique that it starts to become subconscious. I think most things are learnt like this: first we consciously try and learn things but then we do it often enough that it becomes second nature. The hip hop writers, they’re not born rhyming like that, they’ll have to start learning it slowly and then they’ll do it long enough that they become so flexible with it that it becomes spontaneous.”
9. Don’t be afraid of the rules
“I know the saying ‘until you know the rules you can’t break the rules’ is a phrase that is used quite often when talking about this type of thing. The problem is that the word ‘rules’ has so many negative connotations to it, so I don’t know if I would use that word. I would just say, don’t be afraid of diving deep into it. The risk that you are going to take, and I find myself in that constantly, is that once you dive deep into it and you realise the technical skill set that is required, both lyrically and musically, it’s actually really frightening because to be a great songwriter you have to be as good as the greatest composer and as good as the greatest poet. But I’m such a lover of songs that I think they deserve that level of attention and technique.”
10. Know thyself
“I think I probably drive some people a bit crazy and I think this methodology really does have to suit you. There’s this great thing that I came across recently on a fiction writing course which was: ‘Rule Number 1 – know thyself’. If you can’t stand the thought of dissecting songs and you’re not excited by the thought of research and diving microscopically into stuff then you definitely shouldn’t. It’s so essential that you pick the method that excites you, motivates you and keeps you going. You’ve got to do anything that makes you inspired and maintains your love for the work.”
Katie Melua’s re-released Christmas album In Winter is out now and she will be touring throughout Europe and the UK in October-December 2018. Find out more at katiemelua.com