Thoughts from a pop songwriter in Los Angeles
on songwriting, production, and related topics
Poll: So Bad It’s Good
R&B is perfect for getting you and that special someone ‘in the mood’ for a good time, with tracks ranging in style from ‘suggestive’ to ‘in your face’. Writing that sexy R&B song can be tough though because there’s a fine line between sexy fun and sexy cheesy.
This poll is dedicated to those sexy songs with lyrics that unabashedly cross that line, because their writers know that when you make it so so bad, it’s oh so good.
OK, so you’ve spent countless hours recording and mixing a new song. It sounds great on your hi-fi system. You are so excited that you drive over to a friend’s house to show it off. You arrive, plug your phone into the stereo receiver, and hit play. As the song comes on, your face turns pale. The song doesn’t sound nearly as good as it did in the studio or at home. In fact, it sounds kind of awful.
This is one of the harder aspects of completing a recording project. Making sure that your recording sounds great on every possible set of speakers. That includes….
- Studio speakers
- Hi-fi system
- Over-ear headphones
- In-ear headphones
- TV speakers
- Crappy PA system
- [you get the picture]
Your music, assuming it has reach, will be listened to on any number of playback mediums. Each one has a different frequency response, phase, and mono quality. On top of that, you have room characteristics such as modes and specular reflections. Room modes can either blow your bass up or make it disappear entirely. The room reflections, if extreme, can over-pronounce the top end and make it harsh.
No single set of speakers and rooms can translate to all these scenarios.
As a real-world example, one of my productions (Vertigo) was almost completely missing the bass when played back on some hi-fi systems. Given that the production was supposed to be “finished”, I panicked. Why didn’t I test my mix on a hi-fi system???
Well, I wrongly assumed that my ATC SCM25a’s would translate accurately to hi-fi in all scenarios. The hi-fi system in question had a steeper roll-off on the bass, making the soft 808 kick non-existant. Normally the 100-200hz band makes up for this with a nice hard thump for the kick….unfortunately, that frequency band wasn’t coming through. I ended up boosting that frequency range and now it sounds alot better.
Another unexpected problem scenario is when music is played back on a hi-fi system that is set to DTS or Dolby Surround. What happened in this case? The top end on a couple of tracks was very harsh. To fix this, I tweaked the multiband compression that was already in place to bring the top end under control.
Your audience will not purposely listen to your song in surround but if it does happen, it still has to sound good. If it sounds off then you’re audience is going to get turned off. When all else fails, check your song on that playback medium with a few comparable commercial recordings. If the commercial recording doesn’t sound good (and this assumes that it is well mixed and mastered) then you probably shouldn’t worry about it.
So the moral of the story is, don’t skimp on testing your mixes across different mediums. Listen to it on your phone at the gym. Put it on your hi-fi system and walk around the room. Mono it and put it through some crappy speakers.
It can be tedious but this is your song, and you want it to shine. Even on the shittiest speakers on earth.
One of the more difficult decisions I’ve been facing lately is how to re-master some of my older recordings. Over time, the loudness of music has increased as has the manner in which instruments are mixed. Every track needs to shine in its own right but at the same time it needs to sound inconspicuously similar to tracks in the same/similar genre. If it’s too bright, too warm, too loud, or not loud enough then it’ll stand out in the wrong way.
There’s a lot of mastering services out there, particularly budget mastering for $100-$200 a pop. My experience has been rather lackluster. Perhaps there are some good budget services out there but my impression is that it takes more effort than what $100 is worth to properly master a track.
Say you have a mixed track and you’re mastering it up. So you run it through a subtle enhancer, maybe you adjust the stereo width in a few different frequency ranges, add a little equalization, and finally you run it through a mastering limiter to achieve some specific LUFS (a measure of loudness).
There hasn’t been a single track I’ve mastered that has sounded the way I intended once it’s been through all of that processing. The track will be close but there will always be unintended side effects. Some of the most common:
- Specific frequencies start to become untamed in certain instruments (including vocals).
