The Art of Songwriting: A Glimpse Into The Creative Realm

Updated: Apr 9, 2019

"We’ll record for days on end, and Tim is very much part of the process, as we are making a horrible noise, he’s there using phonetics and looking for melodic lines." - Saul Davies

James Guitarist - Saul Davies (Use of imagery permitted by Saul Davies).

The radio is blasting. The sun is shining, and you hear that familiar riff, that melodic hook that sends those happy endorphins coursing through your veins, invigorating every part of your soul. For the next 5 minutes, you’re a rock star.

But wait… you thought you were about to temporarily lose your mind to the sweet sound of The Cure, but you couldn’t be more wrong.

Before you know it, the brash yawp of Lady Sovereign’s ‘So Human’ is filling your ears with confusing noise. Yes, it’s a complete rip off of The Cure’s charming classic, 'Close To Me'.

You feel cheated.

It’s 2019, and many radio outlets continue to churn out the same, regurgitated melodies for half their worth, much to the angst of many rock and roll pioneers such as Saul Davies, who have somewhat lost their faith in contemporary pop music.

As ever-long guitarist for Manchester rock and roll band ‘James’, the ‘Sit Down’ star spoke of his disapproval for such modern creations.

“I’m making an observation between what I call music and what I call ‘shit’, for me anything that’s got a dancer on the stage is automatically rubbish. I don’t care how culturally relevant someone might tell me it is, if there’s a dancer on stage then it is bollocks. “I suppose I’m making a generalisation, but real pop music used to be adventurous and strange. I think the showy element kinda creates distance between the performer and consumer. “What James wants is to create a connection, and that doesn’t come with bells and whistle performances, it comes by showing the power of music and making yourselves available to people.”

(Use of audio permitted by Saul Davies.)

Many share Saul’s frustration, hopelessly wondering whether or not any artists even write their own tunes anymore, and the answer is yes, there’s still hope.

Take Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner, for instance, his witty lyricism and poetic portrays of millennial life are a testament to his artistic vision.

Turner’s tracks are a complex composition of metaphors, creativity and outright genius, just listen to leading track ‘Arabella’ with its opening line ‘Arabella’s got some interstellar-gator skin boots, and a helter skelter ‘round her little finger and I ride it endlessly’.

Such lyrical abilities and songwriting elements have firmly cemented the Monkey’s rise to global stardom.

On the flip-side of the record, we have R&B and rap icons such as Beyoncé and Eminem, both artists remain an unstoppable force within the music industry, their songwriting techniques may differ, yet are both steeped in undeniable creativity and poetic power. They’re a force to be reckoned with.

Yet we must cast our mind back to the authentic, raw phenomena that music once was, before the age of synthesisers and money-spinning music productions. To the days where the likes of Jimmy Hendrix and Bob Dylan used their imaginative words of wisdom to enlighten millions of listeners.

Dylan will forever be noted as one of the century’s most prolific poets, with his outstanding body of work stemming over a phenomenal 60 albums.

Tracks such as ‘Masters of War’from his iconic album ‘The Freewheelin’ saw Dylan’s lyrics act as a revolutionary voice of a generation, a means of political protest against the Cold War nuclear arms build-up of the 1960s.

Yet skip forwards four songs on the record and you’re graced with his illustrious ballad, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It's Alright’, an emotive tale of love and loss, a fascinating juxtaposition.

But are such innovative individuals born with this ‘gift’, or is songwriting merely a form of expression that every human being carries somewhere in the depths within them?

Dylan is famously quoted saying:

“If you see me do it [songwriting], any idiot can do it. Everybody can write a song, just like everybody’s got that one great novel inside them."

But can they? Although Dylan credits meditation as a vital ingredient to his songwriting technique, many of his creations are steeped in folk songwriting traditions. The ‘Hurricane’ songsmith has spoken openly about his creative process, stating that he often begins with a melody he’s heard somewhere else, paired with a subtle key change.

Similarly to this, American singer-songwriter Tom Waits finds much of his inspiration from both collaborations and listening to music from far away.

His music is often characterized by his deep, distinct, gravelly tone, with many of his lyrics focusing on the bleak underside of U.S. society. Yet the ‘Little Drop of Poison’singer harbours some less-conventional composition methods.

Waits famously uses the technique of playing multiple radios at once, sourcing ideas form the interesting melodic overlaps that come as a result of this magically bizarre process.

His other songwriting practices include singing acapella, playing instruments he has no experience with and inventing percussive instruments from scrap yard materials he’s found in various junkyards.

Although an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, Waits claims these innovative methods of composition provide a sense of freedom, diminishing the limitations of a routine. Genius.

Speaking of geniuses, the late David Bowie described how he often employed the ‘cut-up’ writing technique in order to produce interesting lyric lines.

This literary method involves taking a line of text and cutting it into pieces, usually with one or two words to each segment. The remaining pieces are then rearranged to create a brand-new body of text.

This inspirational process intends to add an element of surprise to the creative process, leaving certain parts of the composition to chance. The perfect storm for song inspiration.

Yet it’s hard to deny that these methods of songwriting are somewhat unique to the more profound creative leaders within the artistic realm. Many bands, including James, stand by the more common-known process of collaborative jamming.

“Four of us will get in a room and jam around with various instruments, we record everything and just start making a lot of noise essentially.
“We’ll record for days on end, and Tim [frontman] is very much part of the process, as we are making a horrible noise, he’s there using phonetics and looking for melodic lines.
“I guess improvisation and jamming is the more common way of doing it, it’s a bit of a mad process really, not the most efficient but it gives us the finished product which is our music!”

And what does it matter? The most important thing is to not be lead astray from the raw aesthetics of musical creativity. It's perspective, simple melodies, craftsmanship, lyrical measure and most of all, having something to say paired with pure-hearted motivation for writing.

Let us hope that this lifelong craft isn’t reduced to dust, lost in the cogs of our ever-changing music industry forever more.

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