You can ask any songwriter how they go about writing a song and you will probably get a different answer from each one. I don’t think the act of writing a song is or should be a mechanical process or a formulate process but rather it should be a fire ignited by inspiration, an idea that is taken hold of and molded by your hands, by your mind, and by your heart.
There are a lot of different kinds of songs out there but what I’m talking about specifically is the contemporary pop song, the ballad, the story tellers’ song, American country, Americana. These are the 3 minute plus excursions into the soul and from the heart that beg people to listen to them, that ask you to care, to become involved or simply acknowledge the circumstances and agree or disagree, that ask you to feel, to cry or to get really pissed off. I guess the end objective can best be described as emoting an emotional response or at least an emotional acknowledgement in what the song writer or “story-teller” is attempting to convey to you.
I was exposed to music at an early age and it dug into me from the moment we first met never to leave. It has become a part of my spirit and soul and I have become a part of it I believe. I can tell you that for me personally I have never been more moved by a force in my life than music, that includes the big two - Love and Hate. Nothing has come close and I would venture to say at this point nothing ever will. Starting out as an avid listener and fan I amassed a huge database in my head of musical information and facts. I could hold my own with the best of the best when it came to liner notes and secret knowledge. Beginning with poetry I quickly moved into full-blown song writing the day I picked up my first guitar and from that point on I began to turn out a huge body of written songs sometimes writing every day for weeks at a stretch, I guess I just had a lot to talk about.
When I began to experiment with recording it seemed the ideas and inspirations for songs came to me faster than I could document them. This has gone on for more than 30 years with me utilizing whatever the latest recording technology was at any given time and working my way up to where I am now with a home based DAW system, a library of Superior Drum samplings and an arsenal of guitars at my disposal. Utilizing a lifetime of acquired knowledge working in Information Technology I have custom built myself a private universe of audio pleasure – I’m comfortable where I’m at and this allows me the luxury to experiment and indulge.
When I began to write and compose songs I did it with the purpose of other people enjoying what I created and although this is a noble and just cause it is flawed at the root. It took a lot of years and literally hundreds of songs for me to realize my music really isn’t for other people, sure, if they happen to enjoy what I do that’s great and deeply appreciated but 30 years has taught me a sobering lesson which is – a songwriter or simply put, a writer, writes for themselves first and foremost. It’s the writers heart that needs the healing, the writers soul that needs revival, the writers temper that needs soothing, it’s all so very selfish in nature but that is after all what we are at the core, selfish in nature and at the end of every day we reflect to the outside world that which is at the inner-most core of our being on the inside.
It all sounds very deep, dark, and mysterious I know so let me just say this to bring it back into the light, the songs that you write, the music that you make should always come from the most absolute honest place inside of you. The truth that you need to know and understand about your music is that when all is said and done you must satisfy yourself in your heart, in your mind, and in your soul, no one else can do this for you. Never be afraid to imagine and don’t get in the way of your imagination when it comes to writing – walk down those roads in anticipation and childlike excitement not knowing what waits at the end of that journey and you will live a better life for it.
I could close my eyes for one million years
and dream of songs I’ve yet to write,
hands forming chords that feed deep pools of tears,
looks like I’m going there tonight...
(Learning To Play by Jerry Axson)
The lyric and the idea of the song:
Let's take a look at the writing and composition process of a song I wrote for the Big Sky 12 project titled “What Would You Have Me To Do”. This is an interesting example because this song was written on and is based in piano and not guitar which is normally my primary instrument.
The lyric for this song was written first coming to me as a story of a man, (or a woman), who has been in a relationship with someone for a long time but then someone new comes into their life and they develop feelings for that person and find themselves torn between dedication and honor to their first love and growing emotions towards someone new. The culmination is represented in the chorus which asks the question out loud “What would you have me to do?”, this person is not capable of making a decision for one love or the other so they are left weakened and in pain resolving themselves to throw the question out in hopes someone, anyone will tell them what to do thereby removing all blame and guilt for any wrong enacted. Summarizing like this sterilizes it all a bit but it's necessary to examine the story and all the ins and outs of the emotional depth involved.
Next up is the biggest trick of all which is to take these words and wrap them around a melody and attempt to construct a musical passage that will act as a vehicle for this encapsulated chunk of misery.
Writing the melody:
Discussing the creation and development of the song structure we examine the relationship between the composition and the lyric and how both elements relate to the meaning of the song.
Rough draft sample:
A Small sample of the piano part accompanying a rough draft drum and guitar track to give an example of what the finished piece might sound like.
Going over the drum parts with Lisa Brillinger. We discuss the overall layout of the melody and what we both think and feel should be expressed in the delivery of each part.
Low string arrangement and placement:
Talking about the low string composition and placement in the song.
High string arrangement and placement:
Talking about the high string composition and how it differs from the low string arrangement. Where it sits in the soundscape compared to the low strings and how it differs in delivery.
A small sample of one of the guitar parts written for the song.
Jim Morse works through the bass parts he wrote for the song in preparation for tracking.
The finished work realized -
32 tracks and 3 months of hard work by everyone involved.