- Reverb / delays are too noticeable.
- Balance (foreground vs background perception) of instruments has changed.
- Stereo width of specific instruments isn’t quite right.
In my opinion, very few of these issues can be fixed efficiently in the mastering process. Anything you do to the final mix is going to affect multiple elements, even if your intention is to fix only one. So you might as well go back to the mix to make some of your adjustments.
Once you’ve made those adjustments, how do you ensure that the track will line up nicely with other recordings in the same genre?
Sample Magic’s Magic AB has been, well, magic for doing those on-the-fly comparisons. I usually keep a variety of tracks pre-loaded…one super-crushed pop recording, one more acoustic style pop recording, and then another sparser arrangement. I flip between my track and these recordings to get a sense of how they compare. Ideally, they should sound seamless in terms of frequency balance, stereo width, and perceived loudness. But after that, I may make some minor adjustments to taste because there may be a specific sound I’m looking to achieve.
It’s a delicate balance to get it right and I’m not sure I’ve perfected it either. You need a very well treated room, and an excellent pair of speakers (min $6k+). If you are missing one of those two elements, then you may very well be stuck using a mastering service. Just beware if you’re going budget that you get what you pay for.
Drums are a critical element of any mix. You can have a great vocal, with a great instrumental, but without the drums it’ll lose its drive and punch. If you are writing/producing a sweeping ballad then maybe you don’t need to worry. Sometimes you want the listener swept away by the flow of instruments surrounding the vocal and the drums need be minimal, if they are there at all. For everything else, you’ll want those drums sitting cleanly in the mix.
While the drums are usually the first instruments I mix, I will also revisit the drums about 3/4 of the way through the project. I will listen carefully both with the entire mix and when solo’d to double check that the drums are tight and still have the energy to propel the mix forward.
Sometimes, the drums won’t sound right in the full mix, and possibly something has gone awry and they don’t sound right solo’d anymore either. If the drums sound off then here are a few good starting points to fix it up:
Each instrument (kick, snare, toms, …) needs to have the right attack and release times to have impact and ‘hit’ at the right time.
Look at your compressor attack/release — is it smacking down the attack portion of your snare hit? Is the release too slow and therefore you can’t hear the tail of the snare hit?
Try a transient shaper to give that initial hit more impact.
Be careful when playing with the dynamics because instruments with a strong attack can trigger (pump) your bus and/or mastering compressor. Compress judiciously and try a limiter to keep the dynamic range of the instrument contained.
For kicks, the tail (usually sub-bass) portion should have the right release time. You don’t want a kick too boomy (unless it’s hip hop) nor do you want a kick that’s so short it lacks punch.
Tuning: Your kick and snare have a fundamental frequency. Tune it so that it’s in the same key as your song. The kick is particularly important because an out of tune kick will interact with your bass in ways that will not sound pleasant.
I find a lot of reverb plug-ins sound terrible for drums. Snares in particular can sound unnatural, so pick a reverb that sounds ‘authentic’ and does not distract from the drum hits. I tend to have more luck with convolution reverbs than other algorithms. Some reverbs can sound good but make the drums sound muddy or unclear. Sometimes I will put a compressor on the drum reverb, side chained back to the drum track. When the drums hit, the reverb will quiet down until the drum hit is complete, at which time the reverb goes back to normal volume. This ensures that the drums have the space in the mix needed to hit the listener cleanly.
To give your drums extra punch, try double bussing or running your drums through a tape emulation plug-in. There are also plenty of saturation plug-ins to use as well. Use judiciously. You want enough saturation to make your drums sound larger without sounding unnatural or distorted. I find that some saturation plug-ins can make the low end sound great but have an unpleasing effect on the kick smack. Make sure you’re thinking about the whole kick and not just how the lows hit you in the gut.
