Category Archives: Structure

Word To The Wise – No. 5

The late Jack Hardy. Greatly Missed.

“Everything that comes from our trance-like creativity is not golden. It must be weighed up against the needs of the listener. I remember in high school someone asking the teacher how long an essay had to be and he replied (in the dated language of the early sixties), “It should be as long as a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep it interesting”.”

Jack Hardy (2011)

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What Should You Write Songs About?

Bertolt Brecht. Fingernails not pictured.

It is said that the great director Bertolt Brecht used to apply dirt to the undersides of his fingernails each morning so that he could more deeply empathise with the ‘Great Unwashed’.

What a faker. Despite coming from a deeply middle-class background, he began erasing the circumstances of his birth and embracing a fictional ‘peasant of the theatre’ persona. He wanted to make theatre for the working class, and it wouldn’t do too well for his audience to think he was a posho. Essentially, he disregarded his whole identity in order to make art tailored to a certain demographic.

Luckily, he happened to be a genius, so it pretty much worked out for him. Go figure. So what works for the rest of us non-genii? I mean, we can still write about what we want, right?

Technically, you’re absolutely free to write about any subject you please. This ain’t no Stalinist regime. You’re free to write that 8-minute stream of consciousness about mackerel livers if you fancy it; go ahead and pen a rhyming version of the Magna Carta; sure, write lengthy death metal songs about unspeakable subjects (No joke, I once went on after a band called ‘Vomit Enema’. Their first song was entitled ‘Hilarious Abortion’.)

But lyrics based in truth will always beat lyrics based in fantasy. Lyrics from your own life carry a supreme authenticity, a momentous weight of personal significance: you can extract so many original ideas from your own life because you understand yourself better than anyone. You aren’t just gazing superficially at some other random subject, you’re communicating what is important to you.

This is a crucial part of finding your unique voice as an artist. I’ve heard the same old platitude thrown around for a long time – ‘You’ve got to find the thing about yourself that makes you unique’ – but I didn’t understand the wisdom of it until very recently. The things that make you unique are so ingrained in you that you take them for granted.

It’s like seeing your sibling every day and not noticing them grow taller. You come back ten years later and say ‘Woah, this is you?’ Finding your unique voice is a process of rediscovery: writing authentically, then working out what shape you’ve grown into over the years. It’s a long process, but it’s utterly, utterly worth it. Having someone really connect with a song that came bubbling up from your soulwell, that’s what it’s all about, right?

Thing is, if the audience see dirt under the fingernails of your songs, they’ll sniff it right out. But if you give them your hands as they are – your guilty, dirty, ragged old hands – they’ll fall at your feet.

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How To Start Writing A Song: Unpacking The Creative Impulse

Why Songbooks Are Evil...

A few months ago, I was in need of a notebook for scribbling down ideas. So, instead of scrubbing my way through the newsagent aisle for a wad of recycled crepe, I spent the best part of £20 on a beautiful leather-bound songbook and a wonderful Parker Pen. My reasoning: if you want to do this, you should do it proper.

I know. How very British. Worst thing is that 3 months on, that leather-bound book is virtually untouched, and the Parker is gathering dust in some University corridor. Not only that, but half the notebooks in my room are filled with scrawled song lyrics, and my iPod’s voice memos are full of half-finished melodies. That songbook remains – and this is a man who has an unplayed saxophone under his bed – my silliest purchase.

So, why did I go for the crappy notebook over the Ottoman beauty? Because I was trying to impose filters on my creative impulse. To write something in there, I first had to think: ‘Is it good enough for the book?’ ‘Mustn’t spoil the book!’ And a lot of stuff didn’t make the cut.

There’s a lesson here: I once heard that luck is where preparation meets opportunity, and inspiration is the same. You have to gather your raw materials in any way you can, because it’s out of these materials that you create your songs. It’s like the old lady and the bit of string: ‘Just in case I need it, darling, just in case.’

Once you’ve got a scrapyard of half-ideas, sit on it. David Brooks, in a recent TED Talk, said that the way to decide on how to choose a sofa is to study the sofa of choice, then let it marinate in your mind for a few days. When you go back, go with your gut: your unconscious mind will have figured it out. Songwriting is the same: take this raw material, and hoard it in the backwaters of your mind.

