Songcraft: Love Will Find You
A ride-along to see a new song unfold
This is the first installment in a series where I’ll share with you how I work out songs. You don’t have to be a songwriter, in fact, it might be more fun if you’re not. Think of this like The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross with a guitar instead of a palette knife.
Where do it start? How do it go?
Starting any creative endeavor is the hardest part and it’s no different with songs. Even if you’ve written a thousand songs, when you sit down to write another one, you have to start all over. You have to find that invisible thread to pull out of thin air that allows you to begin. Unlike writing prose or poetry, songs give you more ways in. The thread you pull may be a phrase or idea, but it could just as easily be a melody you found in the shower, a guitar riff you bumped into when you were teaching yourself a Dylan song, or the polyrhythm created by your turn signal and the windshield wipers as you waited at a stoplight in the rain.
This new song I’m calling Love Will Find You started with a simple little riff. I picked up my guitar as I do most mornings to absentmindedly noodle and strum through some chord changes as I’m waking up. It’s more a meditation than anything else. It’s just communing with the sound of the instrument in the quiet dark hours before the world wakes up. Here’s what that little riff sounded like…
And that was it. I found a thread worth pulling on. After cycling through it a few times and tweaking the capo position (I liked the way it sounded higher up on the guitar), I had to start my day and do responsible things. I quickly captured a recording on my phone and forgot about it until later in the afternoon when I picked up my guitar again and played it from memory. That’s a kind of test. If I can still remember it there might be something there. Often as I’m remembering it, I’ve found that I revise it in a way that’s better than the original.
When the thread of a song has reached this length, typically one of two things happen next for me:
It just hangs there for a few weeks and slowly fades away, replaced by other priorities in my life.
It begins auditioning lyrics in the background of my daily life, hoping to fall in love, settle down and make a few beautiful verses together.
This thread got lucky.
It’s worth noting that I don’t always start from a guitar riff. The first thread is sometimes a turn of phrase or a concept or even just a really powerful emotion. The magical starting threads are the melodic ones because those come with the essential ingredient woven inside. A song is not a song without a melody.
I was fortunate with this little guitar riff because nestled into the chord changes was the embryo of a melody that would become the chorus.
Words as Stunt Doubles or Whatever Those People Are Called Who Stand in for the Big Stars While They’re Lighting a Scene for Three Hours
Maybe some songwriters nail a lyric down to a melody on the first try, but I think most of us sing random words and approximations of words (think early Michael Stipe from R.E.M.) just to understand how words will sound riding atop this new melodic idea.
Why do we do this? Why not just count the syllables needed and start writing lyrics? Technically that should work. But it doesn’t and here’s why: some words can’t or shouldn’t be sung. Think about some of the more awkward Rush songs where Geddy Lee is enunciating Neal Peart’s wordsmithery and it sounds like he’s reading from a textbook. Inherent in a melody’s construction are natural points of emphasis. If you just map any old phrase over that melody you will likely put the emPHAsis on the wrong syllABle.
So what did this sound like for me at this stage? Something like this…
Give your heart to someone who do
Do do do, do do do, do do
Brilliant, I know right? Unless you’re Sting, you probably can’t pull this lyric off. It didn’t matter because at this point, I loved the sound of the melody I was singing, and how it played inside the guitar part doubling it at times. I sang it over and over again as I made dinner for my daughter Ash and me— pesto, her favorite. At this point, I knew the little thread wanted to be a song, which brought me to the next hurdle. What was it going to be about?
I find this is often where I hit the wall. Once you write words, you are committing yourself. Words are literal and subject to judgment and ridicule. I might reveal to the world what a simpleminded idiot I am. I may write something so obtuse no one understands it. A lot can go wrong.