The Songwriting Process

Mary asked me last week about my song-writing process.

Hope, I’d like to hear something about your songwriting process. What comes to you first — music or lyrics? Sometimes both? Sometimes one but other times the other? If it’s lyrics, do actual lines come to you or does the story of a song suggest itself and you then search for the lines?

The short answer is that I don’t have much of a set process.Which is a shame, really, because it would probably help me to write more songs. Or, at the very least, better songs.

Songwriting is something that I actually find quite mystifying. Sometimes, I can sit down, attempt to pour my heart out and then end up with absolutely nothing that I could play for other people without dying of embarrassment. Sometimes, I sit down because I don’t know what else to do, I fiddle around and I end up with something really special. And there’s no rhyme or reason as to what makes that difference.

The main thing I’ve found is that I need to be in the right head space. I can’t be feeling any one emotion too strongly or all I end up with is dreck. By that same token, I have to be feeling something or all I’d write would be Eagles songs.


Back when I was in the dating game, I had to wait a few weeks after a breakup and then I’d end up with something that I really liked. These days, I wait for a quiet moment when I can clear my head and then tap into some old emotions. I’ve never managed to write a song about something that is currently bothering me, but it always helps me to feel better when I work through old emotions in a song.

Sometimes, the idea for a song will strike me at an odd moment. I’ll write down a few lyrics and then go back to them later. I used to carry around a composition book for just that reason. These days, I type up a note on my iPhone. The first half of the lyrics to Beer and Pie were written in the car on the way home from my sister’s wedding. My battery died just as I finished typing up the last line. I’m glad that it didn’t die any sooner! In a pinch, I’ll write on the back of an envelope, but those have a tendency to get lost.

Once I have a few lyrics, I’ll sit down with my guitar and I’ll play different chords until I get something that sounds about right. Then, I’ll sing the same few lines over and over until I get a melody that I like. I always know I’ve succeeded when it gets stuck in my head.

If I don’t have any lyrics, I  play some random chords in the hopes that something will come to me. I often have an idea of what I want to write about, but it usually changes as I continue playing. I’ll start with a line that I like ok, then I’ll come up with a better second line and then I’ll change the first line to fit better with the second line. Then I’ll throw out all of the lines and write a song about my cat instead. :p These are often the sessions where I get up afterward and tell myself what a colossal waste of time that was. Unless I managed to write a cat song, of course.

I can spend an hour working on something and never get anything useful. If inspiration strikes, I can write a song in ten minutes. If I could figure out how to force inspiration to strike, I’d put out a new album every month.

The songs I like best are the songs that tell a story – even if it’s a story that only I can follow along. I wrote Flickering Street Lamp over ten years ago (now I’m feeling old!) and I still remember that moment in great detail every time I sing it. It was midnight in Harvard Square and we were watching all of the people dressed up to go in and see the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I knew I liked the guy I was with, but I wasn’t sure exactly where things were headed. It was a moment of great trepidation but also of great optimism. I’d like to think that I captured that feeling.

I think that the most important element of songwriting that I’ve learned over the years is that I just can’t force it. I’ve sat down to write a sad song or a funny song or an upbeat song and it’s never really worked out. You have to let the songs go where they want to go. I might want to write a silly song about cupcakes, but if I’m not really feeling the cupcakes, it will come out sounding forced. I just have to get in touch with an emotion, remember a moment, keep singing and hope that it works out for the best.

I’ll go back in and revise a song after it’s done. I change words to make the lyrics more interesting. And I’ll try to change things up so the song isn’t just verse chorus verse chorus verse. I don’t usually mess with the melody, but the guitarists in my band have been known to improve on the chords. A lot. (I have some musical talent, but I’m a thoroughly mediocre guitarist). I took a songwriting course with Ellis Paul last year and some of the techniques that we learned have been immensely helpful in going back and editing. I never used to edit my songs. I would just discard the ones that I didn’t like very much.

I think that what I really need to do is to find more quiet time for songwriting. Because, while I might not like 80% of the things that I come up with when I’m noodling around, I can’t use 100% of the songs that I never even attempt to write.

Here’s to more songs in 2011.

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