Post archive

I have to have a developed melody and chord progression before I think about lyrics: Sharon Van Etten

­­Sharon Van Etten was featured in a recent episode of ‘The Voices of  . . .’ (BBC Radio 4, April 3) . She has an attractive voice —often harmonised—  (she has said she was influenced by the Everly Brothers and Neil Young among others) and she composes interesting melodies. Among the songs the programme included were For You, I Know and Ask.  

Sharon Van Etten: When I first started writing, it was the only thing I knew how to do.   . . . Early on I remember my mom just gave me a notebook because I never talked to her about anything – I just didn’t know how to do it; I locked up and shut the door and she just gave me a notebook. I never thought anything of it but I started writing all the time and I felt better. As a kid you don’t really realise what you’re doing but as I got older and I create [sic] these physical mementoes of those times and I can listen back and hear what it was I was going though and it seems so obvious when you can look at something and have some distance . . .

Q: Is it the lyrics that come first or the words?

Sharon Van Etten: It depends. Sometimes it’s one line, but it usually is surrounding a melody and I have to have a developed melody and chord progression before I think about lyrics; they’re the hardest thing. But it’s usually centred around one line or one idea and a fully realised melody.

Other times I get bored of the guitar and sit at a piano and I’ll come up with a progression and I’ll just sing until I feel something and that’s when I hit ‘Record’ without thinking about structure or anything and I won’t listen to it for weeks and then I’ll go back and visit it with perspective.

If I’m not enjoying it or I don’t feel like I’m making progress and I start resenting what I’m working on, then I pause . . . and I think about different things I can do that are so creative that aren’t necessarily in music and so I’ll  write or I’ll draw. If you’re a creative person you need to have that outlet or you won’t feel good – about yourself ‘cos that’s just something that you need.

Q: So it’s personal need that you have – this urge to create. At what point does it become something that is available to a public? At what point is it sharable?

Sharon Van Etten: That’s a very good question… When I first started playing music, I knew it was only for myself. Then I had friends ask me to hear what I had been writing and they encouraged me to play open mics. . .  But I realised that people started coming back for me. Every month it got quieter and quieter and one night when I was playing I couldn’t even hear the clink of the glass and not even a bartender would make a drink during my set. And it made me really emotional to hear that kind of connection with people in a way where I was so used to people not even realising I was playing in a bar. You know like I was the background music and all of a sudden I was the one that people were there for.

Q: These are songs – they’re songs of love but in a way they’re more songs of hurt.

Sharon Van Etten: Love is complicated and there are a lot of relationships in life you can have. It's not just with a lover. It's a lover — but it's a  sibling; it's a friend — but it's a stranger that you've met once. You can feel a sense of connection with someone and a heartache for whatever they're going through. So people assume that everything is about a boy that broke my heart [of] which there were a few but there's also life and family and death and . . .There's a lot of heartache in life, you know?   

The lyrics of a memorable song always tell a little story: Jimmy Webb

Jimmy Webb’s entry into the music business was as an in-house songwriter at Motown Records  -- not in Detroit but in Los Angeles. and later he had a long musical partnership with Glen Campbell. His compositions include including Up, Up and Away, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Wichita Lineman and Galveston.  He was interviewed by John Wilson in the Mastertapes series on BBC Radio 4.

Jimmy Webb:
One thing is for sure: if I’m not seated at the piano, nothing’s going to happen! Now, having assumed that position, one raises one hand and plays . . .  a note! Then God can speak to you. But God isn’t going to speak to you if you’re down at the fishing hole twiddling your thumbs. So I do have a Puritanical streak that says at least you’ve got to go sit at the piano today and give it a chance to happen.

JW: When you finish [songs] do you usually just send them out there and let them go? Or is there an urge to go back to them? Do you sometimes come back years later and say, ‘Actually, I should have done that differently’?

Jimmy Webb: I always do that, I’m obsessive about it. I’ll give you an example . . . There’s a song of mine called The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. The first couple of lines go:

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky . . .

That’s the way Judy Collins recorded it . . .  So years went by and one day I’m listening to it and I’ve gone, ‘That’s dead wrong’. What it should be is:

See her how she flies
Golden sail across the skies . . .

Now it’s correct. It was originally ‘Golden sails across the sky’ and I changed it to ‘Golden sail across the skies’ to get the ‘s’ rhyme at the end of the first two lines.

JW: It’s a discipline as well, though, isn’t it? You say the songs come to you but . . . have you ever had . . . a routine?  Do you have to go to a writing room at nine o’clock in the morning and write for eight hours—does it work like that?

Later he answered a question from the audience about what makes a song memorable.  

Jimmy Webb: The elements of a memorable song are . . .I’ll say catchy – I sort of mean ‘original’ in a way – but a very provoking and interesting melody, something that’s not the same as everything else that you’ve ever heard, something that maybe goes off in a little bit different direction and comes back; something that has satisfaction in it, some tension.

I think the lyrics of a memorable song almost always tell a little story and it’s the story you remember. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is a great example of a standard that has a little story because it has a little hook at the end and what the songwriter [??] is working towards is that last line which is

When your heart’s on fire
You must realise
Smoke gets in your eyes.

That’s what he’s been selling for the last three and a half minutes!

If it sounds catchy just on piano, imagine what it will sound like with great production: Emeli Sande

The BBC Radio 4 series Master Tapes recently featured Emeli Sande talking about her very successful 2012 album Our Version Of Events. Interviewed by John Wilson, she spoke at length about the way she wrote the songs on the album.

JW: The album Our Version Of Events that we’re taking you back to – there are a lot of big lush songs on there, big pop production ... but here you are this afternoon alone at the [BBC] Maida Vale piano. Is this generally how the songs start?
ES: Usually. I started playing piano when I was about 11 or 12 and I just love that relationship – being able to really have a say over the harmonies and chords and weave in and out with the voice. That was always my favourite thing to do. So I love starting at the piano and I think it really is the best way to test a song from its beginning. You know -- if it sounds catchy to you just on piano, imagine what it will sound like with great production around it.

JW: When did you start writing songs? When did you think ‘I could do that myself’?

ES: It was really not an option not to write. I just thought that that’s what singers do: you sing with so much soul so it has to come a real place within you. I remember I had a little notebook when I was eight and I was really proud ‘cos I’d learnt what a middle eight was. I had a verse, middle eight, chorus, and just learning the structure of songwriting I found really fun.

JW: You were writing for a range of artists … so was that the game plan at the start to become almost a ‘songwriter for hire’ rather than becoming the performer?

ES: I always wanted to sing and I’d loved singing from when I was so young but I was realistic about this industry. But the more I wrote for people (which I really enjoyed) the more I did think – with certain songs --  I want to sing those; even if it’s only in front of a few people, I want to really express myself as much as I can in that song ‘cos this lyric has come from a real-life situation of my own.

