Posts Tagged ‘“songwriting”’

bossI seem to have bought one of these; a device that will revolutionise my performances. As I don’t have a band, nor the ability to find one (nor the patience to lead one, nor the finances to pay one) this will be the way to enhance my live sound. What a loop pedal does is to enable you to set up various musical phrases, chords, beats etc. that will repeat (as if on loops of old-skool tape) as you play, adding depth to your music.

I do mostly acoustic gigs, however most of my songs are ‘band’ songs; they’re written with a full folk-rock/indie arrangement in mind. Only in the studio can I fully realise them as I originally heard them in my mind’s ear when they were composed. Some of you will have heard my song ‘Drifter’, performed here with flautist George Roberts:

Here is the recorded version:

So when I play live, there is a bit of a mis-match between what I’m presenting to people and how I actually see myself as an artist. I do have some folky tunes that don’t require extra adornment, but most of my stuff would benefit from some level of embellishment.

The trouble is that extra layers of sound don’t neccessarily add interest to a live set; in fact, for a solo act they can work against it. In ‘organic’ music (as opposed to electronic), the interest is generated by the fact that musician is actually playing in front of you in real time. Layers of recorded sound (even if you’re recording them  yourself during the performance) can detract from the spontaneity and humanity of your performance. If a solo performer’s sound gets bigger and more interesting during a gig, they themselves tend to lose charisma in comparison.

The widespread use of these pedals has led to a genre of ‘loop-folk’ where acoustic guitarists layer-up guitar parts, often to a beat that they have laid down by tapping the body of the guitar. Unfortunately, they usually use simple three or four chord sequences that don’t vary. The fact they are usually using the same sound for all their parts doesn’t help. I will have to work out how to drop in and out of loops so things don’t get tedious – dynamics and chord modulation are important to me.

This device will never become my ‘band in a box’. For reasons I’ve already explained, I don’t want to dilute the immediacy of my performance (such as it is), nor do I want to risk a poor imitation of the recorded versions. But it will enable me to feature my guitar technique more, which is more from the rock tradition – soloing over chords – than the folky self-accompanying style, which is what I have been restricted to. It will also enable me to lay down beatbox rhythms  and vocal harmonies, and add tonal colour.

These pedals should be used wisely, like The Force, otherwise the dark side beckons!


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It was Christmas Day and my step-mum had just given me a present – a DVD of the Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth. As I studied the cover she told me:
“They were talking about him on Radio 4. They’ve reassessed his life and career…you like him don’t you?”
“Yes, I’ve heard about this film. it’s supposed to be quite good”
“it’s thirty years since he died…”


“Er, Nick Cave’s not dead as far as I know” I said “He released an album just last year I think…”
“No” she said indignantly “they interviewed his sister…”
“Nick Cave is definately alive” a family member asserted.
Then the penny dropped.

“Do you mean Nick Drake?”

She didn’t seem sure, muttering something that was lost in the present-opening kerfuffle around us. But I wasn’t about to dwell on the mistake.
“…it looks really good anyway!” I shouted reassuringly.

I’m not into Nick Cave. I respect him but I’ve rarely managed to enjoy any of the pieces of his work that I’ve been exposed to. I’m slightly frustated by that. He’s one of the people I should like. The lyricism, the careful crafting and the mysterious image all put him in the category of bona fide legend. But Nick Cave has a similar effect on me to Leonard Cohen. There’s something about the way he puts chords and melodies together that I find kind of suffocating. There’s hardly any harmonic colour in there.

