How I write songs by Caitlin Grey
Hi everyone & welcome to my new blog on my brand new website! To start off, this is an article I wrote for another blog site. As I'm beginning a new blog series on this website all about the making of my second album, 'The Promise', I thought I would preface the series by posting this piece again for those of you who didn't get to read it. Before we get into the minutiae of 'The Promise', it will give you a bit of an idea of my song writing process.
Here it is:
Writing about song writing is a bit weird! As I’m sure many other creative people will tell you, song writers (unless they are also teachers) don’t normally have to analyse the mechanics of what they do. In general, I don’t really think about how I write songs, I just do it! When I first began teaching singing and performance, explaining how I sing and perform came quite naturally, as you could argue that teaching itself is a form of performance. But song writing…mmm? Song writing (to me at least) is a rather personal endeavour, generally involving copious cups of tea and choccy biccies and executed behind closed doors in a small, airless studio…. mysterious and secret! When you decide to share how you do it and write it down, you actually have to sit down and deconstruct the process because it’s not something you consciously think about…so, like I said, it’s weird!
(Scroll to bottom for useful links!)
Enough waffle…let’s get to it!
The first thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to write songs – however you do it…hey, if it works for you, then keep going! If your way of writing is not working for you, however, and you’re unhappy with the results of your efforts, then that’s the time to seek help and support from other writers! I hope that sharing my writing process gives you some tips of what to do (or not!) and will maybe demonstrate that whatever you are doing is not wrong!
The nitty gritty!
I write songs in a few different ways, often in a jam/improvisation session with my song writing collaborator. This is a brilliant way to write, I have to say, as ideas can just flow when you work with someone else!
If I'm writing for a client then, depending on the brief, I will work from set lyrics and write a melody or vice versa. This type of composing requires a slightly different skillset, so I won't go into this now.
However, when writing my own songs, I would say that about half of the time, I generally tend to start with a melody and a lyric combined when I’m on my own. That’s just the way I work. It could be just a saying or a phrase that comes into my head and I just start singing it over and over. Usually, (as soon as humanly possible!) I record it on my phone or my voice recorder, just in case I have to leave it to do something else. There’s nothing more annoying than thinking up a great melody and then forgetting it and, let me tell you, I've had inspiration for a tune at the most inconvenient times (steady on now!). So, if I’ve recorded it, I have it filed and I can go back to it later. Some composers and writers notate their ideas (write them down as sheet music... same process, different filing system!) Sometimes, I will do this, but very rarely, and, before you budding writers out there panic, it isn't necessary to be able to read/write music to write songs, at all!
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, so, sometimes, when I listen back to the idea, I’ll think it’s got potential and get really excited to work on it, but then sometimes, I’ll think, ah, not so good after all and I disregard it, or at least leave it for a while. I have many, many, half recorded ideas that started out as a hit!
Some writers don’t record their ideas, but I have to, as my mind is like a sieve! Icelandic singer/songwriter Bjork says that she never records her ideas; she just waits to see if she forgets it! If she does, it wasn’t any good anyway! I tend to take a more pragmatic approach to writing and I record absolutely everything I write (if possible).
So, if I decide the idea is good enough to work on, I’ll sit down at the piano and carry on singing it to see where the tune wants to go. Then I’ll try to add more melody and play around with some chords. So, for example, I’ll take it into a chorus, or if I’ve written the chorus part first, (this is quite normal for me) try to work in a verse type melody. Sometimes, this is easy and it all fits and flows fantastically and, sometimes, it’s a bit trickier, depending on the melody I’ve initially come up with. I would say that I mainly write from ear rather than notating music, although like I said earlier, I have done this for a few songs. Generally, I’ll have something in my head and I can ‘hear’ the basic arrangement that I want for the song.
I then take my rough melody and lyrics to my song writing partner Neil and we start working on it properly, trying to flesh out the structure and instrumentation. We decide on a key and then add the chords to accompany the vocal melody. Much of the time, we get stuck on the middle 8 (termed the 'middle 8' as it's usually the 8, or so, bars of instrumentation or vocal melody, that come after the second chorus in most pop/rock songs, that differ from the main melody of the song)! Often a bugbear! (More on Middle 8’s in another article!) Once we have a basic arrangement we record a guide vocal and probably a guitar accompaniment, or a keyboard, depending on the type of song. This is where it starts to get really exciting as you can hear your song coming together. Also, the song can alter radically at this point, for example, changes in vocal melody, lyrics, arrangement, all sorts of things! Or, it could stay very close to the original idea, like I said earlier there is no one way to do this. Just go with the flow and do what feels right to you.
Obviously, it also depends on what genre you are working in. For example, garage or house/hip hop writers generally tend to start with a beat, or some beats, building a song or track around a strong rhythm and working from there. Other writers, say.. rock writers for instance, may come up with a great guitar riff and develop a song that way. Like I said at the start, there is no right or wrong way to write songs, this is just how I do it! I tend to be melody driven as I’m a singer and the voice is my primary instrument to work with. I suppose that I would be considered in the industry as a top line writer; that is to say, someone who writes the vocal melody of the song, termed the top line in sheet music. Although, I do have significant input into the instrumentation as well!
Solo writer or team player?
I am lucky in that I have a collaborator to work with. There was a time though when I worked alone and I wrote my songs on my own (hence all the tea & biscuits!). I just recorded my ideas and maybe put a few chords (from my keyboard) underneath to support the melody. Then, when I could afford it, I went into a recording studio and recorded the song. Many studios offer an arrangement facility. This is when you take a raw song in, for instance, a rough melody, lyrics and a bit of an idea of how you want it to sound, and the arrangers work with you until it’s finished. It can be expensive but at least you get your song done professionally. This is invaluable if you don’t play well enough to do it yourself and/or you don’t have recording facilities at home. Of course, nowadays, with the advent of home studio set ups, most people can record everything themselves. (The home recording process in all its glory will be covered in another article!)
The link below gives you an idea of what to expect from a full arrangement/recording service.
If you do need help with recording your song, but you’re a bit broke, (we’ve all been there!) then sometimes music tech students are generally willing to work with you for the experience, or you could throw out a call for help to other budding producers/writers on social media. This is a great way to meet like-minded musos! And you never know…a hit making partnership may be born!
So, this is how I write…warts and all! No secret tricks involved, just commitment and perseverance! If you’ve been hitting a wall, then, hopefully, it’s inspired you to experiment with your own writing process. All I will say is don’t give up! It gets easier with experience and if you have a passion for your music you will find a way! I wish you good luck, happy writing and see you next time!
Cheerio for now!
Love & music,
PS. My good twitter pal Anthony Ceseri is offering a free songwriting report with lots of helpful tips! Do check it out, you're bound to find something jolly useful!
Another very informative blog worth checking out!
PPS. If you'd like to ask me a specific question about song writing, anything at all, then please do feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
I can't promise to know all the answers but I'll do my best to help!