Well, it’s April in Atlanta and that doesn’t mean much, considering we have the threat of ice/snow looming over us today. The weather here is never very predictable until July, when we can count on it being hot until the end of September.
( A few minutes later…)
Yep. There it is. It is snowing in Atlanta on April 7th.
Anyway, I’ll take advantage of the cuddly weather to bundle up and address the one question I get more than anything else about the songwriting process, which is
Which do you write first, the music or the lyrics?
(thanks to Kevin for reminding me I wanted to post about this!)
The short answer is… neither. Or both.
What I actually write first are ideas. I have notebooks full of scribbled ideas that occur to me at various times during the day. One of the reasons I always carry a pen in my bag is so that I can write an idea down on whatever piece of paper is convenient when an idea for a song strikes me. Later, I can flip through my notes to revisit an idea that I want to try to work on during that session.
When I have an idea I want to work on, I’ll sit down with my guitar and just start playing around with words and chords until something feels like it’s in the right “mood” for the song. I may sing words that don’t entirely make sense, or I may end up singing the exact words that end up in the final song. When I get a line that I really like I’ll write it down and try to move on. Perfection is never the goal right away – it’s more about just getting it out there and tweaking it later.
Sometimes I have a very specific structure for a song that I want to work on, so that helps to narrow my focus and makes the lyrics easier to write. For example, right now I’m working on a song that is written in the form of a letter to someone — that directly influences phrasing and the types of words I’ll choose, and makes my job easier. Or, if I know the song I’m writing is a country song, there is a specific musical formula for that which makes coming up with the song structure more straightforward (verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus is a typical country music “formula”).
So, generally it’s ideas first, then I work on the music and lyrics at the same time. Once I have the chord progression completely figured out I can edit lyrics with a cup of coffee in hand instead of a guitar.
My favorite part is really editing the lyrics (Ok Steve, so you don’t always annoy me) to make sure I’m telling the story in the way that I feel is most effective. For me, songwriting is always about telling a story, so the choices I make for the music have to directly lend themselves to the lyrics, rather than the other way around. I also love the challenge of taking an experience and distilling it into relatively few words, so my songs are generally short & sweet.
Well, the flurry has stopped here in the time in took me to write this post, but I’m sure that won’t deter Atlantans from buying up all the bread & milk at the grocery store.
Hey fellow songwriters, what do you write first?