If you think you can teach someone to write a hit song, why not show them how to conjure elephants from Hershey bars while you’re at it? Hit songs are voodoo spells dressed up as songcraft. The real kick is that virtually anyone can invoke the basic incantation— all you need is a melody, some lyrics, and a few chords. But what turns those simple elements into a work that inspires massive consumer frenzy is beyond human comprehension. So why worry about it? As the wise old hunter used to warn in ’30s African safari films, “You could waste your life searching for the elephant’s graveyard.”
So rather than get lost in unsolved mysteries, let’s focus on the tangible structure of songwriting. Songwriting is, after all, a craft, and the basic components of that discipline can be readily examined.
Give a listen to several well-known songwriters, most of whom have been lucky enough to strike that mystical connection with the public. Feel free to, ahem, “borrow” a few of their ideas to use as foundations for your own songs.
“The one thing somebody told me which helped me a lot was, ‘The A material definitely lies beneath the B material.’ You have to let yourself go, and accumulate a lot of crap, and then sift through it to get to the good stuff. You can’t rush it. A lot of times I’ll pick up the guitar and play, and if a song’s not coming, I do something else— clean the house, listen to some music—and come back to writing later. There is a time for your internal judge to come in and make the call, but you have to free yourself from that in the beginning stages of the creative process. I’ve often stifled myself because I was trying to bash the music into shape instead of letting it lead. When I shut off the judge in my head, music usually comes quite easily.”
“Songwriting is like a thunderstorm building up inside me. If I don’t write songs, I get all bottled up. It’s almost like a survival mechanism. For me, music has to have a little speck of intrigue or the unknown. Also, I’m an old school romantic in the sense that even if you write songs about dark stuff, the root of the song should be about going through the tunnel and coming out on the other side with a happy ending. I’m not into songs that are just about self-pity or self-indulgence. I usually look at songs as little trips that show you going on your way to some other place.”
“Very often, ideas come to me when I’m falling asleep—when the busy mind gets out of the way, and the intuitive, imaginative mind gets a shot at the steering wheel. My friend, science fiction writer William Gibson, told me, ‘It’s an established phenomenon. The elves take over the workshop. That’s why all writers keep a pen and paper by their bed.’”
“I’ve got so many notes and little things that I write down every day. Some of those lines are really important, and I’ll just take one and move on from there. Sometimes, there’s more than just a line, and sometimes there’s nothing. There’s a song title, and you just go. That’s the beauty of it. Even if I do have an idea of where I want to be, I might end up somewhere else— which is even cooler. But you can’t get to that spot unless you travel the other road. You might be all frustrated, and then one line will just open up so many doors.”
“I’m very scathing about art school, but it really taught me to look and to translate. I would go out to a location, do some sketches, take the project back to college, and then turn it into something. I was good at that. To gather material for songs, I would watch the way people interacted—although, generally, the people I wrote about didn’t interact much in the world. You have to find a way to get your head working, and really look at something that’s seemingly nothing to look at. You must discover some element to take out and use in your work. People don’t look enough. So much is handed to us by television, newspapers, and other media that we don’t really look at anything anymore.
“I tell writers to do whatever it takes to keep your brain sharp. I’ll find something in the newspaper and say, ‘What would I do if I had to write that as a song?’ I did a British TV series in the early ’70s where I was given an assignment on Thursday, wrote the song on a Friday, and it was in the show on Saturday. That kept me sharp. Every writer is different—everyone has their own handicaps, assets, and needs.”
“I’m the type who has to get up every five or ten minutes and get a drink of water, or pretend I’m interested in something else. But often that’s when I solve a problem. There’s a strange little important moment when you say, ‘I’ll write that down. That might be something.’”
“It’s easier to be ‘vocally creative’ over odd-time riffs. In a weird time signature, there’s really only one thing you can sing, and it jumps right out at you. Straight-four riffs have been around for so long that you can end up writing the same song 500 times.”
“I get a thing in my mind—the words that I would like to say, and the expression that I would like to have them said in to get the best results. I would like the song to be part of life, because I’ve always felt like blues was the facts of life being expressed to people that didn’t understand the other fellow’s condition. This gives me the chance to say the things that I felt people would want other people to know. This is the way I mostly wrote my songs.”
“About 50 percent of my lyrics are autobiographical, and about 50 percent is making up stuff, adding to, or out-and-out lying [laughs]— which I like to do quite a bit. It’s the artist’s duty!”
“Most lyricists don’t want to write meaningful stuff. They want to write stuff that sounds meaningful, which is a different thing altogether. They rely too much on the standard rock clichés. Good writers turn the clichés around, so at least you know they’ve thought about it, rather than saying, ‘Well, I’ve heard this 800,000 times, so it must be good!’ I try to avoid certain images that I feel have been done to death, such as:
• Weather and the elements. Rain, storms, clouds, snow. If one more person prays for rain, I’ll scream.
• Geography. Mountains, rivers, valleys, streams, oceans. Usually someone is crossing or climbing one or more of these to get to his or her love.
• Any reference to angels or hearts.
