Thursday, July 22

How To Write A Great Song For Someone Else

By Jordan Galland
Performer Magazine June 2010

THE TRUTH IS, when it comes to making art of any kind, there are no rules. But when it comes to music, by recognizing patterns, charting your strengths and weaknesses and navigating the diverse expanse of aesthetic styles, you'll be able to create unique, well-written songs, whether they're for you or for someone else.

1. Break It Down And Decide On A Genre I write mostly pop music and collaborate with people who are looking for my particular take on the genre. But if you're the one seeking out a recording artist in hopes that they'll want to perform a song you've written, start from the very beginning. Break down their particular genre as thoroughly as you can. Identify what makes the drum fill sound like a perfect fit, the guitar riff shine a little brighter or the bass line carry the melody. A comprehensive breakdown of modern pop music begins with dividing songs up into categories according to shared audible characteristics - dance, rock, folk and so on. It's not unlike a biological classification (animal, vegetable, or mineral); you've got to know which entity you're dealing with and then of course you can mix and match.

2. Find Your Audience Not unlike trying to write a song for yourself, determine who your audience is. When David [Muller, formerly of Fiery Furnaces] and I started out, ten years ago, we were making this mellow, spooky-tinted music, but out of necessity for getting audiences into it live, we ended up going for a more energetic, dance-rock kind of sound. In this case, you're appealing directly to an artist, so absorb as much as you can about them. Listen to their records, read their bio, research other collaborators they've worked with. If you recognize a pattern, decide if it would be best to stick to that pattern (read: give them what they want) or completely surprise them with something they may have never thought they were capable of.

3. Anticipate What They'll Love Think about writing this particular song the same way you would write a script, hoping that a specific actor will get attached. Write the part for that actor, not for yourself. Sean Lennon and I have been friends for years - he's played in my band and I've written songs with him - so we have a shared vocabulary for music. We've both always been into soundtracks and have spent a lot of time talking about film music, and allowing it to influence our music together. In other cases, I'll completely separate myself from the project. What would showcase my vocals, or guitar playing and so on, might not be the same for someone else. Separate yourself from the project in that way.

4. Write It Down This seems like an obvious one. Yes, write down the song itself, but also keep notes. For me, lyrically speaking, being a songwriter is like being a scientific researcher. You've got to keep extensive notes about the things you notice in any given environment. Anywhere you go, everything surrounding you is information you can make sense (or nonsense) of later. Treat this notebook like Darwin's Journal. Fill it with inspiration and just plain observation. A sentence from a National Geographic article you're reading in the waiting room at the dentist. A misheard song lyric on the radio. A fragmented memory of a nightmare - it all goes in.

I got the idea for a song called "Softcore" from a sentence in James Joyce's Ulysses, "Soft Soft Hand," and on a totally different note got the idea for my song "Airbrush" not from a book but from remembering something my brother used to say: "the preview is always better than the movie."

5. Be willing to share, but have enough to go around Having a signature sound or songwriting style is an asset, but make sure you have a diverse enough catalog that it gives other performers something to choose from, but leaves you with some ideas too. You've got your own career as a performer to think about - don't hold back, but every once in a while it might just be worth it to keep that top secret bridge you wrote for your next album.

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