014. Effortless songwriting for fun and profit
An acoustic case study on creativity
All right, as promised in yesterday’s post1, let’s check out a song I wrote with some friends this year!
Call to adventure
One fine day, I received an email from my friends Lorenzo and Yerv with an attachment titled:
kevin mkE THIS A HIT PLS
Here’s an excerpt from the file I received:
Yerv had produced the instrumental and Lorenzo had hummed a melody line over the top of it. My job was to write the lyrics.
I had never written a song before, but I figured it’d be fun!
At this point, I had no idea what I was going to write.
But that was okay!
Finding the fossil
Like I wrote yesterday, the lyrics for this song already existed. They were a fossil, buried underground. It would just take some time and care to excavate and discover what type of fossil it was!
Luckily, we had an obvious piece of the fossil already sticking out of the ground. What did you hear at the end Lorenzo’s melody?
For me, I heard him sing:
“I wanna know where – is so wrong?”
Later on in the recording, he also sings the phrase “reason to stay”.
So what’s going on here?
Sounds like there’s some sort of couples argument going on. There’s frustration, maybe some defensiveness. Maybe one person wants to walk out?
That’s all I needed to start.
While holding those images in my head, I hummed along with the melody. Words and phrases started to come to me.
Here are some fragments from my first pass:
Only been here for a minute
Night time driving with you
It’s silent as we make our way
Where do we go from here?
Have to know
All this time, I thought we were fine
I didn’t end up directly using any of these lyrics, but there’s obviously a gravity here, a mood that these fragments are all revolving around.
Next, it seemed intuitive to set the stage and describe the environment.
Discovering more of the fossil
I directed my mind’s eye towards my senses: What do I see in this scene? Where is this happening? What time is it?
I would take a 10-second loop of the song and play it on repeat.
As I daydreamed, I jotted down fragments that I could potentially use in the song – but no pressure if they didn’t actually end up going in!
When I felt like it, I shifted and looped over the chorus a few times and fleshed that out. Then the next verse, then back to the first, etc.
It wasn’t all just about the lyrics either.
I would put nonsense words in as placeholder for a rhythm I liked. Then I would record temporary tracks to make sure I didn’t forget a certain syllable emphasis or melody change I wanted to go with.
I could fill in the words later, like water into an ice cube tray.
Don’t overthink it
I never felt any mental strain in doing this. I was simply listening to the melody and the instrumental and writing down whatever popped into my head.
Keith Johnstone has an exercise in Impro that demonstrates your mind’s ability to fill in gaps automatically.
He asks a student to mime taking something off of a shelf. Then he’ll ask the student, “What are you holding?”
Answers will flash into his mind uninvited…
…[they’ll] put their hand out, and see what it closes on
…if they’re being playful, then they can allow their hand to make its own decision.
Tightening on theme
By bouncing around, I progressively added more detail to the song. I was able to detect patterns across the stanzas and iteration by iteration, tie them all together.
But it was only because I had the visuals first and some of the lyrics fleshed out that I could go back and connect the dots.
This approach works regardless of the medium. As Stephen King states in On Writing:
The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next…
…starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction.
Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story
When I felt happy with my lyrics, I recorded my own version to share. I did this by playing the melody track from my laptop speakers and then just recorded myself singing into Quicktime.
No need for high-fidelity. I just needed Lorenzo and Yerv to hear the lyrics.
The final product
After Lorenzo and Yerv did their magic, here’s what we ended up with:
You may have noticed that some of the inflection and rhythm were changed upon recording. That’s okay! It’s the magic of collaboration.
I hope this was a helpful demonstration of a creative process. It’s really not hard if you lower your expectations for what comes out of your head.
Yerv wasn’t consulting a music theory textbook as he was producing the instrumental. When I’ve watched him do his magic, he just builds around an initial fragment, layer by layer. He just makes one choice after another, adjusting and tweaking to get to a final product.
Lorenzo wasn’t squeezing a melody out of thin air. He hummed what came to mind as he listened. He was responding to the instrumental.
This is how professionals do it too:
Every creative process is a collaboration. That collaboration can be a friend, your environment, an instrumental, or even your past-self!
So take the pressure off of your ego. You’re not doing this alone!
Here are some parting thoughts from our good friends Johnstone:
Many students block their imaginations because they’re afraid of being unoriginal.
An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts.
I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way.
Oh, and here’s the full song:
Let me know what you think!
Thanks for reading k.zine! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.