Tag Archives: Music

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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Song Writer’s Block: Help Is At Hand!

Why Writers Block is a myth.

I have never had writer’s block. I try, and I try, and I try, but I just keep writing. I’ve got writer’s block block.

Sure, I’ve had periods of slacking off, but that was just down to laziness, business, or boredom. In the back of my mind I knew that if push came to shove I could crank out a verse or two.

Sure, I’ve had trouble in the writing process. I’ve been clawing up the walls trying to think of rhymes, I’ve been going for long walks trying to coagulate my themes, I’ve been busting my gut every now and then to complicate my chord progressions. It’s never an entirely easy process.

And sure, there have been times when I’ve been absolutely clueless and left my bedroom in a huff, swearing to cast down the pen and all who wield it, and I’ve sat down and played XBOX all night instead.

Any of these things sound familiar? Thought so. I’ve got all the symptoms of writer’s block, I’ve just never diagnosed myself, right? Wrong.

When most people think of writer’s block they imagine that their stream of creativity has been somehow cut off at the source, and they need huge action to pry open the dam. But that’s not it: you’ve been looking at the stream, not the reservoir.

Each one of us has an immense wellspring of raw songwriting material with which to create stuff. Where, I hear you ask? Your whole life. Every friend, every story, every moment, every emotion, every setting, every character, every accidental metaphor, every bureaucratic injustice, every human fallacy, every bit of cloud, every dust mote, every cat, dog, or amoeba: it’s all there to write about. You’ve got no excuse to be blocked up.

But if you were to say: “but, but, but… my writer’s block comes from not being able to think of good rhymes, good metaphors, or good melodies.” Don’t worry. Start with bad rhymes, bad metaphors, and bad melodies, and work up from there. Allow yourself to be bad for a while. No-one expects you to be a teenage prodigy: But keep writing.

But if you were to say: “but, but, but… I can’t even express how my writer’s block stops me.” My advice is to get off your hind parts and roll away your stone. I stopped writing through pure, unadulterated laziness. Just a moment of self-control and you’ll power through the supposed block.

So, what is writer’s block? It’s one of three things: the excuse your brain gives you when you want to play XBOX; it’s the inability to create, through lack of practice, good song structures; and it’s the inability to see the world that inspires you.

And if you still think you’ve got writer’s block: get out and live. If inspiration comes from life, then make that life huge.

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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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Word To The Wise – No. 4

The Songwriter's Soup.

“I have freely begged, borrowed, and patched together. If there is any quality in my work, it is primarily in the “taste” with which I have raided others’ stores and in the way I have adapted and mixed together the ingredients and, thereby, made the soup. Some will, of course, not recognize the ingredient they have contributed, or, at least, not want to admit they do after they taste my soup. If there are occasional inventions, their only chance for a full life is that someone else will borrow them and mix them into new soup.”

James Paul Gee (2011)

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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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Should You Trust Your Critics?

How to see through the smokescreen of ego. (Image: DeviantArt)

I’ve heard it said before that every songwriter writes from insecurity, but that’s not quite right. Every songwriter writes from ego.

No doubt about it. There’s something innately gratifying about completing a song that props you up for the rest of the week. When you pluck some delicious chorus melody out of the air and scribble it down, there’s a significant part of you that wants to light up a cigar, lean back in your chair, and utter that immortal adage of satisfaction: ‘Boom’.

So it naturally hurts when someone pokes their finger through your cigar-hazed fantasy. Your first fully completed song hangs framed above the mantle; you sit bleary-eyed with love, reminiscing about how each perfectly constructed line came into being. But suddenly, a snickity little gremlin appears from your periphery, shouting words of abuse so vile as to curse down the sun, and you fold into a little sweaty ball of misery. Sound familiar?

Your first encounter with criticism is make-or-break time. It’s where your artistic ideas, which get cosy in the comfort of your own head, are thrust into the real, cold world. And it’s serious: some people never recover from the first go-around. But let me give you a little phrase to remember next time you come up against the gremlin:

‘Your critics are always right, and your critics are never right.’

Let me explain. Remember your heavy metal phase? Remember buying that brand new amp, turning it up to 11, and rocking out that first solo? Remember your little sister slamming through the door, stuffing her pigtails in her ears, yelling ‘SHUT UP, YOU SUCK!’ She was, in many ways, just as eloquent as much of the modern music press, and she was a valuable critic.

Another example. I was busking in my local town centre, and playing one of my own songs. A bedraggled, ineffably cool man carrying a guitar was stood watching me from the opposite street corner. As I finished, he walked up to me and dropped ten pounds in the box, and said: ‘Play that song again’.

The musician and the sister are two critics: one hated me, one loved me. One didn’t know a thing about music, one probably knew a fair bit. But here’s what I mean to say: Both opinions were equally right.

Everybody, critic or not, belongs to a demographic: both of the above opinions reflected the demographics that the critics belonged to, and so were equally right. But both were equally wrong, because they failed to represent any demographic other than their own.

Your Warhammer-obsessed male flatmate who tells you your song sucks is only speaking from the Warhammer-obsessed demographic. Your bleary-eyed elderly teacher who loves your singing voice is speaking only from that perspective. Your little sister utterly reflects her age group when she says that heavy metal sucks, but if you were playing Disney songs she’d be loving it.

But where does this leave our central question? Musicians, just like any salesman in the marketplace, must aim their products at certain demographics. You should therefore only trust the critics who are representative of the demographic you’re aiming it. But, like a sensible entrepreneur, take note of everything you hear: if you suddenly notice a groundswell of critical reception from the over-65’s, maybe you should take aim there. Always offer what they’re calling for.

So don’t get downbeat when the gremlin curses your work. You can keep the cigar, but make sure you can see through the smoke.

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