Singer-Songwriter Tips and Techniques
Written by: Kelli Ali
There are so many ways to write a song, that it’s impossible to define and capture all the processes and journeys that a writer must experience throughout his or her career. Infinite fragments of influence drift by, often unnoticed, as so many of life’s subtle yet critical points flurry past our perception like snowflakes.
Often these snowflakes are only observed later when they have gathered to create a formidable snowdrift with which to make the perfect snowman.
It is possible, however, for me to describe some of my own thoughts and ideas about being a singer/songwriter and hopefully share some insights that may help you to approach writing and singing songs from a new perspective.
When I think of what makes any work of art powerful, I am always drawn back to a concept of truth. I believe that there is a truth that we all can feel and relate to within art that we don’t necessarily understand but accept on a subconscious level.
If we can create a song that embodies an element of this truth, we may be able to communicate on a deeper level with our fellow human beings in a musical way. A song can be so many things: a fire to gather around and keep us warm, a sign along the road when we’re lost, or a story to teach us that we are not alone in times of pain and struggle.
I believe that music and song are an integral part of human nature; I cannot imagine a world without them.
As a young girl, I found sanctuary from the world’s hard edges in daydreams and fantasies. I would sit for hours writing stories and conjuring up worlds of my own with their various characters and adventures.
Books such as The Enchanted Forest and The Narnia Chronicles, as well as Edward Lear’s genius poem The Owl and The Pussycat, set my imagination alight. As a child, I spent much more time in the land where the bong tree grows than I ever did in the ‘real’ world!
Later on, as an angry adolescent growing up in one of England’s quiet but subtly oppressive council estates, I found the flame of inspiration rekindled in my love of bands such as The Stooges, Sonic Youth and The Pixies. I am convinced that my love of music saved me from the entanglements of what could otherwise have been an extremely grim existence.
The lyrics of the songs I loved were like poems, but much better! The instruments pulsing and screaming behind the voices of cool, sneering messengers had the power to lift me from wherever I was and gave me hope in something way cooler than anything in my immediate vision. Everything was transformed when I put on my headphones; the music I heard was my friend.
It wasn’t long before I was experimenting with my own poetry and learning the three magic guitar chords, A, G and E, in order to begin writing songs of my own. Of course the first songs I wrote were very far from the genius of Sonic Youth’s ’Kool Thing’ or Iggy Pop’s ‘Search and Destroy’ (both songs were in constant rotation on my record player).
However, I was exhilarated to find that I could express myself in a musical way just like my heroes, and I was determined to make this my life’s work.
I listened to all kinds of music, from punk to Prince to everything in between. If I liked a song I didn’t care who wrote it or even if they were cool or not—if the music moved me it was enough. This has not changed, and I have a vast array of musical heroes from various scenes and genres.
My journey as a singer and songwriter so far has been full of fascinating experiences, and I am always learning. I do not see what I do as a job so much as a way of life. There have been times when it looked like inspiration had run dry, and I have felt the shiver of doubt many times throughout my life making music.
If I have nothing to share with my listener, then I do not make a record. Only when I have stumbled upon some diamond of an idea strong enough to excite me and make me want to capture the phantom, the story, or the emotion, do I begin to search for the best way to conjure that elusive willow of the wisp in musical form.
Although I could write a million words about singing and songwriting, as it is so much a part of me and my world, the Chicago Music Guide has asked me to write a piece especially for its readers, to help anyone who is interested or involved in singing and songwriting in a practical and lesson-like way.
As I can tend to get more and more abstract in my approach to writing about the philosophy and technique involved in the magical art of song, I decided that it would probably be most helpful to you, dear reader, if I were to list my top ten most important and useful tips on the process. I hope that you can understand and enjoy the following little signposts I have listed below for you.
I have come to know these things by following my heart and doing what I love. There are many other lessons that I have yet to learn and many things that you will come to know from your own magical adventures. If there is one thing that can never be taught, except by the master guide of experience, it is the pure joy of sharing your song with others.
