Blog - Dynamite and Toothbrushes - Thoughts on Songwriting
May 17, 2017
Note: This blog post originally was published on the now defunct Beemo blog in 2019.
I get asked quite a bit about songwriting.
I’m personally kind of a toiler when it comes to songwriting. Very rarely inspiration will strike and a song will pop out very quickly. Usually I feel more like I’m trying to carve a replica of Michelangelo’s David out of block of marble with a stick of dynamite and an electric toothbrush. And I tend to agonize.
(Despite the imagery of that last paragraph, I do enjoy it though.)
The questions I get the most are “Who writes the songs in the band?” “Do you start with the lyrics first or the music?” and occasionally the more general “How do you write the music?”
“Who writes the songs?”
The answer to the first question is basically “All of us.” I think it can be easy for people to hone in on the lyrics and think that the bulk of songwriting comes in there, with the music being something to get past so you can do the “real” writing of adding the words. Maybe for some songwriters it is like that, but for Beemo that isn’t really how it works.
There’s really three main ways we write music as a band:
1) One person brings in a song that is basically done with chords, changes, structure, and lyrics written. The song is fleshed out by the rest of the band members, but is pretty faithful to the original conception. Generally speaking, though, we all write our own parts for songs. So even though Tony brought in Nova basically completely written, I worked out a mandolin part that (hopefully) fits. Examples of songs in this bucket are: Nova (Tony), She Don’t Run (Dan), Jennie (Dan), and Barricades (me). A variation of this is where one person writes all the music and then someone else writes the vocal melody and lyrics later. Janice (music: Sean, melody: Dan, lyrics: me), Bustin’ Out (music: Sean, lyrics and melody: Dan) and Crusader (Sean on music, Justin on melody and lyrics) are examples.
2) One person brings in the chordal bones or a thread of a melody and we work it out as a group. It’s Been Five Minutes is a good example of this. I had come up with some chord changes based on a homework assignment I had given myself (more on that later). I brought it to rehearsal and Dan picked out a vocal melody pretty quickly. We adjusted a bunch of the chords to fit the melody, dropped a few, and then worked out some parts that were not in the original skeleton. The final product has some vestigial threads of the original exercise, but ended up in a very different, and much better, place from where it started. Hey Ya Wanna is another example of this, where Tony brought in the melody and some harmonic ideas and we all contributed and worked out the rest. Historical note: Hey Ya Wanna is the first Beemo song that all five of us worked on, and the first one finished after Justin joined the band in 2015.
3) We start jamming and a song pops out. Just Wait, Potatoes and Leeks, are examples of songs that basically did not exist in any meaningful way and emerged fairly spontaneously in rehearsal.
“Do you start with the lyrics or the music first?”
I can only speak for myself on this; surely every writer’s process is different. I always start with music first. If the music evokes something specific in my mind I jot some notes or paragraphs in prose about what I want the song to be about, but I don’t start hashing out the lyrics until there’s a melody. Music is different from the written word in that there’s an actual time boundary element that’s pretty front and center*. If the melody only has a certain amount of syllables it can support, trying to cram more syllables in or stretch fewer syllables to fit can make a song feel stilted and awkward.
(*I realize that written word has it’s own meter and pacing as well, but a misstep in the written word is usually less glaringly obvious, especially in a casual observation. If you do immediately notice as a reader, it’s a either a clever intentional device or a colossal f*ck up by the writer. My money is usually on the latter.)
I tend to leave the specific word choice of the lyrics amorphous until after I’ve figured out the melody’s rhythm because I don’t want to put myself in a situation where I write a line I really like and then can’t fit it into the song. If that happens I’m then presented with either killing a line I love or, worse, shoving in a line that doesn’t fit in and lessening the song.
Writing lyrics for a melody/song that someone else wrote can be easier or can present it’s own challenges. Dan writes better melodies than I do, so for me it’s freeing to be able to focus just on the lyrics and the rhythm of the lyrics without having to also worry about writing a good melody.
When we finished up the song Janice, the music was already written, and Dan had an idea of what the song was going to be about, but we didn’t have a melody for it. Dan and I separately took cracks at the vocal melody and we collectively decided his was (much) better. (The melody I wrote ended up becoming a piano part that became the guitar part that I play on the song’s verses). I then went back and wrote lyrics, trying to capture the idea Dan had conceived as best I could.
This Fire, written before Janice, was a similar situation, where we had music and Dan had written the chorus tagline “This fire, this fire, it burns tonight.” Unlike Janice, Dan and I didn’t discuss what he had in mind for the song before I wrote the lyrics which led to this amusing exchange in late January of 2009:
Dan: Do you think you might be done with This Fire lyrics by the the 14th?
Me: Valentine’s Day? I should. Wait... why?
Dan: I thought I might sing it for my wife. It’s a love song.
Me (stomach dropping a little): Love song? ... Whoops.
Dan: So... shouldn’t sing it for valentines day?
Me: Yeah, probably not a good idea now.
It was an interesting sociological experiment in how the same music can say different things to different people. What Dan had envisioned as a romantic love song became my version of Psalm 22. The one that starts with “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Which is exactly the reason I asked intent before I started working on Janice, btw)
Regarding the theme or story of a song, inspiration strikes when it strikes if at all. The decision to make what became The Long Sleep about Rip Van Winkle happened because while trying to come up with a chorus melody I almost absentmindedly sang the words “Wide awake, he’s wide awake.” I latched onto that and figured out what story I could tell with that. With Back Again, on the other hand, I had a story picked out before I even started on the music.
“How do you write the music?”
Again, speaking only for myself, as unromantic as it is, most musical ideas I have that turn into songs begin as homework assignments I give myself.
The framework for It’s Been Five Minutes started out as an exercise where I was trying to write something listenable that used all seven chords that work diatonically in that key, which is why there’s so many damn chords in that song (and also a diminished chord). Barricades was an experiment in moving baseline and droning open strings meant to evoke a 12-String or an open tuned guitar. Back Again was self consciously meant to be an exercise in writing a simple 4 chord drinking song in 3/4 time. MacGregor’s Revenge started with a mandolin melody first in a stab at writing an Irish fiddle tune which I then fit chords around. MacGregor’s was new territory for me as I almost always start with chord harmonies first and then fit a melody to it.
Some of these exercises result in finished songs radically different from the starting point (It’s Been Five Minutes) and some result in a song largely unchanged (Back Again).
I think the main takeaway I’ve had from writing songs for a while is that it’s a skill. You get better with practice and you learn to avoid some pitfalls. There are parts of some of the earlier songs that I’ve written that I sort of cringe at now and aspects that, though not always terrible, I would probably do differently now. I’ve gotten a greater appreciation that people who write great songs may indeed have immense talent for it, but also have practiced and worked hard at it.
It’s tempting to think that you can just take poems scrawled out of a notebook and just staple them onto some chord changes and have a good song, but that has really not been my experience. Songwriting is a different medium from poetry or prose, in the same way that TV is different from movies and different from comic books and techniques that work well in one medium don’t always translate into the other.
So if you’re a songwriter, keep the faith and keep working at it. If you’re not, find one and give them a hug. Especially Justin. He likes hugs.