Songwriting Habits I’ve Developed Over the Years

artist, music, productivity, songwriting

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.


What I Write About When All There Is to Do This Year Is Stare Out of the Window

creativity, productivity, songwriting

A couple days ago, a meme of Bart Simpson staring out of the window at the grey sky outside started circulating on my Instagram. In Berlin winter, it was strikingly fitting, considering how that was exactly how my friends and I spent most of our days. Writing this, I’m looking at the sky and trying to remember what the sun looks like, but all I can see is a grey nuclear cloud enveloping the city. Even without corona, this would have been a depressing sight, but knowing that I can’t go to a bar or a club, or spend the night singing songs with my musician friends, makes this time even more unbearable.

But another problem is starting to affect artists. I was talking to a friend the other day, who remarked: “I have never had this much free time to write, but what the hell am I supposed to write about? All I do is sit at home and drink tea.” It was a good question. Songwriters often pull from their own experiences, writing about the people they meet or the places they see. If all there’s left is your apartment and the people you see on Netflix, what stories do you still have to tell?

A while ago, I talked about keeping an inspiration journal and how that prevents me from having creative blocks, but even an inspiration journal has its limitations. Poems, photos, quotes from films are all great sources of inspiration, but sometimes, what we crave is to write about something we care about and feel, more than what just sounds good. And with this pandemic, the main thing we care about is getting through it. Songs about love, connection, hope are harder to write because we feel less of those things.

Maybe I’m only speaking for myself here, but I prefer writing songs about speed-walking to a concert while eating noodles, about frantically trying to rub off a curry stain off my new jeans on my way to a party, or about fumbling with someone’s leather belt in the dark. I feel like I’m close to exhausting the repertoire of “I went on a date and we greeted each other with an elbow bump” and “I had coffee with the only friend I see every day but she had come over the day before so we mainly just talked about how good it is that we at least have each other”. There’s only so much in real life that’s worth writing about at the moment.

For most musicians, writing and performing are the only ways to stay sane at the best of times. Since performing was no longer an option, most musicians had turned to writing and recording their stuff. But a year into this pandemic, and several months into lockdown, even writing seems to be slowly sliding off the table.

I’m better off than most because I get to see friends outside, I still meet up with a select few, and Berlin isn’t as bad as some parts of the world at the moment. But even I have to read through my diaries, go on poetry rampages and listen to more new music than I thought I was capable of consuming to come up with relatively new ideas. Here are some of the things that still inspire me despite this shit show, but it’s Bart-Simpson-style staring out of the window most days for me, too. Also, check out this Instagram reel by Simeon Hammond Dallas about how to write songs during lockdown because if anything, it might at least crack you up.

1. I go through my old diaries and journals.

When I feel stuck, I go through old diaries in the hope that a story will turn up that I hadn’t told yet. I don’t always strike out, but it’s nice when I do. Sometimes, I also come across a line that sounds good enough to turn into a lyric.

2. I listen back to my old voice memos in the hope that I’ll find something secretly brilliant.

Most of the time, I don’t finish songs when I think they’re absolute crap. But I always record everything, so once in a while, I revisit old voice memos to see if maybe I’d missed something. When I’m in a shitty mood or too tired to write for more than ten minutes, I often abandon music ideas that could have turned into something good. Now that it’s harder to stay inspired and motivated, it can help not to have to start with a completely blank page.

3. I learn new chords, fingerpicking patterns, etc., and use them in my music.

It’s hard to write new songs when you’re working with old building blocks. I started learning a new cover every week, and now, I often end up lifting chords, strumming patterns, or fingerpicking styles from other songs and incorporating them into my own stuff.

4. I go on dating apps to remind myself that lockdown is probably a blessing in disguise.

When all else fails, I download Bumble or Tinder and spend an hour talking to strangers that remind me that this introspective lockdown thing is not the worst, and then jot down one or two lines I’d been texted to use in a lyric about why I hate dating.

5. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if I have nothing to say for a while.

I don’t have to be writing all the time, though. If I skip a couple days, or a week, and don’t come up with a new song – it doesn’t matter all that much.