The desire to truly touch the soul of another with your music for reasons beyond fame, material wealth or personal gain, and the innate love of our brothers and sisters is what will make the spiritual journey of the song maker a charmed and blessed adventure. Without this passion to serve, elevate and share with the souls of others, musicians and song makers will never truly touch the sunlight of their own creations.
Here are my ten thoughts on singing and songwriting. Enjoy and remember: Your song is a window to your soul, make it as beautiful and as original as you can.
1. Words are your tools! Study them, play with them and enjoy them. Read as much as you can of great literature and poetry; these great gifts are the pillars on which your power to create a story within your songs rest.
The child inside us all loves a good story and needs to be soothed from time to time with some sweet tale of hope or caution. If you can understand the power of literature and poetry and apply the thought and creative innovation to your songs and music that the great masters of the pen apply to their works, you may be surprised at how potent your message becomes.
One of the great modern masters of storytelling in music is Sufjan Stevens. If you do not know his ‘Feel the Illinoise’ album, then you should immediately buy it, study it and study some more. The sheer poetry of the songs on this album is astounding, their musical beauty overwhelming.
2. Listen! Listen to music from all kinds of cultures. When I say listen, I mean really listen to the piece. Make notes on verse and chorus structure of the songs you are listening to. How does Bob Dylan’s ‘All the Tired Horses’ song continue to hold our imagination when it has one line of lyric repeated over and over again?
What is the common element in your favorite kinds of music? Are you drawn to orchestral arrangement in songs, do you prefer electric guitars or do you love both? Could you envision using both orchestral arrangements and electric guitars in a song together the way that God Speed You Black Emperor or Radio Head do?
Begin listening to different types of music than you would normally. Move out of your comfort zone. Listen to Koto music of Japan, Sitar music, film soundtracks (Ennio Morricone and John Barry are two great artists to start with if you’re unfamiliar with movie scores).
Persian music, 1950’s girl band rock ‘n’ roll, punk music, Goth, rock pop, Chinese, world, electro, French (Serge Gainsbourg. Francois Breut), Mariachi, folk, soul, psyche folk, nu folk, classical contemporary (Phillip Glass, Michael Nyman, Hauschka, Arvo Part), and even romantic ballads of the Ancient Greeks!
Expand your mind and your creative pallet and begin to really listen and to understand music, not just as the wallpaper to your every day, but as a subject to study and explore. In this wonderful age of technology there is no excuse for the modern songwriter to be narrow-minded or lacking in knowledge of the vast array of influences which can be used as starting points and textures to create something new and exciting.
3. Practice! Write all different kinds of songs and really examine your technique. Are you imitating your favorite artists as opposed to taking their influence and creating your own fresh ideas with what you have learned from them? Experiment with unusual song structures but only after you understand the usual and more traditional verse-chorus placement. (This may seem simple, but one of the hardest things to achieve is a song that ebbs, naturally flows and still sounds fresh and non-formulaic).
4. Write poems and shift the perspective of narration of a song two or three times to consider how this changes the message. For example try this following exercise:
Take your song lyric : ‘I am a flower wilting in the sunlight of your dream’
( I just made that up for the purpose of this exercise, you should make up something that relates to how you’re feeling or the message you wish to convey in your song.)
Now, this perspective is one of the most commonly used forms of songwriting. The singer is addressing the song as though she were speaking directly to her lover or the listener. Try shifting the perspective in as many ways as you can and note how the mood of the song is altered by the shift.
‘I am a flower wilting in the sunlight of your dream’ can become:
‘She is a flower wilting in the sunlight of your dream’
‘He was a flower wilting in the sunlight of her dream’
‘They are flowers wilting in the sunlight of a dream’
‘I am a flower wilting in the sunlight of dreams’
‘You are a flower wilting in the sunlight of my dream’
And so on and so forth. There are so many variations we can use to tell our story, and we must never be lazy when first approaching our song. The difference in narrative can mean the success or failure of a song’s ability to convey the message in the most powerful imaginative way. This is also a good exercise to do if you feel stuck in a rut with a song, which invariably happens to us all from time to time.