Before turning to music as a profession Emeli Sande  started a degree in Clinical Neuroscience at Glasgow University.

JW: … People often think ’Art or Science’. Did they inform each other? Because if you are spending time on hospital wards, did that experience feed into the songwriting?

ES: Definitely the writing...  Even as a student doctor you’re trusted with a lot of personal information. I think once you’ve seen what makes us who we are, it makes it difficult to write a song something that’s superficial  because you’ve see the depths of a lot of emotion in a hospital.

JW: So some of those things that you saw as a student, do you think they fed directly into lines…?

ES: I don’t know if line for line. But definitely a song like Wonder –

(sings) I am full of life

            I am full of wonder

And it’s all about ‘I’m not giving up; I’ve got this light inside of me’ so … Sometimes when I’m making songs I just try and imagine what would really lift  someone, get them out of bed and make them feel like they can keep going.

JW: Do the songs start with a series of chords or do you have to have the words on the page first of all?

ES: To be honest, it’s always melody. Melody comes easiest to me and it’s like anotherlanguage but it just comes out; it usually reflects how I feel at that moment, then the lyrical content will come after.

JW: Do you carry a notebook or do you have to … when inspiration strikes?

ES: Yes usually or someone will say something that is worded in a way that I’ve never thought of before so I'll write that down or voice memos – I’ve got thousands of those. Conversation sparks most of my songs to be honest because when you get a different perspective you’re like ‘Oh! I’ve never thought about it that way. For example, with Heaven I was speaking with Naughty Boy {her producer] who I’d worked with for a few years. He’s Muslim and I’ve grown up Christian and we were discussing – we have so much in common and what does it mean to be good? He said,”You just have to wake up with a clean heart.”  And I was like, ”Oh! I’ve never thought about a heart being dirty or clean before.” And that imagery just sparked Heaven really.

JW: Is lyric-writing a catharsis for you? Is it a cathartic business?

ES: Yes. Sometimes it’s easier to put something in a lyric rather than process it yourself but you have to remind yourself you haven’t dealt with it just because you’ve put it in a lyric – that’s been a big lesson for me. Because you can make it beautiful you can take something that’s painful or sad and you can make it into something that may be helpful or just empowering.


Elton and Bernie have been writing together for 50 years: how do they do it?

Elton John and Bernie Taupin have been a very successful songwriting partnership for 50 years and on November 12, BBC Radio 2 featured an hour’s interview with them by Johnny Walker.

For someone who is not especially a fan of Elton John but is interested in songwriting, it contained quite a lot interesting information about their ways of working. For example, when they began Bernie Taupin had no knowledge of the conventions of a pop song's structure.
“I’d no idea how you wrote a song,” he says. “I knew nothing about how you wrote middle eights and bridges and how a song was formulated which is why some of those early things we wrote are all over the place. But he [Elton] managed to mould them into something that was acceptable.”   

Another little nugget concerns their song Daniel.  

Says Elton: “In those days he [Bernie] was just like a kind of poet that just wrote stuff down. So in Daniel I just crossed the last verse out – or what I thought was the last verse --  ‘cos it made the song too long. The last verse explained what the song was all about and so it gave the song a bit of an enigma and people were saying, “What’s that song about? What’s that song about?” And I thought, “Well I’m not telling you but I crossed the last verse out!” And it explained the whole song.

The pair agree that Your Song was written in about 15 minutes – although as they don’t work side by side, it’s not clear whether each took 15 minutes  – totalling 30 minutes altogether – or whether both the words and then the music were done in seven and a half minutes each!   

The point is they both work fast.

As Bernie Taupin puts it: “Like Elton – he’s pretty immediate --  I’ll write things very quickly ‘cos I will have preconceived ideas in my head so when I come to put them down. I’ve always tended to enjoy titles, so [with] a lot of the songs that we’ve written I came up with the titles before the rest of the lyric. Or I’ll write a title and then I’ll write a chorus around it and then I’ll come back to the verse.

“Or sometimes I’ll start off with a completely dry line and go from there – maybe an opening line that I like and find interesting. But it usually comes fairly quickly. I won’t immediately give it to Elton unless there’s a rush involved, but sometimes I’ll write things and then I’ll come back to them and make changes.

“But I don’t think of myself as a songwriter in the traditional terms because those are the people that write every day; they get up, have breakfast and go into a room or a studio and create; I’m too busy creating art to do that! I will only really write songs when we feel like making a record or when Elton feels like making a record: then I’ll go in and start working in earnest but I don’t get up every day and say I’m going to write a song – that would drive me nuts.”

Sometimes I’ll have a melodic idea, sometimes I’ll write in rhyming couplets straight off: Mick Jagger

In a feature on The Rolling Stones in its May 2016 issue, Mojo magazine included an interview with Mick Jagger about an exhibition in London of the band's memorabilia -- including some of Jagger's lyric books. This led to a brief discussion of his songwriting methods.


It’s great having a look at your lyric books – watching Stones songs germinate…

I wish I still had every lyric book I ever had. But my lyric books still look like that now, really.

The lyric to Miss You: is that a typical early draft – ie, nothing like the final product?

I have different ways of doing things. Sometimes I’ll have a melodic idea – the tune and the chord sequence – and that was the case with Miss You. I had the riff and the melodic idea. Then I had a vague idea of the lyric, the oo-ee-oo-ee-oo-ee-oo bit and the chorus. So then you start roughing it out. Sometimes I’ll write in rhyming couplets straight off.  Then sometimes I’ll get stuck and just start writing ideas that don’t rhyme. They’re just what you want to say – a whole bunch of that  -- then just keep writing and writing and writing and then go back and take the best ideas.  Pulling the good stuff out of a load of ramblings  -- sometimes that’s a good approach. I don’t particularly like making things up in the studio – although of course I do…

Here, you haven’t even got “miss you” yet. You’ve got “miss her”…


It’s me working towards some semblance of sense! Then you take all this stuff into the studio with you and sift it through. In popular music it’s not always the stuff that looks great on the page. Sometimes you’ll sing it and not like the way it sounds: “I don’t think that works…".  So you’ll re-edit it so that it sounds how you want with all the music that you’ve made. So there’s a lot of last-minute stuff to do but, as I say, I don’t like to the bulk of the lyric writing in the studio.


Worried that your song's title doesn't appear in your lyrics? Just let it be!

It is most often the case that the title of a song will be derived from the lyrics -- perhaps a hook, a refrain or chorus of the song. But if the lyrics don't contain a suitable title for some reason and you want to create a title that stands outside the lyrics, does it matter? Not at all! 

