As Keith Richards put it, songwriting is a weird game. Coming from someone who has been a rockstar through the ’60s and ’70s, I’m sure he could write a book on weird games and with this one, he’s certainly right.
I’ve played the guitar for nearly fifteen years and I have a pretty substantial repertoire of songs I can confidently cover. What always eluded me was an original song that I was proud of. I’m not exactly musically gifted, and only know the basics of music theory from a few brief stints with a clarinet in grade school. Early attempts in my teenage years mostly yielded lame love songs, nearly all ended up crumpled up in the trash bin thankfully sparing the world from having their ears made bloody.
I’d largely given up on it for a long time and just continued on learning other people’s songs. That is, until one Sunday sometime last year when I was wandering through the Waterstone’s in Greenwich. A book by Frank Turner called Try This at Home caught my eye. I’d never really been into his music, but he often toured with one of my favourite bands, the Arkells, so I gave it a shot.
Not only did the book get me into his music, it sort of simplified the songwriting process for me. The book is a collection of anecdotes and stories as to how Frank wrote 30+ of his songs. I strongly recommend having a read for anyone attempting to write their first song, it taught me not to overthink the lyric writing process and to start with what I know.
Finding the lyrics
Around the time I found the book, I was in the middle of a bit of a rough patch. I was in the midst of job hunting as my job at the time was causing me a lot of stress, and several of my best friends had just recently moved overseas or otherwise abroad and a lot of that was on my mind. So I started writing it down. Some of it wasn’t rhyming or lyrical at all to start, just sentences on a page, but I found it got me started. Rather than having to write a verse, bridge, chorus or whatever, I pieced together a story one or two lines at a time and continuously re-arranged and re-wrote until it told the story the way I wanted it to.
What I got out of it was an honest biographical set of lyrics, much in Frank Turner’s style. Lyrics don’t need to be hopelessly cryptic or nuanced for people to relate, they just need to be real. This is what I came up with:
We were young and living in Brixton,
Nights spent out at Happy Dumplings,
Smoking joints in Brockwell park,
and cheap cigars when it got dark.
Life chats with the Killers,
Cause she’s just another girl,
Drinking ciders until dawn,
Or until the whole case was gone.
One day we’ll be grey and old,
And spread all across the world,
Thinking of those memories made,
In our South London days.
We’d stumble all the way,
Going to the bar and back,
But we’d never even leave,
The front door of our flat.
Not exactly poetry in motion there, however, it gave me enough to start with. Even the more cryptic sounding things are really specific references to stuff we used to do when we lived in Brixton. For example, in the last verse, going to the bar and back without leaving the flat was in reference to a card game/drinking game my housemate and I used to play called Bar and Back and often resulted in us getting too drunk to make it out to the bar.
Finding the sound
Right, so now I had lyrics. Trying to add chords and the vocal melody was a BAD start. When I sent the first rough version to my dad, bless him, he came back with something along the lines of, “Great start, vocals could use some work though”. My advice here is definitely to keep it simple, stupid. Ultimately what ended up working was this:
- Make a list of all the songs you know how to cover.
- Write down what Key each of those songs is written in (you can usually find out just by googling the songs).
- Highlight which ones you find easiest to sing.
- Pick one of those keys. I picked the key of G.
- Identify the chords which sit in that key. For G, this was G(i), Am(ii), Bm (iii), C (iv), D(v), Em(vi).
- Start experimenting with common chord progressions and singing the lyrics over top. I originally started with I-V-VI-IV (G, D, Em, C) but found that the Am sounded better and ended up with G, D, Am, C
Once I came up with the chord progression, I essentially just kept playing and singing the song all the way through adding little flourishes and changes in volume and vocal pitch until I liked the way it sounded. It can be hard to separate the chords from vocals and create a melody at first but over time I found a natural place to separate them.
Don’t be afraid to fail
My last piece of advice, probably the most important one, is don’t be too hard on yourself. I think that was my biggest barrier for years, if a song wasn’t great right off the bat I’d drop it and get discouraged. You’re not setting out to be the Beatles, you’re writing a song because you want to learn how. In Macklemore’s song 10,000 Hours, the lyric goes
“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint
The greats were great because they paint a lot”
Even now, the “final product” of my first song is not something spectacular but I’m proud of it because I wrote it. It’ll never be more than something I play when I’m messing about or playing with my uncle, but it’s still something I did.
One piece of this I didn’t touch on, and will in a future post is how to begin recording vocals/guitar so you can play it back to yourself and hear in good quality how it is done.
Songwriting is indeed a weird game and we can’t all be Keith Richards, but hey, gotta start somewhere.