Mono vs stereo
My starting point is almost always having the drums in mono (before reverb). If it’s a busy mix, having drums panned across the stereo field can add clutter and make the overall drum section sound weaker. Having the drums (or the key elements thereof) in mono will free up room in your mix for those other musical elements to shine.
The above list is by no means exhaustive but it’s a good starting point for working through problems with your drum track. It’s a mix of science and art so there is never 1 recipe to make it all work. Dial away.
If I were to form a list of the most powerful words in the english language, among them would be the words “me” and “we”.
“Me” represents the individual. That I, as a person, have importance. It’s an important word because it gives me permission to be selfish and to look after my own needs. Individuality and the personal experience that comes with this is the font where creativity springs.
“We”, on the other hand, represents the collective. It recognizes that to function as healthy individuals, we also need to co-operate with other me’s. While ‘me’ is self-empowering, ‘we’ is the more powerful of the two because it is only through ‘we’ that we actually accomplish great work.
Why should you care about these two words? Collaboration and working with other people is how we accomplish goals in any business. You can write a song, but someone has to produce it, sell it, and manage all the other tasks that come with creating and selling a product. But to some extent, this conflicts with the nature of music which usually starts from the ‘me’.
The creator(s) of a song are using their personal experiences to start the composition process. They had a break up, they’re lonely, they fell in love. The experience of the ‘me’ and translating it into a song that ‘we’ can appreciate is what great music is all about.
The pitfall of all this is when the creator gets too caught up in the ‘me’ part. Songwriters who get attached to their songs so deeply that they fail to acknowledge the work put in by other people to translate that song into a product that sells.
I wrote the song.
I went through hell to write it.
If you had to guess an age from the last 3 quotes, what would it be?
When you are having a business discussion, particularly with collaboration partners, listen to yourself. PAY ATTENTION. Few people I think really stop and listen to themselves as they speak. You may be surprised by what you are saying.
If you are having a conversation with a collaboration or business partner, and you are using the ‘me’ and ‘I’ words in every other sentence, then I would say that you have a problem. It’s the type of conversation you have with a person who lives in a ‘me’-centric world.
I and Me are both important, because you need to be heard, but ultimately your conversations with the people you work with should be about ‘we’. What are ‘we’ accomplishing together. If you are in it only for yourself then why should anyone want to work with you? If someone told you their needs, wants, and efforts are more important than yours, how would you feel?
If you’re hiring someone flat out and paying them an up front fee, then yes it can be all about what you want. But even then, keep in mind that the quality of your working relationship will affect the quality of their work. If you are railroading over other people’s opinions, even in a work-for-hire scenario, then it’s going to affect how the person you hired feels about you. And that will affect how much effort they are going to put into your work, and how much they’ll charge you for the next project.
But if it’s not cash up front, then it’s not all about you. No matter what the proportion of efforts may be.
I bring this up in part because of a conversation I had on royalty sharing that took a wrong turn. This particular songwriter thought that because they came up with the song, they didn’t need to bother compensating their producer. They thought this was completely normal for a songwriter to do.
I guess they didn’t realize that I am a songwriter too and that I have an understanding of the relationship between a songwriter and their work. No matter how much I like a particular song, I am not precious about sharing the spoils. If someone can help get the song to where it needs to go to make money then I have no problem giving up a percentage. If you have the confidence that you’re not a one hit wonder, and you’ll have other songs that will make money, then it’s a much easier pill to swallow.
If you really think that the song you just wrote is your one and only song that can make it, then you can hold on to the entire pie, but that could easily be 100% of 0.
Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Be fair to the people you work with. Recognize other people’s efforts. If you’re in it for the long haul, it’ll get you a lot farther.
There is a certain irony in inducting this gem of a record into the Hall of Fame. I just returned from a 10 day trip to Australia and it was only yesterday that I realized Sheppard is an Australian group. The song has been in constant rotation on my iPhone for the past several months and I had always assumed they were American. Shame on me! Given that the word Geronimo originates from North American history, I’m sure I can be forgiven.
