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Monday, 11 July 2011

BBC: Secrets of the Pop Song, part 1 (Ballad)


The BBC is currently running a three-part series called Secrets of the Pop Song, in which top UK songwriter Guy Chambers (more hits than you can shake a stick at, most famously providing the best songs of Robbie Williams' career) pairs up with a different artist each week to write a different type of song.


Spectacular doyle, Robbie Williams, who made the mistake
of thinking he was bigger than his songwriters

If you haven't seen it yet, check out part 1 here, in which Chambers writes a ballad with Canadian balladeer Rufus Wainwright.

As I was watching it, I jotted down a few thoughts:
  • Starting with a title can give you the concept of the song, and the atmosphere of the music straight away, meaning you can streamline the playing around on instruments you do to find a suitable riff or musical style. 

  • When I write a riff or a chord sequence, I follow my ear initially; but then I need to check whether the result is “comfortable” to the audience, or just predictable. Audiences sometimes like to be pleasantly surprised with where a song goes, but they don't like to be jerked around all over the place.

  • Lyricist Don Black: “If you can recognise yourself in a song” then you're onto a winner. Very true. If a song's too specific in its lyrics, only people who've experienced that specific situation will be able to relate to it. If you make the words a little more general, boiling the song down to the basic emotion rather than the specifics of the situation that moved you to write those words, then more people will feel like the song “speaks” to them.

  • Sting, along the same lines, talking about Every Breath You Take, which he intended as quite a bitter song about a troubled break-up, being played at people's weddings because other people hear a different meaning altogether. “It means whatever you want it to mean”.


    Ok, he's a bit of a knob,
    but he's sold more records than all of us.

  • Boy George, saying it's easier and better to write from personal experience. I'm not sure that's always true, and I certainly don't think that it's best to write lyrics in the heat of the moment when an emotion's at its most powerful. Most of my songs are about my personal experiences, but they're almost always imagined or remembered a while afterwards, when I'm in a different mood; otherwise I end up being too specific (see Don Black section), or just too much like an angry teenager's diary. Also, look at Randy Newman, who writes superb songs often from a different character's point of view, not his own.

  • Don Black again: artist-specific songs and in-jokes often make songs unsellable from a publishing point of view. A song that's too much like a Rufus Wainwright song (with RW being a pretty idiosyncratic artist) would be a turn-off for a publishing company, since they wouldn't be able to place it with anybody else on their roster (unless they happened to have a roster of Rufus Wainwright soundalikes, which isn't likely!)

  • Radio scouts going mental over the final track. Of course they are – the show would have been a damp squib if the end product had been a flop, and also it's a well put together track. The quality of the recording, too, is excellent. I do wonder, though, if they would have been quite as excited if they hadn't known who'd written it...
This last point also raises a problem a lot of songwriters have, namely the quality of their demos. Nowadays, scouts aren't remotely interested in anything that's done on a dictaphone with just you and your guitar – the demo has to sound slick and well-produced; pretty much ready to broadcast as it is. It's a shame, really; a great song is a great song, regardless of the production quality. But with technology getting better and cheaper as time goes on, every songwriter potentially has professional studio-quality sounds within their budget, so of course the standard of demo production is going to rise; and it's only natural that a scout's ears are drawn more to a shiny radio-ready demo than a poorly-recorded sketch. 

 
Wonderbollocks Records do not accept unsolicited wax cylinders*

In the past I've had A&R people turn down my demos because my vocals weren't up to scratch – I was livid at the time, because I wouldn't have been singing the song on the final record, so what the hell does it matter what my voice sounds like? But that's the way the industry's working at the moment, so there's no point griping. If your vocals aren't up to the job, hire a singer. If your demos are getting returned because the production's not good enough, throwing a tantrum (as I've done many a time) isn't going to get you anywhere. It might not be fair; it might not be right; but it's how it's done.

*photo courtesy of Ohio State University

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