I was interviewed recently by a film director who wanted to get behind the songwriting process for a feature he is making about the relationship between a songwriter, a song, and the people who listen to that song in different moments; so I answered some questions on my approach to song writing and my inspiration.
1. What is your approach to songwriting?
I don’t have a predetermined approach but sometimes it is just a case that I will be playing my guitar and I come across a nice riff or melody and then there will be lyrics I have written at some point and I will see if they fit together. I might just end up making up lyrics on the spot which are inspired by the melody.
I try to make sure I keep myself inspired by watching / listening to other artists and music, reading lots and jotting down any ideas that pop into my head as I go along.
2. Do you follow any rituals?
Not really. . I think sometimes there is definitely a certain state I am in when I start writing, usually a thoughtful/ reflective or melancholic state!
I often can’t write if I try too hard to make myself write, although saying that if I have been given a challenge to write something I usually can- it just doesn’t have that same feeling as sudden inspiration when an idea comes to you out of the blue!
It’s easier to do if you are relaxed and have time for an idea to form. If something isn’t coming together I just leave it, sometimes I will come back to it, sometimes I will discard it and come up with something entirely different
3. How does the process usually starts?
It’s usually two separate parts of the process. It’s really useful having the notes section on my phone as I can be stuck on a train when I start jotting down lyrics. I have written lyrics to at least two songs whilst waiting on a train!
Sometimes a song will come from having discovered a melody on the guitar & then I will go away and write some lyrics to go with the tune. Sometimes I might be inspired by a story or a phrase or something I have seen or heard or felt and I will write lyrics without having a melody and then I will try and write a melody on guitar or piano to accompany the lyrics.
4. Where do you write the first draft of any song?
Usually in my bedroom if it involves playing my guitar. If it’s just lyric writing I can do that anywhere! I was visiting my friend recently and I had a couple of hours to myself so I just started writing down lyrics for a new song as I had the space and time to do it.
5. Do you need to record it? What equipment do you use for the spontaneous writing?
I try to record ideas as soon as I come up with them in case I forget next time I sit down to play the song /piece again.
I will also try and play the piece over and over again so it sticks in my head!
Back in the day I used to have a mini disc and microphone I used to record on, in fact my first recording was on a cassette! Now I will just use the voice memo on my iphone, which is really useful.
In terms of professionally recording, I will always try and have this as the final goal. As soon as I feel a song has found its voice, as it changes a lot when I first start performing it, I will go into the studio with my very loyal and encouraging producer to record it so I just have it down and I can put on my website & music pages. It’s initially just a simple recording of vocals and guitar or vocals and piano.
6. Is there any real life experience you went through that created the need to write a song about it?
Yes. Not all of them, sometimes songs I have written are other people’s experiences or fictional.
A lot of songs have emerged from heartbreak, fear, experiencing something new. Sometimes it’s almost like keeping a diary, I write down how I am feeling and then embellish this a bit to make a song out of it.
There was one song, which was a combination of several bad things happening at once and my grandmother dying. The only thing I could do was to try and put everything I was feeling into a song which ended up being called ‘Life’s rich tapestry’ to try and make sense of why things go wrong and why things happen the way they do and coming to terms with that. It’s more of a positive outlet being inspired by negative events.
7. What type of experiences, themes or things do you mainly get your inspiration from?
The biggest theme in most songwriting is love because it’s one of the strongest emotions but I mean this not just in terms of romantic love but relationships you have with people in your life as well. I am always excited when I manage to write a song that isn’t inspired by a relationship though!
I try to write more about the world around me now; I recently wrote a song about London and how my life has changed since moving here and all the great and scary things that you experience living in such a diverse and exciting city.
I am trying to get into reading more poetry; a recent song I wrote was based on a few lines of a poem that I then took and turned into a song. I want to be able to diversify what I write songs about so it’s not all autobiographical!
8. What’s your most personal song? How was the process? (Add any links if available)
There are quite a few songs that are personal to me. There were a few songs that I wrote that came from sad experiences and when I first performed them it felt quite emotional to perform them. It’s easier to play them now that I am more distanced from the emotion that drove the original song.
The process to the personal songs was quite cathartic and therapeutic. Sometimes I will write lyrics which are what I wish I could have said to a person or in a certain situation but didn’t get the chance to, so the song writing part can almost be getting closure on a situation. It’s also just a form of expression for me.
