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How to Grow a Song from the Ground

After about a week of rejected ideas and angrily throwing half written scripts from the glorified typewriter that is my laptop into an overflowing waste basket, pretending to be a real writer, my editor (a cross breed between the band and my lit student friends) dragged this out of me. “You’re going to write about song writing” he said “I mean, people don’t have a clue who we are, or why our songwriting’s so great” (it’s mediocre, but we’ve always been happy with what we’ve written) “But dammit, you’re gonna have to write about something.”

So then I figured I’d continue with this:

When we write songs, we tend to do something different each time, but this is the sort of thing we tend to follow in “The Electric Mafia” (we’re on facebook, *hint hint* http://www.facebook.com/TheElectricMafia ). Either, the song is completely spontaneous, and formed off the back of a jam with a few really good riffs that seems to materialise from nowhere; it is written as a “Guitar and Vocals” idea, where the chords, basic riffs and vocal melodies are brought in beforehand; or when a riff, intro or small section of a song is brought in, and the rest of the track is jammed around that idea.

So, we’ll take a few examples, and see how we wrote songs from them.

First off, I would like to make a quick note on LYRICS

There’s not really much I can say here, just write a lot and it will get better. Avoid using the same word a lot -even if over different songs - , and read lots of different books and just whatever’s lying about to get inspiration, or an idea on how to arrange words together.

In my opinion, language is less about what different words you use, but how you use the words at your disposal (if via pronunciation or [dis]order) to convey a meaning.

What I mean by this is, don’t be afraid to play around with grammar and to make your words mean something completely different when looked at on paper; or to play with the sounds of words, as in to morph one sound into another (for example “Hello, Hello, Hello. How low?” from Smells Like Teen Spirit)

Personally, I rarely try to start with a story (as I struggle with it), but it helps for a lot of people. If it works for you, go for it! stories make for more interesting songs. improvised lyrics are a good starting point and a story or poem can be easily crafted around them and a couple of metaphors, or phrases that sound cool to sing.

An idea that I’ve played with recently is starting out to trick people into thinking that your track has a deeper meaning lyrically, by using phrases that sound deep and meaningful, but the actual effort was to imply a meaning when there is none there at all…. I enjoy trying to confuse people.

Write about someone, write about a memory you hold close to your heart, write about somebody you like/dislike or just throw words together that sound cool.

I prefer the latter, but whatever floats your boat.

In this case, practice makes perfect. Be sure you always have a notebook and pen handy; you never know when inspiration will strike.


Spontaneous Songs
Good things can come from breaks, after about a month of not doing anything, when the band next came together, the frustration of just not doing anything musically just seems to explode and throw about three new songs at you in one go. Things that come off the top of your head can often be great riffs, and worth using. Something worth doing would just be to jam out any ideas, no matter how small, because three, four, or more heads working on something will quickly turn a mediocre idea into something far greater than it’s roots.

A rule that tend to follow with spontaneous writing is “if it’s done quickly, it’s a good-un”.

Don’t be afraid to throw any idea in, no matter how small.

Pre-Written Guitars and Vocals
For our latest track “This Fucked” our frontman brought in a half written track, with a basic riff, a chord structure and lyrics. Upon presentation to the band, the track quickly grew musically, got trimmed down structurally and became the kind of material more usable by a band.

When a song is written by one performer, it needs to be filled out by the rest of the band. Following a basic chord structure is easy, but work is required where the song needs to sound like an effort from the band, rather than the individual performer.

On top of the chord structure was to add things where the guitarists did what they normally did, and then to change about rhythms as the drummer felt it’d suit the song to keep it moving.

Type 3- Build upon one riff.
This type of writing spawned our first (and arguably best) song “Madison”. At our first rehearsal, our guitarist said “Hey, I’ve got this riff, how about we try to write a song around it?”

The best trick here (in my opinion) is spontaneity, and again, follows the rule: “if it’s done quickly, it’s a good-un”. When jamming out a track to write in this sense, if the song more or less writes itself, it’s best to keep going with it and it will make itself into something decent.

If the song is falling flat at your attempts to jam it out, you’re best off just moving over to another riff and trying to use that to write a song, and perhaps reference your previous ideas in the new track. I, personally, follow the rule that if it takes too long to write, then the track’s probably not very good.

It’s all a matter of personal feel and touch. These are just general feels that we go by when trying to write our own material.


Another thing probably worth mention is to allow your drummer freedom. A lot of our work is heavily based on rhythms (but we didn’t notice this while writing). If your drummer is capable, you’ll have a lot of hidden ideas and influences masked under the music that keep the song going, and without these, the song will not sound as professional without these and if your drummer’s job is to keep the audience moving, you need to allow him/her to do this.

A song with a constant 4/4 beat won’t keep anybody interested for long. Imagine a drum cover of any AC/DC song. That’s what you’ll get if you force your drummer into set patterns. Along with a very resentful drummer who probably won’t stick -excuse the pun- with you for too long.

Songs with drastic key changes and chords that seem out of place and massive changes from incredibly loud and aggressive to very quiet and rhythmically complex may work for bands like SOAD and (as much as I love them) it’s not really appropriate for most bands.

There’s a reason why G,C, D songs work, but if you want your song to have its own feel rather than sounding like “Sweet Home Alabama” played on loop, you need to make changes.

Trying to be subtle, we changed the verse of our G,C,D song to G,B,D. It’s not particularly noticeable to a non-musician crowd, but when you add in with the nirvana-esque “Loud-Quiet-Loud” dynamic, a song begins to take its own feel. Lots of subtle changes make a big effect, think “look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”.

Playing about with Dynamics can also be a massive tool at your disposal. If you think about it, you don’t really have to change your riff, just play it quieter and as chords and you’ve got a verse section, then throw back in with the loudness and the riff in your choruses. Lots of bands have done it, but if you’re adding your own little ideas along the way, there’s nothing wrong with stealing ideas, isn’t inspiration just a form of stealing anyway?


Set Rules
This may not be to some people’s taste, but in which case I’d say one of two (or maybe both) things.
“Rules were meant to be broken” and “Set challenges instead”.

If you give yourself a rule “I want to go into a middle section in 5/4” or something like that, you’ll have to figure out how to do it and a challenge like this will give your songwriting competence a boost. Attempt to do something different with each song, give each piece of music its own personality, but make them all sound like the same band’s doing it.

We wrote our song “Barnburner” with the intention of using as much contramotion as possible, but threw that rule out of the window for the chorus for a little extra power (and so as not to seem completely up our own arses).

“Set yourself a challenge”

Radiohead set out to write the song “Just” trying to fit as many different chords in one song as possible. Why not try something like “I want to play this in a solo” or “That really high vocal note, I will get it in this track” or “I want to play in a time signature other than 4/4”

Anything that makes your songs different and unique are good points.


Don’t ignore mistakes

Just because you hit a wrong note, doesn’t mean it’s an off note, allow yourself space to improvise and see what works and what doesn’t, bear that off note/rhythm in mind, as it could work when you repeat the part for a second time (that’s a subtle change).


Most importantly: Have Fun.
If you find your song boring to play, it’s even less likely that anybody else will find it interesting. If your song keeps your own attention throughout (without going overboard with the solos) then chances are you’ve got something good in the works.

What’s the point in doing it at all if you’re not enjoying it?

Thanks for reading, hope this has helped anyone.

Written by Nathan Berwick –Bass player/Lead Vocals of Electric Mafia

facebook : http://www.facebook.com/TheElectricMafia

Twitter: @Electric_Mafia

Soundcloud (where on 1/3/12 our debut EP will be released) : https://soundcloud.com/electric-mafia/


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