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Australian musicians including Bernard Fanning, Sarah Blasko and Paul Kelly  share the creative practices they have in common when writing songs. By Alex Gow.

How to write a song

Musician and podcast host Alex Gow.
Credit: McLean Stephenson

Over the past two years, I’ve interviewed seven Australian songwriters for my podcast, One Guitar. With each, I gave them the same guitar, a Gibson J-45 acoustic, and four weeks to write a song. I sent the guitar to Sarah Blasko, Paul Kelly, Alice Skye, Bernard Fanning, Paul Dempsey, Missy Higgins and Johnny Took from DMA’s. At the end of the month, they visited me in my home studio to perform the song and discuss their process. During these discussions, I learnt that their creative practices shared four commonalities. I’d like to share them with you.

 

1. Instinct

Instinct can be understood as an innate, fixed pattern of behaviour that happens in response to certain stimuli. Intuition is more or less the application of instinct. A songwriter’s instinct guides them to a familiar place, one where harmony, melody, rhythm and structure are developed and then refined. That place is constructed by the artist. It is built of materials sourced from a songwriter’s experiences and influences. It is a sanctuary. Sarah Blasko relies on instinct in her writing. The song she wrote is called “What You Stole”.

When we talked about it, she said: “People get very caught up in listening to other people, which is very important – it’s important to learn and be teachable – but I think that can go too far. If you get out of touch with your instincts, then you kind of never do anything that’s really original.” This makes sense to me. No two people’s experiences and influences are the same and one’s instinct is constructed of those experiences and influences. It is instinct that makes a song original. Sarah pressed the point, “Instincts are just the most important thing.”

Albert Einstein said the rational mind was “a faithful servant” and intuition a “gift”. Yet occasionally The Faithful Servant is required to reveal uncomfortable truths about The Gift. Every now and then instinct attempts to dominate the song rather than nourish it. One’s instinct simply demands it step in line and join the lineage of songs that preceded it. Some songs don’t want for that. When interviewing Bernard Fanning, he spoke of his new song “The Reckoning” and made it clear that he saw this very scenario coming. “I fought my instinct and I’m pretty happy with the result.” So how does one know when to trust their instinct and when to rebel against it? Easy. Ask the song. What does the song want? What does the song need? The song must be served.

 

2. Vulnerability

All of the One Guitar songwriters spoke of vulnerability. They confirmed my understanding that making oneself vulnerable, whether it be in the form of a lyric, or reaching beyond their perceived capability in performance, is an effective form of communication. When I asked Fanning if he valued vulnerability in his writing as well as the writing of others, he replied: “As far as I’m concerned it’s the ultimate. If you put up shields and guards, then you’re not really getting to the truth of the matter.”

As songwriters, we benefit from being vulnerable with purpose. One heaves the proverbial cross up the proverbial hill and figuratively nails themselves to it, because as far as one can tell, that’s the most effective way of helping the audience feel their experience. And in that sorry figure, the listener sometimes is presented with their partial reflection.

As Fanning concluded: “Vulnerability is the ultimate invitation to the listener. It demystifies and says, I’m exactly like you, I’m no special unit because I can sing a song and write a melody. You relate to someone on a deeply personal level if you show them your vulnerability.”

 

3. Commands

“Get on the floor and dance, we don’t have forever,” sings Paul Kelly. “Grow up,” sings Alice Skye. “Get set for the reckoning,” sings Bernard Fanning. “Give me back what you stole,” sings Sarah Blasko.

When songwriting in English, we have four basic types of sentences at our disposal: declarative (statements), interrogative (questions), imperative (commands/demands) and exclamatory (exclamation).

Isn’t that wonderful news? When staring at an empty page and considering an agile sidestep into the beckoning arms of the corporate sector, remind yourself that there are only four types of sentences you can use  – pick one and get to work.

Generally, songs comprise mostly statements. They’re the meat and the potatoes of lyric writing. I’m in love with you. I’m still in love with you. I really thought I was in love with you. The cat is doing something weird with its eyes. Yet if a songwriter relies solely on statements, it’s going to be difficult to engage the audience. And when writing songs, engagement is the goal.

Experienced writers lean on questions and commands to engage and re-engage their audience. Think about it like this: you’re on a date and your date asks you questions about your day, your hobbies, your job, your friends and family. You’re engaged, right? Now pretend you’re reading this article. If all of a sudden the words Get up and make sure the cat’s not dead appear, after 1000-odd words of statements, you’re re-engaged, right?

In conclusion, don’t underestimate the impact of a well-placed question or command in a song. Ever listened to “Hey Jude”?

 

4. Boundaries

Lastly, an honourable mention goes to constructing boundaries, the space within you are invited to explore.

All of my podcast guests unequivocally considered the framework of a four-week deadline and the limitation of being creatively confined to using one guitar to construct a song a significant benefit to their process.

With that in mind, picture this: Santa’s left a 100-pack of Derwent pencils under the monstera pot plant; you sit down to draw a portrait of your best friend; but you don’t start, because there are 100 colours and you’re not sure which is the right one to use first. Back in the songwriting world: you build your boundaries; you give yourself four weeks to complete the song; you decide to use a guitar rather than the piano; you establish a point of view, a tense and a rhyme scheme. You nominate the time signature of 6/8. You use the key of G major.

Back to portrait world: congratulations, you’ve set aside 90 pencils, meaning you’ve only got 10 left to select from, so pick one up and make your picture.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 4, 2021 as "How to write a song".

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Alex Gow is an ARIA Award-winning songwriter from Melbourne. His next Perfect Moment album is Kangourou and his forthcoming podcast is One Guitar.