The Gynecology of Songwriting
People often ask me about my songwriting process. “What do you do?”, said one guy to me recently. “Do you sit down at your desk at 09:00 in front of a blank sheet of paper and wait for ideas to come, or do you just let inspiration happen whenever or wherever?” Someone else asked: “Does the tune come first or do you write the words and then put a song to it after?” The answer is that all these things are possible, depending on the song and situation. Let me explain…
There have been times when I’ve deliberately set out to write a song and got out a pen and paper to do so, not knowing what will come out. But that was when I’ve been given special exercises on songwriting retreats. (I recommend such retreats, for they are extremely stimulating to the creative process. I’m going to one in Gotland, Sweden shortly). Such exercises can be useful to kick-start your brain into a songwriting mode in an artificial situation but it isn’t the way that I would normally write songs.
Some ideas for songs come to me in an instant but they may have to germinate for months or even years in the darkness of my heart if they are not ripe enough to become a full-blown song at that stage. Other ideas will drive me crazy — plaguing me night and day with new elements until I have no choice but to bring it to a conclusion in a song. When that happens, I need to have my little mini digital recorder with me at all times or I can lose a lot of material. Many song ideas have disappeared into limbo because I failed to record my ideas on the fly. I might wake up in the night with what seems like an ace idea and then think “Okay, I’ll shelve that till the morning” — only to wake up horror-stricken to discover that my mind no longer contains a single scrap of it!
Whether or not the tune comes first or the lyric depends on the song. Sometimes I have a very strong tune which comes to me and I develop it into a verse/refrain/bridge structure; but I may not have any words for it at that stage. Then at some later date I’ll have words for it. I once had a tune which I assumed was always going to be a pleasant little instrumental for solo guitar — an interlude in a concert — then I suddenly found that the words which it had been waiting for came to life in my mind about a year later. This was the first time that had ever happened. That song was “Ride My Heart” – now the title song of my upcoming CD. “Snow Queen” also started life as a solo guitar instrumental but then it suddenly merited words about six months later.
I guess it’s true to say that most often I will write a poem to which I will appoint a tune afterwards. Sometimes it is the tune which comes first, as outlined above, but most often it will be the other way round. However, there have been a few where both the tune and the lyrics have come at exactly the same time, as if the song could have no other possible combination. “Just Like the Sea” – a song about making love hyper-passionately – was one of those songs (also on my upcoming CD).
Generally speaking, if the listener of the song says to himself or herself “These lyrics could have no other tune but this; they are the perfect match”, you will find that the tune and lyrics came at the same time. This is not to say that the other songs have a tune which doesn’t fit but simply that some marriages of melody and lyrics were plainly made in heaven!
Some songs virtually write themselves, so fertile are they. Others, however, have to struggle violently to bring themselves into existence! That doesn’t make them inferior. It just means that they had a difficult birth. Yes, songs are like children; and the method or length of gestation is different with all of them – just like children.
Finally, I’m often asked if my songs are autobiographical. Most of the love songs are autobiographical, pure and straight or served with multiple similes. Others – such as “6” – are wholly autobiographical, and some are just semi-autobiographical, a melange of ideas mixed with personal data. Some are just one big metaphor which may have autobiographical material wrapped up in them (e.g. “Colour of a Frown” & “Ride my Heart”). Some are about the experience of others with which I can identify or understand. “Full of Herself” is one such song. It was written about a lovely lady whom I once knew who carried immense guilt about something she had done to herself in the past which later prevented her from being able to love freely – especially in a physical sense. Her sadness overwhelmed me and it became my own and then it became my song. It is a true requiem.
However, whatever the song, I regard them all as really being poems set to music. As far as I am concerned, it is the words which count the most. The music is the vehicle by which the words can move themselves from one heart to another and the tune must certainly fit the context. The music is one big canvas-like onomatopoeia putting the words in a harmonic framework.
Singer-songwriters are artists whose palette is sound rather than paint. They are midwives to the unspoken word and unborn idea. That is a heavier weight of responsibility than many may realise.
© Alan Morrison, 2010