What strikes me most about this record is the percussion. There’s a constant sense of urgency and relentless energy. It makes me want to get on a treadmill and run until my feet hurt. It’s the 4/4 beat, use of tom fills, light clapping on the wings, and other miscellaneous percussion that fills in the space. It’s really well done with each section of the song flowing smoothly into the next, ensuring that you stay on this ride until the very end.
Emotionally, this is a song that embodies pop at its best — fun, playfulness, and joy. You can picture kids running through a waterfall, shouting Geronimo, and jumping down into a big pool of water. The backing ad-libs “bombs away” adds nicely to the effect. It’s an original theme that doesn’t feel borrowed from any tracks that I’ve heard in the recent past.
Is jumping through a waterfall all that the song is about? What pushes a good song up a notch is having layers to an already great theme. Underneath the idea of jumping through a waterfall is a story of love and love lost, as described in the verses and bridge. It’s a topic that isn’t necessarily all fun and joy, but the song takes it there effortlessly.
While checking the credits, I looked at the song’s chart action and I am a little surprised that the record didn’t do better in the US. I have always been curious as to why a record might do incredibly well in 1 english-speaking territory (Australia) but not have a similar level of traction in another. Is it cultural? Was there less marketing dollars in the US? Were other simultanous releases crowding out the record? Inquiring minds want to know!! (hit me up if you have experience in this area with some knowledge to share)
No matter what the charts may say, it’s a fun record. It’ll make your heart beat a little faster and your head feel a little lighter. The perfect record to relieve the winter doldrums.
As a writer and producer, I find that I accumulate a lot of stuff over time. Gear, cables, scratch vocals, lyrics, song ideas, stories becoming song ideas, backing tracks, synthesizer patches, custom sample kits, and so on. Every aspect of where you work physically (your room) and digitally (your hard drive) is bound to become cluttered. It will slowly drag down your creative process until your days become spurts of creativity punctuated by moments of frustration. This is why I think it’s important to have a system in place for how you’re going to keep all your stuff organized over time.
Let’s go through some organization ideas. A few of these will be obvious but just because something is obvious doesn’t mean you’re actually doing it. I’m just a guilty as most people, so let’s go over everything…
Physical items like gear and cables should have a cupboard, shelf, or closet to go into when not in use. There’s nothing worse than having a session when your writing / recording area looks like an electronics surplus store. Even worse, you can waste time in a session because you can’t find cables or equipment in the mess that is everywhere. I find if I keep my work area clean, sessions run smoother and that in turn greases the wheels of the creative process.
Patches (synth patches + samples kits): I suggest having a regular appointment in your calendar (bi-weekly or monthly) to go through your patches and delete/archive the ones you aren’t using. For the patches you do think you will continue to use, organize them somewhere where they are easy to access. For example, put your frequently used samples in the Kontakt quick loader. I also like to go through my completed projects and save any special instrument patches that I’ve designed so that they can be easily reused in another project. Having all your patches within easy reach, in an organized directory structure, makes it SO much faster to find what that you need, when you need it.
Projects: Have you archived those projects that are no longer in use? You can also do a little project housecleaning by deleting any unused audio recordings within your projects. The amount of space that’s wasted on my hard drive for unused takes is obscene. How am I going to make space for my next mega-sample library purchase, probably eating no less than 60GB of hard drive space. And that’s just to have Taiko Drums on standby.
Instrumental/backing tracks: Do you really need every backing track for the past 5 years for your next songwriting project? I usually keep the more contemporary tracks on hand in iTunes and the rest get archived away.
Finally…we have ideas, which like gear and patches need organizing too. I use a journal app (MacJournal) to store all my ideas in a structured format. The app syncs between my Mac and iPhone so that I can take down an idea wherever I am. I have a folder for lyrics, concept ideas, catchy titles, relevant stories / movies, example music, musical ideas etc. Anywhere I am, I have the ability to write down an idea (digitally) and recall it later at the touch of a button. Every so often, I go through my journal and delete or archive entries that are no longer relevant.
