Tag Archives: Tips

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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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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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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When To Show Your Songs To People

Pennywise the Clown from IT (1990).

On my computer hard-drive, tucked away in a hidden folder, is a file called ‘Spontaneous Lyrics’. It contains the entire oeuvre of my songwriting from year 1 to around year 5, from my very first scribblings, through my ‘Political’ phase (*weeps in shame*), right up to the start of my ‘Girls-are-really-quite-attractive’ phase, which I’ve never truly left behind.

I’m now in around my 7th-8th year of songwriting, and this file is painful. Painful. Absolutely no-one in the world has ever freely looked through it. This was, for a long time, how I felt about my songwriting. My songs were my Pennywise, lurking in the gutter of my mind. No way in hell was anyone going to see those songs.

I know I’m not alone in this, either. So crippling is the fear of rejection in some songwriters that they never get off the ground. Some will noodle away in silence for decades without ever breathing a melody.

Well, let me tell you, that approach ain’t too great. For one thing, keeping a song cooped up in your own head means you can’t ever say ‘This is finished’. I’m living testament.

I finished my first song six years after I began songwriting. It was called ‘You Ain’t Alone’ (It’s my mum’s favourite, incidentally). Here’s the kicker: I only knew it was finished when my great friend, who I’d started playing all my songs to, told me it was.

I then proceeded to play it individually to every single one of my flatmates (of which there were 12) and anyone who would listen to check if he was giving me a bum steer. And he wasn’t. At least my mum doesn’t think so, anyway.

This process of ‘Finishing’ a song is not, as is commonly thought, a question of editing. Songwriters are perfectionists, and they’ll edit the song to death before they realised they were actually just as happy with the first draft.

Finishing a song is just about dragging Pennywise out of the gutter. Once it’s out, the song is no longer a secret diary entry, it’s a piece of work which exists independently of you, and it won’t feel so scary any more. I promise you: the change is remarkable.

Don’t get me wrong, it takes a lot of guts for a first-year songwriter to do it, far more than I’ve ever possessed. But here’s my advice: Do you have a best friend? Are they smarter than you? Show the song to them. They’ll give you better advice than you’d ever manage on your own.

It’s worth it. Once Pennywise is up on the pavement you see him for what he is: just a feckin’ clown.

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Developing A Voice: The Curse of AutoTune

Macy Gray: more attitude than the sum total of Lower Manhattan.

“My baby works down at the boulevard cafe
Just a fine young man with big dreams
Trying to make his own way
The owner is this mean old bitch
Who degrades him everyday
Then she fires him for no reason
Don’t wanna give him his last pay”

I’ve Committed Murder – Macy Gray

Macy Gray has the strangest voice in the music business. She sounds like a Disney villain being crushed under a boulder. The last chorus of I Try even trumps Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky for downright scatty weirdness.

But it’s bloomin’ compelling. You listen to I’ve Committed Murder, and though it’s not the best song in the world, you utterly believe the nastiness and cruelty that comes spilling out of her mouth. It’s riveting.

Frankly, I’m amazed that a talent like Macy was able to prosper in the 90’s female R&B market, which was full of real technical wizards (Whitney, Mariah, Jill Scott etc). Macy’s full of soul, but she’s can’t work the top notes like those girls can.

If she’d have struggled then, she’d be underwater now. AutoTune is used more and more in professional recording studios, especially for female performers. What with the rise of X Factor (American Idol for you Yanks) and the sudden demand for Whitneys it’s brought with it, AutoTune was legitimized simply by necessity: the Top 40 has turned into a vocal arms race.

It starts innocent enough: Can’t quite hit that top note like Mariah? Well, give it your best shot and we’ll bulk it out with a bit of gear. That was a great take, but you just got a bit flat on that middle section. We’ll just lift the whole song to reinforce your vocal. Then you get what happened on Ricky Martin’s Livin’ The Vida Loca, where the producer Desmond Child digitally moved Ricky’s syllables around in the mix for the best effect.

Now we’ve got an environment where TV talent shows, which dictate the public’s view of a good singer, are using AutoTune to bump up the quality of their entrants. If Macy were to walk on to the X Factor stage she’d either come out of post-production sounding like Aretha Franklin – or she’d be laughed off. I shudder to think of what Cowell would have made of a fresh-faced 1960’s Bob Dylan shambling onto the stage.

What with all this public movement towards the AutoTune factory, it’s really quite tempting for us songwriters to go that way. Why don’t I start producing urban hits with just my voice and a bit of kit? I’d probably make a bit of money if the songs were alright.

Because if you’re serious about this singer/songwriter lark, you’ll notice that those with the most devoted fanbases are those who are authentic. Mark Oliver Everett: gritty as gravel but undeniably him. Sufjan Stevens: airy-fairy but full of human weakness. Soul trumps software any day of the week.

Macy, just in case an intern at your lawyer’s office misinterprets the first paragraph of this blog, I’d take you over Whitney any day.

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Word To The Wise: No. 3

Hemingway at his most beardy.

“The first draft of everything is s**t.”

Ernest Hemingway

And that’s from a man who didn’t put up with much guff. For heaven’s sake, don’t be too hard on your first draft. Just let it pour.

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Aside: The Greatest TV Moment of 2010 – SPOILER ALERT

The Trip (2010) Get it on DVD. Now.

I can unflinchingly say that The Trip is the best thing to appear on telly this year. Ironically, it’s based on a concept that sounds less interesting than Countryfile: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, two well-known British comics, go for a six-day trip around the north of England reviewing restaurants. Yep, I know. Sounds like a hoot.

But here’s the catch. Both men play fictionalised versions of themselves. And there’s no pussyfooting around when it comes to character exploration. The series revolves around a coruscating analysis of Coogan’s character; he’s shown to be selfish, fame-obsessed, and pretentious. (Disclaimer: I’m sure he’s lovely in real life) Brydon is portrayed as an everyman: the grounded, sensible face of family-oriented decency, in contrast to Coogan’s idiocy.

It is therefore all the more shocking when Brydon attempts to make out with one of Coogan’s co-workers.

It comes out of the blue. During a rendition of Tom Jones’ ‘Delilah’, Brydon playfully leans over the sofa the two are sitting on. He dives in close, but on her flinching back his voice trickles to a halt. I really can’t do it justice: you have to see it, in glorious cringe-worthy technicolour, for yourself.

The most brilliant part is that they keep on chatting: Brydon has attempted to conduct an affair behind his wife’s back, but there is no moral retribution. In any other TV show, he would be punished brutally by some twist in the plot: a potful of scarabs would unexpectedly fall on him, or his wife would be inexplicably watching behind the door. But no. They carry on with their coffee.

The fantastic thing about this moment is just how true it is. Unflinchingly, undeniably true. There’s no false moral message, or any kind of soap-opera justification in his character (Sociopathy, sexual addiction etc). It just tells you the simple fact: sometimes good people do bad things. Deal with it.

Songwriters: this is the ultimate way to avoid cliché. This moment was so good because it was genuinely shocking: the taboo of the sanctity of marriage had been broken, and new moral ground was being explored. The Trip had chiseled out a piece of our collective morality and shown it to be false, with only a camera and a pair of actors.

You can too. And you don’t even need a camera.

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