My dad was one of the first people to start a blog. I think he started it in the early noughties, and it was called ‘Me and My Lada’ because we lived in Russia, and he owned a Lada. He wrote in it regularly, posting once or twice a week, but sometime after our move to Belgium, he stopped. I remember scouring through his blog a few years ago, and stumbling upon an article he wrote about how to write a song. It was the most popular article he had ever written, even though he’s not strictly a songwriter.
He disconnected the page a while ago, mostly because the number of comments on the post was overwhelming. Most of them seemed to be written by people who were disappointed that songs didn’t write themselves. That’s why I’m wary of writing articles like that, because no guide can guarantee you’ll get a song out of it, let alone a good song, but also because songwriting is highly personal. So, instead, I thought I’d just share some of the habits I’ve acquired over the years, and how I write songs. I don’t think I’m sharing anything particularly useful, but it might be interesting nonetheless.
1. I write about everything
My friends write very differently from how I write. I spill out onto the page – anything goes, no thought is too embarrassing and no confession too private to be made into a song. I process things quickly. After what turned out to be a traumatising date experience a few weeks ago, I woke up in the morning to pen down lyrics in bed, getting down a melody before brushing my teeth. That means that everything I write is constantly being worked into songs – things my friends say become notes on my phone when I go to the bathroom, if I have a melody, I’ll hum it into voice memos on my way home. I never sit on a lyric for more than a day or two. I don’t attach myself to my songs because I’m writing all the time. A lot of what I produce is utter shit because there’s so much of it. But I don’t take any of it personally, and none of my songs are special, even though all of them are
Other musicians can take weeks to write a song. One of my friends has a list taped to the wall above his bed with songs he has yet to finish, and some of them have been up there for months. He changes lyrics around, plays the songs until they jump off his fingertips. He never writes about things right after they happen – he gives his music breathing space so that the songs can come to life without being stifled by sentimentality.
2. I write regularly to fight writer’s block
I write regularly, aiming at one song per week. I have a friend who writes a song a day, although that sounds like complete insanity, and most of my friends write only when they feel they have something to say. I always feel like I have something to say, which I guess is the joy of being 22. But when I don’t write for a few weeks, coming back to an empty page feels much more daunting, like there’s a lot more at stake. This is why I sit myself down a few times a week, and this is why I write about everything – not enough earth-shattering stuff happens to me to write profound songs every week. I write regularly to keep my fear of failure at bay and to prevent writer’s block. The more I write, the surer I am I’ll still be able to write the day after.
3. It doesn’t matter whether I write lyrics or melody first… but I write lyrics first
Another question I often get as a songwriter is whether I write melody or lyrics first. This has changed several times throughout the years for me, and I think it’s nice to experiment with these things. I started writing songs when I was twelve and my English was pretty poor, but since I wanted to make it big and become world-famous, I refused to write in Dutch. At that time, nailing a good melody was much more important to me than having lyrics that made sense (and more often than not, they didn’t). Now, I know that writing is one of my strengths, and so is my urge to overshare, so lyrics have become increasingly more important, and I often write them first. When I’m having an emotional breakdown and want to process something in real-time, though, I grab a guitar and hum lyrics over a melody, doing both at the same time. In other words, the order in which I write is irrelevant. I have, however, been told that I should stop cramming so many words into my songs, and that good lyrics don’t make up for shitty melodies, which gave me some food for thought regarding this.
4. I always write songs down on paper
I never write lyrics on my phone, although I know that a lot of musicians these days do (although I’ve never met a folk musician who did). There’s something about writing on paper that I love, and I like that you can’t erase lyrics that don’t fit or move words around quite so easily. When I start singing the song, I always end up using some of the lyrics I had previously discarded. I also like seeing the process on the page, the struggle of my thoughts fighting their way out. I write down the chords I play, and if I don’t know the names of the chords, I’ll sketch the fretboard and write tabs. When I don’t do this, I can spend hours trying to remember what tuning I wrote something in, or what weird chord I used where.
5. I finish songs once I start them, even the ones I think are bad
I always finish songs once I start them. Some of my best songs I thought were average or even crap when I first wrote them. Had I decided they were worthless after writing the first verse, I never would have finished them, so I try to hold off judgement on my songs until I’ve sat on them for a week or two. I don’t know any musician who disagrees with me on this – we have all walked away from a songwriting session thinking we’ve written a hit to then listen back to the song and hate it. The opposite has also been true. I just know that when I don’t finish a song in one sitting (or at least its skeleton), I usually abandon it altogether.
6. I always record the songs I write on my phone
Once I’m finished, I record the song into voice memos on my phone. I didn’t always do that. I used to think that I wouldn’t forget the melodies to good songs. How wrong I was. Some melodies are good but not catchy, sometimes another song will worm its way into my ear, making me forget everything I’ve ever written, sometimes, the intricacies of a melody will be lost because I was too lazy to press record. So, now, I record it all. The bad and the good because you don’t know what’s bad or good until time’s passed. Some of my friends record a video of the song once they’re finished because it can also be used as song promo on Instagram later when you’re looking back to where a song originated.
These are just some of my songwriting habits, but everyone has their own way of doing it, and I’m sure you do too. Let me know if you have any questions, or if I’ve skirted over some important part of the process. I’d be happy to chat about this.