Anybody like songs? A show of hands, please? Whoa, looks like it’s unanimous! I suspected as much. Ever wonder how those bad boys get done? Well, you start with your basic songwriter, in this case, me. You put together a melody and lyrics, some chords and some singing and you have your raw material for a song. You work on the story, if there is one, the rhymes, carefully matching the syllables and tying the verses together with a chorus. Sometimes you need a bridge, but not always. Once you’ve got the basic outline put together, the song starts telling you what it needs and if you’re smart you’ll listen. Certain melodies flow together naturally and lead back into one another.
If what you have sounds awkward, toss out the offending parts and leave what feels right. It’s not exactly a precise science, but there’s rules, most of which you’ll have to break from time to time whenever a song tells you to. If your song is trying to tell you something, don’t argue. It is what it is. So now you have your verses, your choruses, your bridge (maybe) and all your chords all lined up like ducks in a row, and you play it over and over, searching for the right feel. A good song doesn’t lie and doesn’t sound forced. It should sound like it’s been around forever, comfortable with itself and feeling like a whole piece. Once it feels like that, Bingo, you’ve got a song!
Now you want to record it. At that point, that whole piece becomes a rough sketch again, unless you want to record it with only a single instrument and vocal. Which is just fine for a lot of tunes. But maybe for your song you’re hearing something else. Drums, electric guitars, bass, keyboards, harmonies. Some horns, maybe. Now you’ve got to arrange that song for an ensemble, that song you sweated over and worked so hard to hone into shape. Well, guess what? Other people are going to put their two cents into it now.The drummer needs to find the right beat for it, and the bass player has to work with him like meshing gears in a machine. They are the rhythm section and on top of the work they do is where the other instruments and the voices take their cue.
The guitar parts and keyboard parts and vocal harmonies have to dovetail smoothly with the rhythm section or all is chaos. And maybe all these other musicians hear things that you did not when you wrote the song. And so you listen to them and hear what they’re saying and playing. Maybe you had some parts in mind that simply don’t work for this particular song. There are choices to be made now. No sense getting married to an idea that’s clearly not working, that doesn’t help the song at all. It also makes little sense to do something flashy just because you can. If it doesn’t serve the song, save it for another day. So you try this, experiment with that, maybe argue with your fellow musicians, but by and by the song emerges from the input of everyone involved.
There’s also the guy spinning the dials, the recording engineer, who may or may not be one of the musicians doing the playing. If you’re lucky enough to be working with musicians and technicians that you trust, then their voices have equal weight in these discussions, and you the songwriter are but one of those voices at this point. Do you start off with a bang or build slowly? Do you build a crescendo and then cut to a whisper for dramatic effect? Depends on the song. The loudest voice in making these decisions should always be that of the song itself, the whole reason you are in the recording studio in the first place. Be true to the piece of music, first and always. When everyone in the room knows that, an honest song is made.
Very often someone other that the songwriter will hear something or add something that will put the song over the top; a hook, a subtle part, a memorable vocal harmony or a suggestion for phrasing the lyrics differently. Maybe you were playing the song too fast or too slow. So now you’ve hammered out these decisions and you record your song. And if the song is happy with your decisions, it will let you know by rewarding you. You will mix it and listen back and be happy with what you hear. Then with any luck so will a lot of other people. There are, after all, a thousand ways to record any particular song. Think of Richie Havens singing Beatles songs. He doesn’t sound anything like The Beatles but the songs are well served by what he heard in them and the new insights revealed by his renditions.
Songs can be tailored to different artists and different styles of music, and as long as the artists involved listen to what the song is telling them, then the results are almost always enjoyable. But what I’m talking about here is a brand new song, never before recorded, from its conception in the head of a dreamer to its birth in the recording studio as a polished, finished song, brought into the world by many hands and minds. It’s a privilege to be a part of this process of making songs, and an honor to work with the talented people that live in the world of music. We’re all off our rockers, for sure, but without lunatics like us there would be no new songs. Keep your eye on this website for “Everything Changes,” my latest baby still in the womb of the studio. It is being crafted by loving hands and will be ready soon. Meanwhile, do I keep that ringing guitar part, change it or leave it alone? I’ll just listen to to it again and see what the song has to say about it…