9. Do you have any interesting story of how a song came to you?
I was taking part in a songwriting course recently led by Julian Marshall and India Bourne where we were given a task of writing a song with the theme of ‘silver lining’ or ‘drowned’. I was reading some poetry to get inspiration and came across the anonymous poem ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’ which was an uplifting poem about grief and coping with loosing someone you love. I decided to use that as a starting point to write a song about what life means to me. If I knew I only had a limited time on earth could I say I have done everything and said everything I wanted to? It was also about the fact that death doesn’t need to be letting go completely if you can recognise that person in your life in everything around you. Although it’s a sad song, it’s more reflective than anything.
10. Do you usually think of melody or lyrics first? How do you go from one to the other?
It changes really. I am more interested in the lyric writing process but then it’s great when you come up with a melody and see it all coming together.
I think often the themes of the song are what drives the melody though; if it’s sad subject matter the melody will reflect that. It’s definitely easier to write a sad song than a happy song but I would love to write a happy song!
11. Do you think a song can save someone?
I think music can save people. Music and singing especially is such a natural skill that we all have built inside us. Singing is away of expressing emotion and storytelling and it can bring people together. Music is what a lot of people turn to in moments of happiness and sadness; it’s why we have songs at funerals and weddings. A friend of mine wrote to me and said they could identify with one of the songs I had written as it was about feeling lost and not knowing what my path was; they enjoyed listening to it as it made them feel like they weren’t the only person feeling that way.
I came across this argument on why arts are important when I was working in the fundraising department at Oxford University and I found it very powerful. This is part of the speech by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at Boston Conservatory.
“In a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be.. essential for life. The (concentration) camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I’m alive, and my life has meaning………… It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words…”
12. Do you remember any moment in your life when a song saved you somehow or suddenly came in the right moment?
There are probably a few but one of my favourite songs that I cover at the moment is a song called ‘You can go wherever you want to go’ by Patty Griffin which is a really uplifting song about letting someone go and letting them be free. It was actually written about her father after he died but when I listened to it I found it very empowering and took it to be about going after what you really want and not being tied down by anything.
13. Can you name 3 songs, not necessarily yours, that you think have the power to save people in bad times?
There are so many but I have tried to break it down to these:
So many songs I could think of by Bob Dylan but my current favourite is ‘Buckets of rain’.
Think these lyrics say it all really; you just have to do the best with what you have and keep going! I love Bob Dylan’s phrasing.
‘Life is sad
Life is a bust
All ya can do is do what you must
You do what you must do and ya do it well’
‘You’ve got a friend’ I performed this song aged about 15 & have been a Carole King fan from a young age. It’s just a beautiful song about friendship.
‘Time after Time’-Eva Cassidy’s version of this is so incredibly emotional, soulful and touching, it really transforms the song. I performed this version at a school show when I was 16 and it’s one of my favourite songs to sing because it really puts a shiver up my spine. Eva Cassidy was one of those singers that could just transform a song and there is an emotional quality in her voice that really moves me, she sang in a way that encapsulates the feeling behind the songs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMznNlfLXP4&feature=kp
14. Have you ever struggled so much you considered quitting writing music? What made you reach that point? What help you go through it?
Yes a few times! I probably won’t ever give up writing or singing because it is just something that I do, it’s a creative outlet for me and I would be lost without it. Probably the same way athletes feel about sport or actors feel about acting; it’s an itch I need to scratch!
Performing & doing it professionally is another matter though. I have always been fairly stubborn and strong-minded about wanting to do it my way, which means I have turned down some really good ops with labels or just not taken up opportunities, which might have led to more success. But you get an instinct about what you want to do with your music and it has to be for the right reasons. Because I have written the songs and they are very personal to want to have a certain amount of control about what I do with the music.
Other people and their positive encouragement of me pursing this has kept me doing it. I am very lucky to have some amazing, inspiring people who encourage me not to give this up because they know how important it is to me and have persuaded me it would be a waste to no use a natural talent such as singing. I feel like I would be letting those people who have always supported me down if I didn’t pursue it. I would also be letting myself down if I tried to deny myself of something that seems second nature to do.
15. What’s the first memory you have of writing music or thinking about it?
Apparently I was always making up songs and singing from the age of about 4, I especially liked to write songs about my socks! When I was ten I had a group of my best friends and we used to just write lyrics and make up accappella songs about anything and record them onto tape.
When I got to secondary school I started writing with another female singer songwriter and haven’t looked back since. I began writing first on piano and when I was 17 I got my first guitar. Once I had 3 chords down I had written at least 2 songs, it was a songwriting revelation! I was also lucky enough to grow up in a musical family and be surrounded by music from a young age.
Questions by Rafa Pavon.
This article was written by susie