Martin Child of Oxfordshire band The August List shares his five tips on how to keep those creative juices flowing
I’ve been trying to write songs for 12 years and the process still confounds me. So I can’t tell you how to write your song, but here’s my stab at trying to explain what I do to switch the creative juices on and avoid repeating myself, and it might just help you if you’re a bit stuck on extracting a song from the depths of your mind. I’ve tried to break it into small morsels you can chew on:
1. CREATE A WORLD
When you put pen to paper and start work on a new song, I feel the most helpful tool in the box is understanding the world in which this song takes place. How that world feels and looks and operates is key to keeping your song on track tonally and can help you with where it goes either narratively or thematically. You’re not describing this world to the listener, they don’t need to know about it, it’s for you to create your song so it holds together and feels like a satisfying whole.
2. GRAB LANGUAGE THAT THRILLS YOU
Take note of words, phrases or sentences that catch your ear. Squirrel them away in a notebook or on your phone. They don’t have to make sense on their own out of context, if you’re excited by the language it will be exciting in your song. When you come to writing your song and you look through these random notes that have nothing to do with each other and then you start mixing them up on the page, you’ll be surprised and hopefully thrilled where the song goes. It will reveal a meaning and a truth that you’re trying to express because all these phrases and sentences have come through your filter. So it should impart an emotion that you’re trying to get at in a much more poetic and satisfying way than just singing the feeling straight. Don’t be scared to use the internet to find rhymes or use random word generators, it’s not cheating, it’s a starting place that can set you off on a path to finding how to say what you want to say.
3. GET STRAIGHT OUT OF THAT DAMN RUT
What comes first, the music or the lyrics? Doesn’t matter, work both ways and it will yield different results. Got an awesome riff or synth sound? Mumble some gibberish over the top of it and you might just get a melody pop out. Make sure you’re recording it on your phone as the first few times it will be fresh and exciting and then the more you go over it, you’ll start subconsciously changing it to something familiar to you, so capture the spontaneity of songs beginning as that could inform the rest of the song. Then listen back to that gibberish you spouted out, more often than not there will be a phrase or a kernel of an idea that could give you the whole song. If you’re starting with lyrics and don’t have a melody, sing them over someone else’s melody (they won’t mind), it will help you with the flow of writing and it will help get your lyrics into a form. Then forget that melody (you could be sued!) and put them over your own. Now the form you’ve used for the lyrics will inform the melody in a way you probably wouldn’t have come up with.
4. BE A SPONGE
Take inspiration from everything. Films, photos, news stories, novels, a person you see on the street. Then put it through your filter as you write and it will become personal, it will bend to the emotion you’re trying to get out. I wrote a song using a news story I had read on Richard Russell, who stole a passenger plane, crash-landed and tragically died. The story really resonated with me, I had a chord sequence that felt like a plane soaring, so I took elements from the story and wrote from the point of view of myself as an air traffic controller (I’m not an air traffic controller), this allowed me an ‘in’ into the narrative without being disrespectful and allowed me to express my feelings using the events of the incident. Nothing about the news story or the ‘facts’ are overtly stated in the song. Someone listening probably won’t know what it’s about specifically, but the emotions hit the spot.
Try to make each song have a different process, so you could say at the start “this song has no chorus” or “in this song nothing rhymes” to see what happens. Reach for different instruments; play them with childlike curiosity and inspiration can be a lightning bolt.
Perhaps the gist overall is to not get into a repetitive working method with your songwriting. Keep it fresh, keep it exciting, try new things and you’ll discover work that makes you splutter, “where the hell did that come from?” Finally, all I can say is trust your gut. If a line feels wrong or off or you’ve forced it out, cut it straight away. Something else will eventually arrive that you believe and others will hear and believe and love and sing along with.