I recently finished reading a great book by Marc Myers entitled Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits that Changed Rock, R&B, and Pop. Myers interviewed the people involved in historically significant songs from the 1940s to the 1990s. He ended his examination in 1991 because, as he explains it, you need a generation of time to really claim a song is long-lasting and significant. I don’t know, The Decemberists released The Mariner’s Revenge in 2005, and I think I’ll love it forever.
The book has some interesting and entertaining stories, and it’s fun to hear the points of view of the actual people involved in all these classic songs. Naturally, there’s a Spotify playlist to go along with the book.
As I was reading (and listening), I noticed there were many great tips on songwriting, collaboration, and production, directly from the words of the writers and producers themselves.
Here are some of the tips I discovered, with my commentary and links to other resources to reinforce the wisdoms. In general, many of these tips talk about finding opportunities to jump-start your songs, ways to develop your songs, and being open minded when collaborating with others.
You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ – The Righteous Brothers
From the author’s introduction to this classic love song ballad:
Medley and Hatfield began singing as a duo at local clubs. According to Medley, one night when they finished a song, a Marine from a local base shouted out, “That was righteous, brother.” Soon after, Medley and Hatfield were recording for Moonglow Records when they were asked to come up with a name. “The Righteous Brothers” sounded about right.
The lesson here is to listen for phrases in day to day life that you use as a lyric or a title, or heck, the name of your band. I’ve done this from time to time myself. For example, I was reading a blog article about songwriting from Blair Packham, and read the phrase “you might be surprised.” I took this as a springboard for the title of a new song, although the content was of a completely different nature than the title’s origin. That’s the other trick: take the phrase and twist it to you your own original line of thinking.
From Cynthia Weil, a co-writer of the song You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, being at Phil Spector‘s studio to write part of the song:
At Phil’s the next day, Phil sang the “whoa-whoa-whoas.” As a lyricist, I cringed. They sounded like filler.
Songwriters who are primarily lyricists sometimes don’t consider non-verbal hooks as part of a song. I think if you’re got a lot of strong lyrical content in a song, a little tag line like “whoa, whoa, whoa” can be just perfect. You never know when a collaborator or a producer will suggest a great idea, and it’s important to be open to the suggestions.
(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
From guitarist and producer Steve Cropper, talking about the first time Otis Redding brought his song (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay to him:
Otis played and sang a verse he had written: “Sitting in the mornin’ sun / I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ come / Watching the ships roll in / And then I watch ’em roll away again.”
I said, “Otis, hold on. If a ship rolls, it will take on water and sink.” He said, “That’s what I want, Crop.” So we let it go and worked on the rest of the song.
Sometimes the sound or poetry of a lyric can trump the perfect accuracy of the language, and that’s OK. This is songwriting, not literature or a technical manual. Go with it if it feels right, even it doesn’t make perfect sense. Besides, I think most everyone can visualize “ships rolling in” without having them sink.
Stand by Your Man – Tammy Wynette
From Billy Sherrill, co-writer and producer for Tammy Wynette’s song Stand By Your Man:
My title was, “I’ll Stand By You”—but it didn’t sound right for Tammy. She needed a twist. I reworked the lyrics so the story came from the perspective of a woman singing to another woman.
Songwriters writing for specific artists need to consider the artist. Your initial idea might not work for a specific artist, and it helps a lot when the singer finds the lyric meaningful to bring their full emotion into the performance.
Proud Mary – Credence Clearwater Revival
From John Fogerty, singer-songwriter and lead guitarist, on his notebook of song title ideas:
My first entry was “Proud Mary.” I didn’t really know what those two words meant, but I liked how they sounded together.
Writing from titles is a tried and true method to jump start a song. Songs very rarely arrive fully formed; rather they take development of an initial idea and sometimes a good deal of revision and editing. The lesson here is to start with something, anything to get the ball rolling, even if it doesn’t represent a complete idea.
Then I went inside, picked up my Rickenbacker guitar, and began playing a song intro I had been working on. The chord riff was based on the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which I had first heard on TV growing up. I didn’t like how Beethoven had composed it. I preferred hitting the first chord hard for emphasis, not the fourth.
