How To Start Writing Songs

Release date: 28th September, 2021

Hello! Many of us are still in lockdown, including me, and if you are one of those people, I’m sure it’s driving you crazy. I hope these IMAIL letters are providing you with a bit of optimism and distraction in this time, and I appreciate you signing up to receive them. It’s the next best thing for me at the moment, since I can’t yet hug you all at the merch table, so consider this my virtual hug in the meantime.

Today, I wanted to chat to you about how to start writing songs. I start singing when I was 8, playing guitar when I was 12, and writing songs when I was 13, and it’s been a constant source of joy for me since then, as both a creative outlet and a form of therapy. Maybe you’ve always wanted to give songwriting a try yourself, or maybe you’re just curious about how I started writing. Either way, here are some tips for how to get started, based on my own beginnings, and the tricks that help keep me continually inspired and developing.

1) Listen to music
This one feels so obvious, it sounds stupid to say. But the truth is, the more music you listen to, the more likely you are to develop a sense of what a great song means, how it’s sculpted and what about it makes you love it so much. The main catalyst for me beginning to write songs was that I had a lot of feelings I didn’t know what to do with, but I knew that listening to music I loved helped me understand those feelings better. When my high school boyfriend broke up with me out of the blue and it was clearly the end of the world as we all knew it, I needed more than just other people’s songs to help me through. I needed to say my own peace, and songwriting became the only way I felt empowered amidst all the teenage angst (not to mention the anxiety disorder which was creeping nicely to the surface for the first time).

Throughout my life, I’ve always found that as soon as I discover an album I adore, my desire to write songs goes through the roof. The albums which will cause you to feel this way are different for everyone, so I implore you to be continually on the look out for music that touches your soul. The more excited you are about the art of songwriting as you perceive it through others, the more likely you will be to want to write your own songs.

2) Read books about songwriting and artist bios
I have found that the more books I read about songwriters I admire, the more inspired I feel to work on my own writing skills. Sometimes you’ll read about certain circumstances in a writer’s life which birthed a particular song you love, and it’ll spark something in you that makes you want to funnel that experience through to your own songwriting. Books about the art of songwriting are also super helpful from a technical standpoint, discussing actual step-by-step guides and processes. I’d highly recommend How To Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, which is a fabulous book, no matter whether you’re wanting to write your first song, or whether you already have a wealth of songwriting experience. For me, this book introduced me to bunch of exercises to keep the creative juices flowing even when I’m feeling completely uninspired.

3) You don’t need to be instrumentally advanced
When I first picked up a guitar and started learning cover songs, I knew maybe three chords. You know how many songs I could play with just those three chords? And not just any songs – huge, radio chart-topping hits. You’d be surprised at the number of songs you know and love and are extremely moved by that are so simple to play that you could teach anybody to play them within a week. The first few songs I wrote were maybe two or three chords cycling throughout in different orders, but the melody possibilities still felt endless. Even if you’ve never picked up an instrument, and you still don’t necessarily want to, you can always team up with someone who does, which brings me to my next point…

4) Collaborate
I had barely cowritten at all until I was about 21, and it came as a struggle to me. If you read one of my previous IMAILs about what makes a good or bad collaborator, you probably know that I found it very difficult at first to be vulnerable enough to write my best work with other people, but I got there through choosing the right people to work with. It takes time, but I highly recommend putting effort into finding people to write with whose skill sets complement yours. If you don’t play an instrument, choose a great guitarist to write with. If you’re not so confident in the lyrics department, choose someone you know is strong there. Ideally, you want this person to be someone you feel comfortable enough with to put ideas out there even when you’re worried that they might suck (by the way, they probably don’t).

5) Never settle
You will hear me say this so many times, but I’m of the belief that near enough is never good enough when it comes to songwriting. If you cringe even slightly when you sing a lyric, or if a melody doesn’t sit right, it’s not done yet. When I’m writing, I like to do a very embarrassing thing which I will share with you because I’ve made a career out of embarrassing myself in public. Once I think I’m done writing lyrics to a song, I imagine myself on a talk show where the host is asking me to explain every line in the song out loud, what it means and how it relates and adds to the overall concept of the song. If I can’t do this succinctly for certain lines, they need to change.

6) If you were the listener, what would you want to hear?
Another scenario I like to imagine while writing is that I’m in the car with the radio on and the song I’m writing suddenly comes on. As the listener, what do I want to hear next? Do I want the chorus to fly up high in the vocal range of the singer? Do I want some sort of fun, rhythmic, boppy-sounding pre-chorus? Where do I want the storyline to go? This isn’t to say you should cater your songs to what the listener wants to hear at the expense of what you want to say. I just mean that as a music lover first and foremost, which I believe most songwriters are, it helps to figure out what you want to write next by thinking about how you would want the song to go if you were an impartial, music-loving listener.

7) Start simple
A song can seem like a daunting thing to write if you haven’t ever done so before. What do you feel strongest about when it comes to your abilities? Start there. If you feel like your lyrics aren’t half bad, write a poem and you can always set it to music later. If you feel like you’re stronger in the instrument department, write some chords you enjoy playing in a cycle, and record them on your phone. Later, you might play the demo recording over and over and try singing nonsense over it until you find a melody, then eventually add lyrics. Like anything good, songwriting takes time, and a song doesn’t need to be finished in one sitting. Leonard Cohen took five years to write Hallelujah.

If you’re in lockdown, songwriting might be a great thing for you to try to ease some of the stress you’re no doubt experiencing. Don’t rush it – there’s no pressure – and don’t feel like you have to create great content straight away. Even the most respected, world-renowned songwriters laugh at the memory of their first song attempts.

Keep your heads up, guys. We’re almost on the other side, and I hope you’re all safe out there.

Love you,
IC x