Inventing the Band (Songwriting, part 3)

As I mentioned in the previous post in this series, I consider the song “written” when I’ve got the lyrics, melody, and chords figured out.  Often the song will then sit for a while as I work on other songs.  Usually it isn’t until I have all the songs for a particular project written that I will go back and look at those songs again.  At this point, it’s time for the most difficult part of the process for me: putting the band together.

In my Francisco Road days, our band would take the song that I had and after I gave a little bit of explanation about what type of sound I was looking for, we would just play together a few times until each part was where we thought it sounded good.  Then after we had practiced the song over a period of time (weeks, months) and felt good about it, we would start the recording process.  It was nice to have such talented musicians around to be able to collaborate with.

Since I am a band of one these days, I don’t have that luxury.  Often I will have already recorded a very basic demo of the song, which usually consists of the melody played over clunky piano chords.  I use Garageband on my iPad for that in a lot of cases.  Besides that, I will also have in mind some similar professional songs that I want my song to “feel” like.  These might be current songs on the radio, or ones from older artists, and might come from any genre.  Armed with these ideas, the first instrument I like to add is the drums.

I use Ezdrummer, which is a software program which contains samples of drum grooves which you can try out and add to your music.  At first, it is fairly easy for me to select a groove that pretty closely matches what I’m looking for.  As I start to put the song together, though, I have to drill into each section of the song and eventually each measure of the song to make sure the drums are doing what I want them to do.  When I get to the actual recording process, I will look even more closely at these tracks, which I can edit to add things like cymbal crashes or maybe even take away certain parts to make the drums less “busy” in a particular section.

Once I have the basic drum track, I will add either piano or guitar.  I’m a little bit better at playing piano, so on most songs I will start with that.  These won’t be my final tracks, so I don’t have to be perfect, but it will give me a more complete picture of how I will end up recording the song.  I can then add bass, a keyboard “pad” track, or whatever else I feel like putting in at this point.  Finally, I sing the melody track.

As an example of what I’m talking about, here’s a snippet of one of the songs which will be on my EP called “Still I Will Praise You.”  There’s no real mixing yet, although levels have been adjusted.  I am playing guitar very poorly and piano only slightly better.  But I now have a good sense of the song and can think about arrangement and what other instruments or vocals I might want to add.

One final note: although for purposes of this series, I’m dividing songwriting up into distinct sections, that’s a false impression.  You would be surprised that both before and after this step, the song can change dramatically.  I often will rewrite a verse or bridge that I decide I don’t like even rearrange sections of the song.  The song isn’t final until I’ve released it – and even then, I often find myself thinking, I probably should’ve tweaked it this way or that.

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