Sensei Blog #008 – The Song Writing Process

When I was writing songs as a 16-17 year old, I used to get depressed. Deeply depressed. I could not manage my mental state, I didn’t understand how chords fit together, why my words didn’t come out right, and I didn’t understand how the gods of the rock world did what they did. Importantly, I wanted to know which method was the best to write songs with. (Ending a sentence with a preposition. Ughh!) These days I use ALL the things! To keep delivering songs to studio deadlines, gig pressure, broadcast network air-dates and life, I now use every method imaginable that I can lay my hands on to get the job done, sometimes out of desire, sometimes through necessity.

But in an ideal scenario, devoid of extreme time, budget or other limitations, my method would go something like this:

1) Preproduction Mode (10 mins): First, I create a Logic song that has all the likely candidates for sounds/instruments etc for songwriting, clear my desk, eliminate any distractions in my studio, get sounds up on my keyboard, bass and guitar if necessary. This is not creative time, it’s pure practical organisation.

2) Ready Mode (3 mins): I manage my mental state – get a coffee, slow down, quiet my brain down. With songs, I don’t have to listen to any songs to get in the mood – I have played many thousands of songs as a busy session musician and live player, so I have a mad playlist in my head. Usually I attack either lyrics, melody, harmony or groove first, with the others to follow. It helps to have some kind of lyric point, message or focus to guide me, something to delimit the possibilities. For example: a song about Truth, the Silks of Chiang Mai, a trip to the Hardware Store or Unrequited Love. Just something to get me started.

3) Ideas Mode (10-90 mins): I start writing – the first thing that comes into my head – that may be lyrics, chords, a melody, a groove – I just start immediately, whatever is flowing (I am in sketch mode). The difference here is that I tend to stay with the domain I started with until the ideas slow down. So if I start with lyrics, I stick with it until I have a good part of the song completed (or at least “place-holder lyrics”). If I start with a music groove or chord progression, I’ll really work that area until I need a break.

4) Integrate Mode (30-120 mins): Now that the ideas in one domain (lyrics, melody, harmony, groove) have ebbed a little, I shift domains. So once I have 18 or so lyric lines written, then I start investigating possible grooves, chords, melodies – and revert to step 3) in that domain. If I have established a groove first, then probably lyrics will be next.

The trick is to always stop at a good point, never an impasse. Then you’ll return enthusiastically to the project the next day, rather than feel like it’s a chore. (Experience has shown me that if I stop at an impasse, I will be reluctant to return as it feels tough to push through). How do you always stop at a good point? By recognising a good point and resisting the temptation to push on into the next hurdle! Just take a well-deserved break.