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How To Write Songs For Other People – 4 Dos and Don’ts to keep you on track

I used to write songs exclusively for myself, because I was one of those autobiographical singer-songwriters with a teeny-tiny degree of self-absorption going on. Thankfully I’ve grown up since then and taken an interest in being a lot more creative with my songwriting. My own songs have been inspired by trips to the Natural History Museum, writing about a class of artists I spent a week away in France with and I’ve written about topics like the housing crisis in London from an overcrowded house’s perspective, to the ridiculousness of what MPs tried to claim as expenses, as revealed in the UK expenses scandal back in 2009. However, when writing for other artists, I’ve tended to need to write more prescriptively, and to fit a precise pop-music related brief, which can sometimes feel a whole lot less creative. But this needn’t be the case. When being commissioned to write a particular style of song (or when writing only lyrics to music that is already clearly depicting a particular genre) there’s still room to add your own personal quirk and yet tick all the necessary boxes of what’s required. Here’s how to approach it:

1) Do your research. (And enjoy it!)

When I was given a song to write lyrics to by a producer based abroad, I sensed that the genre he was aiming for was a mixture of classic pop with a hint of musicals style. This was particularly challenging for me because I really don’t like musicals much at all. If forced to choose a style of songwriting used for musicals that I could listen to, I’d go with Kander and Ebb and never Andrew Lloyd-Webber. (Sorry ALW – you’re just not my cup of tea.) I had started out with something quite generic and not unlike any old song from a musical. And I didn’t like it. Funnily enough, neither did the producer. He himself asked for, “more Elton John, less Lloyd-Webber”, which made sense to me. So I set about getting to know the lyrics of Bernie Taupin a little better.

Elton and Bernie

Elton John and Bernie Taupin

I began listening to and reading the lyrics of songs such as, ‘Tiny Dancer’, ‘Rocket Man’ and ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’. I must admit that I was surprised at the wealth of topics, observations and vocabulary used that actually serve to create a much more defined atmosphere and circumstance in which to sing the sometimes quite hauntingly melancholic melodies. This research gave me new inspiration as to how to come up with something different for the lyrics I was writing and inject a few unpredictable but suitable ideas into the song.

2) Don’t be afraid to create a whole new story

If you’re tired of repeated themes in love songs but have to write a song that fits the typical pop ballad genre then there needs to be a way to keep it interesting. A song I was given to work on featured a potentially ‘desperate’, clichéd title and chorus line that was just not what I would ever choose to write for my own work at all. But I’ve worked as an actress on less than inspiring scripts before and I had a technique for making things work even when the words seem far from natural or original. So I decided to approach it like an actor working backwards from the script to understanding the background of the character. I needed to find a way to justify the words I’d been given with an appropriate backstory and emotional intensity. I had to “raise the stakes”. In other words, if it makes no sense to sing, “hold me tight” because it sounds too twee, what circumstances would make that a viable thing to say – who would you have to be? What situation would you have to be trapped in to feel that desperate? So I came up with a story of a guy falling profoundly in love with a woman who already had a family and was married. He had never experienced a love like that before and in spite of the impossible-seeming circumstances, he knew he had to find a way to see her as often as possible.

That story makes the desperation and urgency believable. So it’s an appropriate background to weave into the song. Actors talk about having to like some aspect of the characters they portray no matter who they are or what they’ve done. Perhaps in the same way, writing to a brief that involves an aspect of a song that feels alien or insincere to you as a writer simply requires you to find a way to come to understand it and, yes, at least like some aspect of it.

3) Don’t be put off by new restrictions

In my case, most of the songwriting I’ve been commissioned to do for others has entailed writing mainly the lyrics. As a result, I’ve had to look at making lines of text rhyme in ways I don’t demand for my own songs because I don’t want things to match quite as strictly for my style of music. It’s like having a whole new set of rules and restrictions. Suddenly I need to get almost clinically precise with rhyme and pattern. I need to be really clear which lines must rhyme and to what extent they rhyme – do they match up in syllables as well, do they have a half-rhyme or does every line that rhymes have to be a 100% sound match? Being aware of the boundaries in the early stages of writing the song makes it easier to fill in the gaps and repeat the process for the next verses, chorus and middle 8. If you have one verse in place, you can repeat the pattern that is locked in within those lines to make the next however many verses ‘match’ up. For example, if the line pattern is 1 – New, 2 – Perfect rhyme match, 3 – New, 4 – Half-rhyme match, then you know that the hardest part to match up will be the second line of each subsequent verse. And that way you can break down the work so that it doesn’t get too overwhelming. You can see where you’ve got a bit of creative freedom and where you are contrastingly quite restricted. Knowing that before you write some ideas for the follow-up lines really helps in preventing you wasting time on ideas that just won’t work. And equally, you can see how simple it is when it’s so clear and precise.

4) Do get the ‘gist’ before diving into the fine detail

If you’ve been given a really open-ended kind of brief of what you need to write (i.e. just a rough idea of the genre or theme for the song, e.g. ‘a summer-type pop song’) you’ll need to define what exactly you want to ‘say’ in the song. So for example, if it’s a ‘summer’ song, is it about enjoying the lovely freedom of being outside in gorgeous weather, spending time with friends and having fun, or is it about escaping the dark and drab surroundings of the office to go on holiday (or vacation for all my North American readers) and feel determined to never go back? It could be about your observations while doing summertime activities like playing tennis really competitively with friends, or what people wear when it’s really hot and how funny or sexy they look. You get to choose the detail.

It never hurts to do a bit of research about this either. Have a look at what other songs have been written about the summer and what were the main messages of those? For example, I re-listened to some old favourites of mine that all have a summer theme but focus on slightly different things: ‘Summertime’ – by Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince focuses on observations of what people do when they get together with their friends, go to barbecues, play sports or drive around in their cars and how fun and relaxed it is.

JazzyJeff and the Fresh Prince

‘Summer In The City’ by The Lovin’ Spoonful highlights the contrast between the heat and exhaustion of the day in the city compared to the excitement and fun of the hot summer nights. And in stark contrast perhaps to all of these, coming back to my own genre of music, Regina Spektor’s ‘Summer in the City’ deals with the loneliness of seeing other people participating in events, showing off their bodies in tight clothes and memories of past happy times and the sense of loss that that puts forefront in your mind. This last theme is perhaps the hardest to fit into a pop song, because pop songs tend to be optimistic, not melancholic and reflective, but nonetheless you can see how varied a range of songs even quite a clear theme of summer can produce.

Above all, the best way to write songs for someone else, even if you are under considerable time pressure to complete the work, is to find a way to have fun with it. Ultimately, all the research and painstaking work of fitting the demands of the brief can be very rewarding for uncovering shortcuts, repeatable methods and approaches and new ideas that you can implement in your own songs to make them tighter, stronger and with a clearer message than you may have written previously.

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