Look at the Lennon & McCartney compositions below and ask yourself if the title occurs in the lyrics.

A Day In The Life

The Ballad of John and Yoko

Tomorrow Never Knows

Yer Blues

And then there are others like Unchained Melody, Natural Born Boogie and so on... 


All right now?

I wrote the whole song in about an hour: Don McLean on 'American Pie'

One hit song which has been the subject of lots of discussion and speculation about its rather veiled allusions is Don McLean's 'American Pie'.  (When I last looked, Wikipedia's article about the song on Wikipedia had a list of more than 50 references attached.) McLean has said a certain amount about the song... but no more. For example, he has said that writing the first verse exorcised his grief over the death of his musical hero Buddy Holly. But when asked what the song meant, he would only say, "It means I don't ever have to work again if I don't want to."
Yet he is clearly aware of the fascination and curiosity surrounding his composition. 
"You will find many interpretations of my lyrics," he has said, "but none of them by me ... Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence."
There is a bit more, though. The words from McLean below are taken from an interview he gave to Russell Davies which was broadcast in Davies's series 'The Art of Artists' a year or two ago on BBC Radio 2. 

"…I knew that I had something when I came up with the term 'American Pie' because it had always been ‘As American as apple pie’, and when I saw that in print – I used to like to put down my titles of albums, whether it was you know 'Tapestry' or whatever,  I used to like them to look right in print, and I thought, “Gee, that’s powerful!” – those two words together. And so then I knew I had something with the title and that inspired me to keep working on the song. And ‘the day the music died’  came up right away with the first stanza of the first song that I wrote just thinking about Buddy Holly – I just don’t know where the heck it came from – but I had this slow part and then later came up with the chorus, and then wrote the whole song in about an hour about three months later."



Lyrics are 'driven by sadness' -- Clive James

"… On the whole the song where you’re merrily in love is not the one that you feel like writing. Sadness is what drives you to write the lyric  -- and when I say ‘you’ I mean ‘me’! I was usually in a state of despair -- and if I wasn’t despairing enough I would take steps to make sure that I was! Which is the sign of the artist; an artist demands to be unhappy."
'Pete and Clive', (BBC Radio 4, November 9, 2015) explored the songwriting partnership of Pete Atkin and Clive James (above) who have been collaborating for more 50 years.

To listen to the entire 30-minute programme, click here

Please Mr Postman: spot the hook

Although not a hit in the UK, Please Mr Postman by The Marvelettes reached the top of the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1961.  But in any case, according to Marvelettes member Katherine Anderson, the record precipitated great things for the Motown record label.

Please Mr Postman “started it off for everybody – for The Temptations, The Supremes and all that; it started the ball rolling,” said Ms Anderson, who at the time was just 16 years old.

The interview was included In the third and final episode of the BBC 4 three-part documentary Rock ‘n’ Roll America shown in July.  And Russ Regan, a Motown A&R man at the time, talked about one of the reasons why the record became a hit – in the States, at least.

 Please Mr Postman was the first record I promoted for Motown Records,“ he said.

“The interesting thing about that song was all the kids knew one line:

 ‘De-liver de letter, De sooner de better’.

"So when I met Berry Gordy, I said, ‘It’s interesting about that song, Berry, that all the kids know that one line.’

“He said, ‘Russ – remember these words: that’s the hook in that song -- it reaches out and grabs them!’”

Although the record failed to chart here, arguably, Britain went some way to making up for its poor judgment when The Beatles' second LP included a version of the song with a great vocal by John Lennon. And a final footnote: playing drums on the The Marvelettes' original record was none other than Marvin Gaye!  

A very British group: the weather in songs by The Beatles

Earlier this week (July 7) The Daily Telegraph, under the headline  'Good pay sunshine: Weather secret to Fab Four’s success' ran a brief item on some research by academics from no fewer than four British universities which showed that a lot of pop lyrics refer to the weather!
And they apparently include no fewer than 48 compositions by The Beatles. The 'Fab Four', the paper said, (though in songwriting terms only three were fab at most — and some might say only two) were among the most prolific writers of songs mentioning the British obsession. The 48  Beatles tracks amount to 16 per cent of their out

One of the researchers, Dr Sally Brown, is quoted as saying: “We were all surprised how often weather is communicated in popular music as a simple analogy or a major theme of a song.“

Really? Dr Brown clearly hasn't been listening to enough twentieth century pop songs! How about ‘Crying In The Rain’, a hit, written by Carole King,  for The Everly Brothers in 1962? Or the Felice and Boudleaux Bryant song, 'Raining In My Heart' that Buddy Holly recorded in 1958 ?  Or we could go back to the 1930s when Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler wrote the classic 'Stormy Weather' -- the list of great pop songs that feature the weather goes on and on!

To read the story on the website of the Daily Telegraph, click here

To read the press release from Manchester University, click here

Tim Rice: Most of the time the tune comes first

Tim Rice is best known as the lyricist who collaborated with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber on  Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. He also wrote Chess with Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA, and The Lion King and Aida with Elton John. He is the holder of an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Tony Award and a Grammy. He  was knighted for services to music, is an inductee into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, a Disney Legend recipient, and a fellow of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors. But in spite of all his work in musical theatre, he is also a big fan of early rock 'n' roll! Asked in an interview which lyricists he looked up to, he cited Jerry Lieber (of Lieber and Stoller), Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry. "Having said that," he added, "I greatly admired in my youth - and still do - Oscar Hammerstein and Alan J. Lerner."  

Speaking to Michael Berkeley on Private Passions (BBC Radio 3, May 3 2015), Tim Rice spoke about the way he works as a lyricist.

MB: . . . Here we come to a pivotal question, I think, for this programme which is that normally in classical music the words come first and composer sets them. But that of course is not always the way in pop music, is it?

TR: Generally speaking, I think, with musical theatre and with pop music, perhaps the title comes first but the tune basically comes first most of the time. The only one who doesn’t work that way that I’ve worked with is Elton John, who only writes music to lyrics. So all the great hits he’s written with Bernie Taupin and all the stuff he did with me in The Lion King and Aida and things like that – I had to write the words first, which was a refreshing change for me, but he’s unusual. The only problem I had working with Elton was waffling: because I had a total blank page and I could write as many lines as I wanted and as many syllables as I wanted, it was sometimes a bit tempting to say,“Well…  I can say this in four sentences.” But it’s nearly always better if you say it in one line!     

In musicals I write the lyrics first. In stand alone songs? The music: Willy Russell

Willy Russell was born in 1947 near Liverpool and used to watch The Beatles perform at the Cavern. He started writing poetry and songs in his teens and at 20 he decided to go to college, working at Ford to pay the fees. Later he became a teacher, started going to the theatre and began to write plays.

