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Writing a New Song – The Process


I’ve been working on a new song this past week. A recording’s coming soon. You might find the writing process interesting.

It’s last week, early morning, 6:15. I’ve been playing mandolin, practicing that Whisky Before Breakfast fiddle tune. How do they play it so blindingly fast? Practicing with a metronome. It’s at 180. I need to get it to at least 220.

Enough! Switch to guitar. I’ll practice those hymns and Christmas songs, bring out the melody while keeping the accompaniment going. What’s that?  G chord with the D on the second string. I don’t normally play it that way.. Interesting sound. Kind of empty; that D is the fifth. I’m accentuating it. Could use it for something simple. Let’s try a little finger picking with just a dash of strum. Yeah that works. Okay, a simple bassline walk up to the C. Clear, simple; it stands out. Keep that D in the treble. That was the emphasized fifth. Now up the neck to a D9th. Nope, nope, nope… keep it straight, just do the D in a C form. Yep, that D still stands out. Now a bass line to walk it back down to the G. Pretty good. Let’s repeat this a gazillion times. Oops time for work.

Some key things in there. Most of my songs start with a riff, a pattern. They have to stand out to me, to be different. So that empty sounding fingering of the G chord kicked off this new song. Another key thing is that I returned to creating a solid bass line. That pushes the song forward, allows the vocals to do whatever is needed.

It’s the next day. Practicing that mandolin. Lord if anything Whisky Before Breakfast is getting worse. Maybe I should practice it after drinking some whisky! Let’s switch to guitar, work on those hymns and Christmas tunes. I play Silent Night and Come Thou Fount. Hey wasn’t I working on a tune yesterday? G for two measures, C9 for one and D up the neck, but in a C form. And there was a rhythm that I was using. I work it. Yup, there it is. It needs a B section, something to contrast. Let’s see, I could walk down to the E minor chord for two measures. Then repeat the C and D. Yeah, that works. But I’m hearing an A chord in there. I try it. No something is wrong. Time for work.

What is important here, is that I remembered the song. I start hundreds of songs. Most of them I forget the next day. If they are good enough, different enough, have what is needed, I remember them the next day. Then they might become a song.
It’s Monday morning of this week. No mandolin; I’m going right for that song. I practice it through. That A still isn’t right. But I’m definitely hearing it. Hmmm. I start singing with the chords. Wonder where this melody will go. Starts on the third, meandering around it down to the root. My normal dissonances and off rhythms. Classic me. Words start to come over the melody, “Holding on to nothing…” Hmmmm what is that about? Hey I can do a little melody duet with that walk down to the e-minor. More contrast.

As I’m getting ready for work taking my shower I find myself fascinated by those words. Music is nothing, ephemeral. God, well you don’t see God. An image of holding on to nothing as if it were tangible. Maybe the first verse could be about rooting yourself in the intangible, the second about trying to be more grounded by not holding on to nothing, and the third a confirmation of holding on to nothing. Hey! Quit day dreaming. Get out of the shower. Get to work.

So what is interesting in that? One thing is that I couldn’t play off rhythms to save my life when I was a teenager. Now it is my trademark, just the way I am, not intentional. Another is the discovery of melodies. I play the same progression over and over, singing, discovering where the melody wants to go, not where I want it to go. Another interesting thing is that A. I hear it. I know it has to be there. But something is wrong with what I’m doing with it. Hidden behind this last observation is the fact that I have complete trust in the music that is coming to me. It will be right if I do what I hear. Words, maybe not.  But music yes.

And what is different here? Well for me words always come last. But in this case, they are coming before I even have the melody solidified. And the song is already structured. That is very different for me. I never know the words and structure will be until the very end of the process.

It’s today. I solved that A problem in the shower yesterday. The E minor is still the right chord on the second time through, but it only gets one measure. Then the sunshine of the A comes through on the second measure. Before, I was trying to do the A for both of those measures. The melody is more solid. The words for the first and the second verse are demanding to be written. I run upstairs, get them on the computer.

What is left? I have to nail the third verse words and beat myself up on the words for the first two verses. And I have to solidify the melody. Today has been pretty normal in the writing process, except for the fact that the melody isn’t solidified.

Musicians have their own vocabulary. I couldn’t write this without using some. Hope it didn’t get in the way of understanding. Have you gleaned the excitement, the discovery, the joy and the frustrations I experience in writing a song?

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