Early in your career it may seem unnecessary to have all these systems in place because you don’t have that much material lying around. Some people don’t see the need at all. But I can guarantee for everyone there will be a moment when you know you have the perfect idea/lyric for a project but it’s buried somewhere with your old projects. If you didn’t organize your stuff over time, you’ll end up breaking your creative flow digging around for it, and in the worst case you may have lost it.
But if instead you are able to recall your idea/lyric/patch/etc. with just a few mouse clicks, you’ll wonder how you could possibly live without keeping a tidy workspace.
What makes a good pop song great? Some of the more obvious qualities are having an interesting melody, clever lyrics, and familiar elements with an unexpected twist. But one quality we haven’t talked about is the ‘sing-a-long’ factor.
A great song needs to draw your audience in. Whether it’s humming the tune as they walk down the street or daydreaming themselves performing the song to an audience (you know who you are 😉 )…a great song needs some ingredient that makes you want to be a part of it.
Taking this idea to a deeper psychological level, we are social creatures and we want to be a part of something bigger. Music is a binding force in culture and we long for music that reinforces our connection to each other.
So how do you ensure that your song has the sing-a-long factor?
In songwriting, it comes down to an interesting melody that feels natural to repeat over and over again in your head. Lyrically, the song needs to be relatable..so that you (the audience) can feel what the singer is feeling. And by feeling what the singer is feeling, it makes you want to sing/hum/daydream that song.
On the production side, try using vocal DTs: layer different takes of the exact same vocal recording, with some left/right panning, to make the vocalist sound ‘bigger’. If the takes are less exact, then it becomes more of a back-up chorus effect — and the more it sounds like a group of people singing, the more it makes you think you should be singing it too.
Another great tactic, which has been very popular over the past 5 years, is the use of chorus’d vocal adlibs. It could be simple exclamations such as “heys!”, “oooohs”, and “aaaahhs.” A great example is the ‘hey’ exclamations on Katy Perry’s Roar:
Or it could be a fully chorus’d musical hook. One of my favorite examples is the hook in Bastille’s Pompeii:
The chorus of voices for the hook has a vaguely caveman quality that makes it very interesting and original.
How about adding a choir’d “no word” sung interlude (la’s, dee’s, dums, etc.) in the post-chorus, as done in Becky G’s Shower:
And finally, listen to the impact of the chorus in ‘Rule The World’ by Walk Off the Earth:
I don’t normally post this many examples, but there are so many ways to use chorus’d voices and they are a really important part of modern pop production.
I will finish off with one last example related to a more serious pop recording. When I first drafted this blog post, I wrote something to the effect of not using chorus’d voices in more serious records, but some thought on the matter revealed that I would be completely wrong in saying that. On some records you want to convey an atmosphere of lonelieness and a solo’d voice (with judicious delay and reverb) is effective for this…BUT!…there are times when you need to highlight important passages, and the selective use of DTs or a chorus of voices does work here. Let’s take Lorde’s Royals:
It’s a more serious song with a relatively sparse arrangement, but the track uses loose DTs in the pre-chorus to draw your attention to the clever lyrics. In the chorus itself, there is a choir of voices echoing the title of the track after the lead sings it. Why leave the audience to guess the song’s title? Use a chorus of voices to highlight it; the title is not always as obvious to the audience as it is to the writers.
So next time you make a fun (or serious!) pop record, look for places to add DTs and voice chorus’. Whether it’s a hook, emphasizing the song title, or just random exclamations…it can be a lot of fun to record in the studio and that playfulness will pop up (pun intended) in your recording.
In part 2 of this series, I went over how I turned a personal experience (/tragedy) into a set of verses for the song ‘Sparks’ . To refresh your memory, the lyric sheet is available here and the track is embedded below:
One of the hardest parts of writing a song can be finding a ‘concept’ that ties the verses together. The ideal case is coming up with an idea that’s original, sounds interesting as a title, and wraps up the narrative creatively in a way that will make sense to people other than yourself.