His first success as a playwright was a play about The Beatles called John, Paul, George, Ringo ... and Bert (1974). His next play was Educating Rita (1980), about a female hairdresser  who studies for a degree at the Open University. It won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, and Russell later turned it into a film (1983) starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters.  

His next theatre piece was the musical Blood Brothers (1983), for which he aso composed the music. It won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical, and a Best Actress award for Barbara Dickson, Revived in 1988, it ran in London until 2012 becoming the third longest running musical in the history of the West End. 

The other things I have written are musicals. Then I would generally write the lyrics first. You have to write a song at a certain point in the show, that achieves something. So the requirements of plot and libretto dictate what the song should be. Then you have to have the music in the most harmonious tonality to the requirements of the piece. In something like Blood Brothers I will sit down and try to construct a lyric, and come up, for example, with a song called 'Easy Terms' which was good because it immediately had a double meaning. Then I will decide a certain melody fits the requirements and is right for that moment. However, in stand-alone songs, 99.9 per cent of the time I will write the music first, and that will largely dictate the nature of the lyric.

From The Way We Write: Interview with Award-Winning Writers, edited by Barbara Baker, Continuum, 2006.     

The singer and the professional songwriter: who does what?

I RECENTLY read a report in the paper of an interview given by Chrissie Hynde. She laughs at claims that today's young pop divas qualify as singer-songwriters.

“It always turns out that their songs were written by some bunch of other guys,” she says. ”All they’ve ever done in their lives is sit in front of a computer. They haven’t lived a life.”

Eric Clapton at his Unplugged sessionWell, Eric Clapton has certainly lived a life but, like 'pop divas' and other performers under pressure to put out more albums, he sometimes shares writing credits.
And if you look at the credits for Tears in Heaven, you’ll notice that it was actually written by Eric Clapton and Will Jennings.    

The song was written about the pain and loss Clapton felt following the death of his four-year-old son, Conor, who fell from   the window of a New York apartment.

But who is Will Jennings? Well, he's a professional songwriter popularly known for writing the theme for the film Titanic, a song called My Heart Will Go On; he wrote the lyrics while James Horner wrote the melody. Furthermore, he has Grammy awards, Golden Globes and Oscars to his name and has been inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame.   As well as Eric Clapton,   other singers who have benefited from his writing   include Steve Winwood,   B.B. King, Rodney Crowell, Mariah Carey, Barry Manilow and Roy Orbison.

So   was it really Will Jennings who wrote Tears in Heaven? In an interview quoted on the Wikipedia website, Jennings gives the following account of how the song was written:

"Eric and I were engaged to write a song for a movie called Rush. We wrote a song called Help Me Up for the end of the movie... then Eric saw another place in the movie for a song and he said to me, 'I want to write a song about my boy.'

Eric had the first verse of the song written, which, to me, is all the song, but he wanted me to write the rest of the verse lines and the release ('Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees...'), even though I told him that it was so personal he should write everything himself. He told me that he had admired the work I did with Steve Winwood and finally there was nothing else but to do as he requested, despite the sensitivity of the subject.

"This is a song so personal and so sad that it is unique in my experience of writing songs.”


Smokey Robinson: a professional not a personal songwriter

INTERVIEWED by Clare Balding on Good Morning Sunday (BBC Radio 2) on October 12, Smokey Robinson spoke first about the religious upbringing he had from his mother (who died when he was just 10). In the excerpt below he goes on to talk about the influence of Berry Gordy, later the founder of Motown, and of his desire to write not so much hit records as songs that have longevity.

CB: And when did you first realise that you had this amazing musical ability?   

SR: Oh gosh! I don’t think I’ve even ever thought of it like that! I love music and I love music of all types and I always have – since I was five years old I’ve been trying to write songs. And I can’t think of anything that I would rather have done with my life than to be involved in the music world.

CB: So your mother got a chance then, before she died, to know that you could write --  to hear something that you had to offer. Did you write a song for her?    

 SR: Yeah, yeah, yeah! But not until I met Berry Gordy, who was founder of Motown and who was also my best friend, did I learn how to write songs professionally. ‘Cause when I met him he was a professional songwriter and my number one singing idol as a kid growing up was Jackie Wilson and Berry had written all the hit songs for Jackie Wilson. This was prior to him starting Motown – I met him a year or two before he started Motown. But he was my mentor as far as teaching me to write songs professionally.     

CB: And which was the first one – not necessarily that was a hit but in your head was a hit?

SM: Well there was a group called The Silhouettes and they had a record out called Get A Job. And Get A Job was probably the number one record in the world at that time – I’m a teenager, I’m going to school. After I met Berry I wrote a song called Got A Job in answer to their record. And that was the first record that The Miracles and I ever recorded.

CB: When it works – when you know you’ve written something that really works – is it like a sort of – an alchemy? I mean is it something magical that almost you’re not quite sure why but this all fits together and – whoosh! – it works?

SR: You know, Clare, you never really know that. I’ve never really known that. I’ve had some songs and some records that I thought were just “Oh yeah! This is it!” And it wasn’t. So you never really know but how I face that or how I would deal with that is I’m always going to try to start with a song.

I’m not necessarily trying to write a hit record, I’m trying to write a song because songs have life. I’m singing some songs now – I sing songs that were written before I was born. And that’s the kind of music I want to write. I wanna write songs [that] if I had written them 50 years before then they would have meant something to people. And that’s how I approach it; I approach it in that manner: with something that I feel is going to have longevity and somebody can pick it up and sing it and the world will accept.    

CB: [Tracks of My Tears] …That is a song about the longevity of pain, isn’t it? About the fact that if you’ve been through severe grief, it never leaves you, the scars are there. Do you still feel that now? Is that a personal song to you?  

SM: No, it’s not. I’m not a really, like you say, a personal songwriter. I just write what inspires me at the time. The first lines that I came up with it were

Take a good look at my face
See my smile looks out of place
If you look closer, it's easy to trace
That you’re gone.

No! That’s not it… I went through several No, that’s not its with it and then one day I was shaving and I was looking I the mirror and I thought, what if a person had cried so much until, if you looked closely at their face, you could see tracks that their tears had left? And so that was the birth of the lyric for that song.

CB: But, you see, I don’t think you can feel that without having felt it.

SR: I’m a life observer and I watch people and things and situations all the time and if you look at life you’re gonna get some educational views of what’s going on. I don’t have to put my head down and run into this wall to know that that’s gonna hurt, you see. So I just write as closely as I can about life and if I can say something differently than it’s ever been said I wanna do that.  

CB: You said earlier how you know – you’re very aware that you’re living your absolute dream; you are doing something that you adore and you’re very good at it and people love it and they want to share it. Are there times, though, where you’ve felt, ‘I’m off-track’?   

