Long weekend of Songwriting: Part 1

So… my not-so-long awaited weekend of songwriting is upon us. The weather is good, the arrangements are made, and London is its usual bustling, exciting, unfinished self. When will they finish London?

First up, I’ve been taking part in my first ever pop music songwriting workshop.

Having booked up fairly late in the day, taking a chance of an offer from Music-Match (very useful website for music job opportunities), I didn’t have too much time to prepare (which was probably for the best, as I am prone to nerves in group situations, which is perhaps odd for a teacher, but there we are). The workshop took place at Tileyard Education in London, a short walk from King’s Cross. The Tileyard Complex it turns out is a sort of industrial estate of creative organisations of various kinds including some 90+ studios, writing rooms, management companies, publishers etc.  The two-day course was run by Emma Stakes and Penny Foster, both accomplished, published songwriters among much else. The students on the course ranged in age, location, but all were incredibly talented, friendly and passionate about their craft.

Day one was all about introductions, discussing the often brutal business of songwriting and the music industry more widely, a look at some current songwriting briefs (i.e. actual artists looking for actual songs) which made it feel very real indeed. We spent some time listening to songs written by both the workshop leaders and attendees, which was a good eye-opener to the quality of songs and production out there among us mortals.

Being truly woeful at small talk, I found the experience initially daunting, but certainly by the second day, had found it within myself to get immersed come what may. As it turned out, day two presented an incredibly fulfilling opportunity to collaborate on a song as part of an impromptu songwriting team. Having been initially trepidatious about writing in groups, our particular team (myself and three others) turned out to work incredibly productively together, and I hope some future collaborations will follow from here. We managed to write, record and produce to a decent level a verse, pre-chorus, chorus and breakdown of a song with working titles of ‘Bite the Bullet’ and later ‘Stubborn’, along the theme of a relationship on the rocks. After initially attempting to respond to a specific brief discussed the previous day, the track took on perhaps a darker mood than we had intended, but given the tight deadline, we reached a point-of-no-return and thus followed the idea through. Each member of the team made fantastic and vital contributions including lyrical material, melodic and harmonic ideas, and production, and it was incredibly gratifying to feel so instantly comfortable with a group of strangers, and be able to create something with real potential in such a short space of time. We intend to finish this track between us remotely and see where it goes! I am therefore a collaboration convert and I hope to do a lot more of this kind of work going forward.

I have learned a great deal from this songwriting camp. In particular, I am now certain that to demo a song successfully, particularly when working towards a particular brief, the production needs to be top notch, and the vocal must leave no room for doubt in terms of emotional expression.

In relation to the crafting of the song itself, I hadn’t appreciated before this weekend the importance of the concept of ‘top-lining’, i.e. composing a melody and lyrics, as a distinct part of the writing process, and moreover that this is something that is often done by a single, dedicated individual. While obviously a song needs a melody to carry the lyrical content, I’d up until now considered that just another part of the process, more or less equal to the others. Of course, melody is a massively important part of the songwriting process, but perhaps for pop music, melody is just that little bit more important, while harmony takes a back seat.

Its also abundantly clear that a song needs a hook, not just in a melodic sense, but also from a conceptual viewpoint. While this is obviously not songwriting rocket-science, I guess sometimes these things need hammering home, and again, I would argue that within the pop world, this conceptual hook is even more vital.

The weekend has given me just a little more self belief. I hope this is true of all the students on the course. For myself, I pledge simply to write more songs, believe in them, see them through to a high demo standard when I feel they have the ‘legs’ to justify it, and then to attempt to push them towards the places I feel they belong, to give them a life beyond the studio.

This evening, as my long weekend of songwriting comes to a close, I will be going over to Hackney Arts Centre to witness one of my songwriting heroes, Neil Tennant talk about his songwriting, as he releases a book, ‘One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem’.

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