Writing by Molly McKew
At Ramona music HQ, we love learning about new artists and profiling all the amazing creative work we see around us. But what we love even more is inspiring young women to create music themselves! In this two part series we will take you on a journey to help you figure out how to create, pitch and perform your own music (with some help from our more famous friends).
The first installment of the series is an obvious starting point…. Starting! How do you refine your ideas and write music? Are you a pop girl, an electronic music lover, or do you love long epic guitar solos? Before you start writing and performing its worth giving some thought to what kind of vibe you’re going for, and what kind of sounds get you going. You may not have the skills or band members to achieve your dreams right now, but it’s important to figure out what sounds excite you.
Next, educating yourself. How do you gather ideas about lyrics, song structure, and melody? Listening to the music of others, especially local music, gives you a sense of where you would ‘fit in’ should you start recording and gigging – and can give you ideas for song content and structure. Take note of the kinds of lyrics that hook you in, how songs begin and end, and how songs are shaped by dynamics and mood shifts.
Now, the ever scary writing of songs! Authenticity is the key – if you’re not interested in writing about love and want to write a song about a pineapple- do it! Writing about something just because you think it’s what people want to hear can definitely work – but there’s a risk that your lack of passion about the subject will betray you. As they say in creative writing practice: write what you know. Give yourself time to be inspired. If you’re feeling stuck, get some paper, a voice recording or songwriting app, and/or an instrument, and sit somewhere peaceful, allowing yourself to just write or sing whatever, with no aim at being a genius, just yet.
To weigh in on all the above, I was lucky enough to pick the brains of a talented panel, made up of the amazing singer-songwriter Ainslie Wills, the beautifully poetic Maja, and dream-pop queen Jade Imagine, who provided some killer advice about writing, listening, and creativity.
Molly: Howdy team! Do you think putting some thought into image – like what look and sound you’re going for – is important or should you let it happen organically?
Ainslie: I have such a broad range of tastes both musically and visually and therefore I’m from the school of being quite exploratory/organic with sounds and how I present myself on stage, I know that this can be tricky to market as the more connectivity and consistency you can have with your image the more you can connect to a wider audience. It’s definitely worth putting thought into your image but as to how you go about that really depends on what the motivation is for making and releasing the music and the kind of artist you want to be.
Jade: A little from column A and a little from column B I would say. It is important to be yourself and to let things happen organically, for sure – its your art! I think if you’re just being yourself and expressing what feels right to you, then the look and sound of your project will follow suit. I started Jade Imagine two years ago because I wanted to write and play my own songs!
Maja: Good question! I think it’s a bit of both. You have to know who you are and what you want in order to get the image and sound to suit you essentially. And I don’t think people will believe in it if it’s not authentic. Sometimes that takes a long time though. When I first started out I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted my image to look like and I just tried a lot of things, but I think that’s part of being young. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing and you just have to do things to find your way. That’s the most important lesson I’ve learnt. It’s better to try and fail, then to do nothing. And I think the older and more comfortable with yourself you become, you have more of a solid idea of what you want.
With musical projects, it’s good to have a solid brief. I love ideas and making them come to life! An idea is just a seed, that can sprout into something wonderful. Again, sometimes you can have somewhat of an idea of what you want but a lot of my projects are collaborative whether it’s working with a photographer, graphic designer, filmmaker, producer – so they also help make it come to life in their own way. I think it’s really important that both people are on the same page and have the same vision – or at least a clear vision of what will happen so planning helps!
Molly: Where/how do you find inspiration?
Ainslie: Read! I feel like more and more with our addiction to technology some of us (myself included) aren’t reading anywhere near as much as we used to. You need to be filling the well with words and phrases from books, poetry and other lyrics. Also, keep a diary/journal of the ones that speak to you!
Jade: There is a really good book titled “Writing Better Lyrics”. It gives writers useful tools to get started (it’s really good so let’s keep it top secret between us!!).
Maja: My friend and I were talking about this the other night, but if you want some inspiration go on some dates haha! There’s nothing like getting your heart broken that makes for a good song. Or even just a weird experience. I mean I always think, I’m not going to do that again.. but then if we don’t experience life, what do we have to write about? I also think if you’re a deep thinker and a writer, you’ll find something. For me, I find the psychology of people and relationships really interesting. At the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about power and dominance in relationships and about “uneven” relationships.. because there are plenty of them around and how do we find the equality?
Molly: Do you have any tips for going about writing a song? Do you generally write lyrics first, or have a noodle around with an instrument and see what comes out?
Ainslie: It really depends on what I’m going through or what is going on around me as to what I do first. I feel like my writing process can be separated into; writing for catharsis and self expression, writing for song-crafting sake and writing from a reaction to an external source. The outcomes of those different ways of writing are distinctly different but all valid. I think it’s important to play around with different ways of writing for eg. write with an instrument you aren’t comfortable with, you’ll find things that you never would have if you picked up the instrument you know the best.
