The secret art of songwriting…

Pauline Black and others explain the secret art of songwriting

Pauline Black and others explain the secret art of songwriting

The Delicious itch that is Song Writing!
Copyright – Jane Britton February 2012

I’ve always been intrigued with the art of song writing, its like any talent really, you can either do it or you cant?

Some people can write melodies but struggle with lyrics, like myself. Personally, I can do the melody no problem, can I write lyrics? – nope they turn into cheese. Very similar to the rather famous and fabulous Elton John:0), don’t you think! . To others, or as one of my piano pupils eloquently said recently “its just too F-ing hard”

Then you get the super talented, were the art of song writing is like breathing, the whole process comes so easily , its effortless, these people have to write, otherwise they’ll implode.
We mere mortals, meanwhile, stand in absolute awe (whilst quietly cursing them ).
“Well, I mean, how the hell can they create something with such amazing beauty out of the horrors that we see in our day to day society”.

Everybody’s ultimate dream is to come up with a catchy tune that you have in your head at night, wake up with it in the morning and hum subconsciously throughout the day until somebody tells you to SHUT UP. That’s when you know that you have a hit.

As part of my research I interviewed four different songwriters, all unique in their own way, yet there were commonalities in the way they wrote. Thing’s that inspired them, and their urgent and, absolute need to push the song out of their system, like a new born baby.

Pauline Black from “The Selector”
Paul Britton from “Skye Ladder”
Emma Gillespie from “Emmas Imagination”
Laura Vall from “The Controversy”

So to the interview.

1 – When did you first start writing your own songs and why?

Pauline Black:
I started writing my first songs in about 1977, mainly because I didn’t much like singing other peoples’ songs.

Paul Britton:
I’ve been writing songs since I was in my early teens, mostly bad ones ;-) I started to write because I got bored playing songs written by other people, and it gave me a reason to keep playing.

Emma Gillespie
I first started writing songs when I was around 14. I always loved music from a very young age and would copy melodies and songs off theradio onto my little Casio keyboard but I guess I only started towrite songs when I reached those “teenage angst” years it was a way ofexpressing myself and I always felt better after getting it out onto paper.

Laura Vall
I started writing lyrics when I was an early teenager, then I started writing melodies with my first band when I was about 18 and whole songs when I turned 21 or so. At first I was scared to write for the fear of people not liking my songs, so it took me a little while to overcome that fear and start trying it out.

2 – What made you think that you had the ability to write songs?

Pauline Black:
I didn’t question my ability to write songs. I just got on and did it. I’m a very pragmatic person. I’m also a bit of an autodidact about creative things.

Paul Britton:
I think writing is something most people who play music can do, it just takes a bit of self belief. You have to realize that not everything you write is good (most of it isn’t) but that shouldn’t stop you from trying, and as with everything else, the more you do it, the better you get at it.

Emma Gillespie
I guess it always felt very natural for me to write songs, even if they were rubbish so I never really thought, “could I write a song?” I just did it for the love of doing it.

Laura Vall
I’m still not sure if my songs are good enough! I just started doing it because I felt I had to. I’ve always known I wanted to be a singer and musician; I’ve always had an urge to make music.

3 – How long does it take you to write a song?

Pauline Black:
Depends on whether the muse is upon me. Some songs spring fully formed into the world in a matter of a few minutes or hours and some take ages to write. On our latest album ”˜Made In Britain’ there is a song entitled ”˜Second Skin’ which I had begun to write in about 2003. I finished it in 2011. It took that long to find out what I was trying to say.

Paul Britton:
I can have a complete song in 10 minutes if I’m on a roll, but I’d never say that a song is finished. It may be finalized in a recording, but live, it will always be tweaked, whether it’s a re-arrangement, or even adding or changing lyrics. Songs are like children, they continually grow and change.

Emma Gillespie
It really varies. sometimes it can take me 15 mins, sometimes it can take over a year to finish a song and I have to keep going back to it, but it’s worth it when you get it right!