 SR: Oh yeah, I’m sure that every creative person, no matter what they do, gets off-track. And there’s times when it’s just not there, it’s just not happening, it’s just not flowing… you know. And then you go through times when it is.

For more discussion of the Smokey Robinson song Tracks of My Tears, see 'Midge Ure on the Art of the Middle Eight' earlier in this series.


The master plan for any artist should be 'Write good songs': Ed Sheeran

Ed SheeranON October 7, singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran talked to John Wilson on the BBC Radio 4 arts programme Front Row  about his new album x (read as ‘multiply’) and predictably the interview soon moved onto Sheeran’s songwriting. [The song Don't documents a love affair from its beginning to its -- bitter -- end.]  

JW: …This is the song Don’t that you were talking about there, which seems to be songwriting as revenge to an extent. Does the protagonist of that song clearly know it’s her about her and it’s referring to a particular situation? Have you had the conversation about that? 

ES: No, I haven’t! I haven’t! You know what? They could possibly not know at all! Yeah! I dunno! I don’t know if they care and I don’t know if I care any more, so I think that’s positive.

JW: Did you have to think twice about whether you wrote about that situation? 

ES:  No, no, no! ‘Cos I felt like I had to get it out of me. Yeah – it’s very unhealthy to stifle things… Some people might go and box in the gym at the weekend to get out their aggression but I write songs. It felt good to me -- writing  that song. You know it felt like I was getting my own back without having to do anything too drastic. I guess the key is not to p-ss off songwriters!

JW: Did it feel like revenge – I mean I said it was ‘songwriting as revenge’ but was that the intention to an extent? 

ES: Yeah. I mean, as I was writing it, yeah. And as soon as I finished it, I was like, ‘Ough! God! That’s probably a bit too much!’

JW: Is there a master plan for you – either in your mind or one that is being drawn up?

ES: I think the master plan for any artist should be WRITE GOOD SONGS – and don’t worry too much about the rest of it. Production’s great when you can get it. Working with Rick Rubin was an amazing moment—he’s a great producer! But production isn’t key, songs are key: you can have a bad song and have it produced by Rick Rubin and it’s still a bad song. Or you can have a great song and have it produced by yourself -- you can record it on a tape recorder and it’s still a great song. So I think the key for me in the future is just continue to write songs and just make sure that every song that goes out  I think is great.  

JW: When you are alone with a guitar in a bedroom and a new song comes to you, what tells you that this is one that will carry on down the line -- that will make it to an album? What is the feeling that tells you you’ve written a great song?

ES: It’s a really weird feeling – and I can’t really describe it. But all I can say is that it’s the best feeling in the world: better than sex, drugs, alcohol – anything – being in love! It’s an intense excitement. I finished a song the other week. I remember my manager came in my room – I’d rung him up --  and I was in a hotel room in Melbourne and I wrote a song… I just get a flush face – really buzzing… tingly… excited –  like the kind of thing in your stomach where you’ve woken up on Christmas morning when you’re six – you know that kind of feeling. And when I get that, that’s when I know the song’s a keeper and that probably only happens four or five times a year but that’s when you know a song’s – like that happened to me on The A Team, Thinking Out LoudGive Me Love was another one, Kiss Me was one.  


Tony Hatch: You need some metre from the words and then you start writing the tune

Tony Hatch is a longstanding songwriter and record producer. He wrote many of the era-defining songs of the 1960s including Downtown and Don't Sleep in the Subway for Petula Clark and, under a pseudonym, The Searchers' hit Sugar And Spice. In a relationship often compared with the one between Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick, he became Pet Clark's regular producer and wrote songs both for her and with her. He also wrote the themes for television series such as Crossroads, Emmerdale and Neighbours. In the Seventies he was a judge on the ITV talent show, New Faces. In July his work was celebrated at a concert called Life In Song  at the Royal Festival Hall.

In May 2014 Libby Purves spoke to him on her Radio 4 programme Midweek.

Libby Purves: Were you always making up songs in your head?

Tony Hatch: Always – right from the age of four. That’s when I first put my hands on the piano and played a few tunes  –  and then I started writing a few tunes

LP: New tunes just come to you, do they?

TH: Yes. They started coming to me about the age of 14 when I started to lose interest in religious music  – in classical music. Well... I’ve never lost interest but I realised if I was going to do something and make some money I would be better off following songs like Happy Days and Lonely Nights sung by Ruby Murray at the time. And that really influenced me.

LP:  Do the words come as well? Because not everybody is a words-and-music man. But do the words come with the tune? Before the tune? After the tune?

TH: They come together. You need some metre from the words – and then you start writing a tune. But I’ve written with several lyric writers and I’ve also written lyrics on my own and it is very hard . The lyric writing is the most difficult part because getting the tune – that’s pretty instant and you can la-la to that. But getting the right words together – that’s always difficult.

Tony Hatched added that his composition Don't Sleep In The Subway initially had a working title which was unrepeatable on Radio 4!


'The chief danger in songwriting is taking too many precautions': Mary Gauthier

Mary Gauthier recently presented a keynote address to the UK Americana Music Association. It took the form of  a short  ‘Letter To A Young Songwriter’ and I thought it might be interesting to reproduce it here. In her advice, she makes it clear she envisages the songwriter as artist writing from the heart rather than as a jobbing ‘pen for hire’ or Tin Pan Alley hack. For that reason, the letter has been criticised for coming from a narrow perspective and in places I think it is a bit ponderous -- even pretentious. Nonetheless Mary Gauthier is an extraordinary artist and I think what she has to say makes interesting reading. At under a thousand words, the piece doesn't take long to read and I think it gives food for thought. I hope you agree.

'Nearly everything that matters is a challenge,
and everything matters' — Rilke

You’ve watched your musical heroes take the stage to thunderous applause, adulation and love, and you burn for that, for yourself, and you want to be a professional writer of songs. The songwriting call has whispered in your ears for years now, and you’ve decided to answer it. You are ready to embrace it, to begin your journey as a songwriter. I congratulate you, and would offer you a few considerations (if you are open to hearing from someone who has trudged this path for decades now).

Warning: a songwriter’s life is not what you think it is  

Music is more than a bouquet of sweet vibrations; it is something from a higher world, which we humans have been given the power to invoke. Artists are alchemists, with our hands in the holy. The Sacred. Yes, there is great power in creating music, but also great danger. The journey of the artist is filled with pitfalls. Where there is great beauty and the power to move millions on this path, there is always great risk.

Songwriting is a noble calling that requires more than talent and perseverance. It requires courage. If you are willing to face yourself and honestly reveal in your songs what you’ve seen in that unveiling of yourself, then you have a chance of writing songs that will outlive you. What can we gain by walking on the moon and planets if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages, and it is the job of the artist. The object of art is not to make salable products. It is to save one’s self, and to be a part of saving us all. Either we tell our story, or our story tells us.

