How to write a song

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September 19, 2014 by Sian Rowland

Like most teenagers I used to lock myself in my room and write songs and poems full of adolescent angst but I haven’t written a proper song for many years. I designated 2014 as my year for writing lots of different things so I thought I’d try my hand at song lyrics. Vocalist Susie Goulding had recently performed her first professional gigs so we decided to put our heads together and create an original piece.

The studio mothership at the time of recording the demo.

The studio mothership at the time of recording the demo.

I studied song structure, listened to hit songs and read as much as I could about how some of the greats wrote their songs. We then needed a theme. I wanted the lyrics to feel personal to Susie so she would be able to feel a connection to them. Once we had a theme (the end of a relationship) I came up with the idea of going on a journey and reflecting on the relationship as a journey. I grilled Susie on how the person in the song was feeling, what she could see, hear, smell and how she might make her decision.

We scribbled lots of notes and I then went home and came up with draft lyrics. Ok it’s not that easy. If you’ve ever sat with a blank notebook or screen trying to write some heartfelt lines you’ll know how hard it is. Trying to develop imagery that doesn’t sound like it’s been written by a grumpy thirteen year old, using rhymes that are more compelling that ‘maybe’ and ‘baby’ and trying to bring a freshness to the ideas was really hard. I was determined that the lyrics should be meaningful and have at least a whiff of sophistication about them. All this while Pharrell Williams was wooing the entire world with a song about feeling like a room without a roof but then he’s Pharrell and can turn up and go ‘whoo’ a couple of times and create a hit. He’s allowed to.

One I had the lyrics down Susie put the tune together. She came up with two different version of the tune to the verse and we chose the more minor-sounding one. It gave a good contrast to the hopeful feel of the chorus.

Susie in action in the recording booth

We took the basic skeleton of the song to producer James Hawkins and asked him to magically turn it into a full production. He got us to provide three songs as inspiration and we took the chosen songs apart to look at instrumentation and structure. Jim did his magic musical wizard thing and improvised the basic piano accompaniament, added bass guitar and sorted out a drum beat. Susie recorded her demo vocals and I improvised some backing vocals to go with it. We rejigged the bridge several times, added a few new words and worked out a choral feel for the penultimate chorus. We had a basic track but the story didn’t end there.

Jim adds the bass line.

Jim adds the bass line.

Recording the final product took hours. Now I know why albums take so long to record and why bands are shut away in studios for months at a time. Jim made Susie work really hard in the studio and kept her recording each line over and over until it was perfect. Having a great voice is not enough- getting the correct nuance of every line, word and syllable is. Being a recording artist is not all it’s cracked up to be! I sang so hard I had to take my asthma inhaler (although that might have been from laughing too much too).

Guitarist Rory Harvey added rhythm and lead guitars and the track was mixed at Abbey Road Studios for an amazing clarity of sound and balance. Creating a song is certainly a team effort and the hard work that went into this one track amazed me. Have a listen, like it on Youtube, spread the word and let us know if you enjoyed it and if you’re near South London come and listen to Susie singing live sometime.

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