Laura Vall
It depends. Some songs just flow and are totally done in 20min. In some others I start writing some lyrics and leave them for a few days or months and then I come back to add the melody and chords or vice versa.

4 – What influences you the most when you are writing songs? Is it surroundings or things on the telly or in the news, personal life?

Pauline Black:
The sound of musical notes in a chord often influences a melodic idea or often a fragment of a sentence that resonates with something that I might be thinking. I love the way that words often dictate their own melody line.

Paul Britton:
I don’t often think about what’s influenced me when I write, I just go with whatever is flailing around my head, once I’ve written it, I’ll look back and change things, sometimes it’s obvious what has influenced the song, sometimes, it may take a while before even I know what I was writing about.

Emma Gillespie
For me it’s usually things that are happening in my life and the way things make me feel.

Laura Vall
Some songs come from personal experiences and feelings.
I always write starting from a strong feeling I want to get out of my system.

5 – Is there any time during the day where you find it is easier and more effective to write a song?

Pauline Black:
I like to write chord sequences in the evening. My mind is more receptive to melody then. But I often finish the lyrics the following morning, after a good night’s sleep. My brain feels clear and more open to ideas during the early part of the day.

Paul Britton:
Where ever and whenever I’ve got a guitar on my lap and time on my hands, there’s a chance of me starting something, but there’s also a good chance that I’ll be doodling for ages and come up with nothing.

Emma Gillespie
I usually find that I get ideas for songs either first thing in the morning or at night time, probably more so at night time when I’m trying to get to sleep! I think my mind starts to un-wind and kick out loads of ideas and images that it’s stored up during the day.

Laura Vall
I don’t really have a specific time of the day, but it’s true that for me it always flows better when it gets dark, with a glass of wine and some candles.

6 – When inspiration hits, do you get hold of the lyrics or melody first – or both together?

Pauline Black:
Usually a title presents itself first, a hook, which usually ends up being the chorus tag. Sometimes the words dictate the melody and sometimes the melody dictates the words. There rarely seems any definitive method.

Paul Britton:
I’ve always got something running around in my head, whether it’s a rhythm, a melody or a line. That’s not to say that when I pick up the guitar I’ll play what’s in my head, sometimes what I play will overwrite what I was thinking and that’s what will get written, as to what comes first, it always varies. As you can tell, I rarely write to rules

Emma Gillespie
Sometimes I’ll pick up the guitar and get an amazing riff that I’ll develop into an instrumental which I then put lyrics over. Other times I ‘ll have lyrics written down and I ‘ll try to play something that goes with the mood of the words.

Laura Vall
It depends on the song. Sometimes the lyrics come first, sometimes it’s the melody. I’ve never done both together. I’m not sure what makes me grab a pencil and paper or go to the keyboard. I guess it’s the inspiration itself that tells me which one to start with.

7 – What style/genre do you normally write in?

Pauline Black:
I let the melody dictate the style.

Paul Britton:
I write on an acoustic guitar, so the initial style is always that of a folky type of singer/songwriter, but once the songs get some instrumentation, they can become anything.

Emma Gillespie
Quite a hard one to answer. I guess it could be described as alternative acoustic folk-pop.

Laura Vall
I tend to write indie pop/rock songs. My biggest influences are Radiohead, Fiona Apple, Massive Attack, Jeff Buckley, Beck”¦ so the songs I write and the ones Thomas and I write together fall in this category.

8 – Have you ever written a political song and why?

Pauline Black:
All songs are political, even love songs. Life is political. Everybody is on one side or other of the fence. You can’t write a good song if you’re sitting on the fence! You’ve got to have some passion for the subject.

Paul Britton:
I’ve never set out to write anything deliberately political or controversial. That’s not to say I haven’t, though. When I have it’s because something needs saying, and I’m best saying things in song.

Emma Gillespie
I haven’t ever written a political song because I don’t know enough about politics to write one and I don’t find it a very inspiring subject if I’m honest.