And know this: A half-truth is a whole lie. Character, like integrity, is much easier kept than recovered. So write from your true self, not the self you think you should be. Do not try to impress us, and do not hide behind thin walls and smoke screens. It will only bore us. Brutal self-honesty is your challenge, and will reward you with much more than you can yet imagine.

You must learn how to reject acceptance and accept rejection. People’s opinions of you and your work are irrelevant. The search for love and applause has no place in the creative process. Here is what I know: thriving artists suffer from a feeling of inferiority, a feeling of reaching for something that keeps being just outside our grasp. We make contact with it, and then it turns to smoke. It cannot be held. So our work involves a constant striving. Those that don’t know this feeling are pretending to be close to art and live in secret fear of the aloneness of the deep creative process. Art requires audacity, and if you are not afraid, you are not taking risks. You will simply skim the surface and offer the world nothing new. Ultimately, your songs will not matter.

An artist’s job is to reach communion with truth, and bring that holy light into the world in order to soothe souls trapped in dark places. It is exceedingly difficult work and most who attempt it fail. That said, there is no safety in success either. In fact, triumph brings a greater danger, because the intense light of success is a wick that draws in darkness. Stars burn up.  Flame out. Stars overdose, suicide. Some become oldies acts that create no new magic but simply repeat what has already been done over and over again, not for beauty’s sake, but for cash. And they suffer this as a humiliation and become bitter. A deep grounding in solitude is necessary to remain vital and creative. Solitude courts the muse. So know this: you have chosen a lonely path.

As you work, you will have to learn to embrace each failure as an unavoidable part of the process. There will be many false starts and errors, and even though it is terrifying, you must continue to err, and to do so on the bold side. Have the audacity to lose face, don’t worry about saving it, and embrace each glorious failure as a necessary part of the journey. The chief danger in songwriting (and life) is taking too many precautions. There is a very real relationship between what you contribute and what you get out of this life, but satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. The point of the work is the work. Being vulnerable in your work will bring you strength.

And here is a final warning. If you do succeed and people come to know your name and your songs, the creative process gets harder, not easier. Fame and success attracts parasites, clingers on, and wannabe’s. These non-creators will do everything in their power to attach to the light around you thinking it will bring them out of their own darkness. It will not, but they do not know this. If you let them in, their hungry mouths will suck the light from you and when you are emptied they will simply move on and attach to someone else’s glow. You must rid your life of these people, or suffer their debilitating and soul crushing manipulations.

Fame and success also bring laziness, and ego swelling. With success comes the confusion of believing you are doing great work, backed up the reassurance of people on your payroll, when you are not. It is easy to become delusional and get lost. Fame is a full time job. So is songwriting. A choice is often required. Choose wisely.

So then, again the point of all this work is simply the work. Struggle is the path, and there is no destination, only the path. We do not get “there.” There is no there. There is only here, now, on the path, in the struggle. We all must face the daunting blank page in front of each of us each morning. In this, we are all alike. I wish courage and perseverance for you as you embark on this life’s work of writing songs. You will need it.

Reproduced from the website with the same emphases.

Writing songs 'comes from the voice ‘cos that’s my instrument': Lisa Jen of Welsh folk duo 9Bach

On June 5 2014, the presenter of the Folk Show on BBC Radio 2, Mark Radcliffe, talked to Lisa Jen, a member of the Welsh folk duo 9Bach. During their chat Lisa described how her songwriting is influenced by the part of Wales where she lives and how her songwriting starts ‘from the voice’ – her main instrument, together with the harp and piano.

MR: I know where you live you look out on the Penrhyn quarry which was the biggest slate quarry in the world.

LJ: I don’t actively think, ‘I’m going to write about this’ kind of thing –

MR:  – But the music you play seems to represent something of the landscape…

LJ: And it’s in you, you know. If you've been born there, and if you’ve been breathing that air and swimming in the rivers there, it must come out somehow. And to me it’s come out in my writing without me even trying….It’s quite interesting what actually physically does come out of you. I was shocked as anyone else in a way… I could have written about love and loss and heartbreak – but I haven’t really! 

MR: How do you write? You’re singing tonight, you’re not playing an instrument. So do you write with the voice? Do you start to make kind of make sounds and shape words? Does it start from the voice?

LJ: It does. I generally need some kind of piano with me. You see I’m very new to songwriting and I’ve been a bit naïve with this album in a way: I composed a few things on the piano which are so hard to sing!… But I also composed a couple of songs on an Omnichord which is quite handy because it just gives you the chord as well. 

But you know …it’s my first bash at songwriting and now I’m hooked – obviously ! So yeah … it just kind of comes from the voice, I guess, ‘cos that’s my instrument.

How ‘a piece of vomit 20 pages long’ became lyrics to an epoch-making single: Bob Dylan on 'Like A Rolling Stone'

Pages of draft lyrics to Like a Rolling Stone were sold at auction on Tuesday (June 24) for $2m.

In interviews Dylan is notoriously elusive. On the subject of songwriting, for example  has been quoted as saying, ‘In writing songs I've learned as much from Cézanne as I have from Woody Guthrie.’

But  there is something to be learned from his own account of the way he wrote Like A Rolling Stone. Dylan reportedly wrote the words that became the lyrics after an exhausting tour of England. “In the lull that followed,’ said The Times this week, “he recalled a story pouring out of him:  ‘…This long piece of vomit about 20 pages long and out of it I took Like A Rolling Stone.’

“…Eventually it would be boiled down to four pages of hotel notepaper, then a six-minute track that was still considered far too lengthy for a single. The four verses written on headed paper from the Rose Smith hotel in Washington is a working draft from late in the process, when the song was almost complete.”

What we learn about the way that the original ‘piece of vomit about 20 pages long’ is that it became a song through editing and judicious re-writing.  (The familiar phrase in the first verse, ‘Everybody that was hanging out’, for example, is seen to have originally been ‘Everybody that was down and out’.)

So, like PJ Harvey (see the item about her in this blog), Dylan derived the lyrics from something originally much larger and longer and, if his word ‘vomit’ is anything to go by, formless, too. There was more art, it seems, in the editing of that inspired outpouring to fit the tune that Dylan had in mind, which was based around the simple three-chord accompaniment familiar from dozens of other songs from La Bamba to Twist And Shout

Inspiration is one thing; after all, it’s easy to come up with a great-sounding title – or even a decent first verse. But what takes much more effort is the all-important development of that promising start into a finished, satisfying song.

