Do Stuff. Step by Step.

So, RJQ and I did a video last week about song writing techniques. Unfortunately, only RJQ and I will ever see that video. It has something to do with the aforementioned video having the qualities of “horrible videography” and “way the hell out of focus”. Fortunately, we can re-shoot a better version tomorrow.

Due to a whole bunch of questions from a whole bunch of people, I want to talk about song writing. Over the last few weeks my inbox has been loaded with questions about the topic, so I will start with the basics and over several entries try to add more and more detailed information. Let’s start from square one:

STEP ONE: STUDY YOUR FAVORITE ARTISTS

Say you’re just like I was and you just heard Biggie’s verse in “Victory” and you are borderline obsessed with all things hip hop. You think to yourself “Holy shit I need to be able to do this. I need to write a song!” but have no idea how to do it. When I was a young teenager I had very little life experience to draw on, just like any other young teen, but I was able to pick up the fundamentals by studying my favorite artists. That is step one. Study your favorite artists. Learn how they keep you interested. Learn how they build the song up and say what they have to say. You should understand every nuance of your favorite stuff. You have to be just a tad obsessive.

STEP TWO: FIGURE OUT HOW TO TELL YOUR STORY

Okay, now you understand your favorite artists and how they say what they have to say. You can’t just turn around and do the same thing though, because that is stealing and stealing is for shitty people. Regardless, it gives you a place to start. Step two is to take what you’ve learned from studying hip hop and apply it to your own life. In short, figure out how to tell your story in a song. Each song has its own story, and that story is referred to as a “concept” by artists. To start, keep your concepts simple and easy for listeners to understand. If you overestimate your own lyrical abilities, your listeners will become confused, and when they get confused they turn your shit off really quickly. For me, I did a lot of “love” songs I guess. They were dumb as hell, but it was an emotion that I understood well enough to explain it to other people in a song. You may be different, but it may be a place to start because heartbreak is something everyone can relate to. A concept will usually be something simple, i.e. “I hate my ex” or “I hate that I love my ex”. Moving on…

STEP THREE: TRY TO WRITE THE SONG (ASSUMING YOU HAVE A BEAT)

Here’s where things get tricky. Steps one and two are pretty easy, and mostly involve just sitting around and thinking about how awesome certain ideas would sound in a song. Step three is to turn the concept into lyrics, or in layman’s terms, write the song. Remember when I said to keep your concept simple? There was a reason for that. Writing a song can be difficult. You aren’t just writing down random shit, you are trying to get your point across. The simpler the point, the easier it is to get across. If you’ve never written a song, I’m going to let you down and tell you that you aren’t Jay-Z, so don’t try to be. He is a lyrical genius, and you are not. Just swallow that pill and write about something you can comprehend. Your song needs to have a few things that are important, like, um, beginning, middle, and end. Think of each song like its own book; each independent song is a whole idea, wrapped in a little bow. When you add a bunch of ideas together that don’t suck, you might have a whole album. To make your song a whole idea, again, keep it simple. Your song will likely be three verses with a chorus between each. Start by writing a simple chorus.

The purpose of the chorus is to reinforce the concept of the song without being too obvious or corny. I can’t explain to you how to write the chorus exactly, only you know how to write your own style. However, I can tell you not to be too obsessive about it. Once you have a basic chorus written down, it’s more of a living document. As you write the verses you may be able to tweak the chorus because you will be shaping the concept.

Each verse should have a purpose. If you are writing a three verse song, it’s pretty easy to assign. Verse one is the beginning, verse two is the middle, and verse three is the end. Simple, right? If you are making a song about how much you hate your ex, it could go something like this: Verse one describes when you met and how great it was. Verse two describes when everything got bad. Verse three, well, verse three describes how you really, really hate your fucking ex. Much like each song is a whole idea, so is each verse, and each line within a verse. You use lyricism to build up each line and verse in the entire song. Got it? This kind of concept has been done a million times over by every lyricist in every genre, but the key is to make it personal so you don’t get confused with Elvis or Katy Perry or Tech N9ne. BE YOU.

STEP FOUR: REPEAT UNTIL THE SELF-HATRED GOES AWAY

The last step of this simple process is to repeat steps two and three until you don’t hate yourself. I’m giving you a pep talk right now, believe it or not. Thinking back to when I first started writing lyrics, I knew they weren’t good, even at the time that I wrote them. I hated myself for it, and kept going back to old concepts and re-working them until they were completely new concepts. Over time, my ability to get my point across got stronger; I learned how to use lyricism to build a story well enough to keep complete strangers interested, but it was a years-long process for me. Hopefully for you it will be shorter, and before you know it you’ll be in the studio recording a bad ass song. Just keep in mind that after you write the first one you will hate it, if you even decide to finish writing the song. The second attempt and many after will be much the same, but after a hundred or so tries you will notice that you are getting better. Repeating the process a few hundred more times you will see your own progress build exponentially, and you will begin coaching your friends on how to do what you do. BUT— it all starts with you, right now, sitting down and trying to write the first one. It is a painful process, but well worth it in the end.

This entry is a very basic guideline to songwriting, and gives you a place to start assuming you have a stack of beats and understand the principles of stacking up syllables and measuring out bars. My next entry will probably cover the nitty-gritty of those two things, because they were major stumbling blocks for me. Maybe I’ll do a video about that tonight….

Cold Country, Out.

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