Jade: A song can take shape in infinitely different ways. I think if you understand and accept that fact, then you’ll be able to listen out for the moments when a song is brewing. A big long walk helps me to mull over ideas. I would say the best thing is to try every single way you can think of to write a song, because the more songs the better, and the more practice you get, the better you will get at writing.
Maja: It really depends – sometimes it’s lyrics first, sometimes it’s a melody or chord progression. Every song is different and like a child; unique in its own way. And that’s what’s so beautiful about the process to me. I also think everyone has their own way of working creatively, and there’s no one way. You can definitely learn new techniques and skills though. I also like to think of it as like solving a puzzle – you might have one piece but then you might have to wait until you write something else to complete that piece. Since I’ve been living in Melbourne, I’ve been writing a lot of poems. I like it because it’s an immediate way of expressing myself. I can be a pretty big perfectionist so it’s good to have that as an outlet and not worry about spending 2 hours over getting one sentence right.
Molly: What’s the best way to learn about songwriting? Have you taken music lessons, spoken to other musicians, or just educated yourself through tons of listening?
Ainslie: I think the best way to learn it is to do it as much as you can and learn as many different songs as you can by ear not tab or YouTube tutorials. The reason I say this is, if you just learn a song from an existing chord chart or tutorial you aren’t internalising the process! The internalising of chords and lyrics by ear will form part of the chords and lyrics that you make in your own songs. For me, I studied music for 5 years and learned all about melody and chords and different types of music and I’m so very grateful for that knowledge as it’s empowered me to create music that isn’t limited to one style or chord progression. I don’t think you have to study formally to be a good songwriter but you do need to study the songs of the people who’ve come before you to collect ideas and inspiration.
Jade: All of the above! Songwriting is all about telling a story with music. So it helps to pay attention to the stories unfolding around you, every day. Personally, I feel like I am still learning, ever since I took high school music lessons. They helped with the very basics of songwriting structures and stuff like that, but you could just as easily listen to a bunch of bands and take notes about structure, instruments they use, etc… then when I moved from Queensland to Melbourne I started going to gigs and talking to musicians. I picked up a lot of hot tips through playing with new people and learning how they write!
Maja: Again, I think it’s different for everyone. One of my best friends in school was aurally trained and his way of learning was through listening and he became a great improviser. I had a classical background so my approach to songwriting is a bit more structured. I studied composition so that helped with understanding harmony, structure and timbre. But you don’t need to have this great understanding to be able to write. I found that before I knew anything, I was happiest because I relied on my ear to guide me. Stravinsky said this great thing about just sitting there and listening to what will come next and that has always helped. Just intensely listening in that silence for what will happen. It’s always the right thing.
Molly: How do you foster a creative mindset?
Ainslie: It’s all about play! I sometimes will watch snippets of SNL or some kind of comedy sketch (cue Bill Wurtz) to get me into the creative playful mood. Either that or watching Beyonce live will inspire me to work. Also, if you can, try and have a dedicated space for writing so you know that whenever you are in that space, you know what you are there for. Turn your phone to flight mode and give yourself time to arrive at an idea.
Jade: Go for a big walk, usually. I like to give myself some quiet time by myself without distractions. Take myself on a date to a gallery, walk in a park, have a bath, etc… buying myself a new notebook and listening to songs that I really love also helps me to get inspired to write.
Maja: Sometimes there is no right time. I find that going for walks help. I’ve been writing poems as I walk around Coburg and my surroundings have been a great inspiration. I also love writing on public transport or when I’m on the plane, just away from my life. I can rarely write in my room anymore. I need to be moving and in like a clear space where my mind is away from my surroundings. Also when I’m emotional and pmsing, I find that I get a lot of ideas out haha! You have to use those heightened emotions before they pass haha.
Molly: Finally, what makes a good song?
Ainslie: Something that makes people feel something, I think a good song has to communicate a mood lyrically or musically to a point where the listener is enveloped in the space. I love the way music can transport us to a different mood/time or place.
Jade: Good question! I think probably every single musician has wondered this themselves… sorry I don’t have more of an opinion on this. But one thing to keep in mind is that as a writer and a musician, your job isn’t to judge whether yours is a good or bad song. Your job is to write it!!
Maja: Ah this is a toughie, because “good” is subjective with art. What one person might consider good, might not be the same for someone else. For me however, a good song has a singable melody line and there is some sort of emotional connection. The music that I am most drawn to makes me feel something. Sometimes a song might not be that good, but there’s a strong delivery and you can believe in it. You can believe in someone who believes in themselves.
Check out our panelists here:
Ainslie – https://soundcloud.com/ainsliewills
Some songwriting resources:
Pat Pattison’s online songwriting course- FREE and based on the book recommended by Jade above – https://www.coursera.org/learn/songwriting-lyrics
Top 6 apps for songwriters – http://blog.sonicbids.com/top-6-must-have-apps-for-songwriters
And for some lyrical inspiration – NME – 55 Killer Opening Lines: http://www.nme.com/photos/55-killer-opening-lines-that-kicked-off-amazing-songs-1432142