A great way to get an idea to click is to to take an existing snippet and twist it to make it your own. This can be lyrics or musical, and by changing just enough of it, it becomes your own. But unlike Mr. Fogerty, you never have to tell anyone where it came from. The snippet becomes the springboard for further development, where the rest is truly different and your own.
Moonlight Mile – The Rolling Stones
From Mick Jagger, lead singer and songwriter, on writing to feelings of being road-weary and homesick while on tour in 1970.
I know I didn’t want to literalize how I was feeling. That’s not really a very good thing to do when you’re writing lyrics, you know? The feeling I had at that moment was how difficult it was to be touring and how I wasn’t looking forward to going out and doing it again. It’s a very lonely thing, and my lyrics reflected that.
When you write lyrics from a personal emotional experience and you tell it literally, it can become harder for a listener to relate their own feelings to them. By putting a bit of distance between the raw emotion and the song, the song becomes more universal in its sentiment, and usually has a degree of poetry to the lyric, especially when you introduce a metaphor. And yes, this is harder than it sounds :).
Maggie May – Rod Stewart
From Rod Stewart, singer-songwriter, on recording his hit song Maggie May in the studio:
Micky, who was a studio drummer then, showed up without a full drum kit. Somehow he had forgotten his cymbals, so all he had were his drums. I was relatively unknown then and couldn’t really afford to cancel the session, pay the musicians, and pay them again for another session just so Micky could grab all his gear.
Fortunately, Micky was superb. Like [Rolling Stones drummer] Charlie Watts, Micky had come up in Britain’s jazz world. That’s why on the record, the drums sound pronounced. We overdubbed the cymbals later, which is why you hear them faintly.
Sometimes things don’t go as planned, or as you intended. But instead of hemming and hawing over so-called mistakes, in can be productive to push forward and embrace them. For one of my first jobs as a producer, I accidentally recorded the singer from the wrong side of the condenser microphone (which tend to look the same on front and back), resulting in a lo-fi sound to the lead vocals. Instead of re-recording the track, we decided to embrace the lo-fi vibe for the entire production, including the look of the music video. A happy accident in the studio can inspire a feel or vibe to a song, and it’s important to hear this for what it is, rather than striving for an impossible absolute perfection.
Carey – Joni Mitchell
From Cary Raditz, the subject of Joni Mitchell’s song “Carey”, about her unique approach to songwriting:
It was a fascinating process. She was clearly a great musician with a great ear. She liked to try out these chords on her dulcimer—playing them over and over again like a mantra until she figured out where she wanted to go with them. She’d go into a kind of trance, and things would come out of that. I’m not a musician, but what sounded to the average ear like monotony eventually flowered. She’s also a technician who likes to mess with the tuning of her instrument.
Joni Mitchell had a very inventive and original sense of melody. Often she tried unconventional tunings on her guitar, forcing her out of a typical chord progressions and melodies. Other ways to explore hacking your typical songwriting process include songwriting challenges, or playing with an unfamiliar instrument.
Midnight Train to Georgia – Gladys Knight and the Pips
Gladys Knight, lead singer on Jim Weatherly’s song Midnight Train to Georgia, talking about changing some of the original lyrics:
I also wanted to change a few of Jim’s original lyrics—add a word or two and take out a few. So I’d call him every day. I’d say, “Hey Jim, what do you think of ‘So he’s leaving a life he’s come to know’ instead of ‘we’ve come to know’?” Jim was cool with everything. He allowed us that freedom.
If you’re a producer or the songwriting for a song that someone else is singing, it’s important to let the singer in on the creative process. If the singer feels involved, and is singing words with more meaning to them, or flows better with their voice, the performance can be that much more powerful and convincing. Ask yourself if you want to keep the original just because you wrote it, or if the suggestion is actually better for the song.
Rock the Boat – The Hues Corporation
From John Flores, producer on the Hues Corporation song Rock the Boat:
The first version of “Rock the Boat” was a dog. It had nothing going on. But Don Burkhimer, RCA’s head of talent acquisition in L.A., insisted we work with it, since the group was gaining clout.
You have to give yourself permission to do a bad first draft of a song. Sometimes it takes the wrong way to express an idea to figure out the right way to do it. Sometimes there’s a small part of the bad draft that can be the springboard for the next draft. For example, “The first two lines of the chorus are gold. The rest is crap, so I’ll scrap everything but those two lines.”