When I’m searching for a concept, I like to pull out a scrap of paper and write down all the words and phrases that reflect the different themes, feelings, and images that I think the song is expressing. Some of the themes that came out in writing the verses:
- Cremation (my father was cremated)
- Circle of life and death
- Brevity of life
Having a page full of words and ideas, I placed the paper in front of me and listened to the chorus repeatedly.
The first good idea that came to mind was the line ‘we’re all made of stars’. It was a good theme at the time so I played another word game by writing down words and phrases related to stars: the heavens, stars as big burning balls of gas, lights, fire, etc.
Listening to the music again with all these ideas in front of me, I came up with the following lyrics:
from the heaven’s we’re made, touched by the flames, in the end we’re all made of stars
from the time we’re born, a brief flash and we’re gone, in the end we’re all made of stars
All was good with the world so I shelved the song for some much earned rest. Later that day, I was listening to my ‘current music’ playlist when up came the song “Counting Stars” by OneRepublic. Listening to the track, the concept I came up with suddenly felt unoriginal and I needed to revisit it.
The next day, I tried brainstorming an alternative concept that didn’t require changing the existing lyrics too much. Two concepts that stood out were cremation and fire. Listening to the song again (with the lyrics as is), a picture came to mind of me standing in front of a giant funeral pyre, with my father being cremated right in front of me, sparks popping and whizzing from the flames. In that scene it came to me…”we’re all made of sparks”. It wasn’t too far off conceptually from stars but it still made sense in the context of the song. Most items you burn will give off sparks (I think)…so poetically maybe we’re just a bunch of sparks waiting to be released through fire.
Playing out the fantasy in my head, after the body was cremated I scattered the ashes in the wind, with the sunlight poking through the cloud of ash as it settled on the ground. From this image, I wrote the post-chorus:
ashes to ashes, I scattered his dust in the rays, and my fears wash away, for we all return to where we came
And that’s how the chorus came together. The second and third chorus felt a bit stale so I added some variation to each section by changing whose ashes were being scattered.
The first post-chorus was from the perspective of me scattering my father’s ashes in the wind. The second post-chorus was to be my own ashes being scattered in the wind:
ashes to ashes, the dust scatters in the rays, and my fears wash away, for I will return to where I came.
And the final post-chorus is about everyone:
ashes to ashes, we scatter into the rays, and our fears wash away, mmmmmm.
And there you have it….Sparks. The story is tragic. Pondering life and death is depressing. But writing about it was cathartic. And if it helped me deal with some of my own inner demons, hopefully it will help someone else too.
In this post, I will talk about how I went about writing the song from the instrumental. Before I even tried writing any lyrics, I listened to the instrumental for several weeks so that the music could work its way into my head. The track is very dark and when I finally sat down to compose, all sorts of memories bubbled up from a dark time in my past.
11 years ago my father was diagnosed with ALS. He wasn’t very old (late 50s) so it was a shock to everyone. As we all sat in the living room, he told us that he probably had less than a year to live comfortably. The disease would eventually turn his body into a prison for an otherwise unaffected mind. He also told us that ALS in a small number of cases is transmitted from parent to child but the probabilities are quite small.
Over the following 8 months we watched him degenerate slowly, from walking, to shuffling, to not even able to walk. Even the most basic chores such as going to the bathroom could not be done without help. His situation became so psychologically desperate that he wanted to die. Euthanasia was illegal in Canada at the time, where he lived, so he had no other options but to suffer. He passed away not long after.
Fast forward to 10 years later….I’m listening to a dark, folky instrumental and all those memories came flooding back. These are the moments that are perfect for songwriting.
I started off with the first verse, knowing that the progression of the story had to start with my father and the disease. I had to describe his physical and emotional state succinctly. It took a few iterations but what came out became:
Here sits a man whose lost his will. Too sick to stand on his own, slowly he will drown.