On Boxing Day my actual mum asked me what presents I’d recieved at my Dad’s house the day before. I mentioned various books and wooly items then:
“Christine gave me this DVD. It’s the Nick Cave film…we can watch it if you want”
“Ok, maybe…” she said “…what else has he been in?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think he does much acting, not that I know of…”
“Leaving Las Vegas. I saw him in that”
“You’re thinking of Nick Cage, mum”

I put the film on and I liked it. We follow Cave through a series of presumably average days – rehearsing with his band, looking through photos with the staff at his archive (everyone has an archive, right?…) and driving around Brighton, where he lives. In these sections Cave randomly picks up a series of famous friends, incuding Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue, for chats about life, art and celebrity.
The whole thing is linked by Cave’s lugubrious voiceovers, discussing his life and work. Here he is on the recording process:

“I love the feeling of a song before you understand it. When we’re all playing deep inside the moment. The song feels wild and unbroken. Soon it will become domesticated, and we will drag it back to something familiar and compliant, and we’ll put it in the stable with all the other songs. But there is a moment when the song is still in charge and you’re just clinging on for dear life, and you’re hoping you don’t fall off an break your neck or something. It is that fleeting moment that we chase in the studio.”

Wise words, Nick. It’s nice when you’re in the studio with people who understand what you’re chasing – that razors edge between spontaneity and finesse. By the way, I always liked “Into My Arms” and “Where The Wild Roses Grow” – the one you did with Kylie. A few more like that and I’ll probably give in and like you.

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Recently I was reading a blog post about the debut album by one of my favourite bands, Dire Straits. As well as celebrating the spell-binding guitar and characteristic vocal style of Mark Knopfler, Another Grumpy Commuter paid attention to the excellent lyrics on the album.

dire straits

“Down to the Waterline” is a tale of teenage liasons in Knopfler’s native North East, while “Wild West End” describes his wanderings around London before Dire Straits’ success.

Then there is the witty description of jazz musicians in “Sultans of Swing”.

Knopfler always has a fine eye for the detail of situations, but despite this, Dire Straits are rarely discussed as a ‘lyrics’ band.


It got me thinking, just how important are lyrics to music fans?


Songwriters can spend hours, days, months and sometimes years sweating over lyrics; but despite this I have often heard people – music lovers – say that lyrics are of no interest to them. This has always baffled me. Surely everyone’s enjoyment of a song must have some relation to what it’s about, or seems to be about?

Lyrics may complement or contrast with the music, but I don’t understand how you can hear the words without processing them on some level (as long as they are in a language you understand), and that affecting your response to the track.

At the other extreme are people who take lyrics far too seriously. Music critics are the worst for this. Because the actual sound and emotional impact of music is hard to describe, they tend to base album reviews around lyrical themes, trying to sum up what the album is ‘about’, rather than it just being a collection of songs that worked out alright in the studio (or didn’t).

This kind of analysis then becomes the basis of long interviews, with lyric scribblers being treated like they were the authors of great literature, as if anyone listens to an album in that way.

I guess most of us sit somewhere between those extremes; song lyrics may wash over us in a pleasing flood without us catching all of the meanings, or necessarily wanting to. We relish certain lines as they come up, and check on lyric sheets or online to find out the exact words, but it’s rarely a subject for detailed study.

As for my personal favourites among lyric writers, I love the wit of Morrissey and the ‘beat poetry’ style of Tom Waits, but I also like lyrics that I don’t understand. Michael Stipe’s lyrics for REM were affecting as well as often being experimental and opaque. I’m not sure why a “Candy Bar” and “Dr Seuss” crop up in this tune but it’s a beautiful slice of left-field pop.


Following on from that, on the classic “Motorcycle Emptiness” by The Manic Street Preachers, I can hardly make out a word James Dean Bradfield sings, but I don’t care. The drama of the song is not diminished by the indistinct lyrics, indeed it adds to the bittersweet beauty of this track, for me. Lots of things in life are enigmatic, which only makes them more fascinating.



Bob Dylan is probably the most celebrated lyricist of any generation, and he’s certainly one of my heroes. But for all his brilliance, like most songwriters he often wrote lines just to fill up his verses.

Bob Dylan

When interviewed in 1989, a journalist asked him:

“In the song Man in The Long Black Coat you sing ‘People don’t live or die, people just float’…what do you mean by ‘people just float’?”

Dylan: “well…I needed a rhyme for ‘coat'”

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Can I start by saying that this is not an attempt at a “how-to” article for budding songwriters. For one thing, I dislike tuition in popular music, but also in an important sense, I don’t really know how I write songs anyway.