Development means revising a song through multiple stages, and getting into finer and finer details as you work through it. It’s a good idea to see a song draft through to completion, even if you know it’s not working.
Love’s in Need of Love Today – Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder talking about his creative process and the tools he uses:
I recorded the song’s demo in my hotel room on a Fender Rhodes using a portable Nakamichi cassette recorder. I used to take that recorder with me everywhere, like a notebook.
The important lesson here is that you should always be ready to capture an idea; a lyric or a melody, especially. In 1974, Stevie Wonder carried around a portable tape recorder. Today, we have smartphones with memo and note-taking apps, and even apps dedicated to capturing musical ideas and cataloguing them. There’s no excuse for a songwriter to say,”Yeah, I had this idea for a song yesterday, but I’d forgotten what it was by the time I got back home to my guitar. I kinda remembered it, but it wasn’t the same.”
I don’t buy the purist argument that if an idea is good enough, you’ll remember it fully; that if you can’t remember it, it’s because it wasn’t good enough. I think if an idea is good, you’ll record it or make a note right away, so later on, you can remember it fully, and make a more objective decision about whether or not it’s worth developing further.
Especially for those of us with “straight jobs” where songwriting and being a musician isn’t a full-time occupation, it can be a long while before re-visiting an idea. If you record it when it strikes you, you can pick up where you left off.
(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes – Elvis Costello
From Elvis Costello, singer-songwriter and guitarist, on his creative approach to songwriting:
I typically resisted going to an instrument too quickly. You have to let a song live in your head for a while. Otherwise, you’ll settle for a melody or harmony that’s a bit predictable.
Maybe that’s why I’ve written so many unevenly proportioned songs. For example, on “Red Shoes,” the verse “Oh, I know that she’s disgusted/Cause she’s feeling so abused/She gets tired of the lust,/but it’s so hard to refuse”] is sort of like a verse but it’s also like a bridge. If the song had come to me when I had a guitar in hand, it might have wound up too polished.
Elvis Costello has the opposite approach to how I see Stevie Wonder’s approach. So while I don’t think this approach would work for me, clearly it does for Elvis. I guess the thing here is to recognize what methods work for you, and work with them consciously. You don’t have to take the advice of anyone else dogmatically, except in the case of this blog :).
Heart of Glass – Blondie
From Chris Stein, Blondie co-founder, guitarist and co-writer of the mega-hit song Heart of Glass:
The hook was in the verse, when I had the song’s key pivot from major to minor on the same chord. It was catchy. Doesn’t sound like it would be catchy, does it? What does the melody reveal?
Check out the chords here. This is a trick not often used in pop music, but notice the details here. Yes, it’s a weird change, as you’re literally going into a different key. But in reality, the C# major chord is the one that’s out of key. By the time they switch over to C# minor, they’re back in the key of E-major, the root key of the verse. Also, the rhythm and melodic shape of the first two lines is almost exactly the same. It’s a good idea when you make a “weird” change to one of harmony (chords), melody, or rhythm, don’t change the other two very much. This results in the weird change sounding not too weird.
From Debbie Harry, Blondie co-founder, lead singer, and co-writer:
I think many people connect with the sense of loss or sadness that’s underneath the song. They also connect with the melody’s descending scale, sort of an “Ahhh, yeah, oh well,” like a musical sigh. A lot of people have things like that feeling in their lives.
This is what songwriters like to call prosody. That’s when the music and the lyric are pointing in the same direction. In this case, the “sigh” happens at the end of the third line of each verse: blind and find. You can think of prosody as the idea that ties together the music and the lyrics, without being explicitly stated in either. Imagine if the melody on those words swept upwards; it would be heard more like an exclamation and give the opposite feeling to the meaning of the words.
Another Brick in the Wall – Pink Floyd
From Roger Waters, Pink Floyd co-founder, lead singer, songwriter, and bassist:
Listening to “Brick 2” today, I wouldn’t touch a thing. If you have something to do with a four-minute song that has proved to be as powerful as this one, you would have to be an idiot to tear the wings off to see what makes it fly.
I love the way Waters puts this: you would have to be an idiot to tear the wings off to see what makes it fly.
