Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The making of a new song (Part 1)

I've had a lot of people over the years ask me about my songwriting process, and I never feel like I have a good answer for them. I'm also not at all sure that my process of writing a song is like anyone else's. Songwriting is kind of a private affair, and it seems to me that even in the great collaborative teams (Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Rodgers/Hammerstein and so on), you have one guy who's the lyricist and another guy that does the music. In cases where both people do both jobs, they rarely do them together. I know it's neat to imagine multiple people assembling this audible work of art, but even in those Beatles tunes that John and Paul actually worked on together, almost all of them had Paul writing the verse and chorus, and John contributing the bridge, or vice-versa. It's not like they were sitting together saying, "Ooh, make the next chord a G minor!" and so on. Ultimately, creativity is a solo gig, at least in the initial stage... a one-person deal.

Anyway, since I'm in the process of writing songs for the next album (even though the first one hasn't hit the streets yet), I thought I'd share what my version of songwriting is all about. By the way, while I hate the fact that I have to write this, everything you hear here is copyrighted by me, Zak Claxton. This blog post is date/time stamped, obviously, so don't get any funny ideas about borrowing this little tune. I do like to share; I don't like to get ripped off. Enough said.

1. The Idea
Since the beginning of recorded history (and probably long before that), creative people have wondered where their creations come from. While many forms of art and sculpture can be seen to represent something that exists, music is a very nebulous thing, where you find yourself pulling chords and notes and rhythms seemingly out of nowhere. Well, I can tell you, it's not "out of nowhere". Using myself as an example, I've spent years and years being immersed in the music of western civilization that goes back centuries... even millennia. So when I (and most other artists) write a "new" song, what we're often doing is drawing upon the sounds that came before us. There are transitions between chords that sound "right" because they're based on patterns that were developed long ago. Especially in the milieu of pop/rock that comprises my musical output, there are rhythms that have been imprinted in our collective unconsciousness long before we were born. My "new" songs merely reflect everything I've heard over the course of my life. I can't claim it to be any more mystical than that.

Another note on ideas: I've never been successful at forcing myself to write new music. I can't designate a time and sit down and write a song. It's not like, "3:00: do laundry, 4:00: call Joe, 5:00: take out trash, 6:00: write new song." It doesn't happen that way for me. Every time I've successfully written something I feel is worthwhile, it goes more like this.

- I find myself in a creatively open space, where I don't have a lot of other things pulling my attention away.
- I pick up a guitar and strum around aimlessly for awhile.
- Eventually, I find my hands doing things that I hadn't planned.
- At some point, I kind of snap back into regular consciousness, and realize that what I'm playing isn't something that I've done before, nor does it seem to be something that someone else has done. It seems to be something like a new song. Voila.

So at that point, we have an idea. It's not quite a song yet. But maybe it's just a few chords that sound good together, and inspire me to continue on it. Side note: I can't tell you how many times I've gotten to this point, and then decided what I had wasn't that great, or got distracted and did something else for awhile and then forgot what I was doing earlier. You need to make a point to try and get something fleshed out a little more at this point, if it seems worthwhile.

2. The Process
I feel a need to once again say that while this is my process, it isn't THE process. Some people go about this an entirely different way. I'm only telling you my way, which may or may not be congruous with your way. Okay. Glad we cleared that up.

As mentioned earlier, I tend to write on an acoustic guitar. Why? First, I'm most comfortable with that instrument, so there's no delays while I try and figure out how to play what I'm hearing in my head. Second, my personal opinion is that if I can play it through on just an acoustic guitar and voice, it has good potential to be a decent song.

So, I have a couple sets of chords, and in typical pop/rock format, one set will end up as the verse, and the other the chorus. Note that in my case, lyrics aren't even in the picture yet. Some writers (Elton John, for instance) take existing lyrics and write music to them. I can't do that. To me, the song is the music, and hopefully my lyrics fit the mood of the music, rather than the other way around. However, part of the music is melody, so at this stage I might start humming along with my verse/chorus chords, seeing what happens. I need to be careful here, because I really don't want to lock myself into a melody. I kind of let it flow, playing through the chords over and over again, trying different variations on the melody.

