The Truth About Songwriting
I've been writing music since I was about 13 years old (over 30 years 😳). I started my first band with my childhood friends, Mike Bedingfield and Andy Jackson (Hot Rod Circuit), and at that time in my life I had never heard of a "cover" band. I thought that if you wanted to play in a band you had to write your own songs. So that's what I set out to do. I started writing original music and lyrics from day one. Even now, I spend time almost every day writing music. It's not all great, but it's a part of me. Almost as if my soul needs it to survive.
The truth about songwriting is this: There is no right or wrong way to do it. There are no rules to writing a song except maybe that there needs to be some kind of vibration produced that becomes audible for a set time. Whether a song is good or bad, right or wrong is 100% subjective.
That being said, there is a formula that appeals to a wide majority of people. (More on that in a minute) I believe songwriting at its core is about connection. Not only the listener connecting to the way the music makes them feel and the journey the lyrics take them on, but also a connection between the songwriter and the song. To me, songwriting is pouring your heart out, and being brave enough to let the world hear it.
I believe songwriting at its core is about connection.
It Starts With Getting Clear
If you're just starting your journey as a songwriter it's completely normal to explore and learn everything you can. This is where you discover what moves you. This early stage is part of finding your voice as a songwriter, and you will continue to explore and change throughout your songwriting journey. But at some point, you need to get clear on what you want, at least in terms of how commercial you want your music to be. If you don't care about getting a song picked up by mainstream radio and just want to let the song take you wherever it takes you, then you are free to push the boundaries and create your own rules. However, if your goal is to get your song on the radio, then there are some guidelines that most labels, producers, and radio stations usually require.
When TRUSTcompany first got signed, we learned this the hard way. Prior to going into the studio, our label set up a week of pre-production rehearsals with our producer, Don Gilmore. We walked into these rehearsals completely unprepared for what was about to happen. Little did we know, the point of these sessions was to re-work our songs to make them more radio-friendly. Up until this point, I had never realized that in order to get a song picked up by mainstream rock radio, it needed to meet some requirements. I'm going to share with you some of the things I learned as we spent a very painful week breaking apart our songs and piecing them back together.
People Have Short Attention Spans
Most of our 41Down songs were around five minutes long. Since we played live almost every weekend, we found ourselves writing songs that had intros, some of which were really long. These worked out well live because they allowed us to build anticipation using dynamics to lead into a song. We also loved to have bridge sections that just rocked out for a while, which was also good for live performances. However, the average radio song is around three and a half minutes long, so the first order of business was to cut our songs down to three and a half or four minutes, tops.
This was incredibly painful at the time. We had some battles right out of the gate because we did not want anyone changing our songs. But Geffen signed us with the intention to push us to radio and the only way that was going to happen is if our songs fit the radio format.
Our producer, Don Gilmore, explained it to me this way: He said to imagine a guy in his car driving to work on a Monday morning. He's listening to the radio, he's not really in a great mood (it's Monday) and your song comes on the radio. Keep in mind that this guy doesn't know you, doesn't really care about you and therefore, unlike you, doesn't care one bit that your song is on the radio. You have about 30 seconds (maybe) to get his attention before he changes the channel. This guy doesn't care about your awesome intro that's two minutes long, he doesn't care that the song is about to hit hard in another minute. He's not looking for his next favorite band on a Monday morning on his way to work. If you want this guy to remember you, you better start singing a melody that he's going to remember in the first 30 seconds. Let him hear some lyrics that he connects to, and most important of all, get to the chorus!
That is the world of radio. That is the world of the radio single. First-time listeners are not your fans (yet) and they aren't going to care about you unless you give them a reason to. You have to get to the good stuff before they turn the channel, and you only have 30 seconds to do it.
This was how it was laid out to me, and honestly, it made sense. I struggled with if I was "selling out" because that phrase is thrown around so much in this industry, but looking back I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything in the world...re-writes and all.
Through the years, I've had the opportunity to write with some of the best songwriters in the business and I feel like it has made me a better musician in many ways. Is it possible to get a song on the radio without following this format? Yes. Has it been done before? Yes. Is it common? No.
Melody Is King
This one may not go over very well with some lyricists, but you can absolutely have a hit song with a great melody and mediocre lyrics. It's much harder (maybe impossible) to have a hit song with great lyrics, but a disconnected melody. Melodies are what get stuck in our heads first. Sometimes the lyrics never stick at all. We've all been guilty of singing the wrong words to a song that we love. Even without words, just music and melody can hit an emotional nerve in us that can literally change our mood and bring us to life. But make no mistake, lyrics are very important. That's why...
Lyrics Are Queen
This was one area that I spent a lot of time on in the studio as I talked about in this post. When I came into the studio for the first time, most of my lyrics were very abstract. They could be interpreted in many different ways, and honestly, it gave me an excuse to cut corners. When I first sat down with Don to go over lyrics, he read through them trying to understand the meaning behind the words. A lot of the lyrics didn't make sense to him. I always thought that the listener should interpret the lyrics (and still do to a certain extent), but to hide behind "abstract lyrics" was just making excuses for not digging in and finishing a thought. As I pushed backed against his suggestion to try to make the lyrics better, by making them more clear, he told me that a song will be considered good if the music and melody are great, but if the lyrics are also great and you create a personal connection with the listener, then you've just turned a really good song into a really great song, and it will connect with more people.
Looking back, I received more emails than I ever dreamed of from people who connected with my lyrics as they were going through something in their life. The lyrics created a bond between us that would have never happened if I had left them abstract. I still don't write lyrics that are completely literal, but I do think it's important to take the listener on a journey if your goal is to create a connection.
The best advice I have, without going into detail, is to be honest when writing lyrics. That will always look a little different for all of us, but in my experience the best way to authentically connect with someone through your lyrics is to be honest with yourself and lay it all out there. This doesn't mean necessarily to be literal with every word, but rather, be honest with your emotions, how you feel, how the experience of the moment made you feel, what you thought, all these things. Get vulnerable, that's where the connection is made.
The one thing I know for sure is that there is no sure way to guarantee a hit song. My best advice is to get clear on what you want and get busy writing. The more you write the quicker you'll find your unique voice. Whether you want to write songs that will be on the radio or just want to write music without rules, there will be people that want and need to hear your voice. I encourage you to be brave and share your music with the world!
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