Laura Vall
I have. I’m a very political person, I have strong opinions and believes about ideology, religion and politics. So sometimes I can’t help it and I need to write something political. I like to keep my lyrics subliminal though, nothing obvious.

9 – Can you write to order? Do you find it more difficult to do? (Who have you written for and did they get the meaning behind the song when they were actually performing the song?)

Pauline Black:
Yes, I can write to order. Writing songs is a discipline just like exercising any other creative skill. I haven’t specifically written for anybody other than myself, but Joe Cocker covered a song that I co-wrote in the eighties entitled ”˜Threw it Away’ and I enjoyed his take on the song.
Last year Jah Wobble sent me some music and asked me to provide some lyrics and a melody line and then record it with him the following week. That was exciting, because I had to come up with something in a short space of time or else”¦”¦I jest of course!

Paul Britton:
I have written to order, I’ve written an extra verse for a song that we were recording, because we felt it was too short. I’ve also written songs while trying to show people that it’s possible for anyone to write. It’s never perfect, though, but then again, I don’t think anyone has ever written the perfect song, if they had, there’d be no point in anyone writing anything ever again.

Emma Gillespie
I actually find it quite hard if someone says, ” ok, write a son gnow!” I generally have to be in the right environment and the right state of mind. it’s not like a tap I switch on, but I do find that the
more often I write, the easier it is and the quicker it comes. I wrote a song for Leon Jackson a while back called, ” wounded by love” He told me the feelings that he wanted to get across and I wrote the, chords, vocal melody, chorus and first few verses. He then took it away and wrote another couple of verses. I think he definitely got the meaning behind the song because it was written specifically for him from his experiences.

Laura Vall
I’ve done it. I find it harder to write to order than to write for myself, specifically because I find myself trying to please someone else and trying to figure out exactly what they want instead of just letting my inspiration flow.

10 – How do you know that you’re going to write a song? Do you sit yourself down at a particular time and force yourself to create, or do you get a feeling?

Pauline Black:
I get a feeling, like an itch that can’t be scratched, just a repetition of a phrase or musical melody in my head that won’t go away. It’s a delicious feeling and very welcome when it arrives, it’s all consuming too- for a while I can’t think about anything else.

Paul Britton:
I get very irritable and frustrated without realizing it until the song is written.
Its like a cork that has to be released, its also therapy ( not that I’m bonkers or anything ) .

Emma Gillespie
For me, it’s good practice to try and write something every day, even if it’s just a few lines. It’s kind of like exercising your song writing muscle and that helps me to write a song, but it usually it
will start with a feeling, like a little burst of inspiration or an itch that won’t go away until I’ve picked up the guitar and wrote something.

Laura Vall
I’ve done both. Most of the times I sit down and try to get on a creative mindset but there’s definitively those times when the creative rush conquers you and there’s noting you can do but sit down to write.

11. Do you collaborate with other singer/songwriters and if so does it make writing harder?

Pauline Black:
I invariably collaborate on songs after I’ve written the bare bones of the melody and lyrics. I like to see what my melodic ideas and lyrical ideas suggest to somebody else. Often songs change when refracted through somebody else’s prism. The outcome is always interesting.
I’ve never found collaboration a problem. I welcome it. But I know many songwriters who don’t enjoy that process.

Paul Britton:
I like collaborating, it’s inventive. If I write on my own, it’ll be on the guitar and quite often I’ll use chord sequences that, if you don’t experiment, can start to sound a little obvious. It’s great to concentrate more on the lyric side of things when someone else has written the music, fitting lyrics to music that’s already been written can be a challenge, particularly if the other writer has a theme in mind for the song. I enjoy that challenge, it makes for interesting lyrical ideas, and because someone else has written the music, it will often create far more interesting melodic possibilities.

Emma Gillespie
I only recently tried writing with other people last year. It can be quite difficult depending on who it is and what time frame you have. I tend to clam up creatively if I feel like I’m against the clock and
with someone I’ve only just met. I’ve had good experiences too though. I went out to Spain and spent three days in an amazing studio in the mountains writing with people who were very inspiring and very laid back.