Don’t be afraid of letting a song rest for a while. Sometimes, a verse or chorus might elude you for months. As long as you aren’t on any deadlines to complete a song, you can come back and revisit it later.
You may just need some time away from it to see more clearly what it needs. I often work on songs over a span of months. One of my songs, ‘The Savages,’ was almost completely written; it just needed a final verse.
It took around six months of me trying various combinations and ideas, getting frustrated, putting it down and then going back again, before I found a last verse that I was happy with.
It is so worth the time and effort when you finally put the last piece of the jigsaw together and realize the song to its full potential. That feeling is wonderful, and I much prefer to take the time on a song than to rush something and find that it isn’t quite the gem it could have been.
5. If you are a singer as well as a songwriter, you have the luxury and the responsibility of giving voice to your creation. Singing your own songs is a magical art that requires much thought and focus.
Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Iggy Pop, Shirley Bassey, Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, Kim Gordon, Francis Black, Johnny Cash, Alison Goldfrapp, Patti Smith, Vashti Bunyan, Sufjan Stevens, Nina Simone, and David Bowie are of course only a tiny fragment of the vast universe of singers to know and love for their unique and artistic way of vocalizing their songs. There are a billion others that will pass us by in this lifetime, like the light of stars we will never glance upon due to the transience of our time here.
One thing is clear. As a singer, you must find your own voice and nurture this little seed as best you can. Practice, practice and practice some more, but never ever forget that technique is only the foundation on which your art rests. The most important part of being a singer is communicating with the listener, human being to human being.
The greatest technical vocalist will never give voice to a truly beautiful or meaningful song if there is no heart to their sound.
If the listener can relate to you as a performer, to your music and your message, you are halfway to happiness. However, you must keep working on your voice so that you can grow and expand your ability, so that you don’t get stuck writing the same old melodies over and over because you have a limited range.
There are a great many benefits to doing breathing and vocal exercises every day; they bring focus and awareness to your growth as a singer and also provide you with a concentrated space in each day to work on your weak areas (which we all have).
A word of warning: if you haven’t done vocal exercises before, take it slow and easy! I was so eager to be the best singer that I could be that when I first began taking lessons from a vocal coach; I over-practiced and strained my voice on a number of occasions.
Vocal coaches are usually expensive and a good one is hard to find; I wouldn’t recommend spending too much money on one in the early stages. It’s a good idea to get one of those book courses that includes a CD. My favorite is Tona De Brett’s ‘Discover Your Voice.’ You can buy this online and it will be an invaluable tool for your warm-ups and practice routine.
Begin with ten minutes of stretching to loosen your muscles and prepare your mind for the quiet zone you need in order for a thorough practice session. I also do yoga, which I have found to be a wonderful way of unwinding and bringing clarity to my practice.
I would recommend that you just do two fifteen-minute sessions a day of vocal exercises for the first week and gradually build up your stamina and routine.
Everyone is different so you must find your own way of practicing. Research all kinds of vocal technique and training theory. Over the years, you should develop a practice routine based on all different aspects of lessons that you have gathered through your study.
Take any learning CDs that you have with you when you travel so you can practice anywhere at anytime.
Don’t be embarrassed by the strange sounds that you produce in your exercises, but do always try and find a private space by yourself to practice. Other people can find it quite bizarre to listen to and you don’t want to feel self-conscious while you are exploring your voice.
I always warm up before recording sessions and gigs and generally I make sure I do a full forty-five minute vocal exercise session at least three times a week, or more if I have a lot of gigs that month.
There are many great sites on the Internet with free vocal exercises if you can’t afford a CD course; your local library may also have books about singing and songwriting that you can explore. Don’t be superstitious about your art.
