The story telling within songs is something I have always been fascinated with. How do songwriters come up with the story they want to tell? Where do they start? My son started playing guitar last year and has been keen to start writing songs. He has come up with a few limericks and beats but they are still very much 7 year old's humour. So I reached out and asked professionals how they do it and turned to our very own homegrown British talent.
I have had the pleasure to talk to five incredible artists who kindly offered to answer a few questions for me. Big shout out to:
Johny Gibson, a singer/songwriter and fellow Nashville (TV show) fan. Find him on Twitter (@johny_Gibson) and check out his YouTube channel (It’s awesome!!).
Emma Moore, a singer/songwriter and fellow Grey’s Anatomy fanatic!! Find her on all socials @emmamoorecouk.
Donna Marie, a singer & musician. Follow her on Twitter @donnamariesongs.
Becky Lawrence, a singer/songwriter, vocal coach and Vlogger/Podcaster. Catch her on Twitter @BeckyLawrenceUK and YouTube.
Georgia Nevada, a singer/songwriter. Follow her on Instagram @GeorgianevadaUK and Twitter @GeorgiamusicUK
How did you get started with Songwriting?
JG: When I was 16 I got my first bass guitar. It was an outlet for a teen full of angst and mis-understandings of the world: I would spend hours learning punk rock songs in my tiny box bedroom with no more ambition other than to master my favourite songs for the great sense of satisfaction it gave me to play along to my most treasured CDs, alone. It took 5 years of this before I would turn my hand at 6 strings. By 21 I had things to write about. Real things and that’s when I first wrote my first songs. Having gotten heavily into Nirvana I started to write. Songs that were full of angst, frustration and dreams. By this point I began to dream of life as a musician, I though that would be the coolest thing ever, though it would never quite pan in to a “not having to have a real job” dream, but heck it did help with growing up. Fast forward 15 years and that feeling really has never gone: over a hundred songs written (different styles/probably half dropped), the feeling of accomplishment and elation gained after each song rings true. I have played in rock bands, rockabilly bands and solo, writing lyrics/music every step of the way.
EM: I got into songwriting almost accidentally, when I was trying to get back into playing guitar - I was so bad! So I decided I'd just make up my own songs so no one would notice if I played them wrong. I'd also just moved back in with my parents in Blackpool after leaving Manchester so it was a big change, and writing gave me somewhere to figure myself out. I had been chasing a singing career, music had always been my life, but I was 24 at this point and hadn't ever really thought about making my own music. I very quickly fell in love with writing songs though, even more so after stumbling across Brandy Clark on YouTube. It was an acoustic version of 'Hold My Hand' where she spoke about the writing process and then played it through and I was immediately hooked. After that I just wrote as much as I could, hoping to get just that little bit better with every song.
DM: I was fascinated with music from a very early age. My first memories are my dad playing guitar and singing old 60s songs and then I was tinkering on the piano at church when I was maybe 3/4 years old and learning how to play twinkle little star by ear. Songwriting in various forms really began then. I would teach myself to play my own Melodies. Eventually I was gifted a 1 octave keyboard from from parents at christmas. The more traditional style writing came a little later when I was 11/12 where I began to pen lyrics and songs (they were likely awful and I don’t remember any of them) but we have to start somewhere. I also became aware of a recording studio in my town and so I saved up my odd job and paper-round money to be able to buy myself recording studio time. Throughout the years everything progressed from there.
BL: I came into songwriting quite late on, back when I was about 20 but I did try and write songs back in my teenage years but they weren’t very good! Over the years I’ve learnt more techniques which has definitely helped develop my writing skills. I then started to reach out to songwriters to work with and have had great success working with them.
GN: I always knew I wanted to sing and loved writing poems. At 15 id started gigging and realised pretty quickly that I needed to start writing some songs! I had no idea if I’d be any good at it, but once I started writing, I loved it & have never looked back!
What is your individual process?
JG: Every now and then a melody will pop into my head, so I’ll record it as a voice memo in my iPhone. It might be a 5 second hook, full verse of half a chorus idea. Sometimes it will stay as only a voice memo on my iPhone until then end of that day, for months or forever (I have so many still to work on still sat there, waiting!). Sometimes it will be lyrical, sometime just musical or sometimes just phonetic crap. These melody ideas can come to at any given time; walking my dogs, whilst working, whilst sleeping. More recently I’ve found a strange method (by accident) where if I boil a kettle or have the microwave on whilst listening to music, I hear a different melody in the music being played, so I will make a voice memo of it - sounds weird but it’s actually been quite productive in recent months (I guess since I moved to a new apartment and have the kitchen/living area combined)?! Either way, when I then sit down and actually listen to my memos, play guitar to them, the songs normally flow from there. In short, most of the time new songs come from one or more previously recorded voice memos.
EM: I usually start with a lyric, I have to be fired up by something! Sometimes it's a title or just a word, sometimes an overall theme, or occasionally huge paragraphs that fly out partially formed already. Then I'll noodle around on my guitar and try to find the tempo/rhythm/chord progression that feels right for the lyric. Once I have that sound down it's all experimentation with story, and how I want the narrative to develop. I try and get a full draft done before editing or re-working, but as I've (very slowly) got used to re-drafting, sometimes that happens as I go. I used to hate re-drafts and avoid them at all costs, but as I've gotten better at writing and re-writing, it's where some of my best lines come from.
