My songwriting processes and approaches
Very occasionally I'll "work at" writing a song -- but in general, my better songs aren't labored over.
Usually I'll just hear a phrase -- or a phrase will run through my head -- and I'll take it and run with it. The trick -- the magic -- is recognizing the phrases that will make good song ideas.
For example, back in the mid-'90s I was at my summer job and Jill, who sat at the next desk, was looking in Beth's direction and mumbling something. Beth asked her to say it again because she didn't hear her, and Jill replied, "Sorry -- I was looking at you, but I was talking to myself."
Ooh!!! So I wrote that down, and that phrase became a song: "Looking at You, but Talking to Myself".
As another example, about a year ago a co-worker was heading off for the day, and he said "Well -- I'll see you guys on the other side of midnight." I liked the line -- so I wrote down some lyrics that evening, and worked out the chords -- and the next evening I recorded a quick version of it.
So, that's my songwriting process. Usually the words just come pouring out of my head -- if they're going to come at all. Occasionally, for the songs that indeed reach completion, they're written in a single block of time -- with a few pauses to think of the next line -- but generally they come oozing out within fifteen or thirty minutes. Although, when I later review the song and sing through it, I'll improve the words if I think of better words or better lines.
And it will often happen that when I've been singing my recent song to myself over the next few days, that I've been singing certain words "wrong" -- which indicates that the way I've been singing them are better, because it has a smoother flow than how I'd originally written it.
For the typical structure of my songs.
My three basic songwriting structures are either (1) narrative, where each verse builds upon the other, or somehow progresses the story or further describes the situation; (2) deeply symbolic and "sideways" rather than narrative, in that there's no real journey or progression; or (3) re-interpretations, where I have a catchy phrase for the chorus, and then each verse interprets the phrase differently, with the quirkiest or least-expected interpretation saved for the end (i.e. when developing the song, the order of singing is sometimes not the order in which they were thought of).
The first approach ("narrative") is fairly typical, so I won't explain it further -- except to note that when I (one of these days!) get around to submitting some of my songs to a publishing house, I think that a lot of my songs would do well in the "Country" realm, because they're fairly melodic and narrative: they tell a story.
A good example of the "symbolic" approach is a song I wrote about a woman I had a crush on (and was vaguely friends with) back in college, called "Nightsprint". For example, "My window sees the face that's seen the Silver Wall" means that my dormroom window faced across a plaza to the side of the dormitory that her room was on, and that she'd once visited the Great Wall of China".
In the same song I wrote "She can't be plotted without staring at "V". What I meant was that to plot three-dimensional objects, you use X, Y, and Z axes; for four-dimensional plots you'd need (presumably) "W"; but she's five dimensional, so you'd need five axes -- staring with "V" (through "Z").
These sorts of songs are fairly "Lewis Carroll", in that no one would understand their underlying meaning because they're so heavily encrypted.
Finally, the third, "three different interpretations" approach is reflected in the "Looking at You But Talking to Myself" song that I mentioned above: the first verse is about my gabbing away on a date, just to hear myself speak; the second was about a friend who felt that talking to his then-wife was like talking to a brick wall; and the third verse was a literal recounting of Jill's statement.
Similarly, my recent song "I'll See You on the Other Side of Midnight" has a man who's going to bed early, but maybe his wife would wake him in the morning; a sea captain weathering a stormy night, but it should be fine in the wee hours; and a man on his deathbed.
I also typically don't have bridges -- because I feel that they generally spoil the momentum of the song. However, I'll very occasionally have a brief instrumental break -- just for a quick change-of-pace.
Note that I don't consciously choose any of these approaches: it's just how the song spills out.
In terms of arrangement and instrumentation, I tend to not use fancy harmonies: my chords are either power chords, or major or minor chords (mostly major chords). However, occasionally I'll be messing around on the guitar, and stumble across a chord shape that's useful. But I don't know the technical name for it (diminished/augmented/sixth/whatever).
