How to Write a Song.

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I think a lot of people believe that music is easy. That you just get some guitars and drums, maybe a piano. Maybe you just fill in some blocks on a computer screen, put it to a beat and throw some words on top. The words can even be totally impossible to understand, the mind will fill in the blanks. It’s even kind of a joke now; like how many songs are out there where lyrics are universally misunderstood, y’know? Just four chords and a hook. I suppose people will simplify anything they don’t fully understand. But I think it happens more with music. Maybe it’s because so many of the musicians out there look like kids. Right? Like, what can kids really be that great at? They haven’t even been alive long enough to be experts at something. Or they’re drug addicts, and what can they do right?

But it turns out kids are experts at something. In fact, there’s something that only kids can be experts at. Kids are experts at youth. It’s sort of ironic actually. Youth is something that can’t be mastered with experience. Adults should be the best kids having already done it, but they very reliably make the worst kids. Or at least most of them do. The Rolling Stones seem to still be pretty good at being kids. But music needs to be made by the young. Music, popular music at least, needs to be vital and current and daring. Kids aren’t afraid to be loud or sound bad, if there is even such a thing. That’s another thing people don’t understand about the difficulty of writing music: the fear.

Before you sound good, you must sound bad. No one is born knowing how to play piano. You have to sound like total shit trying to learn it before you can play anything worth hearing. And I think that’s something everyone can understand. But here’s the thing you never expect: you never get to stop sounding like shit. Every time you start something new, a band, a song, an idea, there’s always a period of experimenting or adjusting. But I think new songs are when it’s most obvious. That’s when the stakes are highest. That’s when you’re in that precarious place where everything can fall apart or really coalesce into something fantastic. It really is the kernel of success or failure. The momentum upward to creative ecstasy or down to complacency (and ultimately giving up) starts every time the writing process for a new song does. At least when you’re doing it right. When you’re willing to put everything on a song instead of just taking the easy way. That takes some courage. Maybe not a lot, but at least some small measure of it.

What’s the easy way? Well, it’s whatever sounds good at first blush. Not digging deeper to find something new or a new way to look at something. Usually it manifests as just a few chords and some words. Like so many of the 90s coffee shop, singer-songwriter garbage. Not to say that can’t be the makings of a great song but those things alone are usually just boring, even if they sound “good” it’s nothing special. It always seems to me that any real brilliance that arises out of that arrangement does so by an accident of harmonic overlap. A note or chord overlaps with another in just such a way that something emotionally resonant just kinda pops out. There’s not much real craft to it or those people would make only gems of emotional saliency.

I think a lot of us would say that most albums are at least half filler. By which I mean songs that you wouldn’t miss if you never heard them again. But then there are some albums that are entirely front to back just fucking killer records. I often wonder if the bands that write filler know they are doing so, or do they really believe in each and every tune? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect one of the things that makes a great band great, and everyone else just sorta okay is the commitment to not write any filler songs. I think some people just write songs because that’s what they’re “supposed to do”. So, they just write songs and if you write enough of them one or two are bound to be okay. Not a lot of groups out there are being all that discerning.

But to be fair, that’s really fucking hard. There are a lot of seemingly disparate factors that go into the writing of a song. I mean, sure, for some groups they just play whatever chords they know, yell some shit over it and call it a day. And sometimes that can be great, if it’s done earnestly enough. And that is what can distinguish it from the 90s coffee shop stuff I mentioned before. Famously, there were fliers posted around New York in the early days of punk outlining a few chords and urging people to start bands with that information. And that’s not without value! Art should be accessible! I have friends that sneer at the idea that any asshole or entitled kid can get on their phone and write a song, post it online and with a stroke of luck get famous from it. But I say good for them! If it makes it easier to connect with the medium and enriches someone’s life, maybe gives some put-upon kid an outlet, then I say that’s a good thing.

So, is it really that wrong to write filler if that makes you happy? But is filler filler because it sucks or because there was no earnest effort put into it? The subjectivity of music is littered with ideological landmines in the form of contradicting feelings. All that filler is bringing the musical standard down, but on the other hand it’s giving some people a voice and satisfaction they may not be able to find elsewhere. And if that also brings them success, is that really the atrocity so many of my friends believe it to be?

I get it though. The frustration of spending years developing a craft and watching someone who seems to barely try, make a life from it. I feel that every now and again. I’m not the most disciplined player out there, but I have spent countless hours practicing over several years, in fact most of my life now. I appreciate a well-crafted song of any type. Something dynamic and emotionally provocative. Good melodies, hooks, lyrics, all of it, and that’s the music I try to make. That’s the most important thing to me. I do consider myself an artist and I think the same of Daniel, Janie and Justin as well. We’re old enough and realistic enough that we aren’t trying to “Make It” anymore. Or at least not in the way most people think of that. Not wealthy and famous but maybe have the whole thing fund itself. Where we could go on tours and not have to pay for hotels, meals and gas out of our own pockets. Maybe be able to go out for longer than a few days. Be able to drop some real money on a record, press it into vinyl. That’s our idea of “Making It”. But I don’t want to get too tangential.

