A new, recurring feature on IVC, each “This is How We Do It” will offer a glimpse into the personal writing process of a particular artist. Sort of like an “MTV Cribs” for songwriters, we’re hoping this feature will be interesting, fun and (dare we say in the same sentence with “Cribs”?) a little informative.
To kick things off, singer/songwriter and WFMU DJ extraordinaire, Michael Shelley discusses (below) his own creative methods and offers his astute thoughts on the craft of songwriting.
How songs get written is a bit of a mystery – because there is a bit of magic involved – if you could quantify the process, then anyone could do it.
One reason I think humans like songs is precisely because they are unique creations – specific to their creators. Many of my favorite songs present the world in a way everyone can relate to, but from a totally unique point of view – the combination of those two elements is an amazing trick.
Pure craft has produced many, many amazing songs – but in the end, most of my favorites were produced with a combination of mysterious inspiration and work.
Lean too much on your inspiration and you mostly get tuneless self indulgent crap. Lean too much on craft and you get unoriginal uncompelling crap.
Two or three times in my life a song I’ve written has emerged almost fully formed - like giving birth to a 21 year old person – a miracle. These songs take just about as long to write as they are in length. They must have been silently incubating somewhere in the back of my mind.
But most of my songs don’t spring to life – they get written with a combination of inspiration and work.
I like to think that there is a “song idea file” somewhere in the brain. Ideas constantly get poured in, and, occasionally get coupled together and make it out into a finished song.
I think many songwriters work this way – looking at the world and experiencing everything as potential song fodder and storing ideas for future use.
For me, these ideas may be incredibly vague or quite specific. Some are tiny ideas, some are huge concepts.
You sing along to a song and like the way your voice sounds, you figure out the chords and realize the song is in a key that you’ve never written a song in, so “write a song in the key of D” goes in the file.
You hear “Nobody’s Fool” so; “Rip off the bridge to the Dan Penn song ‘Nobody’s Fool’” goes in.
Someone shows you a major 7th chord – they’re cool but how do you use them? “Write a song with a major 7th chord” kicks around the file for a long while, getting attempted and vetoed in every song you write for ages. Eventually it finds a good fit.
Some are real life events. “Write a song about that car trip you took to Cape Cod with that girl” – but try to play with the words a bit, don’t be too literal.
Sometimes they’re just stand alone poetic images waiting for a story; “French fries in a hot car on a summer day.”
Sometimes these bits actually inspire the germ of a song, other times they sit dormant for a long while – waiting to be used in service of true inspiration.
I pick up the guitar every day and goof off – occasionally this sparks an idea. Sometimes I jot in a notebook if I get a chord sequence I like, or a melody idea or lyrics that fit the melody – but usually it’s just goofing off. Sometimes I’ll check in with an old idea or an unfinished thought to see if it has matured – this happens occasionally.
But most of my songs get written this way:
I have an idea for a song – a sentiment I want to express, a story I want to tell, a strong idea for a chorus – something inspiring enough to start.
Sometimes I’m holding a guitar while this happens, sometimes not. Occasionally it’s a melody or chord sequence that inspires the lyrics, but usually it is the opposite.
I’m not good at just strumming and free associating – a method that works for a lot of people and that I wish I was better at.
After I have my main idea, rough lyrics for the chorus and first verse usually come pretty fast – they spring from the initial inspiration. Then I’ve found it’s best to throw as much down on paper as possible. I write as many ideas as I can for the rest of the lyrics as fast as I can. Sometimes it’s a simple list of words. Sometimes it’s images or objects that might help evoke the idea I’m trying to put across – I do this part with no regard for redundancy or length of lines or anything.
Sometimes I’ll look at the first verse and, line by line, scribble down reactions to each line - ideas of what else happens to complete the story or to complete the action that is happening.
Sometimes I’ll close my eyes and imagine myself in the setting that the characters are in and I’ll write down what they can see from where they are.
Now I’ve got a page of scribble. Like a bunch of jigsaw puzzle pieces. Some will obviously go together – some will take a bit of experimenting with different combinations.
Then I usually step away for a while – and play what I have the next day or a few hours later – and I ask myself if it sounds like a song. Occasionally I abandon ship at this point (and the good ideas go into the “song idea file”) – but usually I start the work part of the process – building the rest of the verses out of all the scribbled down ideas – messing with the phrasing and the melody - trying to change the chords around a little to make it more interesting or to set the melody off in a new direction – maybe adding a bridge, intro, ending.
It’s during this stage that when I’m stuck, the “song idea file” often comes to the rescue.
Often during this part I’ll sing the song to myself many times (while driving, folding laundry, trying to fall asleep) trying to generate lyric fixes, to shape up the phrasing or to see if something new pops up.
Though I’m the world’s worst piano player I sometimes try to figure out the chords on piano – as it sometimes helps with the melody and improving the chord sequence.
This part of the process has taken me as short as a day – and as long as a year. Once in a while a song will never get finished enough to play for people.
Even after a song is finished I keep working on it – trying to fix the lyrics. There are songs that I sing different lyrics live to then are on the recorded version because the better lyrics came after the recordings.
Over the years I have learned not to be self-conscious – that it is okay to carry around a notebook and be a dork – many of my best ideas were generated on the New York City subway and fleshed out while bartending.
One of my favorite songwriters, Kim Shattuck from The Muffs, told me she writes the entire music and melody for a song singing nonsense syllables, before she writes any lyrics.
Ron Sexsmith told me he writes the whole song in his head before he picks up a guitar. I think that’s a great way of keeping the melody pure.
Nick Lowe describes a different guy who comes along once in a while and writes the songs.
There is not one way.
I love all kinds of songs and obsessive listening is one of the best ways I’ve learned to figure out how the good ones were written.
For me the main idea is that when you are lucky enough that the magic strikes – be ready to make the most out of it.
-Posted by Michael
Michael Shelley is a New York-area based singer/songwriter. His latest effort, “Leftovers”, marks his fifth album release as an artist. Michael has collaborated with members of Belle & Sebastian and Teenage Fanclub as well as toured as opener for such acts as They Might Be Giants and Marshall Crenshaw. He is also owner of the Confidential Recordings record label and host of a weekly music program on WFMU radio.