Whilst a great many elements of your life as an artist may be steeped in mystery and avoid too much analysis and study, you owe it to yourself and your listener to develop your skills as a singer and songwriter as highly as possible. Study your work and technique and constantly improve it. Don’t for a minute think that your songs or voice are beyond improvement.
6. Record your ideas and performances. A singer-songwriter without any recording set up, no matter how basic that set up is, is like a bird without wings. You must find some way of investing in your art. For Christmas or birthday gifts, instead of sweaters and socks or makeup and trinkets, ask your folks to contribute towards your set up.
7. Research and think about your realistic home studio requirements. You may start with a secondhand digital 8-track recorder and a microphone, a guitar and a keyboard. You may have some more cash to spend and invest in a Mac laptop and Pro Tools M-Box system or Logic, Cubase or any one of the vast number of sequencing programs now available.
(Pro Tools is the industry standard, which means that a lot of the bigger recording studios use it. This can be useful when taking your sessions to bigger studios.
If you know how to communicate with the engineer on a Pro Tools-level, this can mean the difference of saving hours in the studio, which in turn means saving money). Learning a new software program always takes time; I was once one of the most computer illiterate musicians out there, but over the years my desire to record demos at home has motivated me to learn how to use Pro Tools.
This has given me so much freedom to explore ideas at home before spending money in a studio. The endless joy of having your own creative environment is definitely worth the time and money that you will need to invest in your recording set up.
EBay is great for finding secondhand equipment such as pedals, microphones and almost anything else you might need. Ask friends who have their own recording setups for advice and help getting to know how various programs operate so that you can make the right choice.
If you don’t have your own space, you can get very small and relatively cheap digital 4-track recorders with effects, such as the Boss Micro. This is what I use when I am traveling very light and in places too environmentally harsh for a laptop, such as the desert.
8. If you do not own a guitar, I suggest that you get one immediately! It doesn’t have to be too fancy, but a guitar is one of the best writing tools you can own. Their versatility and portability mean that you can take a guitar almost anywhere and now there is even a high quality, folding guitar called the Voyage -Air guitar.
This guitar has revolutionized traveling with your instrument so it’s even easier to take on the road and get inspired. I wrote my Rocking Horse album on an acoustic guitar, while I was traveling through Mexico and California. The process of writing on an acoustic inspired me to use a different vocal approach than my earlier work, a higher head voice that I probably never would have explored otherwise.
You only need to learn a few chords to begin experimenting with your writing. Even if you are more excited by the idea of using electronic sounds and synths as writing tools, a guitar can be great to add depth and an organic feel to your ideas. Listen to the Talkie Walkie album by Air for a stellar example of using guitars with electronic sounds.
9. Work with other people. This is such an important aspect of making music. If you have friends who you can invite over to your place and play with now and then, do some recording with, or even set up a few gigs with, this can make a world of difference to writing your songs.
Building a community of people with whom you share a common musical thread and becoming a lot more active in your local surroundings is a great motivator. Having the support of friends to play your new music to and get feedback and constructive criticism is also a valuable gift.
10. Remember, it takes a lot of time and struggle to get your music heard, so the sooner you begin playing in your own backyard, the sooner you’ll be playing further afield and touring.
Become part of your local music scene; be generous with your given talent. If you’re a guitarist, play on other people’s recordings, or ask them to help with yours.
Anyone who knows about making music knows that finding good musicians to play with is very difficult if you have a limited budget (which most of us do!), therefore you will need to do favors for people and help them make their record. Hopefully, you’ll do a good job and they’ll return the favor for you.
As you develop a body of work and hopefully build up your collection of recordings, you should definitely focus on your Internet presence.
MySpace, Facebook, and your own website (which you can create quite easily on applications such as iWeb and its PC alternatives) are all vehicles you should be using to spread the word about your music and find other likeminded souls on the planet.
Never Give Up! Good Luck!
Vive La Rock ‘n’ Roll!
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