For me, there is a fundamental mystery at the heart of the creative process and the last thing I want to do is attempt to codify or systemise the thing.

We are already living in an era when TV talent shows have reinforced the idea of a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to do things, where the expression of your musical feelings is something to be tutored and judged by self-appointed ‘experts’, rather than something you figure out for yourself.

All I want to do here is outline the route I’ve travelled as a songwriter and point out some of the things I’ve discovered on my journey so far.

(N.B. when I refer to ‘pop music’ I mean everything including rock’n’roll, disco, heavy metal, rap etc…it’s all pop music to me.)


Apart from a short stint playing the trumpet at school, my first steps towards songwriting came when I took up the drums at age 13, and joined a band with some older guys who lived around the corner from me. The guitarist in the band showed me a few chords on the guitar and I took things from there, using my Dad’s classical guitar and chord book.

Like many youths in the mid-80’s I was a big fan of The Smiths and Billy Bragg. But I was also obsessed with Dire Straits, not something I had in common with many of my peers at that time – I could only enthuse about the band with my dad. One thing I liked was Mark Knopfler’s conversational vocal style, his tunes often being half-spoken. You can hear this in their big hit Money For Nothing, and also on a song called Wild West End from the first Dire Straits album.

My songs at that time were (and mostly still are) about myself in relationship to the world around me. As a sensitive teenager, The Smiths’ wit, honesty and melancholy touched me, while from Billy Bragg I absorbed the possibility of being a self-contained musical force.


Songwriting for me has always gone hand-in-hand with the exploration of my instrument: the guitar. If every song gives you the opportunity to say something different, it’s also an opportunity to play something different. Bands like the aforementioned Smiths and U2 seemed to find a different guitar approach to each song. They gave me the impetus to experiment with my instrument. Just putting my fingers on the neck of my guitar at random allowed me to find new and interesting chords, which would suggest melodies. I was also fascinated by blues, jazz and improvisation, painstakingly teaching myself to bend notes with the feeling of B.B.King.

At 15, I discovered the radio DJ Andy Kershaw, who played a wildly diverse selection of music from around the world. My routine was to sit by the radio with my guitar and jam along to whatever he played on his BBC radio show, which could be anything from bluegrass to hip-hop, calypso to African Highlife. Spontaneously coming up with guitar parts to each track was stretching me and giving me a feel for arranging songs.

For me, arrangements are part of composition. I’ve never been convinced of the wisdom of the aphorism (possibly attributable to Noel Gallagher) that “you can tell a good song because you can play it on an acoustic guitar and it still stands up”. Firstly, you don’t subject a song to any kind of test other than whether you like it. And second, a song is ‘sung’ by the instruments as well as the voice. For instance, one of the most brilliant, catchy and memorable songs I know is David Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes” and if you played it on acoustic guitar it would sound rubbish.

At one point I felt frustrated that my songwriting wasn’t sounding ‘like me’ yet, just reflecting my influences. So I decided to explore this by deliberately writing in the style of famous artists for a while, as if I was them. I no longer remember any of the tunes, but I do recall that I was writing for both Aerosmith and The Smiths at one point.


If you listen to a diverse range of music, then you are exposed to different kinds of song structure. Of course there are no rules, but there are various features which recur commonly in popular music. Here are my thoughts on some of them.


The bulk of a song’s lyrics are generally in the verses, and there may anything between two or nine of them (if you’re Bob Dylan) Most common, though, are three verse songs. Whether or not your song has a ‘beginning, middle and end’ to it, the three verse structure implies a narrative, however subliminally, and this is something you can play with or against.

Bruce Springsteen’s songs are sometimes like mini-novels, with tragic or heroic characters struggling against the dirty side of the American Dream. Despite what can be achieved like this, there have been some great lyrics which either don’t mean a great deal or are impossible to decode.

I particularly like the lyrics of Michael Stipe because they sound great, whether I can understand them or not. REM songs are full of beautiful phrases that wash over you in an impressionistic way that doesn’t tie them down to a specific meaning.


