Songwriting Tips from the Hitmakers, Pt. 1

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The following is excerpted from The Musician’s Guide to Recording, a free PDF that is full of great practical tips, advice, and wisdom on the recording process. Click HERE to download the complete guide for free.

If you think you can teach someone to write a hit song, why not show them how to conjure elephants from Hershey bars while you’re at it? Hit songs are voodoo spells dressed up as songcraft. The real kick is that virtually anyone can invoke the basic incantation— all you need is a melody, some lyrics, and a few chords. But what turns those simple elements into a work that inspires massive consumer frenzy is beyond human comprehension. So why worry about it? As the wise old hunter used to warn in ’30s African safari films, “You could waste your life searching for the elephant’s graveyard.”

So rather than get lost in unsolved mysteries, let’s focus on the tangible structure of pop songwriting. Songwriting is, after all, a craft, and the basic components of that discipline can be readily examined.

To help you improve your songwriting chops, we’ve enlisted the aid of several well-known songwriters, most of whom have been lucky enough to strike that mystical connection with the public. Feel free to, ahem, “borrow” a few of their ideas to use as foundations for your own songs.

JOHNNY RZEZNIK

“The one thing somebody told me which helped me a lot was, ‘The A material definitely lies beneath the B material.’ You have to let yourself go, and accumulate a lot of crap, and then sift through it to get to the good stuff. You can’t rush it. A lot of times I’ll pick up the guitar and play, and if a song’s not coming, I do something else— clean the house, listen to some music—and come back to writing later. There is a time for your internal judge to come in and make the call, but you have to free yourself from that in the beginning stages of the creative process. I’ve often stifled myself because I was trying to bash the music into shape instead of letting it lead. When I shut off the judge in my head, music usually comes quite easily.”

BJORK

“Songwriting is like a thunderstorm building up inside me. If I don’t write songs, I get all bottled up. It’s almost like a survival mechanism. For me, music has to have a little speck of intrigue or the unknown. Also, I’m an old school romantic in the sense that even if you write songs about dark stuff, the root of the song should be about going through the tunnel and coming out on the other side with a happy ending. I’m not into songs that are just about self-pity or self-indulgence. I usually look at songs as little trips that show you going on your way to some other place.”

DAVID CROSBY

“Very often, ideas come to me when I’m falling asleep—when the busy mind gets out of the way, and the intuitive, imaginative mind gets a shot at the steering wheel. My friend, science fiction writer William Gibson, told me, ‘It’s an established phenomenon. The elves take over the workshop. That’s why all writers keep a pen and paper by their bed.’”

JAMES HETFIELD

“I’ve got so many notes and little things that I write down every day. Some of those lines are really important, and I’ll just take one and move on from there. Sometimes, there’s more than just a line, and sometimes there’s nothing. There’s a song title, and you just go. That’s the beauty of it. Even if I do have an idea of where I want to be, I might end up somewhere else— which is even cooler. But you can’t get to that spot unless you travel the other road. You might be all frustrated, and then one line will just open up so many doors.”

RAY DAVIES

“I’m very scathing about art school, but it really taught me to look and to translate. I would go out to a location, do some sketches, take the project back to college, and then turn it into something. I was good at that. To gather material for songs, I would watch the way people interacted—although, generally, the people I wrote about didn’t interact much in the world. You have to find a way to get your head working, and really look at something that’s seemingly nothing to look at. You must discover some element to take out and use in your work. People don’t look enough. So much is handed to us by television, newspapers, and other media that we don’t really look at anything anymore.

“I tell writers to do whatever it takes to keep your brain sharp. I’ll find something in the newspaper and say, ‘What would I do if I had to write that as a song?’ I did a British TV series in the early ’70s where I was given an assignment on Thursday, wrote the song on a Friday, and it was in the show on Saturday. That kept me sharp. Every writer is different—everyone has their own handicaps, assets, and needs.”

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SHAWN COLVIN

“I’m the type who has to get up every five or ten minutes and get a drink of water, or pretend I’m interested in something else. But often that’s when I solve a problem. There’s a strange little important moment when you say, ‘I’ll write that down. That might be something.’”

CHRIS CORNELL

“It’s easier to be ‘vocally creative’ over odd-time riffs. In a weird time signature, there’s really only one thing you can sing, and it jumps right out at you. Straight-four riffs have been around for so long that you can end up writing the same song 500 times.”

WILLIE DIXON

“I get a thing in my mind—the words that I would like to say, and the expression that I would like to have them said in to get the best results. I would like the song to be part of life, because I’ve always felt like blues was the facts of life being expressed to people that didn’t understand the other fellow’s condition. This gives me the chance to say the things that I felt people would want other people to know. This is the way I mostly wrote my songs.”

JOHN HAITT

“About 50 percent of my lyrics are autobiographical, and about 50 percent is making up stuff, adding to, or out-and-out lying [laughs]— which I like to do quite a bit. It’s the artist’s duty!”

AIMEE MANN

“Most lyricists don’t want to write meaningful stuff. They want to write stuff that sounds meaningful, which is a different thing altogether. They rely too much on the standard rock clichés. Good writers turn the clichés around, so at least you know they’ve thought about it, rather than saying, ‘Well, I’ve heard this 800,000 times, so it must be good!’ I try to avoid certain images that I feel have been done to death, such as:

• Weather and the elements. Rain, storms, clouds, snow. If one more person prays for rain, I’ll scream.

• Geography. Mountains, rivers, valleys, streams, oceans. Usually someone is crossing or climbing one or more of these to get to his or her love.

• Any reference to angels or hearts.

• Traveling or rambling from town to town. Either in a train or car with your baby, or alone, searching for, or running away from your baby.

• Use of the word ‘baby.’

• Gambling. Rolling of the dice in any way, shape, or form. Ace of spades, queen of hearts, etc.

• Weapons. Usually guns or knives.

Many of these clichés were originally written by great writers, but now they’re misused over and over again. I’m guilty of some of them myself. I don’t consider myself a great writer, but I would like to think that I can at least proof- read.”

Songwriting Tips from the Hitmakers, Pt. 2

Songwriting Tips from the Hitmakers, Pt. 3

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