Songwriting Tips, News & More
USA Songwriting Competition presented a Songwriters Showcase on May 8, 2014 at the famous Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, TN. It was a sold-out packed show. Liz Miller hosted the showcase with the following songwriters, see pictures and videos below:
Johnny Bulford (First Prize Winner, 18th Annual USA Songwriting Competition)
Daisy Mallory (Finalist)
Lauren Lucas (Honorable Mention Winner)
Natalie Howard (Finalist)
Kayliann Lowe (Finalist)
From bottom left to right are Daisy Mallory,Lauren Lucas,Johnny Bulford, Natalie Howard.
From back left to right are Kayliann Lowe & Liz Miller
Johnny Bulford, singing his #1 hit song "A Woman Like You" (recorded by Lee Brice)
Lauren Lucas, performing "Just Haven't Found Him Yet":
Natalie Howard, performing "Hit The Hay":
For more information on the 19th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net
The Rhythm of the Melody—more important than ever for “top line” writers
By Harriet Schock
In my book, Becoming Remarkable for Songwriters and Those who Love Songs, I have a chapter devoted to the rhythm of the melody. It’s often overlooked by the beginning songwriter who pays lots of attention to the shape of the melody, the chords under the melody and whether the melody proceeds in steps or leaps. But the rhythm of the melody is equally important, and these days with “top line” writers, it’s vital.
“Top line” writers, as they’re often called, are writers who write melody or lyrics-- or melody andlyrics—over a track provided by the track writer, who’s often the producer, the DJ, whoever is providing it. I won’t get into the disputes that often come up over ownership and who wrote what. The subject I’m tackling is how hard it is to write a melody over a chord progression that never changes. Of course, some tracks have different chords in different sections of the song but many of them have the same chord progression in the verses as in the choruses, etc. So if you’re not paying attention to the rhythm of the melody, you can have trouble getting the melody over the verses to sound different from the chorus melody. Often, the melody that the top line writer comes up with has such rhythmic variation and melody shape, you don’t even notice the chords are the same. And, of course, the track builds. But in traditional songwriting, one of the goals is to have as much difference as possible between the verse and the chorus. And with the same chords, it can really be a challenge.
As I said in the chapter of my book mentioned earlier:
It’s an interesting exercise to spend a week listening only to rhythm of melody. Whenever the radio is on, or a CD, home in on that one facet. See where the melody starts in relation to the count of “one.” See if it’s relatively on the beat or on an “and” or an “oh” as in “3-oh-and-uh”—in other words, syncopated. See if the verse differs from the chorus in this regard. Never mind the shape of the melody or its interaction with the chords right now, we’re just listening for the rhythm of the notes that are sung.
I used to have a friend who would tap out rhythms on my arm and see if I could guess the melody. Sometimes, it would be so distinctive, I could. Try tapping out the melody to “As Time Goes By,” on someone’s arm and see if he/she can guess it. Or “America” from West Side Story. If your friends give up, hum it for them without words and they’ll hit their heads like someone in a V-8 commercial. The truth is, in both of these old songs, the rhythm is very distinctive. But it’s also true of most songs that the rhythm of the melody is as important to its personality as facial features are to a person’s appearance. It just seems to be the part of melody that gets discussed the least.”
The rhythm of the melody has always been important but today for the top line writer, an analogy comes to mind. If an artist is told he can only paint vertically on the canvas—no horizontal lines---he’d better have a complete palette of colors at his disposal. With the same chords over and over, for it not to sound like Chinese water torture, he’d better be well versed in the rhythmic variations to the melody.
Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit for Helen Reddy, "Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady" plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored two other Jaglom films and starred in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s current release is “The M Word” for which Harriet wrote the featured song. Harriet has written the songs for “Last of the Bad Girls,” a musical with book by Diane Ladd. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. Her catalogue musical, “Split” for which she wrote book and songs is currently in production. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and through a popular online course by private email. In 2007, Los Angeles Women In Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. For her performance schedule, list of credits and samples of her work or information on he rbook (Becoming Remarkable, for Songwriters and Those Who Love Songs), her songwriting classes and consultation, go to: www.harrietschock.com
For more information on the 19th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net
Tools For The Songwriter: Capture And Craft
By Sven-Erik Seahom
Grab those ideas and turn them into great songs with the right tools
“A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true.”—Bob Dylan
A song comes to us with a blend of three complementary ingredients: lyrics, melody and harmonic structure (chords). Each of these essentials supports the others, so while the lyrics may often directly refer to a particular feeling or emotion, the melody can actually help to emphasize or even embody that sensation. The chords contextualize things further by defining and establishing major and minor key relationships—the exact same melody can be made to sound either happy or sad, depending on which notes surround and support it.
It all sounds very complicated, and it certainly can be, but the act of songwriting can also be fundamentally broken down into two simple phases: Capture and craft.
Tools at the ready—anywhere, anytime
The first stage begins with allowing all of your ideas and inspirations to flow freely, encouraging them to come into being without judgment or expectation. Each new line or musical phrase may suggest another and then another, until you’ve filled the room with all of these wonderful ‘butterflies’ of invention and creativity. Along the way, you may employ a wide variety of ‘nets’ to gently capture them.
Songs are often like long-lost friends who show up unannounced while you’re in the middle of something else. You’re always very excited to see them, but the timing can be a bit of an issue. The key word here is readiness—having the tools you need at hand when you’re struck by the lightning of creativity. Have a note pad at the ready, and pencils or markers, highlighters—the quicker you write down a good idea, the more likely you are to keep it and to build on it. I usually write on an acoustic guitar. If that’s what you do, too, make sure yours is in tune, with good strings, ready to inspire you.
You won’t always have your best ideas come to you while you’re conveniently sitting at your desk. To capture a musical idea, anywhere, anytime, carry with you a pocket-sized digital recorder. Don’t neglect to check the batteries, the memory card, or the internal memory, so that you can dictate a lyric or hum a melody whenever inspiration comes to you.
If you have a smart phone, load it up with apps to record, apps to take notes... Songwriting is a guerrilla operation—one must be patient, but prepared to act quickly. Having even the most rudimentary record of this moment can make the difference between that tiny creative encouragement becoming the best song you ever wrote, or just another one that got away.
I knew a songwriter several years ago who received a Nikon digital camera as a gift. This particular model included audio recording capabilities. He carried it with him everywhere. To my knowledge, I don’t think he ever took a single picture with it. But it was filled with song ideas, arrangement snippets, found sounds, lyrics and poems…little audio finger-paintings, if you will. The artist finds a way!
The muse comes calling
Sometimes, there’s a nibble. A chord change or a musical vibe might catch my attention or take over. I fall under its spell and delve deeper into it, playing it over and over in an endless loop. I begin singing along and exploring the varying sonorous textures that are suggested by the union of my musical sense and my subconscious mind.
At this point, I try to sing the most beautiful and unique melody I can uncover. Even though I don’t know what all of the chords will be yet, I’m singing over what is there, because the very melody that I’m singing could suggest what the next move is.
Let’s start out, for example, by playing a simple C chord for a measure, followed by an E minor chord for another measure. After a while, you might begin singing a G “Ooooh” over the C chord and rising to a B over the E minor. Return to the G over the C chord, falling to an E over the E minor... Back and forth: “Ooooh, ooooh. Ooooh, ooooh...”
Eventually, a melodic turn may be in conflict with what you’re currently playing, suggesting a new chord. Let’s say you want to hear a G note, followed by a note of G# and then an A. That’s probably not going to work over the present chords, so you search through a variety of combinations until you arrive at the solution that sounds best to you. In this case, it might be a C chord, followed by an E7 and then an A minor. Suddenly, you’re in a whole new place. By simply following our melody, you’ve wandered off the beaten path and are now finding your way instinctively.
So, where can you go next? Continue playing through the progression, still singing along, all the way up to that creative ‘cliff’ where you had left off. This hypnotic, cyclical approach places the song “under your hands”; you become more comfortable playing and singing these inspirations, allowing your mind to roam. This often gives the next solution a better chance to present itself.