• Traveling or rambling from town to town. Either in a train or car with your baby, or alone, searching for, or running away from your baby.
• Use of the word ‘baby.’
• Gambling. Rolling of the dice in any way, shape, or form. Ace of spades, queen of hearts, etc.
• Weapons. Usually guns or knives.
Many of these clichés were originally written by great writers, but now they’re misused over and over again. I’m guilty of some of them myself. I don’t consider myself a great writer, but I would like to think that I can at least proof- read.”
“When the title comes, it all falls into place, because the title sets the mood. For instance, ‘Mannequin Shop’ was a silly title that came from a People magazine article about plastic surgery. Once I decided I was going to write a disposable little pop song about something current and ridiculous, it just flowed. If I hadn’t come up with that idea, it would have been a laboring effort. But once you make up your mind that this is going to be a cute one, no two ways about it, you can go for it. Now, if it’s a rock and roll song, I’d say get your gut feeling out whatever it is. Even if you think, ‘Oh, I can’t say that,’ go ahead and say it. Spit it out, and if you’re going to be a fool, be a fool.”
“Sometimes personal lyrics can be endearing and cool, and make you feel close to the writer. But, a lot of times, you get this feeling of ‘Why do I care? So you had struggles with your relationship—good for you. Everybody does. F**k off.’ I’d rather go more towards the Syd Barrett school, and write about shoelaces and banana skins, and make it all seem congruent in this weird fantasy world that makes you want to go there when you get off work.”
“I like to leave as much as possible in the early stages to a kind of unconscious process. I’ll find a place where there are no distractions, get into a dreamy state, and just mess around with chords and chord sequences. Eventually, little melodies come out, and it’s really a matter of recognizing what’s good. You have to be careful not to think too much about things. For example, my wife—who doesn’t write songs— will get in a buoyant mood, and just sort of sing along with some chords I’m playing. And, sometimes, the melodies she sings are as good as anything I could write. I think that’s because she’s just kind of going with the moment, and letting something come out that’s very unconscious. And that has to be the beginning of songs. If you’re too disciplined in the early stages of the writing process, then there’s a good chance your songs will sound a bit flat or uninspired.”
“I recommend minimalism wherever possible. If something is simple, and the observation is true, why burden it with a melody that takes it into some other realm? You must find an emotional moment in a song, as well. A film can only go for about seven minutes before it must have an emotional moment on the screen. Otherwise, the audience gets bored. With songs it’s the same, except that you have three minutes— not 90 minutes—to make everything happen.”
“I try, to the best of my ability, not to think the song to death. The main criteria for me is if it’s working on an emotional level. If I’m writing a song, and something is happening that has the potential to give me goosebumps, then I’ll want to pursue that path. I got into music in the very beginning because I heard music that gave me chills. And I thought, ‘I want to do that. I want to give somebody else chills!’ So, for me, it’s all about discovering the emotions in the music.”
“You may think you have to be really aggressive or flashy on the guitar, but, more often than not, that gets in the way of what the song is saying. You have to make up your mind: ‘Am I going to be a player,or is this going to be a song?’ Don’t worry—there’ll be a spot in the song for someone to show off—whether it’s you or another guy.”
“There are varying degrees of success when you’re trying to express an idea. I think the most important ingredient in a song is the idea, or what you’re trying to say. If you have a clear idea of what you want to say, then you know when you have said it, and the song is finished.”
“An ‘intentional’ songwriting approach, is where you pick a topic and then write about it. When you come at a song like that—with a presupposed literal intent—you block yourself, and your subconscious can’t speak. Howevever, when you pull something from your subconscious, you get visceral metaphors, rather than literal or literary metaphors. It’s not exactly a new idea. I think Talking Heads explored it on Remain in Light, and Bowie was definitely making up lyrics and melodies on the spot when he recorded Scary Monsters. This approach leaves you open to discover what really works on a soul level.
“For example, experienced writers often disregard simple chord progressions as boring. But sometimes a vocal melody can sit on top of a simple progression in a way that makes the song special. It goes beyond the literal meaning of the lyric or the catchiness of the hook to that elusive thing—I call it ‘resonance’—that makes lullabies and gospel music so timeless. I also use subconscious writing as a way to connect with the listener, because I think the stuff that resonates with people is pretty universal. It’s like, how much can sex change in a couple of thousand years? Culture can change, but, on a soul level, people need the same things.”
“To some extent, a song either has it, or it doesn’t. If I can form an emotional connection with a piece of music, then it has worth and I’ll pursue it. If it just feels slight, or if I can admire it on the surface, but it doesn’t actually make me feel anything, then it’s gone.”
“Don’t be discouraged by writer’s block. Writer’s block just means you need to listen to other music. That’s how new ideas come, and how musical inspiration is passed on—through other music and other brilliant artists. You can re-listen to the stuff you love, but that’s not always going to pull you in new directions. With that mental downtime, you can listen to Lee Scratch Perry or Jeff Buckley or the first Pearl Jam record. You can listen to Tim Hardin, Delta blues, country, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Paul Weller, and Run D.M.C. Listen to whatever pulls you in different musical directions so that you don’t start copying yourself.”