As you continue to write, you’ll start to see combinations emerging between old and new material. That’s your unconscious mind headbutting its way into the creative process. Go with it: It’s the combination of this material that throw up interesting songs.

So, what’s the answer to that foreboding title? Where to start writing a song? Well, just like an athlete is prepared long before he hears the gunshot, you must be constantly preparing yourself to write. Keep a notebook; write down anything that comes to mind. Keep voice memos of your melodies: don’t assume you’ll be able to remember them when you get home. Gather all the string you can, and someday you’ll sew a tapestry.

And, for crying out loud, don’t buy a Parker. Buy a big stack of biros and use them every day you can.

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What Makes A Great Chorus?

The Ting Tings: Jules De Martino and Katie White.

“Clap your hands if you’re working too hard”

The Ting Tings – Hands

If the Ting Tings hadn’t strapped this lyric onto an interminable sub-Kraftwerk wind tunnel and had it voiced by a supermarket counter, it would have been the best chorus ever written.

I can’t resist it. It voices a universal truth of our work-stricken modern life. It speaks to the backbreaking labour of the working class and the high-voltage deskwork of the bankers. It makes you proud to work and proud to rebel. In 9 syllables, ladies and gentlemen.

A good chorus can make or break a song. It’s the song’s gravestone: the verses can have faff around a bit, but the chorus is what they’ll remember. It can pump a song to new levels of commercial appeal: there’s a reason that one-hit wonders plague our charts. They’re all built on strong choruses. Example: £100 to anyone who can remember the lyrics to the second verse of “Who Let The Dogs Out”?

When trying to describe a perfect chorus, people will often grope for the boardroom bonehead’s best buzzword: ‘It’s really catchy.” “Wow, that’s so catchy.” I want to tell you here and now to think of “Catchy” as a myth.

There can be no doubting that some songs are ‘Catchier’ than others, though I feel unclean using that word. Melody contributes, chords contribute, and structure certainly contributes, but I honestly don’t really care too much about a ‘Catchy’ formula: it makes it seem as though you should base your songwriting around whether it’s Catchy or not. Let me tell you: if you bash on the front gate of the Catchy mansion, you won’t get anywhere close.

So let’s try the back way in. I love Hands because it epitomises what I think a good chorus should do. Let’s split this down into two stages.

First: Validation. The first thing a great chorus should do is validate an identity, either of a group or a community. Consider Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA. You’re trying to get the ‘That’s Me!’ moment on the other end of the wireless. I’ve heard it said that art should articulate and make clear what people feel, and the chorus is your moment to shine.

There are two routes: either you reach out to as many people as possible on a general level, or you speak to a small group incredibly personally. What makes Hands so incredible is that it speaks to a universal audience on a deeply personal level, but that’s a once-in-a-career moment. I’d advise taking one of the two routes above and hoping that you strike gold.

Second: Catharsis. This is where you can deliver a chorus that can change someone’s life. Once you’ve achieved the ‘That’s Me!’ moment, you’ve got them in the palm of your hand. Now it’s time to smack them out of the park.

This is where it takes a bit of personal tailoring to your audience. More often than not it’s simply enough to give people a voice. Consider Pulp’s Common People, or Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing: the very act of giving voice to those who cannot speak gives the song strength. But you can do so much more: once you engage people on a personal level you can breathe new life into their lives.

Every music listener has songs that light a fire in their hearts, that seems to speak directly to you. Validating an identity, then allowing that identity Catharsis. That’s the big secret.

You have 9 syllables to change someone’s life. Choose carefully.

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Lyrics or Music: Which One First?

How to get the most out of your harvest. (Image Source: Flickr)

In my rather lengthy period of blogging absence I’ve noticed quite a trend amongst the twittersphere. In 140 characters, always the same question, repeated like a broken record. When you feel the sudden bolt of creativity, what should you reach for? Your right hand itches for the pen, but your left longs for the guitar. Which one?