Along the way, certain words or images may concurrently begin emerging from seemingly nowhere, giving further shape and focus to your otherwise rudimentary utterances. Vowels are significant: As you sing along, you can try moving from “Ooooh” to “Aaaay” or “Eeee”, for example. Listening to the sonorous quality of these and other vowel shapes can further suggest lyrical snippets or additional melodic ideas... the point is to keep walking down that musical trail and see what else is there to be discovered.
If you’re lucky, you may arrive at a big “Eureka!” moment, or you may just run out of steam... In either case, this is the place to whip out that smart phone and record what you do have so far. Got lyrics? Write those down too! Just a chord and a rhythm? Fine. Hit Record. A bunch of stuff in your DAW? Hit Save and render a rough mix. Like a page with a folded corner, your process can be frozen in place until your next opportunity to return to it.
Neil Young, only one among many artists who feel that way, has long embraced the notion that most of his songs be not only born from but completed in this initial flurry of activity. It obviously doesn’t always happen that way, but his stated intent is that within that early burst of inspiration lies something very special that’s also quite fragile. You can find a great interview online, wherein Young discusses this concept in the writing of his song “Like A Hurricane”.
Singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman once said that as soon as a song idea began to take shape, his goal was to then finish the song before his wife came home, so he could show it to her. In the book Written In My Soul (a collection of interviews with many great songwriters, which I very highly recommend: www.amazon.com/Written-My-Soul-Conversations-Songwriters/dp/0809246503) Himmelman’s father-in-law Bob Dylan says, “All you know is that it’s a mood piece, and you try to hold onto the mood and finish. Or not even finish, but just get it to a place where you can let it go.”
Modern technology affords us the unprecedented ability to pick up right where we left off, to effectively bookmark these works in progress, to subsequently develop them into something even better, stronger and more lasting.
Get it in writing
Now comes the crafting of the song, a stricter yet still passionate process. At this point I fire up my word processor—I use Microsoft Word. Aside from the spell checker, I use its Thesaurus. The internet is full of thesaurus websites and dictionaries of synonyms—pick one and type in ‘ubiquitous’. Word will throw the following alternatives back at you: “ever-present”, “everywhere” and “omnipresent”. It may seem a paltry selection, but I’ll bet it’s a lot easier to rhyme with “everywhere”....
These sorts of synonymic options are the writer’s key accomplice. They can help us to think “outside the box”, by offering unexpected twists in our flow. One fantastic program that helps this process along in a very “musician-oriented” way is MasterWriter (masterwriter.com), which offers a huge selection of writing and reference tools with songs in mind. Check it out if you find working in Word to be a creativity-killer...
Let’s say, for example, that upon revisiting the notepads and audio memos, you take up where you left off, playing through the chords and singing the same wordless melody. Only this time, you start to sing the words “Where were you?” sort of unconsciously, in an almost meditative way. You come to a place where you want to say “You’re Everywhere”, but you don’t want to use such an obvious, almost lackluster word. You look up “everywhere” and the word “ubiquitously” is among the many choices offered. Chuckle at first, but then you hear the word “Ubiquitous” with a melody in your head: D#, D#, F#, G.
After a little more time exploring these new options, you come up with at least the start of a song structure, so go into your word processor, set it to a 20 point font size and make a chord chart for what you have so far, doing your best to line up the chords over the correct syllables, etc.:
Where were you?
Where were you?
C E7 Am B7
Everywhere weren’t you?
You follow that with a quick recording into your phone, and you title both the .doc file and the memo ‘Ubiquitous 02’. Every time you come to what you feel is a point of accomplishment (the melody forms, the structure gels, or a bridge appears), you will continue to leave these sorts of signposts for yourself along the way, so that you can track your progress, or back up if you hit a dead end.