“There’s no real voodoo in writing guitar riffs— you just look for something that catches your ear—but a good lick should be easy to play. If it’s unnatural to play, it should be Mahavishnu Orchestra or something! I mean, listen to Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Foxy Lady,’ or ‘Last Time’ by the Stones—they sounded neat the first time I heard them, and they still sound good today. I never get tired of hearing those licks. Sometimes it’s the simplicity that makes a lick timeless. Too many guitarists get hung up on not wanting to sound dumb. It’s like when I saw Mike Judge on Late Night with David Letterman, and Dave was giving him a hard time about Beavis and Butthead, saying the show was so stupid that anyone could have done it. And Judge just answered, ‘Yeah, but I did it first!’ So, think about ‘Purple Haze.’ Anybody could have played that lick, too—it’s simple—but nobody did. Not until Hendrix. The bottom line is that there are 12 notes available, and you have to do something with them. Make them work for you, or make them work against you. And remember: Everyone else has those same 12 notes, so it’s always going to be interesting and challenging to come up with a unique signature riff.”
“I typically write progressions visually on the fretboard—and also tactilely. Rather than thinking, ‘Oh, this is a G, A, D chord progression,’ I’ll look at where my hands physically rest on the neck, and kind of reach my fingers around to find other chords. Otherwise, if I have a chord progression that I like, and I don’t know what to do next, I’ll think, ‘Is this low on the neck? Well, then I’ll jump really high.’ I try to keep the changes real contrast-y. Either that, or I’ll just kind of crawl around like a spider with my fingers on the fretboard. I do conceptual tricks to break formulas and inspire new directions. I’m really brainy about my songwriting on the guitar—but in an ignorant way.”
“It’s a bit cruel perhaps, but I think it’s better for writers to get to a point early, rather than later, where they realize that they have some abilities but they don’t have anything that sets them apart. That’s an awkward row to hoe, because you might end up struggling for years— in your mind, putting all the right pieces together and making impressive music—but never produce anything that has an obvious character.
“What’s weird to me is that people continually make the mistake of trying to copy other people’s styles. I mean, I did it to some extent when I started off, as well. But, at some point, you have to realize that the flaws and weak- nesses in your style are exactly the things that give you character. You should allow those flaws to exist, and, in fact, work on them. It’s the funny way that you get from the chorus to the verse—that doesn’t sound like how anybody else would do it—that is actually what will make people notice you. If you spend too much time learning other people’s licks on guitar and also try to sing like somebody else and write songs like somebody else, you run the risk of losing yourself in the process.”
“There’s something to be said for experimentation—breaking some of the boundaries and challenging yourself. There’s nothing wrong with sitting at the piano, writing some nice chord changes, putting a melody to those changes, and adding a potent lyric. But there are other means of discovering the song. I don’t know of any right or wrong, or good or bad, in any method. I think whatever inspires you— and provokes you into getting at what is deep down inside you—is the best method.
“Using an unfamiliar method, however, can lead you down a path where you don’t resort to the same type of structure and melodic intent. For some of the songs on Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, I’d make a strange noise on the guitar, then record it and loop it. Or I’d program a drum loop. Often that little noise and that little rhythm would make me want to write a song, so I’d improvise over it until something developed. Now, this is a different writing process from the Cole Porter method of sitting at the piano with a cold martini, but I find it’s very healthy—in a creative sense—to keep yourself slightly off balance.”
“I recommend that writers record all the time. When you’re writing, you’re doing this balancing act between the instinctive thing that leaps right out of you and the refinement of that moment. The first time you sing a line, you might use a weird phrasing, or put a line on the upbeat rather than on the downbeat. Shifts like that will change everything, and you have to document what you did. You see, most writers now aren’t Leonard Bernstein—thank God—who actually notated everything from day one. Most people come into songs by accident—including me. They get an idea, think they’re doing one thing, but they’re actually singing in 3/4 or 6/8 or something. But you can always play the tape and say, ‘Oh, that’s how I did it!’ On the other hand, writing down ideas is such a finite thing, and sometimes you don’t write what you hear in your head. It’s very difficult to come from the dream to the page.”
“Recording is the weirdest thing about being a songwriter, because it stops the songwriting process. It freezes that version in time. You don’t know what the song could have become if you had kept going, but stopping may be the merciful thing to do.”
“I don’t claim to write songs. I write them down, verse by verse, without changing a thing. And I’m often surprised when they turn out to have deeper and higher layers of meaning than I’d first imagined.”
“Someone very wise once said, ‘Copy everyone except yourself.’ Looking at other people’s ideas and twisting them to fit your own style is a good thing. You can also catch yourself traveling down the same road you’ve gone down before, and nip it in the bud right then and there. You can say to yourself, ‘I’ve used the same chord sequence before—how can I twist it slightly to make it into a different chord sequence? Can I do something no one has ever done before?’ It’s important to keep searching, and not go for the obvious idea.”
“Having a band perform your work is critical. That’s what I call dramatizing your music. When I use this word “drama,” I don’t mean it flippantly. If the dramatization doesn’t work— which is you performing the song—you should look at it again.”