I’ll tell you: Both. When you feel that raw pulp of creativity welling up, you’ve got to start singing what you’re thinking. If you play an instrument, strum some chords together and sing over it. If you release all those inhibitions, you’ll start finding lyrics and melodies that you wouldn’t be able to dream of if you worked through it one by one: working through both at the same time gives a song an incredible unity of elements that you can’t recapture when you separate them.

This is why I devoted an entire post to the Ernest Hemingway quote: “The First Draft Of Everthing is S**t”. The more you just let go, the more you stop censoring your work, the more good stuff you’ll get out of those spurts of creativity. It’s an elegant irony: The more you allow yourself to be s**t, the better you’ll be.

I can understand the appeal of “Lyrics Or Music”: it seems to provide a clear structure: first one, then the other. But separating the elements can do a great deal of harm to your songwriting, so what kind of structure can we place instead?

Think about a wheat harvest. You’ve got two stages of production (I assume: bear with me, readers, I ain’t no farmer). First, the combine harvester goes around and gathers all the wheat it can. No stalk is left untouched. You get a lot of chaff, but you get a fair bit of wheat as well. Let’s call it the harvest stage.

In the second stage, the farmers go around and pick all the wheat out of the chaff. The chaff gets thrown away, and the wheat gets stored. It’s a slow process, but it’s very deliberate and pre-meditated. Let’s call it the refinement stage.

You can apply the same logic to your songwriting. First, harvest. The sun may only shine on your creativity for half an hour a week, but you’ve got to gather all the material you can from that. Write down the chords, record voice memos of the melodies: do whatever you can to remember them, because this is where the best wheat comes from. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll write a lot of s**t, but this where the second part comes in.

Second, refinement. Take the wheat from the chaff. In between the creativity is where all the good work gets done. I mentioned Bruce Springsteen’s Car analogy in a separate post, but I’ll return to it again: If three cars aren’t working, you take all the parts that work and stick them in a new car, then bolt ’em all up and get it on the road.

If you write 3 terrible songs, I bet you that there’s enough good bits to get one song really revving hard. Thing is: songs are far more malleable than cars. Take a chorus from one and turn it into a bridge. Take a strong lyric and slap it onto a strong melody. You’ll have to tweak the lyrics, but the new combinations of verses and chorus’s will throw up delicious new themes and ideas. You really can’t go wrong.

The car analogy goes further: remember that 10-minute stream of consciousness piece you wrote about your ex-girlfriend? (read: beat-up 1970 Austin Maxi) Strip it for parts and move on. Start thinking of your songbook as a junkyard rather than a showroom. Don’t be afraid to go in there with a sledgehammer.

The Lyrics or Music debate really needs silencing. Don’t waste your creativity noodling away on meaningless melodies, or stressing over stale poetry. Dive upon your instrument of choice and play.

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The Secret Ingredient Of Productivity

Kung Fu Panda (2008) - Enlightening productivity ideas and family fun.

I am writing to you, gentle reader, in a state of disarray. After crash-landing back into my university schedule I have suddenly been inundated with countless pressures on my time and energy. I feel as though I’m trapped in a giant, greasy bagel of need which is sucking out all my creative juices.

Needless to say: songs still need to be written, blogs still need to be written, essays still need to be written. But how can it be managed? How can you remain productive? I’ll tell ya, but first I’m going to explain the airborne omnivore currently floating in your eyeline.

Mr Kung Fu Panda, or Po to his friends, works at a noodle shop run by his dad, Ping. Ping sells loads of noodles because of the ‘secret ingredient’ that they contain, which apparently makes them extra nice. Po, disapproving of this dull business venture, nonchalantly becomes a Dragon Master, appears in a short training montage, and goes up against some kind of evil tiger.

However, at his moment of doubt, when all hope is fading, when he realises that he can never fulfill his promise to be a Dragon Master, he turns to Ping.

“Son,” Ping says, “Do you want to know the secret ingredient of my noodles?

“There is no secret ingredient.”

I know that many may not appreciate taking advice from a cartoon goose, but this is too important to miss out on.