Charting your course
If you’re looking for a dedicated chord chart maker, one that lets you edit chord patterns and do key transposing, the program Song Sheet 5 (from dsbsoft.com) offers a few features that could make their way into your creative process. Within the chord editor, for instance, there is a “preview” function that plays the currently selected chord. If you’re looking for the next chord in your song, you can click and audition chords you suspect might be right, or just see what arrives from clicking through different chords at random. Or try variations on the chords you have and see if they bring any new ideas forward.
Sometimes we just can’t get our hands to play the music in our heads. Perhaps we habitually go to all-too-familiar chord shapes, or just aren’t strong enough on our instrument to accurately realize the music we envision.
Band-in-a-Box (pgmusic.com) is an excellent aid in this more compositionally-oriented method. Band-in-a-Box lifts the chord chart approach up to a whole new level, by not just previewing chords, but performing them from start to finish, complete with drums, bass, guitar, piano, strings and more, in a variety of styles. Type in your chords and away you go, free to experiment with tempo, key, and style. There’s even an automatic melody generator provided, to further provoke your own creativity from unexpected musical places!
A few years ago, I produced an album for singer/comedian Happy Ron, called Terribly Happy (www.cdbaby.com/cd/happyron). He had composed, arranged and demoed the whole record, complete with chord charts, lyric sheets and audio CDs, entirely within the Band-In-A-Box environment. This degree of organization is invaluable in the studio and could be immensely helpful to your songwriting as well.
Now, some or most of these tools are available inside many DAWs, including notation editing; there are also notation-specific programs that you might find inspiring, some of which contain composer-friendly additions like built-in sound libraries and audio recorders. Some famous examples are Sibelius (avid.com), Finale (makemusic.com), and Notion and Progression (notionmusic.com). I won’t say more about them because they’re not products I have experience with, but I’ve worked with a lot of artists who have drawn great inspiration from them, and I expect you’ll see more mention of them in upcoming issues of Recording. I will discuss my DAW of choice below, in the context of a different sort of compositional flow.
Bait & Switch
Band-in-a-Box can also be used to play an existing song, over which you can audition an endless variety of original lyrics and melodies, in a kind of karaoke songwriting approach. Sometimes, we just need to sort of trick ourselves into doing something different, to help break ourselves out of old habits that may have begun bringing diminishing returns. For instance, lyricists can also benefit from the tactic of “hanging it on another song’s structure.”
There is a legend (which may or may not be true) regarding the pop songwriting duo of Chris Difford & Glenn Tilbrook of the band Squeeze. Difford was the lyricist and Tilbrook wrote the music. Allegedly, Difford wanted to try a new approach, just to shake things up a bit. He first compiled the lyrics from a bunch of his favorite Motown songs. Then, he completely rewrote each one, still adhering to the meter and syllable counts of the originals, and subsequently turned them all over to the composer, without letting him in on it. The resulting album was their biggest seller, one many fans cite as one of the best in their catalog.
Another approach: Gimme a beat
Hip-Hop songs require a different method from those illustrated in our previous examples, because in Hip Hop the words almost always come after the music. So first off, you’re going to need a beat.
In this instance, a beat doesn’t just mean a drum loop. The term includes all of the loops, the samples, the chords and the bass, as well as the all important Hook, which is also referred to within other genres as the Chorus. With so many elements involved in the song’s construction, a writer can go from inspired to overwhelmed in a hurry.
There are a lot of DAWs out there that all do an amazing job, but when it comes to simplifying the process so that you can be free to create, I’ve found for my own purposes that PreSonus’s Studio One (presonus.com/
studioone) offers a great workflow.
Studio One’s intuitive, tempo-sync based environment keeps all of your loops, MIDI, audio and effects in sync with the song’s meter, saving lots of setup and ‘tweaking’ time. Its easy ‘drag and drop’ interface almost seems to fade into the background as you create and discover. Loops can be performed and edited with incredible ease and speed, then quickly exported by simply dragging them to the browser. Studio One is not unique in this capability—nowadays most DAWs offer such tools. But it’s the one I’m most familiar with.