For us, and for most every band I’ve been in, writing a song is a tedious process. There are a hundred ways it can go right or go wrong, and sometimes the difference is just a notch on the volume knob away. Maybe I hear something soulful, but Daniel hears it as melancholy. Maybe Janie wants a slow build to punctuate the tension, but Justin thinks that would just water-down the hard hit of the song. Who’s to say who’s right? Objectively speaking, that is. So, we are always trying to petition for our ideas, sway the others and convince them. And maybe Janie’s right, maybe the slow build would sound amazing, but because Justin isn’t bought in, he doesn’t commit to it and it falls wanting. It isn’t dynamic the way it could be. So, the idea gets pushed aside. How many great ideas have we had that simply didn’t get a real chance? Or maybe everyone just settles on something that sounds okay and it ends up as filler.

And then there are the actual notes, and beats, and speed and time and melody and on and on and on… There are almost endless combinations of these factors to work out. If Janie is playing some chords, do I just match her and bolster the low end, give those chords power? Or do I fill in the passing notes to give it some motion and animation, make it livelier? Or do I play something totally different and push the bass to the front? Am I closer to Janie or Justin? Should I even be playing at all? And that’s just me, and just the beginning of it at that. I have to think about those things for every part of a song, and the transitions in between. We all consider those things and then worry about all the different ways to interpret the interactions between each other.

I think Justin has the hardest job though. He decides more of how a song goes than anyone, and more than anyone would admit. Even by his account, he just plays along with whatever someone else comes up with. But drums really are the foundation. He may not be in front, have the solos, or sing. He might be hidden behind that kit but it all hinges on him. I mean, they could do a show without me. It would be a pretty empty show, but it could be done. We could pass for an instrumental group with a little more work, Guitar players are fucking everywhere. Like pretentious, noisy cockroaches. But this band lives and dies by the drums. We can have an okay show if any one of us is having an off night, except Justin. If he’s off, the whole thing sucks. Amazing really, for all his bullshit, he’s almost always on. I’ve seen him pass out, fall over, smash his nose on a fucking table and sleep on the floor right there, but he’s always the best of us on stage.

“It’s too fuckin’ slow…”

“I’m not sure I can play it any faster.”

“No, I mean, like the whole thing drags, man. Like uh, pacing. Like we play everything too long.”

“I need more time for that second part or it’s going to sound off.”

“Fine, I can give you that part, but can we cut that change by, like half?”

“Well wait, what if Dan needs that time for something? Shouldn’t we wait and see what he has and adjust the lengths accordingly?”

“I don’t think we should worry about that, we’ll make something work. It always does. If that has to happen, it will.”

“Okay look, we’ll try it with the change in the middle only eight times? Can we make the ending a little louder too?”

“Oh, and can we put a four count at the beginning, after the intro?”

“What, like just ring out?”

“Uh huh. Well, maybe you and Janie”

“Oh, I like that idea!”

“Wait, why are we doing that?”

“I just think it’ll sound cool.”

“What if we did it like an eight count with me and Doug ringing out and then Justin can fill in for the last eight beats?”

“Six would be better.”

“Can we just do the eight this time and make it easy? Just to see if a pause there would even work?”

“Is six really that much harder?”

“No, fine, whatever.”

“I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do there, so I might just sit this one out.”

“Okay, let’s just do this, c’mon.”

Justin was sweating and unusually docile. He was clear-eyed and lucid, speaking clearly. More so than usual, or at least more than he had in a long time. He was working hard today, and despite the cool weather, the practice room was warm. Justin winced briefly, took a deep breath and clicked his sticks together to count us in…

Click! Click! Click! Click!

This would probably just sound like noise to almost anyone else. Even I have to strain to pick out anything particularly coherent, but I can feel that something is there. We all can. The talking in between running through the song moves faster and faster, the ideas are just coming out faster than we can sort and discuss them. I always feel anxiety here. Are we missing something that could be brilliant? Passing over something because it’s not the focus RIGHT NOW! That’s how I feel in these moments: like everything is about RIGHT NOW! The urgency, the excitement, it’s like being in a collective flow state, where nothing matters or exists but the right now!

Oops. My mind wandered and I wasn’t counting… “I thought we had one more.”

“No, that was eight.”

“I thought we had one more also.”

“Let’s try it again.”

Click! Click! Click…

“Wait! I think it should be even longer at the beginning. Like, just let it ring out…”

“Can we just get through that middle section first?”

“Yeah yeah! I just don’t want to forget that.”

“Wait, I’m still not happy with that second part, can you guys just play it over and over for me for a while?”

“Look, I think we can come back to that later, I wanna get that change hammered out.”

“Hold on, how many times?”

“Eight.”

“I thought it was six.”

“No, the middle section.”

“Yeah, the middle.”

“Oh, oh oh! I have something for the first part!”

“It’s eight.”

“Just real quick, once through?”

“Fine but can we just try the pause at the beginning with it since we’re going through it?”

“Which one, the six or the ring out?”

“Eight.”

“No, eight is the middle part.”

“The… ring out?”

“Okay, we’re doing the ring out, a quick count then going through the first part once.”

“I mean, if we’re doing all that why don’t we just try the whole thing?”

“Holy shit.”

“I know, right?”

“Maybe we should take a break.”

“Okay, once through, pause after the intro, count in, middle six times…”

“Eight times!”

“…eight times, take a break.”

“Okay.” “K.” “Alright.”

Click! Click! Click! Click…

Musician and writer in St. Louis, MO matt.derouin@gmail.com

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