Productivity is a state of mind. If you feel energised and focused, you will work more and therefore produce more. So, whatever you do to make you feel productive actually makes you more productive. Let me explain.

I reckon it’s all down to the placebo effect. Many of you will already know what this is, so I won’t go into detail, but you can Wikipedia it if the mood strikes you. It basically means that if you attribute an object/situation with an effect, the brain will simulate the effect and make you believe it is working. For example, if you tell someone that an M&M will make their headache go away, it will help kill the pain of their headache. But there’s no secret ingredient in the M&M which suddenly turns it into an efficient painkiller: you are the secret ingredient.

It also applies to the creative process. I have a friend who could only write poetry if she drove out to a remote location and scribbled in the dark. Roald Dahl could only write in his shed, using a rotting plank as a desk. Both effective, if slightly mental, placebos.

I have purpose-built my own placebo. Want to know what it is? Tea. Yes, Tea. If you didn’t know I was English before, you do now. When I’m working, I do 50 minutes on, 10 minutes tea drinking. This can go on for hours before I need a proper break. It’s not the caffeine, the heat or even the regular breaks that make me productive, though they probably contribute: It’s just that when I hold that mug of Tetley’s in the morning, I feel the need to work.

How did I do this? The law of repetition and relation. A fair while ago, I purchased Call of Duty 4, and on the same shopping trip bought a new coat, filled with fake fur which had a very distinctive smell. The heating had gone out in our house, so as I settled in for a massive sesh I put on my new coat. To this day, when I smell that fake fur I feel like I want to shoot things. The repetition of playing for such a long time had related the smell of the coat with the feeling. Weird, eh?

So what does this mean for you? It means that if you discover a placebo that naturally makes you work harder, turn it into a habit. With enough repetition, you will relate the object to the feeling, like my cup of Tetley’s. Your creative juices will flow, you’ll become super-productive, and you’ll finally take your place as a Dragon Master.

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Don’t Look Back In Anger: Why The Best Stuff Is Old

Paolo Nutini's Sunny Side Up (2009)

“It was in love I was created
And in love is how I hope I die”

Coming Up Easy – Paolo Nutini

Paolo Nutini’s Sunny Side Up has been whipping around my iPod for the whole Christmas holiday. It’s a barnstormer; Nutini completely does away with the pillock-pop of his over-produced first album and just tears the studio apart.

It’s written about his time touring, and it would be a spectacularly narrow album were it not for his musical eclecticism. He samples a huge variety of genres, from swing blues (Pencil Full of Lead), to scottish folk (Chamber Music) to first-wave ska (10/10). But he doesn’t just try to imitate them; he gives them all the Nutini treatment, ramps up the energy levels, and commits them to disc.

But why bother sampling all these different genres? Surely, great artists can pull brilliant new arrangements out of the air? Surely, they’d just be suddenly inspired, jump out of the bath, and run naked down the street clutching a new chord progression?

Oh, no. Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal. The reason that it’s such a good idea to nick what’s gone before is that it works. You wouldn’t launch a product without market research, would you?

Bob Dylan stole from Woody Guthrie. The Rolling Stones stole from Chuck Berry. And those guys were working in times when music was expensive. We’re the lucky generation. We’ve got Spotify, iTunes, YouTube… an almost limitless supply of free/cheap music at our disposal, going right back to the 1910’s. So why would you stick in the noughties?

I know that plucking random artists out of the air can be a thankless task, so I’ll show you what I use to get ideas from the past. http://www.allmusic.com/ is a tremendously under-used service. It’s the Wikipedia of music, with detailed reviews of artists, albums, and songs. But here’s the clever bit. Say you use the genre bar on the homepage, and go into Rap. You can then click on, say, Jazz-Rap (which is awesome, by the way) and you get a detailed biography of what the Jazz-Rap movement was all about.

Then, you click on Top Artists. This is the cool bit. Not only do you get a detailed list of everyone who’s ever made Jazz-Rap, but you get a ranking of how representative they are of this genre. Perfick.

So, next time you’re stuck for ideas, head over to allmusic.com, put on your musical balaclava, and get ready to rob!

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