What is a chorus? Broadly speaking, a chorus is something that repeats three or more times throughout a song, is catchy, and sums up the overall message somehow. A chorus often steps up the drama or emotion in the song. It’s the satisfying bit that the verses are working towards, but unlike the punchline of a joke, it seems to gain power the more it’s repeated. It can be a contrast to, or a development of the musical style of the verse.

I won’t give examples of great choruses here; we all know hundreds of them. They are probably the biggest reason we love great pop music. At the same time, some songs don’t need a chorus at all; a good example being “House of the Rising Sun”, as recorded by The Animals.


These terms are interchangeable. ‘Middle eight’ refers to an eight-bar middle section and ‘bridge’ suggests something linking sections of a song. Whatever you call it, this section is essentially about introducing something a bit different to the song. Something that changes the mood but still fits in, like a pleasing detour. Lyrically it’s often a way to get philosophical or take a sidelong view of what you’re singing about.

Not every song needs a middle eight/bridge. Then again, sometimes they get repeated in a song. But they’re at their best when they vary significantly from the main sections but still resolve nicely back into the song.


The Smiths are an example of a group that would never let anything as trivial as convention get in the way of an addictive tune. Listen to ‘Panic’. I would defy anyone to describe the structure; whether it’s one verse with two different choruses or two different verses and one chorus (and maybe something is a bridge?)…whatever the case, everything builds up exquisitely to that final singalong : “Hang the DJ…”



Songs come to me at unpredictable moments, and not just when I have a instrument in my hands. A tune or lyric can appear in my head when I’m in the shower, walking down a street or even in a dream. Sometimes they can be almost fully formed and only need a little finishing off, but it’s not always that easy. I have had verses or choruses kicking around for years before I finally find the other pieces that make the song work.


If you’re singing a song people tend to assume that you are also the narrator, but that’s not always the case. Tom Waits’ songs are often sung from the perspective of a character, maybe an escaped convict, a ship’s captain or that strange character he’s created called Tom Waits.

Whether writing from scratch or jamming a tune together, collaborating with other musicians is one of the most fruitful ways of finding songs. Except for someone like me!! I enjoy improvising with other musicians but if I have a compositonal idea, I generally find that it is part of a complete (or potentially complete) song – a song that exists somewhere in my head, which only I can uncover. I envy musicians who are able to co-write but I’ve always been more comfortable working things out on my own.

Other things I think about when writing/arranging songs are hooks, riffs, counter-melodies and harmonies. I wont go into them all now but they are all important to me when I’m composing.


So far I’ve been talking about approaches to ‘songy’ songwriting i.e. making hummable tunes. But there are other influences that are hard to talk about in the same way because they come from a more experimental tradition. If I was to discuss the songcraft of Jeffrey Lewis or Syd Barrett…where would I start? I wouldn’t try because they radically deconstruct musical forms, and their music is suffused with their unique, oblique personalities.

This is why teaching pop music is stupid and pointless, cos so much of what attracts us to great pop music is instinctive and personal by its very nature.

During it’s most powerful phases, pop music progressed at a breakneck pace and no-one knew what was going on. On the whole it was made by people with little technical musical knowledge, certainly when compared with the classical music world. Classical music requires training and study, but in pop music, inexperience and naivety can be as effective as skill and knowledge.

As far as I’m concerned, the best thing about picking up an instrument as a kid is the fact that it has no rules attached to it. It is a gateway to your own world, not somebody else’s.

But the proliferation of ‘fame academies’ and pop music courses is creating a generation of musicians who are so self-consciously analytical about making music, and so calculating of their commercial potential, that any character they might once have had is obliterated.

I continue to be inspired by different genres of music but at heart I’m something of a traditionalist and enjoy a ‘well-crafted’ song. Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys is one of the few new-ish artists that’s able to do that, with a real personality coming through. Unfortunately there are only so many melodies out there to be discovered and we rarely hear tunes of a Motown-quality any more. But we keep trying!

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Nerve Magazine – Interview with local singer, songwriter and writer Tom George.

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