This is maybe difficult for most of us to relate to, as most of us have never had a song anywhere as huge as Another Brick in the Wall. But for the rest of us, I think the notion of finishing a song, a recording, or a project is a good one. The way you grow as an artist is to try new things, learning with each project you undertake. To go back and revise old material can be interesting, but it’s not the most productive use of an artist’s time, in my opinion. Just look at George Lucas and his revisionist approach to Star Wars and how that turned out.
London Calling – The Clash
From Topper Headon, drummer for The Clash, talking about producer Guy Stevens and recording London Calling:
At one point he said, “OK, that’s a take.” I said, “No it’s not. It speeds up a bit.” He said, “All great rock ’n’ roll speeds up. That’s a take.” And he was right.
This is something I’m currently grappling with as a drummer and producer. Many of my favourite recordings were recorded to a click, or steady tempo. Many were not, especially with classic rock records. For our band Beige Shelter, we’re currently in the midst of a recording project, and sure enough, some of the songs naturally speed up a bit in the chorus, and some demand a steady tempo. I think it’s important to really listen to each song, and never make a blanket statement about anything.
Big City – Merle Haggard
Haggard reflects on a conversation with his bus driver and longtime friend Dean Holloway, who once told him he was “tired of this dirty old city.”
As a songwriter, I instinctively listen and watch for interesting ways people put things at bars and diners and on billboards. “This dirty old city” sort of caught me. I said, “Mr. Holloway”—that’s what I always called him—“I can see you’re upset, but why don’t we take that anger out on a piece of paper?”
Sometimes you hear something and think to yourself, “That would make a great song.” The trick is to grab the moment when you see it and write it down; make a note in your phone, record a little voice memo, anything so you’ll recall the moment better when it comes time to get writing.
We had that song done in about ten minutes. When we finished, I moved a bunch of lines around so they’d sing right…
Yep. When you think you’re finished a song, then it’s time to go over it with a fine tooth comb and look for moments where you revise a lyric or a melodic shape, to bring some more contrast and interesting moments, or just make it sing better. It’s this special attention to details that can take a pretty good song and make it an amazing song.
Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper
From Rob Hyman, co-writer with Cyndi Lauper on the song Time After Time:
The song took two or three nights working this way. We had agonized over the album’s other songs and recorded multiple demos—trying this and that. This song had to happen much faster.
Deadlines can be a good thing. Limiting your choices can be a good thing. Finishing your song can be a good thing. Even when there’s no record label imposing a deadline, you can promise yourself to finish a song (or parts of it, like just the first draft of the lyrics) by a certain date, and stick to it. Write deadlines in your calendar. Break it down into discrete tasks if you can. I know, this sound a bit like project management in a business environment, but it’s still a great way to ensure you finish what you start. Just because you’re an amateur songwriter doesn’t mean you can’t do things the way professionals do.
Losing My Religion – R.E.M.
Mike Mills, bassist for R.E.M. and co-writer on Losing My Religion talk about borrowing ideas from the greats:
I had a lot of trouble figuring out what I wanted to do with the bass line. There was a lot of sound to fill at the bottom, since the mandolin was in the upper register, but my line couldn’t overcome the mandolin. Eventually, I asked myself, “What would [bassist] John McVie do?” I super-admired Fleetwood Mac, and John’s lines were always simple but melodic. They lift songs rather than hold them down. Thinking about John inspired me to come up with a line that locked down the bass part.
This is how to be deliberately inspired: analyze your favourite songs and break them down to their essential elements. Explore the how, not the what, and you can recreate the vibe and feeling without plagiarizing.
From Michael Stipe, singer and co-writer, about the title:
The song’s title came from an old Southern phrase—“I almost lost my religion”—that I heard growing up in the South. I changed it to “Losing My Religion,” which sounded better for the song.
Let’s take a look at why this would sound better. Look at vowels vs. consonants.
In “I almost lost my religion” there are two hard t’s, and the “t” in “lost” is followed immediately by another hard consonant “m” in “my.” Hard consonants back to back are generally harder and more awkward to sing.
In “Losing my religion” there are softer consonants like “g” and “l.” Given that popular styles of singing are very vowel-heavy and vowel-focused, softer consonant sounds usually sing better.