Writing songs: make us feel it

Every writer knows that if you want to write a novel, you have to read a lot of books. And not just in your genre — you have to venture into all of the categories of your kindle. It’s the same for songwriting. In order to understand the craft of putting a song together, you first need to expose yourself to as much music as you can. Keep listening until you can hear the musical and lyrical structures of the nearly countless variations of songwriting out there. And then listen some more.

Whether it’s pop, which currently tends to have simpler, more repetitive lyrics over intense production, or rap, which usually focuses on telling a story over production-heavy loops and beats, or country, which almost entirely tells stories via vivid imagery and hooks, sometimes with a stripped-down sound, sometimes with arena-ready production gloss, you’ll learn the many nuances of songwriting from all of them. All kinds of styles are calling to you; let them in.

Listen then write

As you jump out of the For You section of your streaming service, you’ll notice almost all music shares one objective: emotion. Every song wants you to feel something. And to do that, they tell a story, whether it’s in one chorus chanted over and over again, or in an epic poem type style that provides you with characters, locations, events and even a timeline.

We’ve grabbed some of our favorite songs that tell stories in an original way, with inventive use of rhymes, imagery and phrasing. Add them to your playlist:

Chris Stapleton, “Whiskey and You” (written by Stapleton with Lee Thomas Miller). The opening line says it all: “There’s a bottle on the dresser by your ring, and it’s empty so I don’t feel a thing.” You have the whole story right there — that’s economy of imagery and phrasing. The rest of the song uses the differences between “whiskey and you” to say how the singer feels about his ex. It’s concise, hyper-effective storytelling using whiskey as the vehicle to attack his true feelings.

Kacey Musgraves, “Dime Store Cowgirl” (written by Musgraves with Shane McAnally and Luke Laird). Musgraves takes an insult screamed at her by another girl’s mom when she was a kid, and turns it into this statement of intent and identity. The phrase itself is evocative and catchy, and she weaves it into a stream of memories as she doubles down on where she’s from (“it don’t matter where I’m going, I still call my hometown home”).

Eminem, “Stan” (written by Eminem, Dido and Paul Harmon). One of the greatest examples of storytelling in rap, or any genre, this bleak but brilliant track is narrated by Eminem as Stan, one of Eminem’s biggest fans. It details Stan’s descent from happy fanboying to homicidal rage as his idol seemingly ignores all his attempts to get in contact. At the end, Eminem raps as himself again. The track is full of psychological and emotional moments that vividly illustrate Stan’s journey — Stan rationalizing that Eminem probably didn’t get his letters because his handwriting is too sloppy, Eminem ignoring Stan and his little brother when they were waiting in the cold outside one of his concerts, Stan laying out how he and Eminem are the same, even as Stan’s rage begins to creep into his phrasing more and more. It’s a masterpiece of sharp, memorable imagery used to convey a complex series of emotions, and to track a psychological breakdown.

Jessica Roadcap, “Always Find Me” (written by Roadcap, David Dorn and Rose Falcon). Roadcap uses a sparkling flow of imagery to detail her failed attempts to escape a memory: a fast car, an ocean, running, hiding, breaking free, Vegas, one night stands, ghosts… but always ending up realizing, “your memory always finds me.” This is how you take a hugely relatable feeling (wanting to forget the love of someone who’s gone) and make it instantly evocative to the listener using well-chosen imagery.

Beyoncé, “Single Ladies” (written by Beyoncé, The-Dream, Kuk and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart). This falls into the category of anthemic statement of intent, with its heavily repeated call to “all the single ladies” over a stuttering, relentless beat. It makes its point in pointed fashion, with its poetic “you had your turn, and now you’re gonna learn, what it feels like to miss me,” and its instantly iconic, “if you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it,” which distills the meaning of the entire song into one bladed phrase.

Keith Urban and Eric Church, “Raise ’em Up” (written by Tim Douglas, Jaren Johnston and Jeffrey Steele).  That title is used in a multitude of ways that get ever more profound: raising your glass in a toast, your hands in prayer, your tear-filled eyes up to the sky, your kids as they grow up. It’s a beautiful song that transcends that simple phrase by layering on the meanings.