The importance of editing the original torrent of words into a workable lyric brings to mind Thomas Edison’s dictum: “Genius is one per cent  inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” 

Writing without an instrument in your hand can free you: Richard Thompson

Last year (2013) in the BBC Radio 4 series called Mastertapes, John Wilson spoke to the singer, singwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson about the creation of his 1991 album Rumour and Sigh. In the interview Thompson spoke about a way for instrumentalists to sidestep musical clichés.

John Wilson:
Are you normally writing with your guitar in hand or do you sit at a desk with a notebook first of all? I mean as a rule is it lyrics first and setting them to melodies or … there’s no rule?

Richard Thompson: I go to my cave, my monastic cave! 

I think it goes backwards and forwards. Sometimes you get ideas just sort of sitting round playing, sometimes you’re walking down the street -- and that’s better in some ways because you don’t have an instrument in your hand so your imagination can run a bit freer. ‘Cos if you’re thinking, ‘I’m gonna write a song; oh it’s gonna be in D – OK, I know where D is. And I need another chord: OK I’m gonna use B minor. OK, there’s B minor!' Then you’re already trapped, you know! There’s probably 120,000 songs being written every year in Nashville with the same chord sequence. So it’s not exactly original… 

Sometimes if you’re walking down the street and you think of a melody and you kind of imagine what the harmony is, sometimes that’s freer and looser. And then you get back home and you think, ‘Oh actually… dah-dah dah -- Oh, that’s a good note!' It doesn’t actually fit that chord but it’s a sort of a ninth chord; without the instrument you’ve come up with something that was more interesting. 

Some people can't separate personality from art: Jack White

Jack WhiteJack White came to fame after founding the garage rock band The White Stripes with Meg White in Michigan in 1997. He also showed his interest in older music when he performed five songs for the soundtrack of the film Cold Mountain (2003), set in the American Civil War. The White Stripes released six albums and broke up in 2011. White released a solo album, Blunderbuss, in 2012.

Jack White: "Some people can’t separate the two things – personality and whatever art that person creates: it’s the same thing to some people. I’m reading this great book called Faking It about authenticity in music and there was a time period when you were not expected to write about yourself. If you asked a hundred kids nowadays to write a song, 99 of them would probably write a song about themselves and their own experiences – if you did that today. If you did that 100 years ago 99 of those hundred kids would have written about, you know, a fire or a mining disaster or something. So I think that nowadays we’re trained to think that when a person says ‘I’ in a song, it’s really them that they’re talking about."

Mark Coles: "But there must be a bit of you in this. It must seep in – your own personal experience because it does, on first listen come across as a really angry, bitter -- almost vengeful -- record at times."

JW: "It’s a combination of what people hear about me combined with  stories in these songs – I mean I would never purposely sit down and write a song about someone that I really love and embarrass them like that. But if it’s somebody I don’t like -- oh I’ll definitely do that! The easiest way for me to look at it, as a songwriter, is if the song sounds accusatory from the male point of view, it’s probably him talking about himself."

From an interview on Today (BBC Radio 4) April 26, 2012, with BBC interviewer Mark Coles.

John Fogerty: If you have a cool title, you're setting off in the right direction

The website of the Rock & Roll of Fame perceptively says that Creedence Clearwater Revival were “progressive and anachronistic at the same time. An unapologetic throwback to the golden era of rock and roll…” 

The group’s principal writer and singer was John Fogerty (left, in picture) and in an interview about writing Proud Mary (“My best song”) he spoke about the help given by starting with a good title.

“When it came to songwriting, I learned that the title must be important. If you have a cool title like Ramrod or Heartbreak Hotel or Bad Moon Risin’ on top of everything else, you’re really setting off in the right direction.” 

[For what it’s worth, I find it helpful to start with a title because you can use the title as a kind of writer’s brief  to yourself. If you keep the title in mind all the time that you’re writing the song, you’ll easily be able to tell if what you’re writing is going off track and making the sing lose its focus.] 

At the front of Fogerty’s notebook of ideas was the title Proud Mary.  At first 'I pictured [the song] being about a maid in household of rich people,' Fogerty said. 'She gets off the bus every morning and goes to work and holds their lives together. Then she goes home.' 

Fogerty also got the idea to make the song about a Mississippi riverboat, after seeing one on the Western television show Maverick. Fogerty was watching with a friend who said, 'Hey, riverboat, blow your bell.'  Fogerty thought:  'Yeah, that might be part of it, too.'

Quotation from Legendary Rock Songs by Nathan Brackett, published by David & Charles.

Difford & Tilbrook: We reflected what we'd seen -- with a beginning, a middle and an end

Chris Difford (left) and Glenn ilbrookIn a documentary shown on BBC 4 television in March called Squeeze: Take Me I’m Yours, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford of Squeeze talked about the way they wrote songs together – or rather, separately.

The Play For Today series, shown on BBC 1 television from 1970 to 1984, employed top-quality writers such as Dennis Potter, Willy Russell,  Alan Plater and Alan Bleasdale, and is remembered particularly for its high-quality ‘social realist’ drama – what Chris Difford calls ‘kitchen sink’ dramas. 

Tilbrook: Pretty soon after we met we wrote one song and, without ever discussing it, it was the template for the way that we carried on working, which was that Chris gave me lyrics and I beavered away with tunes. And I was absolutely happy with that. 

Difford: We met in April 73 and by July/August together we’d written 30 songs. 

Tilbrook: We were absolutely reflecting what we’d seen and bouncing it back.  

Difford: Up The Junction was pretty much inspired by Play For Todays that I used to watch when I was a kid -- those kind of 'kitchen sink' dramas that were on Wednesday nights in black and white. They'd be half an hour long and they’d tell a story from beginning to end. I’d … marvel at the way they were put together… So the idea of storytelling being something that began, had a middle and an ending was always in my life from a very early age.

Songwriting as editing: PJ Harvey on gathering and discarding

"When I write songs, I gather an enormous amount of information about my subject, only to take everything away until I'm left with its most simple form." 

P J Harvey quoted in the Daily Telegraph online (filed September 9, 2004)

At first this quotation from PJ Harvey reminded me of the story of a sculptor who was asked, “How do you sculpt a statue of an elephant?” ”It’s easy,” he replied. “You just take a block of marble and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.” 

In other words, she's describing songwriting as a process of editing. I think there has to be a bit more to what she says than that, though. 

“First,” she says, “I gather an enormous amount of information about my subject.”

Why would she do that? Well, I think she gathers lots of material to read in because it may give her a ‘take’ or ‘an angle’ on the subject that she likes and identifies with and which she can use her song to develop.

Anything else that varies from that idea can then be discarded. The song she writes will then have a single focus. I’d guess that that is what she means by “its most simple form."     


