Pat Pattison has the dubious title of being a professor of songwriting. But don’t let that put you off. He is one of the great teachers of songwriting, and in particular lyric writing. In this extract, he talks about creating coherence in a song, using structure to underline the tone of a song. It’s one of the themes he covers in the book “Writing Better Lyrics”, using examples to illustrate how structure can leave a listener waiting for more or stop them dead in their tracks. Read more “Are there rules for lyric writing?”
A quiet Friday night in a backstreet of Brussels. A fifties cinema, renovated into a theatre and concert venue (Atelier 210). But the gig is actually in the bar, with about 200 people squeezed around a dotty bespectacled Italian chick weaving tales of ordinary madness on ukelele, acoustic guitar and a bashful keyboard player. Read more “Music tip: Kiss and Drive”
The recent broadcast of the BBC’s “Secrets of the Pop Song” featuring Guy Chambers has brought attention back to Ray Heffernan. At the time, he was a very young musician that met Robbie Williams in Dublin and went on to work on the song that became “Angels”. He eventually sold his share of the song for €7,500, with Williams’ team arguing that the song had changed totally between the original composition and the final version. The song went on to generate some €7 million. Although these cases are rare (and it could be argued he was lucky enough to get upfront cash rather than being ripped off), it only serves as a reminder that you have to learn the basics of songwriting as a business if you hope to receive any reward for your work. I don’t say that to freak people out or make you paranoid, but a little music business knowledge goes a long, long way.
As a second thought, I’d add that your songs can always be improved. It would be better to be in Chambers’ position than Heffernan’s. Being able to recognise the good elements of a song and re-work them to perfection is a skill to aim for.
Check the interview and then drop over to Ray Heffernan’s YouTube channel.
Unfortunately, I only came across this programme after the first 15 minutes. But it must be said: “Secrets of the Pop Song” is an absolutely amazing songwriting series on the BBC. As the title implies, the idea is to get behind the process of writing pop songs, ie songs that have huge appeal.
The first one (Saturday July 2) was devoted to the Power Ballad with fantastic interviews from producers, lyricist and composers, each throwing in their own two cents. Lyricist Don Black focused on accessibility, Diane Warren underlined the need to say something universal in a new way. Her example was the title “Unbreak my Heart”. Boy George told he tried to block the release of “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”, as he felt it was “too personal”. It’s interesting to note the importance given to the lyrics overall.
A very significant part of the show was also given over to Guy Chambers and Rufus Wainwright’s attempts to write their own power balled. Chambers is the man behind Robbie Williams solo hits (“Angel” is discussed) and worked with Diana Ross, Sir Tom Jones and others. From the early fumblings (Wainwright had an idea to combine a folk song with rap), the song slowly came together melodically and lyrically. It was also nice to see how it changed harmonically and picked up more depth when instruments and backing vocals were added.If you are coming to this article later, the title is “World War Three” – and sounds like a fantastic song at this earlyish stage.
For those that saw it, what did you think of the use of “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus…” as the actual chorus? I thought it was a classic case of a filler line being left in when it needed more work. Ugh.
The Secrets of the Pop Song, BBC Two, Saturday July 2, 9:45pm – The Ballad
Sat 9th July 9.45pm – Episode 2 – Breakthrough Single
Sat 16th July 9.45pm (tbc) – Episode 3 – Anthem
Find out more about the programme on the BBC Two website. You might be able to watch the series online using the BBC iPlayer.
A friend tipped me off about this band, actually from my neck of the woods in Dublin. I haven’t seen them live nor know their work. All I can say is that there are times when you stand back and let the songwriting do the work.
“I’m Sorry” is a very straightforward contemporary ballad. Carosel seem to have made the most of a trip to Paris to shoot a very straightforward contemporary video too. There are times when you really can keep it simple, stupid. This is one of them, and my tip of the week.
UPDATE: I have since learnt that Carosel are now actually based in Paris “for inspiration, beauty and [the] artistic vitality of the city”.
UPDATE 2: The band has since split up, which is a very great shame.
Although I spend a lot of time sending out music demos and tracks to people, I also occasionally have to sit at my desk and receive them. Over the years, I have acted as an occasional A&R person for different projects ranging from Playstation games to niche labels and singers. My latest stint for a small label in Europe prompted me to write down some of the things that strike about listening to other people’s music.
- There’s a lot of it out there!
It really is a buyer’s market in many respects. If A&R people are not careful they can be overwhelmed by submissions. In fact, the label I was working for in this case has more or less decided that it is not a very productive use of time to check demos that are sent in and will be switching to a panel that makes personal recommendations soon. Lesson: get to know (and be liked by) people that count, such as radio programmers, concert promoters, influential journalists, etc.
- Stick to the brief
If it’s a song pitch, don’t send dance tracks to someone looking for country. If it’s a deep house label, your Eurodance is probably going to irritate them more than anything else. They won’t be so overwhelmed that they will change their own style, believe me, and they won’t sit down and give you career advice about what to do with songs that are in their eyes irrelevant. Lesson: focus, focus, focus.
- Sameness means instant death
What am I looking for when checking song demos? Basically, something that stands out. No matter what the genre, you want something that demonstrates some distinctiveness, that will be recognised on the radio. The voice is absolutely essential for this, followed by the instrumentation and groove. Lyrics will be checked as a way of separating the great from the good in the second run. But remember, there are thousands of bands and producers churning out stuff in your genre. How distinctive are you within that genre?
Along the same lines, if you have 12 tracks in the same tempo you are inviting people to skip onto the next track and then the one after that. Variety is the spice of society.
One exception to this is when you are pitching song demos. The demo singer hopefully is close to that of the one being pitched to, but it’s not an absolute necessity. In this case melody and lyrics are the two keys points, as everything else can be re-arranged.
- An awful lot of music should be re-written
It’s very frequent to come across a song that has “something”. It could be a vibe, or a good singer or some quirky arrangement. But too few people keep re-writing the songs until they are really good and have all the elements in place. That means playing with structure, tempo and instrumentation until you have milked every good idea. This is another way of breaking out of the sameness mode. Yeah, it takes time. Lesson: look at the various versions of “Torn” to see what a difference a great arrangement can make. Aspire to that.
- You don’t have much time to catch my attention
I’d say that 20 seconds is the max for knowing if a track is worth listening to. If that sounds cruel, it’s not. It comes from listening to lots of music out of the blue. If a song hasn’t grabbed you after 20 seconds or the first chorus at most, it rarely does after the third verse. Lesson: focus on that first verse and chorus as if they are all people will ever hear. In many cases, this is true.
- Some writers are not sure what they want
Think carefully about who you are sending stuff to, and why. Are you looking for a label deal or a licence? Are you pitching a song to a singer? Is the publishing available? Are you open to co-writes? Have your answers before you send stuff. This also helps you craft a clear letter.
- Graphics/visuals are nice, but…
Some submissions come with complete artwork, which is always nice. But just make sure that all the info is readily available. Don’t hide the woods behind the trees. Lesson: always remember that it’s the music that will clinch the deal, not the envelope it came in.
I hope that helps, and doesn’t put you off sending in stuff. If you have any tips you think could be useful, drop them below as a message.