The Songwriting Process, Part One (and some news!)

IMG_1016I have some news I wanted to share with those of you who follow this blog – this past weekend I finished writing the final song for my next album release! There is a lot of work left to do but the lyrics, melodies, and chords are done for six songs which I plan to release early in 2015 as an EP. It’s not titled yet but I’ll let you know when I come up with one. This will be the first album released under my name (the other two I’ve contributed to were Francisco Road albums) so I’m excited about that.

I’ve been asked before about my songwriting process so I thought I would share a little about that in a series of posts so that you would get an idea of what I will be doing for the next few months to get this album ready for launch. I would first say that to call my songwriting a process is misleading because it implies that there is some rational order to it! It would be more accurate to refer to it as a grueling slog through mud with no finish line in sight. I exaggerate, of course, but sometimes it feels that way. Every songwriter has a different way of creating their songs and while there is a sort of process to mine, there are usually a lot of stops and starts along the way. And although I am sharing the usual way I write songs, it doesn’t happen the same way every time.

My First Step: The Lyrics

Unlike a lot of songwriters, I start with writing the lyrics of a song first for a couple of reasons. First, for the type of music I write, I feel like the lyrics are the most important part. Christian songs need to say something about God – I am first and foremost communicating a particular message. The second reason is much more pragmatic: writing lyrics is much easier for me than writing music. I play just enough piano and guitar to get by and not many songs can be written just playing a bass, so by writing lyrics first, I have something that I can use as a foundation for the rest of it.

How do I come up with the lyrics?  Well, anytime an idea hits me for a song, I try and write it down or record a note to myself on my phone so that I can come back to it later.  Most of these ideas come from thoughts I have about God from situations going on in my own life, things God is teaching me, quotes from sermons, or something that strikes me as I’m reading or listening to other songs.  The idea for what a song might be about is usually followed by a title – that one line or phrase that sums up the idea – and that’s where the writing starts.  Sometimes I might already have a little melody snippet to go with that phrase, but a majority of the time it’s just the words themselves.

Depending on what’s going on, it might be weeks or even months before I come back to that title and start putting other ideas on paper.  I have a red composition book that I keep all of my potential song titles or interesting phrases in so that I can refer back to them.  It probably has about 50 titles or lines in it that date back to when I first started writing songs.  It’s fun to go back and sift through some of my old ideas – most of them will never become songs, but they are all there waiting for that future time when I might flesh them out a little more.  Some of the ideas that originally started out as songs actually become a smaller part of another song.

I generally write the chorus first and then write the verses and bridge – I imagine that’s what most songwriters do.  Of course, the lyrics that I come up with initially will always change a little and sometimes will change quite a bit as I go through the rest of the process.  Although the lyrics come easy to me, I have to fight a couple of tendencies I have when writing.  I am usually too wordy in my song lyrics initially – as an attorney, I’m used to writing in complete sentences and using more words than I need – so I have to go back and make my lines more concise.  Also, by writing lyrics first, I have to make sure my song doesn’t sound too much like a poem with a rhythm pattern that stays static throughout.  I’ve learned that good poetry doesn’t always translate into a good song.

Next time, we’ll talk about how I start introducing the tune and chords to the lyrics.

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