Whichever DAW you’re using, gather a palette of loops and other sounds, and you can begin building a structural framework. Start by a laying down 4 minutes of a two- measure drum loop. Adjust the tempo until you’re “feelin’ it”. Words may already begin tumbling out of you from this humble start. If so, let ‘em flow! The rhythms, accents and other forms of cadence that spill forth can influence every aspect of the arrangement that supports your lyric.
Since you’re already in a recording environment, there’s no better time to get those rhymes down than in the heat of the moment, so reach for a mic. Choose a decent one that suits your voice, in case you end up with keeper tracks.
As before, just lay down what comes out. A great exercise is to loop 16 bars and record numerous passes. Maybe each ‘take’ brings you closer to what you want, or you can try out a bunch of stuff and go back through and edit it later.
Grab that Ubiquitous chorus we were working on earlier and follow your verses with it for 12 measures. Using E minor as your key, you can begin building the rest of your ‘beat’ by adding bass, keys and other instrumental loops, or perform them via MIDI on one of the virtual instruments in your DAW.
Much like a sculptor, chiseling away in an effort to reveal the image that lies underneath, you can add and subtract these elements in an endless number of combinations. Structurally, you can shuffle song sections, re-order lyric lines and verses, add breakdowns and bridges, try out intros, etc. In this way, the studio becomes your willing accomplice, rather than one more adversary you need to contend with.
Now that you’re ready to flesh out your song and take it to the next level, you might want to look for realistic sounds that can inspire you. Guitarists can get that big-stage sound for styles like Rock, Punk, Metal, etc. from amp modeling plug-ins; your DAW probably came with a few already, and many more are out there. Even the free Apple GarageBand (apple.com/mac/garageband) has sounds that are perfectly suitable for commercial releases. Plus, you can get some of the hugest, gnarliest tones imaginable, riffing and wailing to your heart’s delight... without your neighbors ever knowing.
Guitar slingers with iOS mobile devices are also presented with some great writing options, via guitar interfaces like the Sonoma Wire Works GuitarJack (sonomawireworks.com) or the Apogee JAM (apogeedigital.com). These new interfaces connect via the dock connector on your iPhone or iPad, rather than older products that go through the headset minijack and frankly don’t sound very good.
Once you’re connected, you can open a multi-effect processor app like Positive Grid’s JamUp Pro and BIAS (positive
grid.com) and get to rockin’! In addition to being able to play through its faithful recreations of many different amps and effects, you can also dial in your own tones, and when inspiration strikes, you can capture it with the built-in 8-track recorder and export your audio via email or file sharing. This could even be imported back into the hook of your hip-hop production, bringing you full circle!
Getting there in the end
Don’t beat yourself up on days when none of these tools work for you. There are times when creativity is calling a time-out. My mother is a painter. She once told me, “Sometimes you paint, sometimes you clean your brushes.” So when it’s not happening, go for a walk, do house chores, tidy up your studio and your computer’s desktop, back up some hard drives, play Scrabble (it will give you ideas for lyrics!)—even though you won’t be actually writing a song, you’ll still be working at it, just on a different level.
Over time you’ll go back to each almost-finished song, listening with fresh ears, tweaking a detail here and there, until you know it’s ready to meet its audience. When an audience trusts a song, they can begin to believe that it has a place in their own lives. They will let down their guard and allow you the chance to get inside their hearts. To move them. This is the sacred covenant that makes our efforts as songwriters worthwhile. This is the importance of capture and craft.
(Reprinted with permission by Recording Magazine)
Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer, singer and songwriter. His latest release is Seaholm Mackintosh’s Monarchs. Check out his website at www.kaspro.com.
For more information on the 19th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net
Songwriting Tip: To Demo Or Not To Demo
What to consider before pushing record...
By James Piekarski
It's disheartening—you spent hundreds upon hundreds of dollars and countless hours on a demo, only to have industry professionals reject it.
There are many reasons for rejection—why not sort them out and eliminate as many of them as you can?
It’s all about the song
Almost anyone on a modest budget can create great-sounding demos. But the songs themselves have to be not just good songs, but rather great songs, to capture and hold a listener’s attention. Your competition is not the band down the block, but rather what’s on the radio and in the CD racks at the retailer. That’s the level you need to be aiming at.
