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Christopher Ward on Songwriting

By:Christopher Ward | Published:5/16/2010

 Anyone can write a song, make up a melody, knock out a few lyrics, rhyme ‘baby’ and ‘maybe’, right? But to make it original and compelling enough that people want to hear it and maybe even pay to have it on their iPods, well that’s another story. 

Professional songwriters grapple with many challenges – like pleasing your co-writers, the artist, the publisher and the label long before the song gets out the door; but the first challenge is to please yourself. To come up with an idea that makes the hairs on your arm stand up must precede the adoring throng at the ACC, lighters aloft, singing along.   

So, where to find that flash of inspiration? Leonard Cohen says he’s like a starling flying over the dump looking for the shiny bits. Steven Spielberg drives the freeways of southern California looking for ideas, the theory being that by occupying his left brain fully in avoiding close encounters of the fender bender kind he frees up his right brain to dream up ‘E.T.’. Paul Simon bounces a ball off the wall of the studio until ‘Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard’ emerges.  

I think inspiration, like success, has many fathers. The trigger for the ‘big idea’ can be opportunity, competition, boredom, or lust. (“Oh did you write that song for me?”, swooning. “Why, yes.”) Perhaps even more potent is the ‘holy shit’ factor: deadline, desperation, and dollars. So, now that we’ve solved the motivation issue, how to get down to the business of making something new? I start with a riff or a couple of chords and play them trance-like till a melody arrives. Either that or start with some bit of lyric that’s in one of the notebooks I ALWAYS carry with me. You have to give yourself license to daydream and free associate, with only one rule: write it down! I interviewed Neil Young on songwriting for MuchMusic and in typical blunt fashion, his advice was “Use it or lose it.” I also believe you should tell the editor in your head to go for a walk. It’s too soon to critique anything you’re coming up with. Just scribble or jam into a tape recorder and make sense of it later. I love ritual: the treasured guitar, a favourite candle, the lucky underwear, whatever works.  

For me, one of the most important elements in lasting songs is the killer opening line:

“It was the third of June another sleepy dusty delta day” – ‘Ode To Billie Joe’, Bobbie Gentry.

“I’ve got another confession to make” – ‘Best Of You’ -  Foo Fighters

“You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend” – ‘Positively Fourth Street’, Bob Dylan.  

The Bobbie Gentry song was a model for me in writing ‘Black Velvet’. I wanted to evoke a sense of place and time to set up the song.

‘Mississippi in the middle of a dry spell’

It didn’t matter that I’d never experienced it. Songwriters should be good liars.   

From here on, it’s hard work. Experimenting and moving ideas around on the page and in the air until it feels right. There’s such a powerful element of chance involved that it’s worth not being easily satisfied. My favourite line in the song ‘Beautiful Goodbye’, cowritten with David Tyson and recorded by Amanda Marshall is:‘And all the things we never said I can save for someone else’

It took me a while to figure out what I was talking about but now it makes perfect sense, at least to me. And speaking of work, I probably wrote a short novel’s worth of pages over a period of 3 months to get that song done. As you may have guessed, I don’t buy into the theory that ‘the best songs are written in twenty minutes.’  

If there’s one single suggestion for developing songwriters, it’s this: Collaborate! Try to find someone who has complimentary skills. If you’re a lyricist, find a melody writer; if you’re a guitarist, look for a piano player. That other person, if you trust them, will often respond to your ideas taking the song in a whole different direction. Let it go there - try jamming the song in various keys, tempos and grooves until everyone agrees that genius has been achieved or more coffee is required. Too often young writers are afraid to expose their ideas to change. If you don’t like where it ends up, go back to where you started. Once, I had to rewrite a song that Hilary Duff was recording the next day. She was fifteen at the time and I had to make the lyric less sexy in a hurry. My question wasn’t “What, change my art?”, but rather “When do you need it by?”  

I work with artists frequently and as a getting acquainted technique before the writing begins, talking about what’s going on in their lives opens a lot of doors to themes for the song. The guiding principle is to make sure they think that all the good ideas were theirs.    Other than that, write all the time; don’t wait for inspiration to hit you. And get out into the community. Writers’ nights are great for meeting fellow creators and possibly finding a collaborator. By all means, join the Songwriters Association of Canada

Songwriting can be a lonely business, but there’s a lot to share and the SAC is a great place to do it. Do send your songs to publishers, managers and A&R people, but don’t expect miracles. Follow up and maintain your contacts – trust me that good things come from the least likely sources. If you don’t perform your own songs, try to find singers who do. I found one named Alannah Myles and seven years and many songs later I wrote ‘Black Velvet’ for her.  

Finally, do it for love. Be professional, but follow your muse and trust that a great song will see the light of day.
Christopher Ward