3. The Addendums
Let's say I now have these chords for a verse and chorus, and a rather amorphous melody that I've been humming. Not gonna worry about words for awhile. But I am aware that in most cases, I want something more than these two musical motifs to repeat throughout the song, to avoid repetitive boredom (generally not something good in music, to me anyway). Now, there's no preset template that I fill in here. Sometimes, I do another musical theme and it becomes the song's bridge. Sometimes that bridge is also an area for the instrument solo (which is the case in my songs "This Afternoon", "You're Like a Cloud" and others). Sometimes I add yet another theme which becomes the coda (aka outro) of a song, which you hear in my song "Fade Away", for example. Remember, there are no rules here, okay? I do what I feel like for that song at that time. The next song might be very different.

In the as-yet-untitled song I'm writing now, the first addendum that came to me was the outro. In fact, the very first time I played it all the way through, I found that I just did the outro naturally, without even thinking about it... a good sign. The song also seemed to want a bridge, and I tried a couple of things that were okay, but didn't slay me. But right at the moment I decided to record a quick demo (see below), I just let go and allowed my hands to do as they wanted on the bridge, and I liked what they did.

Anyway, as I just mentioned, the next step is...

4. The Demo
People have different meanings for the word "demo" as it relates to songwriting. Some people make their demos very fleshed out, with drum parts and other arranging ideas. For me, there's a simple reason to do a quick demo at this stage; I don't want to forget what I've written! Granted, I do occasionally write music with a pen and paper in front of me, jotting down chord charts and so on. However, there mere act of putting down the guitar pick and picking up the pen can cause me to lose my mojo, or whatever you want to call it. What I prefer doing is playing the song over and over while I write it so the chord changes become internalized. Then, I simply record it live, which I do the very moment I can play it all the way through.

I really don't want anything distracting me at that stage... even the act of recording can interrupt the flow, if it involves a lot of setup. Stopping and setting up mics, prepping the computer to record -- I don't like that stuff at that point. So, I usually grab the closest thing to me that will record audio with one button push. In the case of "Demo Song 10.26.09", it was the digital camera sitting on my desk. I put it on the other chair in my office/studio, pointed it toward me, and hit "record". Is the audio quality great? No. Is the performance perfect? No. Will I use this actual recording on the album? No. Does it suffice to capture the idea immediately so I can start thinking about other stuff without fear of abandoning the song's vibe? Yes!

Sometimes, I hum along while I record the demo, but more often I don't. The melody is often still congealing in my brain at this stage, and the minute I record something, I'm mostly locked into it from that point onward. But even at this very early stage, I can tell you where everything goes... where the verses are, where the choruses are, where the solos will fit and so on.

That's where we're leaving off for now, because that's all I've got. Some songs actually die at this stage. After a few days of listening, I may decide that I'm just not that into it. Or, I may realize that it's too derivative of some other artist's work, and I'm pretty careful about making sure my original music is actually mine. However, in Part 2 of this topic, I'll tell you about the next stage, which will likely be the writing of lyrics.

For the time being, here's the very rough demo of "Song 10.26.09". Enjoy.



Anonymous said...

Nice work so far Zak! I especially like the contrast on the "bridge" section... but then again I'm a sucker for a good bridge.

Your process is quite similar to mine - I usually start with a chord progression played on an acoustic guitar. Sometimes I know the lyrical topic of the song, but often I don't.

I will look forward to following your progression here, and I'll probably link to it from my blog: www.christopherave.wordpress.com

Take care!

Christopher Ave

Zak Claxton said...

Thanks Christopher. I'm sure that we all have similarities in our writing approach, though the details vary quite a bit from composer to composer. I've started a bit of work on this lyric, so hopefully Part 2 isn't that far off.