Ask Vivek: What is your advice for a beginning songwriter?
I recently received a question regarding songwriting (thank you!) and decided to put together a short list of tips that have worked for me over the years as a songwriter.
- An important part of being a good writer is reading. Similarly, an important part of being a good songwriter is listening to music. This sounds a bit obvious, I know. But what I mean by listening isn’t just having music playing in the background. Make a list of your top ten favourite songs. Write down what makes each song so special to you. Is it the lyrics? Is it the chorus? If so, what about the chorus do you like? Try to be as specific as you can be in your observations while you are listening. It is equally important to pay attention to the songs you don’t like. What don’t you like about these songs? Learning what you don’t like in a song can be useful in helping you define what you do like and to create this.
- Similar to the above point, listen to a wide range of music. Admittedly, I listen to a lot of Beyoncé. But it’s been very useful for me to listen to music outside of my preferences, outside of what is being played on the radio, and outside of what my friends are listening to. The more different kinds of songwriting you are exposed to, the better and more creative your songwriting will be.
- The acoustic guitar / campfire test is a useful one: If you can play a song on just an acoustic guitar (or even just sing it acapella) and it’s strong, then it’s a good song. A good song is not one that should rely on the production or accompaniment. Instead, a good song is one that you could produce in a number of different ways and would still shine. A great example of this is “Show Me Love” by Robyn. The album version is stellar, but the acoustic version is also captivating.
- That said, playing around with production and recording can be fun and enhance your songwriting. Garageband is an pretty easy software that I recommend exploring. Even though I didn’t study music formally, there was a lot I could do in Garageband because of how intuitive it is. It is available on all Mac computers (and if you don’t have access to a Mac, check out the Digital Innovation Hubs at the Toronto Public Library). Recording my songs in Garageband is a useful way for me to go back and listen to a song. I can hear what is working or not working such as which lyrics I want to change. Recording your song will make it easier to add additional parts, like harmonies. Garageband comes with all kinds of cool, built-in sounds, so you can also add drum loops or sound effects to give your song a fuller sound. Don’t be afraid to try things out and have fun. Maybe your song needs a horn sound and the only way you will know is if you try it out.
- Look for opportunities to play your songs live, even for your friends at a house party. Or look for open mic nights in your area, like Queercab at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. This is a great way for you to hear your song in a different context. A song will sound different in a live atmosphere and hearing it in this context will give you a new perspective on the song itself and songwriting. This will also allow you to get feedback from your friends or audience members, build your performance skills and fans! You might also meet other musicians who want to collaborate with you, which will enhance your songwriting.
- While there is so much you can learn from listening to music by other artists, avoid falling into the trap of wanting to write someone else. The world doesn’t need another Rihanna, as spectacular as she is. The world needs YOUR unique perspective and voice! Spend the time in developing your own sound by writing constantly. The more songs you write, the better your songs will get. I wrote my first songs when I was thirteen and while I cherish those songs, my songwriting has only gotten richer the more I have done it.
Thank you again for your question. Please keep sending me questions and I will keep answering them here!
Lastly, some of my favourite songwriting this year is on the Case/Lang/Veirs album. What songwriters inspire you? Let me know in the comments!