Laura Vall
I find it hard if it’s with someone whom you don’t have that special connection with.


12. What is the biggest compliment you have been paid about your songs?

Pauline Black:
Rico Rodriguez played on one of my songs, ”˜Black & Blue’ on The Selecter’s first album ”˜Too Much Pressure’. His truly beautiful trombone solo was compliment enough.

Paul Britton:
I have had someone come up to me after a concert we did, telling me that the lyrics in “Why Do I Wake Up and Scream?” made her cry. I think that was meant as a compliment!.

Emma Gillespie
The biggest compliment I get about my songs is that they are very honest and heart felt, and that people can relate to them.

Laura Vall
People that tell me my song is their song, that my song talks to them.

13. Which song that you have written is your favourite?

Pauline Black:
”˜Second Skin’ on The Selecter’s latest album, ”˜Made In Britain’.

Paul Britton:
If I like it, my favourite song is always the last one I wrote, but looking back it’d be hard to pick one out of all the songs I’ve written, it’s like picking your favourite album, it’ll always depend on my mood at the time. Right now, I’d have so say that the one I’m most satisfied with is a song called “November” which has a very special meaning to me

Emma Gillespie
Another hard question! I tend to like the most recent song I’ve wrotethe best, but I think the song “Focus” will always be very special to me as it was such a delicate little tune that I wrote for someone a long time ago. I never dreamt that it would become so popular but I think that’s because of the simplicity and purity of the song.

Laura Vall
That’s a tough one”¦ Songs are the songwriters’ babies so you love them all the same”¦ And I always fall in love with the latest song I’ve written. I think “Real” would be my favourite though, every time I play the recording or perform it live gives me chills.

14. Which one of your songs has disappointed you the most with regards to your public’s reaction to it?

Pauline Black:
An obscure little ditty entitled ”˜Keeping The Trees Clean’ on The Selecter’s ”˜Real to Reel’ album.

Paul Britton:
Every song has disappointed me at some point when we’ve played them live, either because we haven’t played them very well or the audience hasn’t been receptive. But I think songs that disappoint me more are the ones that get away, the ones that I know in my bones could be great songs, if only we could catch them right, sometimes songs can just leave you frustrated when you can’t make them sound the way you want them to, you leave them alone for a while and they get forgotten. It’s good to go over your older songs every now and then and try to catch them with a fresh outlook

Emma Gillespie
I would say the album version of This Day. Quite a few fans didn’t like it because it was very different and more produced than the original version, which I can understand.

Laura Vall
I don’t have expectations for my songs. I just write them for fun, because I want to. If a song of mine does good that’s great, but if it doesn’t that’s OK too. I haven’t been disappointed about any of my songs. At least for now!

Final Words
So in conclusion, just as you can use a painting by numbers kit to create a painting.
You can also write a song using a specific formula, however is the song any good?.
I believe that to write a truly great song, it takes raw natural talent.
As the above four song writers show, writing a song organically, takes the same basic form in having an Itch that you are unable to scratch.

THE END Pauline Black from “The Selector”

“Made in Britain is an album that would sit comfortably next to The Selecter’s 1980 debut “Too Much Pressure”
MOJO

Seminal 2-tone band The Selecter® have announced an extensive UK tour to celebrate the release of their critically acclaimed 2011 album, Made In Britain. Touring throughout March 2012, this most vital and visceral of British bands will bring their infectious musical message of multiculturalism and hope to towns and cities up and down the country.

The Selecter pioneered the ska revival movement alongside labelmates, The Specials & Madness, and were responsible for some of the scene’s classic hits, including On My Radio, Three Minute Hero, Missing Words & Too Much Pressure.

The Selecter’s iconic frontwoman Pauline Black is reverently referred to as the First Rudegirl of Ska ”“ and with good reason, with Rolling Stone Magazine declaring, “Hands down, Pauline Black possessed the best voice that ever graced a 2-Tone release” and Gwen Stefani citing her as one of her formative influences.