A brief visit to unsigned-talent websites should give you an idea of how vast a pool of competitors you have. The Internet downloading phenomenon indicates that listeners want to cherry-pick their favorite songs. Like it or not, more focus than ever will be on solid songwriting.
Universal A&R veteran Reen Nalli, who has signed such artists as INXS and india.arie, says, “Why do we have to have CDs that have 10 to 15 tracks? I think you’re going to start seeing fewer and stronger tracks.”
Mike Doyle, former Writer Relations Representative at ASCAP and now in Creative at Major Bob Music,Nashville, says, “You can spend a lot of money on songs that sound great. But do your homework and make sure the song itself is where it needs to be before you ever set foot in a demo studio.”
Avoid the friends and family plan
Family members and friends are probably the worst people from which to solicit honest feedback. Your mom will love all your songs no matter how good or bad they are. Where then is one to get a really honest critique of one’s music before going through all the time and expense of creating a full-blown demo?
There are professional organizations of interest to unsigned artists who need to solicit that kind of creative input. For one, Nashville Songwriter’s Association International (NSAI) has chapters throughout theUnited States,Canada, andEurope. Typically, NSAI critique sessions are offered once a month. The sessions are refereed by an NSAI representative and feature an industry A&R or music publishing professional to offer advice.
Dave Rivers, National Workshops Director of NSAI, comments, “The NSAI critique sessions give people an opportunity to get feedback from a pro writer who is out there writing for the market every day. We have a mail-in evaluation service as part of membership as well. And it’s heartbreaking to hear a $600 demo of a song that is pretty good, but the chorus is twice as long as it needs to be. NSAI is an organization for all genres, not just country. Having a song that is competitive is important in all genres of music.”
Songwriters Guild of America (SGA) offers similar feedback sessions on a bi-monthly basis along with other writers’ workshop opportunities. SGA also offers mail-in critique services. Performance rights organizations such as ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, also offer a variety of workshops where participants can have their songs critiqued, bolster their songwriting skills, and learn about the inner workings of the music business. Check their websites for their calendar of events. Many of the new web-based music services such as Broadjam, and of course the well-established on- and offline TAXI network, offer critiques as part of their membership services.
How about starting your own critique group? Groups of about six to eight members work quite well. And try to work up. That is, work with others who are at least equal to if not a bit better than you. Have all the participants bring a rough work tape, or be prepared for a live performance (acoustic guitar and vocal, for example) and enough lyric sheets to go around to all the other participants. Set ground rules on how many minutes can be spent on each song.
You’ll find that critique groups are a great way to get to know other musicians’ music. And you’re sure to learn from what they are doing right and wrong. Besides, you may be able to develop some new co-writing opportunities. About co-writing, hit songwriter Gary Burr says “You’ve got a 100 percent better chance that someone in the room is going to have a good idea. It picks up the slack a little bit if you’re having an off day.”
Full production demo or guitar/vocal?
One of the most often asked questions at music industry workshops is “How full does my demo have to be?” The answers to this are all over the map and depend on the style of music and whether the track is an artist demo or a song demo.
If the song is a pop or rock demo that showcases the sound of the band, then it really does have to sound like it’s ready for radio. Unlike country or folk, or other more song lyric-oriented styles, the overall sound, attitude, choice of drum loops, cool and crunchy guitars, and wicked groove are of equal importance to the raw, underlying song itself.
This is not to say that a great lyric won’t help, but lyrics in pop and rock often tend to be more metaphorical, personal for the artist, artsy/poetic, or just plain open for interpretation as opposed to folk, country and rap. For solo artists with a unique vocal styling, maybe a less elaborate demo might be OK. If you marry a great song to a great, fresh sounding track, you’ve got a “can’t miss” combination.