DM: It varies. For the most part I often find some chord structures and start to sing melody lines as I write the chords. Sometimes I will write all of the music (chord progression) and produce the whole track before I have any lyrics or melody. I find that quite challenging but it pushes me out of my comfort zone. I am also often hired as a ‘top line’ vocalist. What this means is that I will be sent instrumental music and be given a short brief to write lyrics and melody to and then I will record the vocals remotely and send them back to the record label or artists I am hired by. Often genres are quite mixed so I have to think outside the box. I really enjoy working in a variety of ways.
BL: Honestly it changes all the time! Sometimes I have a melody and no lyrics, and sometimes I have some lyrics and no melody. I even have times when I have an idea of what I want to write but I have nothing to start with so it can then take some time to develop the idea.
GN: I tend to write them both at the same time, I’m not much of a guitar player so it tends to be the chords, lyrics and melody all at once!
Where does your inspiration come from?
JG: Life. I know it’s cliche but it’s true, I’m a songwriter who writes about real things, real things in my life. It might be the 9-5 grind, relationship pleasures/woes, my dogs or my friends. I’m a very nostalgic person and I think that often shows in my lyrics. Some songs are written directly to their intended recipient, some use metaphors to secretly say what I want to say. On the flip side I also get great inspiration from musicians I love, if I watch The Highwaymen Live at Nassau in the 90s I will follow it up with a song idea, or watching Bob Dylan documentaries, or most recently the Nashville TV series has spawned more than a few ideas (I’m new to it!).
EM: Most often I write about my own life and experiences, or those of the people around me. I also like to look at situations from different perspectives, so sometimes I'll hear a great story but be more drawn to how it might look from another persons point of view. I also write a lot of (like, probably too many) songs inspired by stories or characters from Grey's Anatomy. I'm just so invested in the characters after watching them for 16 years.. half my life! I also love the storytelling on Greys and how well-rounded the characters are. No one is all villain or hero, they all exist with flaws and great qualities and I find that much more realistic, inspiring and interesting.
DM: Like many songwriters, inspiration ebbs and flows. Sometimes (and this is my favourite time) ideas present themselves almost out of thin air and I can write several songs in a day. It’s rare but when this happens I go with it. Most of the time day to day life will inspire the topic or style of song. Sometimes I set myself little challenges, one example is if I have written a few middle of the road or slower /melancholy songs I will only write something that is more upbeat in tempo and happier. I also feel that producing music plays a huge part of my songwriting.
BL: There’s so many things I’m inspired by but mainly everyday life, thoughts and feelings. I also love putting myself in other peoples shoes and how they might think about certain things thanks to my background in acting and musical theatre.
GN: I make a conscious effort to try and find inspiration in the little things, it could come from a conversation at work or a long drive through the middle of nowhere! If there’s anything I feel an emotional connection to that I can try to harness and draw on for a song - I will!
How has COVID changed the way you work?
JG: Honestly, it’s been great. I was on furlough from my job for 4 months in the summer of 2020, during which time I wrote a full album of songs! Having that amount of time to get inspired is rare, I’ve certainly never had it before. I never intended (or really wanted) to write a direct Coronavirus song, but being a songwriter who’s writes about real things, I couldn’t help but write “Staying In” during last years first national lockdown.
EM: Covid has forced me to experiment more with fiction than I have done previously, as there is very little of anything interesting happening in my personal life and those of my friends. It also made me think a little bigger, about things far greater than my own life - which is great. You can't look at what has happened over the last twelve months across the world and then only see your own tiny, immediate world. Or at least, I can't. I haven't written a lot over the last twelve months, in fact I've only finished three songs, but they're some of my best. It became a year of quality over quantity.
DM: I wouldn’t say it has changed but because of what I do (did) for a living I am able to spend as much time as I like working on music. The downside to that is because I am unable to work due to lockdown this can in itself have the opposite effect, in that life can feel very uninspiring. I was extremely busy last year releasing loads of music and working on various remote projects. It’s been a great distraction but it absolutely burnt me out.
The songwriting/music production easy part. All that comes with it in terms of self promotion (that I absolutely hate) and social media/marketing is exhausting. There are a lot more people that seem to be releasing music which is great to see but it's even harder to be heard and seen as creative.
BL: I’ve had to do pretty much everything online! From songwriting sessions to my vocal coaching sessions but it’s been amazing to see how we have all adapted to it.
GN: Everything is virtual! I haven’t seen a crowd of people in a bustling pub while playing a set for a while! I tend to be watching my own face on a screen while some little comments pop up! I’ve also had to record everything at home which has been an interesting learning curve! I usually go to Green Wave Productions in Hove or the Practice Roomz in Stevenage for vocal recordings and the producer on most of my songs lives in Nashville so that’s been pretty impossible to do too! We’ve made it work though and I’m super proud of everything that’s been created despite the challenges.