'Everyone was in love with Suzanne': Leonard Cohen on the origin of one his best known songs

"The song was begun, and the chord pattern was developed, before a woman's name entered the song. And I knew it was a song about Montreal; it seemed to come out of that landscape that I loved very much in Montreal, which was the harbour, and the waterfront, and the sailors' church there, called Notre Dame de Bon Secours, which stood out over the river. And I knew that there were ships going by, I knew that there was a harbour, I knew that there was Our Lady of the Harbour, which was the Virgin on the church which stretched out her arms towards the seamen. And you can climb up to the tower and look out over the river. So the song came from that vision, from that view of the river. 

"At a certain point, I bumped into Suzanne Vaillancourt, who was the wife of a friend of mine.They were a stunning couple around Montreal at the time, physically stunning, both of them: a handsome man and woman; everyone was in love with Suzanne Vaillancourt, and every woman was in love with Armand Vaillancourt. But there was no... well, there was thought, but there was no possibility... One would not allow oneself to think of toiling at the seduction of Armand Vaillancourt's wife. First of all he was a friend, and second of all as a couple they were inviolate: you just didn't intrude into that kind of shared glory that they manifested.

"I bumped into her one evening, and she invited me down to her place near the river. She had a loft, at a time when lofts were... the word wasn't used. She had a space in a warehouse down there, and she invited me down, and I went with her, and she served me Constant Comment tea, which has little bits of oranges in it. And the boats were going by, and I 'touched her perfect body with my mind', because there was no other opportunity. There was no other way that you could touch her perfect body under those circumstances. So she provided the name in the song."

From Radio 4 on Music, last broadcast on January 29, 2014. 

To read the entire transcript,click here 

Midge Ure on 'The Art of the Middle Eight'

There's an interesting piece by Midge Ure on YouTube exploring the difference between a song's verse and the  'bridge' or middle eight.  It was a originally a programme on BBC Radio 4. He uses Tracks Of My Tears, Eleanor Rigby, Do You Know The Way To San Jose etc to show what he's talking about.

'We never wrote together at the same time': Burt Bacharach on working with Hal David

Last year Jo Whiley interviewed Burt Bacharach on Radio 2 and asked him to compare the way he and his long-time lyricist Hal David collaborated to the working methods used by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. (At the time, the BBC was celebrating 50 years since The Beatles recorded their first LP, Please Please Me.)

After saying politely that he ‘couldn’t remember’ how Lennon & McCartney worked, Bacharach went on: I just know how Hal and I worked. And it was very rare that we ever – I don’t think we ever – wrote a song in the same room together at the same time. We had a process where... I would have a little bit of a melody maybe – a lyric, a title song, something like that  and we would kind of evolve from there. He would go home to his house and I would go to my apartment in New York and we’d talk later on or we’d meet up in the office the next day. It was really like – ‘Five o’clock! We’re done!’ you know. Hal would get on the train and go back to Roslyn, Long Island!”

As it happens, Bacharach’s account of how they worked “together” sounds very like Lennon and McCartney’s method. According to Wikipedia, they met and began writing songs together in 1957, “eyeball-to-eyeball”, in John Lennon’s phrase. But as time went on, "...the songs increasingly became the work of one writer or the other, often with the partner offering up only a few words or an alternative chord.” 

Capturing 'a moment of creative magic': Carole King

Among pop song writers, the songwriting career of Carole King must be unparalleled.  She met Gerry Goffin, who became her song-writing partner and they married in 1959 when she was 17. She  co-wrote and helped produce some of pop's greatest songs, including Will You Love Me Tomorrow (The Shirelles), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva) (You Make Me Feel  Like)  A Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin) and dozens more. As an artist in her own right, she made the album Tapestry, which sold 25 million copies and is still one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. 

 "...As I wrote, I ran an eight-track reel-to-reel tape to record what I called a docu-demo. Unlike a demo to present a song to an artist, the purpose of a docu-demo was to document a song as it was emerging so I could refer back to a moment of creative magic that I might otherwise have lost." 
-- From Carole King’s autobiography,  A Natural Woman. Virago Press, 2012. 

'My job is to find out what I'm thinking': Paul Simon on the subconscious

Paul Simon has often talked in interviews about avoiding rational thought when writing lyrics. Paul Zollo asked the singer about how, while working on songs for his Graceland album, he sat throwing a ball against a wall. [Picture Steve McQueen in solitary confinement for the nth time in The Great Escape!] Simon said that throwing and catching a ball was "so natural... and calming" that it allowed his mind to wander...

 "...That's what you really want to happen. You want your mind to wander, and pick up words and phrases and fool around with it (sic) and drop it...

"As soon as your mind knows... it's supposed to produce some lines, either it doesn't, or it produces things that are very predictable. And that's why I say I'm not interested in writing something that I thought about. I'm interested in discovering where my mind wants to go, or what object it wants to pick up.

"It always picks up on something true. You'll find out much more about what you're thinking that way than you will if you're determined to say something. What you're determined to say is filled with your rationalizations and defenses and all of that. What you want to say to the world as opposed to what you're thinking. And as a lyricist, my job is to find out what it is that I'm thinking. Even it's something that I don't want to be thinking."

Quotations from The Paul Simon Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. Edited by Stacey Luftig. Omnibus Press. 1997.  

'Look again': Don Black's Golden Rule number 6

The poet WH Auden said something about writing -- poetry in his case -- that many songwriters will identify with. He said, "Poems don't get finished, they get abandoned." Many lyricists find that after they have written something resembling a song, they can't leave it alone: they have to go over it and change it again and again, making little alterations until they just run out out of ideas. Then it's finished!

The lyricist Don Black wrote the lyrics to film themes like Born Free, Diamonds Are Forever and Thunderball and he said something similar. Rule number six of his Ten Golden Rules of Lyric-Writing is this: "Don't fall in love with everything you write just because it's finished. Take another look -- hone and refine." 

'Surprise them with the wrong note': Lionel Bart on songwriting

Last December, BBC-TV showed an interesting documentary about the life and work of Lionel Bart. It was called Lionel Bart: Reviewing the Situation. He wrote hits for early British rock ‘n’ rollers like Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde before going on to work in the musical theatre, most notably writing the huge hit Oliver! The money poured in but he overdid it -- 'it' being almost everything -- and went bankrupt. He died in 1999 from cancer but 10 years before that there was a revival in his fortunes when he was featured in a black and white TV commercial for Abbey National playing the piano and singing to a group of children.

In the BBC documentary one particularly interesting thing he said concerned songwriting.

He  said, “The secret of a hit song, I suppose, is people know the next note coming up and almost the next word coming up. But – you surprise them here and there with the wrong word and the wrong note. But then you get back to what they feel familiar with.” 

Click here for RSS feed