For non-artist songwriters, very high-quality guitar (or piano) and vocal demos are entirely suitable for presentation to a publisher. It’s not uncommon to hear, “Great sounding track, but too bad the song just isn’t there yet.” Focusing your efforts on a professional sounding, well performed guitar-vocal demo will be time well spent. If you plan ahead correctly, you can always go back and add more tracks at a later date. If you can swing the time and expense of a full demo, great. Presenting your song as it might sound on radio will not work against you. But again, if the song (lyric, melody, basic harmony, form) is not there…
Assuming the instrumental performance is 100 percent there, vocals sell songs. Great vocals sell more songs! Great vocals with a unique vibe and special sound sell yet more songs. It’s money well spent to have the best singer possible on your tracks. If you can do this yourself, great. If you can’t, consider trying a pro vocalist on a track and see what a difference it makes. If you’re recording your own vocal tracks, Joe Albano has a lot more to offer on this subject in his article on page 40.
The Nashville game
Nashvillehas in recent years become more than just a source of country and bluegrass music.Nashville, which has always had a strong Gospel music industry, has also become a center for rock and rap-oriented Contemporary Christian music.
Song demos targeted at the Nashville market are lyric-driven styles, period. If the story or main idea of the song is not clear, game over. Songwriting pros inNashvilleare primarily focused on lyric and melody rather than relying on a signature synth part, drum loop, or certain guitar sound to get the song across.
If you want to play the game inNashvillefor any style of music, your lyric craft will play a major role in your success. The song needs to stay on message. You can’t be secretly wishing the listener will pick up on the meaning of the song. You really can’t be in denial in this area. There will seldom be alternative interpretations of meaning of a country, folk, or gospel song. It is not uncommon to hear pros from the East and West Coasts comment how a visit toNashvillereally “tightens up” one’s writing skills.
The majority of Recording’s readers have at least a modest recording studio of some kind. And if you’re in a band, you already have your talent pool ready to go. However, you may have a need for professional session players, either because not all of your band members are up to the task, or because you don’t play with a band and need additional instruments on your tracks.
Organizing a demo derby is one way to save money on session players: A bunch of songwriters pool their resources and hire musicians for a preset period of time (usually 4-hour blocks).
Let’s say that you and several songwriters want to add some saxophone or flute to a number of tracks. Most professional session saxophonists own tenor, alto, soprano saxes, and double on flute (and sometimes clarinet and even oboe). Given that, set up the mics, levels, and compression once, have the charts ready and run as many tracks as possible in the session. Since some instrumentalists are accustomed to charging by the song, be sure to work out the payment details in advance. Surprises on the session, especially regarding money, are never a good thing.
Many demo studios offer per-song pricing which includes all instrumentalists. Some studios may be able to set up demo-derby package pricing in 4- or 8-hour blocks so many writers can share the same instrumentalists on a number of songs.
Repeat chorus and fade
Art and commerce do mix. Trying to be competitive in the marketplace is not selling out. If you were to go into business for yourself, wouldn’t you explore the competition and see how you could offer something better? Why then would you not want to treat your musical career and all that plays into it in the same dogged, determined, and calculated way?
Chances are that you’ll come away from the critique process with a better understanding of the craft and mechanics of songwriting, and perhaps with some insight into how others are hearing your music. Go write a hit!
(Article Reprinted with Permission from Recording Magazine)
James Piekarski is a composer, songwriter, producer, and recording engineer. He’s also a faculty member in The Department of Recording Industry at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN.
A Three-Stage Rocket to Lyric Writing
When NASA blasted a rocket into orbit, they did it in stages: The big lift-off, a second stage to get the payload into orbit and a third to fine tune the direction. So, what’s this got to do with writing lyrics? You can think of the lyric writing process in three stages:
- 1. Getting started. (Lift off)
- 2. Developing your idea. (Getting into orbit)
- 3. Rewriting (Fine tune it)
=> STAGE ONE: GETTING STARTED
Beginning the lyric writing process with a title can give you a central beacon that will keep your song lyric focused – very important if you want to keep listeners involved. Any short phrase you find emotionally intriguing – or simply an honest statement of how you feel – can work as a title. Make it something you want to write about.
