Friday, May 10, 2013

So You Want to Make a Record Part 1: Songwriting

Since I picked up the guitar in high school I've wanted to make record.  This spring I released Sweetness and Sorrow (The Lighthouse Band, 2013, Independent) with three friends:  Renee, my bass player, Harry, my drummer, and Jenny, my co-vocalist.  It took seventeen years to produce a recording in which I could take pride.  Let me give you a little advice that will help your record happen faster.


Songs begin as seeds.  If you hear sounds in your head as I do, start with those.  Maybe you'll find a phrase that seems especially resonant; plant that.  If your band is more organic, start with a really good jam.  But start you must and work from there.  Good songs don't come easily.  "Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just carefully imagining truths you haven't had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary strict toiling with language" (John Irving).  Songwriting is even more challenging as you must wrestle with lyrics, melody, and rhythm together.  For this you need good technique.  But great chops and knowledge of music theory are just the raw materials.  You still have to build a house someone would want to live in.  It's not so hard.  Songs are just feelings turned into sound.  Put your emotions through your amplifier and you can't go wrong.

The Anxiety of Influence

Many young musicians are inspired to play by the music they love.  I was no different.  I still remember a friend handing me a tape of songs he thought I might like.  Most were ultimately forgettable.  But there were a couple that fascinated me.  I remember sitting in the dark as the opening chords of "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" (U2, Achtung Baby, 1991) washed over me.  I didn't completely understand the lyrics, I was too young.  But I felt more than knew that this was a song about lost love.  There was no turning back.  It's nearly two decades later and I'm chasing my own songs now.

Artists like U2, Phil Keaggy, and Dream Theater have been huge influences.  They are at once sources of inspiration and places I labor to leave behind.  Literary critic Harold Bloom describes this tension as the "anxiety of influence."  It took me years to realize I could make music I liked without being derivative.  The key is to filter your influences through your personality.  Your individuality is the best source of originality.  Let your experiences, strengths, and preferences be your guide.  And don't be afraid to take risks.  Failure is part of creativity.

Balancing Lyrics and Instrumentation

If you are writing lyrics you probably have some notion of what the song is about.  The subject may be relatively concrete, a story about an experience for instance.  Or it may be more abstract and hard to identify.  Either way, you have entered into a process of communication.  However, your words must fit into the structure of the song.  Rhythm, meter, and rhyme constrain the lyrics and affect your ability to communicate the denotative meaning of the song.  Each songwriter has to decide how much clarity he or she is willing to give up in exchange for emotional impact.  Personally, I favor songs with evocative imagery and interesting instrumentation over good storytelling and a clear theme.  From an information theory perspective, the words form a relatively small part of the song.  Recall that a text file containing the lyrics may only be one kilobyte in size where an audio file will typically take up several megabytes.  Most of the "information" is in the sound.

Still, good lyrics can unlock memories, paint pictures, and transport the listener to a new world.  Great songs happen when the lyrics and instrumentation reinforce and enhance each other.  There are great songs that leave a lot of room for interpretation (see Coldplay's Speed of Sound) and tunes with a more obvious narrative (e.g. Singing In My Sleep by Semisonic).  You have to decide how each song will negotiate the dance of lyrics and music.  "The song is king."  So says Jerome Fontamillas of Switchfoot.  I couldn't agree more.  Records are made of songs, not vice versa.  Don't sacrifice the integrity of a song to make it fit into the overall concept of the record.  Ten to fifteen loosely connected but individually cohesive songs will work better than a bunch of shaky tracks related thematically.  (Are you listening my progressive rock pals?)  Concept albums are for experienced musicians with a number of records under their belts.

Before you start tracking, sit down and talk about each song as a band.  Try different arrangements and see how they feel.  Remember, you'll likely be playing these songs live after the record comes out.  Then rehearse as much as you can before a note gets recorded.

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