Next, I wanted to touch on the suicide element. How desperate his situation was, which flowed naturally after describing the effects of the disease on his body.
I can see the taste of death shining bright in this eyes. Oh free me from these bonds he pleads ‘fore this prison claims my mind.
And his need to find something to help him escape his suffering:
It’s a short trip to Mexico, oh please will you help me?
With the first verse completed, I decided to skip the Chorus. For me to dig into the chorus, I need a catchy phrase or concept to work with and that requires distilling from the song a word or phrase that gives the song its essence. Since I didn’t have that yet, I skipped over the chorus and started on the second verse.
Having already gone over how the disease affects its victim in the first verse, I wanted to then touch on how the disease affects the children. There is a generational element to disease, how it’s passed from one person to the next, and I think most children can’t help but wonder how they will ultimately be affected by a terminally ill parent.
Oh father, do we walk the same path? Will this torch pass from one generation to the next? It’s a short trip to Mexico, oh who will help me?
With the verses laid out, I was ready to boil it all down to a concept for the song. I find that imagery is a great way of figuring out what that is. I needed to picture in my head a scene that would tie up the situation in a way that is more universal than my personal experience.
In the next (and final) installment, I’ll go over how I boiled the song down into ‘Sparks’.
Sometimes the best way to learn is through practical example. Reading the articles on this blog has probably given you a few ideas to help you write songs, but I think what would be more useful is to take you through the end-to-end writing process. So today’s article will be the writing of “Sparks”.
The lyric sheet is available here.
Sparks started as an instrumental idea rooted in the song Tenerife Sea by Ed Sheeran. I really liked the guitar arrangement of Tenerife Sea so at the time I thought it would be fun to learn how to play it. The song is played in EADEBE tuning, which for lack of a better term I call “Triple E” tuning. After a short session of playing the opening phrases to Tenerife Sea, I played around with my guitar while it was in the same tuning.
Tuning your guitar differently is a great way of opening up new musical possibilities. Despite the delicate, tentative nature of the guitar parts in Tenerife Sea, Triple E tuning can be quite dark. The Em chord (022000) in this tuning has to be one of the most ominous sounding chords you can play on the guitar. I played around with different ‘classic’ chord shapes and found Em7, Cadd9, Dsus4, A7sus4 quite pleasing. So I created a straight arpeggio based on those chords and then used some hammer-ons and pull-offs to make it more organic. It is this finger picking part that became the main guitar part in the verses of the song.
When I come up with a cool instrumental idea, I usually create a skeleton of a song right away so that I can flush out the musical ideas and structure more fully. Using some light drums, I created the skeleton and then overlaid the guitar parts for the verses. I needed guitar parts for the chorus and since the verses consisted of finger picking, it made sense to use strumming.
Now that I had the instrumental, I composed a topline using the piano. Composing a topline (IMHO) is relatively easy. Composing a topline that is interesting and relatively unique is hard. I wrote a lot of garbage / generic toplines but eventually I came up with one that I thought was interesting and emotive enough to keep.
Why did I compose the topline melody first? The guitar part for the verses felt very deep and dark, so I had to ensure that the melody resonated with that vibe. In this case, it made more sense to compose the melody first so that I can be certain that all the musical elements are conveying the same emotional message.
With the instrumental + topline ready to go, I put a copy on my iPhone and then temporarily shelved the project. I call this “letting it bake”. I will listen to the instrumental periodically, either on the go or at home when in the mood, just to get a deeper feel for the song, allowing it to bake into my subconscious. I find this helps generate more interesting ideas when I finally sit down to write the lyrics.
A few weeks later I decided to have a go at composing the lyrics. I played the tracks a few times and what popped into my head was a personal experience from about 10 years ago that fit the instrumental perfectly.
In part 2, I’ll go over that story and how the lyrics came about.