Songlife: My Fragmented Songwriting Process
I believe the art of songwriting is a mixture of control and mystery. Control the things you can, and embrace the mystery of the things you can’t.
This is my creative process.
Step 1: Capture Fragments
Very few of my songs show up in one bolt of inspiration. Most of the time they are fragments. Why do these fragments show up in my mind? I don’t know. That’s the mysterious part of songwriting. The part I can control is capturing them. I record them on my phone in voice notes or SoundCloud, on a Tascam dr40 field recorder, or in a Pro Tools or GarageBand session if I happen to be in the studio or on the way. If I don’t record them, they’re gone forever. It’s like being in one of those machines where dollar bills are flying around and you have to grab them before the wind stops blowing. When lyrics show up, I have to record them. If I stop to write down verse one and I’m holding two verses in my mind, the second verse will vanish.
Places Where Fragments Find Me
In the van when I am driving alone for long distances (anything over 30 min on an open road).
In the morning before 10am anywhere.
In the studio when I have been there all day and have forgotten about everything else.
In a quiet place when I’m reading fiction. When another writer says something I’ve heard a million times in a new way, it makes me want to think of new ways to say other familiar things.
Step 2: Forget Fragments
I keep recording fragments and transferring them from the phone to the computer every month. They live in a folder called MUSIC. No, I am not worried about my computer crashing.
Step 3: Review Fragments
Good ideas a month ago are often crappy ideas a month later. If they survive the first month, then there might be a song in them. I pick one or two favorites and the rest remain in the MUSIC folder. Sometimes I capture a fragment, and it continues to show up after I’ve forgotten about it. Those fragments move to the front of the line.
Step 4: Which came first, the lyrics, the beat, or the melody?
A fragment can be any of these. My favorite fragment is a strong lyric with a melody. I like having a strong message and crafting the melody around that. My second favorite is a great beat, because a strong foundation it makes the rest of the process a little more relaxed. A guitar melody is my least favorite fragment unless it’s a really strong hook, if it’s a riff that people will sing.
Step 5: How would I arrange this musically?
What’s the song trying to make people feel? What should be the driving instrumental force of the song to convey those emotions? Sometimes all you need is a vocal track. Sometimes you need an orchestra. Whether the idea sounds like an AndyRoo and the AndyRooniverse song, a Runaway Sun or a solo project song, I work with my first impulse.
Step 6: Roll Tape: Trial and Surprise, Risk and Reward
Not Trial and Error. There are no mistakes in recording, only surprises. If an arrangement ends up sounding different from my expectations, in a good or bad way, it’s always a surprise. It’s more interesting when what you heard in your head isn’t all that great on playback. Lyrics change, arrangements change. The first impulse in Step 5 may or may not survive. Usually it doesn’t.
Step 7: Recording the Final Product
Even though I now work in my own studio, I still schedule my studio time from start to finish. I like the sense of urgency. If I am recording with a band, I like to have people around. If I am recording tracks where I am playing everything on them, I prefer to be alone because I like to alter arrangements on the fly in the studio. But the clock needs to be ticking.
Step 8: Give it a Rest + Trial and Surprise Part 2
I now let finished tracks sit for a month before I’ll listen to them again. If something doesn’t sound right I take it out. If I’m hearing a new part to the song, I add it. My ultimate goal for every recording is to get the point across with as few elements as possible. What is your creative process like? What is your art form? Andrew