Jim Byrne – how I write songs
Unless someone has asked me to write a song on a particular topic or I am co-writing, my process is something like the following. (This is how I work – that’s not to say it the best way or even a good way – it’s just my way.)
I don’t try
I don’t try to write and I have no topics I want to write about. What comes out in my songs are the things in my life: the things I’m angry about or interested in or affected by at any particular point. I let the process reveal the song. For that to happen I aim to find a way to open a channel to my subconscious; a way to bypass my analytical, literate, logical mind.
I would speculate that the subconscious mind has no interest in songwriting technique; it just throws out stuff that you happen to be dealing with on a daily basis; I would also speculate that it reveals the truth about how you deal with these things – and how you react to the world. That’s useful if you are a songwriter – because it doesn’t give you cliches or copies of other people’s work; it’s more lkely to give you access to your true self and your real concerns.
That’s not to say every song is some deep meditation – it’s not because we are also interested in shallow things as well as all the other stuff. Nor does it mean that every song will be about you/me as sometimes you just get playful made up stories – but they also tend to have a ring of truth to them – simply because of where they come from.
How does it work in practice
I just pick up my guitar and play. I never play an existing song on my guitar unless I need to rehearse for a gig – so I am always playing something new. If it sounds interesting I grab my phone and play it in to my audio notes app (I have about 1500 ideas on my phone). Even though I’m thinking ‘I like the sound of this’ – most of the time it’s crap. But writing lots and lots of crap is essential at any stage in your songwriting development including mine; I expect it – it doesn’t get me down that I’ve come up with another 20 rubbish ideas.
Now and again I come up with something I like and it turns out not to be crap. One surefire way for me to know if something is worth persuing is when – out of the blue – my wife Pat says, ‘ is that knew, I like the sound of that’. That happens anywhere between 10 and 20 times a year.
It’s essential for new songwriters to write as much crap as they can and not be down-hearted if every song is not a classic. You need to write all the cliches so you can get them out of your system. Many (most?) new songwriters write in cliches or just re-write the songs of their favourite artists; you’ve got to do that – it’s essential – it’s part of the learning process. Songwriters should also learn as many cover versions as they can as it teaches you what a song is, how it’s constructed, what works and what the conventions are.
Music or lyrics first?
To get back to the process. I have written from other people’s lyrics in the past (I wrote a song with Marti Pellow called Lay With Me which is on his last album– the lyrics are Marti’s. I also wrote a song with Carol Kidd M.B.E. called Down By The Wildwood – Carol wrote the lyrics. In the band the Bearpit Brothers, Robert Ruthven writes a lot of the lyrics and the band shapes the music from chords progressions I usually come up with) – but if I’m writing my own songs – I usually start with the music. So I take the idea and I just keep playing it on my guitar. I have 40 years experience of playing and writing songs so much of this is automatic.
I know there are conventional ways I can go with a song and unconventional ways – it just depends on the song and where it takes me. One of my favourite songs I’ve written is called, ‘The Handle’s Broken On My Cup‘ – it has a totally unconventional structure; that particular song couldn’t go any other way; that’s just how it goes. But because I know all of the conventional ways a song can go – I’m either taking advantage of that knowledge or I’m deliberately avoiding it.
Some songs need to be simple and just go down the conventional verse chorus route; you just got to serve the song. So at this point in the process of writing a song I’m trying to find out how it goes, where it goes – what are the chords of the chorus or the bridge or whatever.
How I write lyrics
As I’m doing this I’m singing along. I’m singing nonsense words that have the right shape to fit whatever melody that is coming out of my mouth. I don’t overthink anything. There are a million possible melodies for every set of chords; the choice of melody just needs to suit the type of song; the rythm – the genre of the song. I trust my brain to come up with something appropriate and good.
As I’m singing nonsense maybe some words will come out of my mouth that I like so I’ll write them down. There might be a germ of an idea in those words or there might not be.
At this point all I have is belief that I will write lyrics for this song and that this song is worth writing. However, sometimes I can never get words for a song; they just don’t come. That doesn’t happen very often – but it happens – there’s just no route to writing the lyrics. I abandon the song – I have no choice. Conversely sometimes after finishing a song I decide the music is rubbish but the lyrics are good.
Even if I’ve managed to scribble down some lyrics I know those might not be lyrics I’ll ever use. For some songs I can be writing down unrelated phrases for days just waiting for something to happen – something to move the process forward. During this process I’m usually refining the song structure. At this point I will start recording it.
How I find a melody
In the last 6 or 7 years that I’ve started recording my songs at home this has changed my songwriting process. Now, when I have the basic song structure recorded and maybe a few lines of a verse, I start to sing over the chords – continuously – recording one vocal line over another – finding or refining a melody and finding words that work as I go and deleting earlier recordings. At some point – enough words have appeared that I either see or decide what the song is about – up to that point the subject of the song is not something I think about.
Once I have an idea of what the song is about I start to fashion lyrics to fit – though again I’m still trying to let my subcouncious guide me, waiting for the story to appear – catching it as it comes in rather than actively writing it. This explains why some of my songs lyrics are abstract or surreal; overall you get a sense of what the songs is about – but if you read each line in turn they don’t necessarily tell the story.
I don’t treat lyrics like poetry; I’m not writing a poem; I’m writing words that need to be sung; words that fit well in my mouth, which is why singing is an essential part of my writing process.
From inspiration to perspiration
Although the words intiitailly come from “who know’s where” once I have them I spend quite a lot of time honing them and ensuring there’s an appropriate rhyming pattern. There always comes a point in the process where hard work takes over from inspiration.
Having done this for quite a long time I believe I have developed a style which is identifiable my own; often my lyrics are conversational and I rarely use adjectives. As an example, here is the first verse of the last songs I wrote called, The Yellow Clock:
Place the ring on the table
Push your cares from your mind
Put your head down on the pillow
Though sleep is hard to find
The yellow clock is ticking
Is it counting you down
And the photos on the dresser
watch the paintings on the wall
All those smiling faces
well I guess you’ve read them all
The yellow clock is ticking
Is it counting you down
And the colours take your dreams from you
Fresh flowers still they sit in view
And your heart knows what love can do
And you need love, yes you need love
You see your mothers books still sitting
on the shelf now by the door
Her glasses there beside them
and her shoes now on the floor
And the yellow clock is ticking
is it counting you down
Yes the yellow clock is ticking
is it counting you down
Although the above explanation of how I write songs sounds like a long drawn out process, some songs are written in the time it takes to play them; i.e. if it’s a three minute song, it can take three minutes to write it. That doesn’t happen often but it does happen. The song ‘Fancy Wooden Box’ was written like that, apart from the last verse which I wrote when I was recording it (I felt it needed one more verse).
Everyone will have their own way of writing songs – this just happens to be mine. I write down what comes along and then fashion it the best way I can.
Jim Byrne, September 2018
Photo by Pauline Keightley
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