My basslines are either steady eighth notes; simple riffs based on the root notes of the chords (i.e. when the chord changes, the bassline riff shifts to the new root note); or a riff that complements the vocal melody.
In fact, I have two types of basslines: either they're the heart of the song, and the vocal melody and the guitar part are in response to the bassline (e.g. "Mona Lisa Smile" [although Guitar Cousin wrote the guitar part]; "Moon Amie"), or else they're written in response to the melody line.
I totally cannot do the "Pearl Jam" thing of having an instrumental piece and then just laying a vocal melody on top of it: I prefer having the vocal line embedded among the other instrumental lines.
Most of my songs tend to be a straightforward "vocals, guitar chords, bassline, drum machine" arrangement -- sometimes with a simple guitar riff. Occasionally I'll intentionally keep it simple, and just have "vocals plus guitar chords" (e.g. "Psych Smile").
Sometimes I'll be quirky, and intentionally omit the drums, or the bassline -- because I think the song doesn't need it.
And sometimes I'll add in a keyboard (synth) part, or other instruments.
One of these days I'll record "real" drums -- but I haven't had the time or the setup to do so. Although, on a song that I'm working on right now I intend to record some cymbals and floor tom in addition to the drum machine: they're more as an "effect", so it won't matter that the tonal quality of the cymbals and tom won't "match" the drum machine sound.
And, particularly on the simpler songs, I'll subtly change the arrangement throughout the song, just to provide some (subconscious) variation to maintain some interest: for example, on my cover of Beat Happening's "Bewitched", I change the drum machine pattern and the bassline that are underneath each verse.
I also like to engage in some studio trickery, now and again -- just to maintain listener interest. For me, the arrangement and the recording process is an integral part of the "song": it's a component of how I imagine the final product. So I add things like sound effects, vocal samples, and quirky things like guitar feedback and recording things backwards (or rather: recording them forwards, then flipping them). But only if it suits the song.
I tend to write the music from instinct and from "sound", rather than from any strong knowledge of music theory or an intentional manipulation of the listener. In other words, I'm not thinking "If I move from a seventh chord to a diminished minor, that will emphasize a feeling of tension." I don't know how to do any of that.
I write the vocal range for the melody to suit my own voice -- because that's what I hear in my head, and that's what I get when I hum it to myself. Although one of these days I might write something for someone else's vocal tone and vocal range.
I write the instrumentation to my own level of ability: if I actually spent more time playing music, I'd probably come up with more complicated guitar parts, "actual" keyboard parts, and etcetera. Although: I generally prefer other peoples' "simple" songs (rather than over-arranged), and feel that as artists and bands get more musically skilled they tend to write songs that aren't as catchy and punchy as the ones they wrote early in their career -- when they were still learning their instruments.
Because I'm a one-person band, I have complete freedom in the instrumentation of my songs. In contrast, a "real" band typically has to find a role for each band member in each song. For example: when They Might Be Giants were a duo (multi-instrumentalists!), some songs might have tuba, or accordion, or keyboards, or whatever. This meant that each song had different instrumentation: whatever suited the song. Then, after a few albums, they assembled an actual "band": thereafter, each song was "vocals, guitar, bass, accordion/keyboards, and drums" -- as reflecting the band line-up.
Lyrically, I try to avoid "typical" rhyme schemes ("moon"/"June"/"soon"...). And I try to have clever turns of phrase and the occasional insight. But some of my songs are (intentionally) just plain old stupid fun (e.g. "All I Want (is to Be With You": "I like the way you drive // I like the way you dance // I like your shoes // And I like your pants").
That's about it. Except: Cheryl Quade -- if you ever Google your name and come across this, ping me: I have mp3s of two songs about you that I wrote and recorded, back in the '90s. You may as well have copies of them: they're pretty good (I think), and vaguely flattering (i.e. "kindly/nice, not mean").