In 2010, Black reunited with the band’s co-singer, the brilliantly charismatic Gaps Hendrickson known for his incisive toasting on the mic, to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of their classic Too Much Pressure. Since then, this refreshed and revitalised line-up have been the recipients of a wave of critical and popular acclaim for both their brilliant 2011 album, Made In Britain, and their incendiary live performances.

Made In Britain explores the multicultural landscape of today’s Britain & beyond. Mixing ska, pop and reggae in their inimitable style, it reflects the social and political issues confronting Britain’s new multicultural society in 2011. Just as they gave a voice to disaffected youth across the racial divide in Thatcher’s recessionary Britain thirty years ago, The Selecter have returned to a 21st Century British landscape with an unnerving number of parallels to those dark times.

The 2-tone legacy continues because the idea of multiculturalism began when black and white youth, who had grown up in Britain decided to get together and make music that reflected their particular world. Made In Britain seeks to continue that conversation and carry their “Multiculturalism rules!” message forward to a new generation.

Paul Britton from “Skye Ladder”

Unsigned Songwriter from Lancashire NW
Paul has been songwriting since his early teens and has had some success in the last few years in getting his music noticed. Namely appearing on the programme “ Must be the Music” were he came in the top 120. He has also appeared on “The Source – Sky TV” and various radio stations and publications. Paul is currently in the studio recording his new album “B”, which will available end of the year. Pauls also worked in the past with Kidi Dee at Grange studios in Stafford.

Emma Gillespie from “Emmas Imagination”

From the beautiful to the bizarre, Emma’s songs give the listener a momentary window into her vivid imagination. A raw love and passion for music, now tempered by years of travel, introspection and musical experimentation have resulted in an incredible collection of songs, finally coming to life.

I enjoy real song writing and this falls right in that path. – Craig Stevens, Radio 106.7
Thanks for introducing me to this great artist. – Donny L, Radio45

Winner of Skys “Must be the Music” and signed to Polydor/Future Records.
Management – Jamie Gilmour
Brighter Greener is out NOW!: http://bit.ly/gkeTP1 Emma’s debut album ‘Stand Still’ is OUT NOW! iTunes: http://bit.ly/hbRQZd Play: http://bit.ly/dtFbM3 HMV: http://bit.ly/9CJZbK Amazon: http://amzn.to/cp05MS

Laura Vall from “The Controversy”

Winner of Artist of the Year 2012 and nominated for Best Album of the Year, Best Rock Artist of the Year and Best Pop Artist of the Year at the Artist In Music Awards 2012, The Controversy is an acclaimed indie rock band based in Los Angeles, CA. What started out as The Controversy’s lead singer’s solo project, Laura Vall, quickly evolved into a more mature sound with the increasing involvement of the guitar player, co-writer and co-producer of the project, Thomas Hjorth. The Controversy’s first album (still released under Laura Vall in July of 2011) “Real” has received critical acclaimed reviews, describing it as “stunning”, “off the hook”, “Rich songs with powerful lyrics and musical serenity”, “refreshing change from the overproduced pop” and “unique, powerfully emotional, honest and ethereal”.
The Controversy, who has already released two music videos for two of their singles (“Real” and “Little Star”), is now working on a new music video for their third single “So Low” and recording their second album, while performing live in the Los Angeles area.
Supporters of gay rights, The Controversy is also the LGBTQ Person of The Year 2012.Ӭ

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  1. Graham Henderson

    I’v been writing songs since I was 15, most of them rubbish! But its still my rubbish! What I love about writing/composing is, because I play all the instruments (often quite badly) I really enjoy the fact the songs always turns out so different from the way it started. And it is that uncertainly that makes it interesting and unpredictable. That is the raison d’être for me. I listened to The Jam’s Saturday Kids again recently which was a brilliant sociological comment of everyday life during the era in which it was written. It was similar to Ray Davies’s Dead End Street.

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