Then make a list of questions the phrase suggests. These are the questions you’re going to answer in your song. Try questions like: What does this mean? Why do I need to say it? How does it feel? How did it happen? What do I think the consequences will be? Every phrase suggests different questions. And every songwriter will find different ones to ask.
OR… you can start writing the first line of your song and work from that. Let’s say you overhear a line in conversation that sounds interesting or a line occurs to you that triggers a whole string of thoughts. Write everything down, then go back and look it over. Do you know what this song is about? Can you put the lines in some kind of order that develops an overall idea? By the time you write the second line of your first verse, you should have an idea where your song is headed.
=> STAGE TWO: DEVELOP YOUR IDEA
Decide on your song structure. For most songs, it’s a good idea to write in a form that has a chorus section, such as…
VERSE / CHORUS
VERSE / CHORUS
BRIDGE / CHORUS. (Read more about song structure.)
Feature your title in your chorus section; make it the first line or last line, or use it in both places. It will provide an anchor for your listeners, a focal point, so a little repetition is a good thing. Surround your title with lines that support it. For example, you might choose to answer the question you feel is the most important. Or describe the emotions that are going on.
Remember, the chorus sums up the heart of your song. Be sure to keep it focused on a peak emotional moment. Don’t try to explain too many specific ideas in the chorus. Save that for the verses.
Lay out your verses around the chorus. Choose at least one of the questions from your list to answer in each verse and the bridge. By laying out your song instead of just writing whatever comes to you, you’ll stay focused on a single idea in each verse and you won’t wonder what you’re going to write about when you get to the bridge!
FILM & TV SONG TIP: If you’re writing songs for the film & TV market, keep the focus solely on a peak emotional moment and try to avoid a specific storyline. The script will take care of the story details. Also, for film & TV, the VRS / VRS / BRIDGE / VRS song form can work well. Try using your title in the last line of each verse. If you repeat that last line each time the verse comes around, it will add weight and create a chorus-like feel.
=> STAGE THREE: REWRITE AND POLISH
Fill in more lines around the ones you’ve written. Simple, conversational phrases are fine but you might want to mix these with images, comparisons, and physical expressions of emotion to make your listeners really feel it! Don’t just tell them what you experienced; make them experience it, too.
Replace a cliché with a fresh idea. If you’ve written a line that listeners have heard a thousand times, try adding a twist, end the phrase in a different way than we expect.
Punch up your language. If you wrote “I need…” try “I hunger…” or “I crave…” Make your action words work harder, too. Instead of “you walked away,” use “you slipped away” or “you danced away.” These words tell us more about the emotions that accompanied the action.
Go through your lyric and make certain you’ve answered the important questions about the situation. Did you say something in your lyric that raised more questions or hinted at something else? You’ve got to deal with that—either answer the question or change that line. You don’t want to leave the listener feeling unfulfilled.
This is the time to “encourage” some rhymes. Don’t force them; never change the natural word order of speech to accommodate a rhyme – you’re likely to lose the believability of the lyric. Look for a rhyme that feels easy and natural. if you use “vowel rhymes” you have a huge selection to choose from. Like the name implies “vowel rhymes” merely rhyme the vowel sound. Fine/time, now/house, love/stuff are all vowel rhymes. Check out www.B-Rhymes.com for lists of near rhymes. (Read more about rhyming.)
ONE LAST THOUGHT…
At times during this process, there’s likely to be a strong line that “just occurs to you,” a line you reeeeally want to use. If you laid out your song as a rough sketch first, take a look to see where the line might belong and put it there. If it doesn’t seem to belong to any section, then it might provide the germ of a new song. Write it on a separate sheet of paper and put it to one side. You can come back to it later to see where it leads. In songwriting, no good line is wasted – you just have to find the right place for it.
by Robin Frederick
Robin Frederick has written more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records, Executive Producer of 60 albums, and the author of “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” and “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV” available at Amazon.com. Visit Robin's websites for more songwriting tips and inspiration: www.RobinFrederick.com and www.MySongCoach.com.