In the midst of moving house, there’s that process you go through of sorting out your ‘stuff’ and you usually end up with three piles:
2 – “Throw out immediately”
and 3 – “Not sure yet”.
It’s category three that always takes the longest because it involves trying to decide the merit of keeping this potentially useful, potentially a total waste of space stuff. In amongst some of that moving house exhaustion before I got myself back here to London, I took to watching one of the additional extras on an old DVD of the IT Crowd where Graham Linehan gave an in-depth workshop on how to write a sit-com. It was rather informative as a songwriter to have watched this ‘special feature’, especially when he said that the early stages of writing a sit-com involve playing around with bits of card and, “tricking yourself into thinking it’s fun”. In other words, sometimes it’s a bit silly to over-intellectualise what you’re doing as a writer. To make everything too serious, too logical and entirely fact-based doesn’t work. Poetic license has to come into play somewhere.
I have my own method for sorting out and completing left over ideas or half-finished songs but I also know how to get on and write one song from start to finish in a concerted effort of generally ‘just getting on with it’. Sometimes the approach needed is simply to try everything in moderation.
I recently had two new songs to write for a producer who’s putting some songs together for a new artist. He asked me to write the lyrics to his series of “na, na, na’s” sung as a vocal melody to a variety of musical styles. And it’s been key to keep it as fun as possible. It’s traditional style pop music, so it needs to rhyme, which brings its own limitations, so that’s where the ‘keeping it fun’ comes in handy or you could truly go insane. The way I approach writing a song is finding a theme I can use as soon as possible. For example, I was given the theme of a ‘summer song’ and the music was appropriately upbeat and light-hearted. But I’m not used to writing upbeat and ‘fun’ songs at all. So I did some research. For fun.
I decided to pull up a few songs on YouTube, whatever came to mind off the top of my head as to what a summer song should be. I found a classic cheesy pop song by Betty Boo, which is so much about summer it’s no wonder it stuck in my head as the go-to song. The video also inspired my look for my Concert Window gig that I did prior to leaving Bristol and moving back to London. How did I do?
But then there was ‘Summertime’, of course, and for a left-field option, there’s always this song. While listening to those, I wrote down a whole bunch of words and phrases and ideas about what fun in summer entails and what things you want to enjoy when you’re on holiday and why. And that’s when my own theme came to me for the song – the “why” of what you want out of a summer break.
Usually, for most people, the reason you want to get away is because you live in a gloomy, cold country where the sun rarely emerges and the job you spend most of your time doing is driving you crazy and you just don’t want to have anything to do with it anymore. So the theme is, ‘escape’ or ‘run away’. So I wrote about that kind of scenario and what would be waiting on the other side of that ‘getting out of here’ plane ticket. And that’s how a song emerged that I could send off to the producer.
When I came back to working on my own songs, I realised I could be more streamlined and targeted about my own ‘themes’ that emerge and I started to be more disciplined and choosy about the lyric writing in particular. So, in the same way that learning cover songs can be helpful for learning the innards of a song and therefore how to write one, so was having to write a song for someone else a really useful tool for improving writing songs for myself. And it’s fun too.