I love talking music with people who usually don’t. When it comes up in conversations with friends and family, sometimes they turn towards the music I make. Sometimes, there’s a real natural curiosity in how I make my music step-by-step, and I’ll get questions I’ve never thought about on their own: how long does it take to write a song; how do you write your music; how long does it take for a song to go from idea to Spotify; etc.
I almost never think about these questions on their own, so it surprises me (in a good way) when I’m forced to.
Usually the question of order comes first. Chords, lyrics, melodies, background – what happens when? For me, it depends on the song. It seems like a cop-out answer, but every song is different. The one thing that’s universal is that every song starts with a worm I can’t get out of my ear. Maybe it’s a lyrical hook or twist that I just want to play around with, or maybe it’s some issue I’m going through I need to get out, or maybe it’s a specific melody I can’t get out of my head. No matter what, songs always begin as this thing I just need to get out of my head.
Let me give an actual example. A few months ago, when I decided to start playing solo shows, I bought a looping pedal. For those who don’t know, a looping pedal is a guitar pedal that allows you to record small phrases on stage and then repeat them endlessly. You can build songs by adding layer after layer until you wind up with something pretty full and sometimes complicated. I bought a large one with three channels, which means I can turn on and off three synced loopers. This allows the player to play a song with a chorus or a verse with different parts and generally make a more diverse and interesting live show. I actually bought it because of seeing some of my influences like Andrew Bird and Kishi Bashi use it or something very similar live.
So I get this looper and at the time I’m really into [this one song by Beach House](ZEBRA VIDEO). Something I love about Beach House is how they’ll have this full beat with a really airy reverby lead over the chorus that brings it together. Taking the looper out of the box for the first time, I really want to write a song that emulates this quality of Beach House’s music. I start off messing with some pedals and wind up with a pretty solid full beat comprised of heavy low-pitched guitar triads and tool around until I find a melody that sounds good through a full blast of reverb. But I don’t really know how to write a song like Beach House, I only know how to write a song like me, so I take that phrase and decide to make it a chorus. Singing along to the beat I settle on a melody that sounds nice and save the actual words for another time. I strip away the phrase to the chords and try playing them in different positions until I have something I can play over and over again finding a melody for.
This is the cool part. When I get those chords flowing and time doesn’t matter anymore and I’m thousands of miles away from any semblance of responsibility in that exact moment words just sort of come to me, usually in phrases. So I get this line like “You said you’d be a friend / but all you’ve been is afraid” and I really want to work it in some how but I need supporting lines. Okay, so what’s the song about? Oh, it’s about this moment in time or this interaction, what’s the theme in that? What am I trying to convey? Well, I guess this is sort of a sardonic mourning of an impossible relationship between two people. It’s got this serious longing quality to the music, so that’s incorporated. Suddenly I have a theme and a melody and the rest just sort of… happens. This song wound up on my demo CD, you can actually listen to it here.
When I was a kid I’d emulate whoever I was listening to when writing songs. I was a thirteen-year-old listening to Dylan, so I wrote folk with a story or message. When the Beatles entered my headspace, repeatability became something I sought after. The Shins all but destroyed every musical aspiration I had because when I heard Saint Simon for the first time I just about dropped everything to emulate their sound. It’s all emulation and it all blends with what feels right. And the best part for me is that it’s constantly evolving. These songs come from influences and worms in the moment. Listening to my own work from four years ago to last year to last week is cool for me because I can track when certain inspirations started to fade or get louder.
If you’re a musician reading for tips, the only tip I have is to keep at it and listen for what you like. And always progress, always evolve, and never be satisfied.
Also, check out my expiring track for the week on my SoundCloud!