Howlin’ Wolf, “Smokestack Lightning” (written by the Wolf). A classic, old-time blues, this uses a ruthlessly stripped-back image to drive the song: the sparks coming out of the smokestack of a train rushing past into the night (“smokestack lightning, shining just like gold…”). That becomes symbolic of the relationship that the character is losing (“where did you sleep last night… why don’t you hear me crying…”). Even musically, the song sits in one hypnotic chord throughout as the image is used again and again, making this in some ways a precursor to modern pop (we’ll take that Pulitzer now).

Whatever genre you listen to, the lessons of the best are clear: choose unusual imagery that hooks you in and tells you a story in its own right; play with words and phrases, layering in more than one meaning to give a song more depth; give your words a dynamic rhythm that sticks in our minds; but above all, keep it authentic, keep it true, keep it relatable, keep it real.

Make us feel it.

 

 

Songwriting and storytelling

We’ve focused a lot on movies and novels in previous posts, but there’s another kind of storytelling that drives a lot of what we do: songwriting.

Writing a song

We love all kinds of music, whether it’s the beautiful inventive craziness of pop, the gritty edge of rap, the straight-up epic-ness of soul, or the gorgeous storytelling and soul-baring of country music. The through-line for us is songs that tell us stories, whether it’s a verse by verse evolution of things happening, or the evocation of an emotional moment in time. That kind of songwriting is a very precise form of storytelling, even more so than a short story, which is one of the most precision-based ways to get a story across, given the lack of time and space. Characters, situations, emotions, arcs, set-ups and pay-offs all need to happen immediately. Just as with short stories, there’s no runway with a song; you need a vertical take-off for the tale you’re telling. You have to grip the listener from the start with vivid, specific imagery that resonates. You need to use whatever tools you can to grab us and hold us close. Clever analogies, innovative wordplay, a flow; there’s a lot more in common with rap and country than you’d think.

FGL and Nelly

Florida Georgia Line and Nelly, rapping and… country-ing?

For us, the nexus of this kind of songwriting is Nashville. Dive deep into country music, and you’ll find everything you need to know about songwriting. It’s no coincidence that Taylor Swift, who has spent the last 15 months dominating the world with the epic, glossy, futuristic, confessional pop of the 1989 album and tour, learned how to get there by writing country songs.

Taylor Swift

Great country songwriters transport you from the first line, and grip you until the last (and beyond): Eric Church, Mark Irwin, Shane McAnally, Kelley Lovelace, Miranda Lambert, Jessica Roadcap, Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, Ashley Gorley, Chris Dubois… They tell heartfelt, vivid tales, wrapped up in hooks and melodies. Here are two examples of how to tell a story through verses and choruses (listen to the way these songs are constructed, the way they phrase the things they say, the way imagery is set-up and paid-off):

Miranda Lambert, “Automatic” (written by Lambert with Natalie Henby and Nicolle Galyon). This digs deep into a nostalgic vibe, and does so by brilliantly layering meaning upon meaning on the word ‘automatic.’ The theme of the song is yearning for a time when you had to work for what you got, whereas now everything’s just automatic. Analogies flow fast and smartly, as do memories of taking the long way around (ironically, given the speed with which they poetically hit the theme). Driving stick, taking photos (“the kind you gotta shake”), writing letters… very specific experiences become universal as Lambert reaches out for a time “back before everything became automatic.”

Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”, (written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear and Brad Warren). Irwin and his co-writers do something very smart here, taking the chorus of a song that the character is listening to on the radio, and making it the chorus of the song itself. It adds another dimension to this story of someone driving angrily away from a row with their loved one, which is already made unusual by being from the POV of the person being driven away from. It’s a flawless example of how to take a story, and tell it in a fresh way, from a fresh angle. Irwin and co.’s approach gives the song life and heart; using the highway as the anchor for the song (“the highway won’t dry your tears, but I will… the highway don’t care, but I do”) makes it grab you. It’s not just someone telling you they care; it’s poetically constructed, which gives it more impact.

Smart analogies, vivid imagery, clever, complex and concise phrasing and construction: these themes reverberate through a good story and make for great music. It sounds analytical, and maybe even cold, but all this is the foundation on which beautiful, rich, heartfelt and soulful art is made.