Songwriting

The Art Of Songwriting

Kevin Palmer - December 1, 2017

I’ve been writing music since I was about 14 years old (almost 30 years ?). I started my first band with my childhood friends, Mike Bedingfield and Andy Jackson (Hot Rod Circuit), and at that time in my life, I had never heard of a “cover” band. I thought that if you wanted to play in a band, you had to write your own songs. So that’s what I set out to do. I started writing original music and lyrics from day one. Even now, I spend time almost every day writing music (usually with an acoustic). It’s not all great, but it’s a part of me. Almost as if my soul needs it to survive.

The truth about songwriting is this: There is no right or wrong way to do it. There are no rules to writing a song except maybe that there needs to be some kind of vibration produced that becomes audible for a set time. Whether a song is good or bad, right or wrong is 100% subjective.

That being said, there is a formula that appeals to a wide majority of people. (More on that in a minute) I believe songwriting at its core is about connection. Not only the listener connecting to the way the music makes them feel and the journey the lyrics take them on, but also a connection between the songwriter and the song. To me, songwriting is pouring your heart out, and being brave enough to let the world hear it.

I believe songwriting at its core is about connection.

As a songwriter, either in a band or a solo artist, you need to get clear on who you are and what you want your music to sound like. If you don’t care about getting a song picked up by mainstream radio and just want to let the song take you wherever it takes you, then you are free to push the boundaries and create your own rules. However, if your goal is to get your song on the radio, then there are some guidelines that most labels, producers and radio stations usually require.

When TRUSTcompany first got signed, we learned this the hard way. Prior to going into the studio, our label set up a week of pre-production rehearsals with our producer. We walked into these rehearsals completely unprepared for what was about to happen. Little did we know, the point of these sessions was to re-work our songs to make them more radio-friendly.

(NRG Studio B, where I spent many hours writing lyrics and recording Trust Co.’s first album)

Up until this point, I had never realized that in order to get a song picked up by mainstream rock radio, it needed to meet some requirements. I’m going to share with you some of the things I learned as we spent a very painful week breaking apart our songs and piecing them back together.

1. People have extremely short attention spans

Most of our 41Down songs were around five minutes long. Since we played live almost every weekend, we found ourselves writing songs that had intros, some of which were really long. These worked out well live because they allowed us to build anticipation using dynamics to lead into a song. We also loved to have bridge sections that just rocked out for a while, which was also good for live performances. However, the average radio song is around three and a half minutes long, so the first order of business was to cut our songs down to three and a half or four minutes, tops.

This was incredibly painful at the time. We had some battles right out of the gate with our producer because we did not want anyone changing our songs. But Geffen signed us with the intention to push us to radio and the only way that was going to happen is if our songs fit the radio format.

Our producer, Don Gilmore, explained it to me this way: He said to imagine a guy in his car driving to work on a Monday morning. He’s listening to the radio, he’s not really in a great mood (it’s Monday!) and your song comes on the radio. Keep in mind that this guy doesn’t know you, doesn’t really care about you and therefore, unlike you, doesn’t care one bit that your song is on the radio. You have about 30 seconds to get his attention before he changes the channel. This guy doesn’t care about your awesome intro that’s two minutes long, he doesn’t care that the song is about to hit hard in another minute. He’s not looking for his next favorite band on a Monday morning on his way to work. If you want this guy to remember you, you better start singing a melody that he’s going to remember in the first 30 seconds. Let him hear some lyrics that he connects to, and most important of all, get to the chorus!

That is the world of radio. That is the world of the radio single. First-time listeners are not your fans (yet) and they aren’t going to care about you unless you give them a reason to. You have to get to the good stuff before they turn the channel, and you only have 30 seconds to do it.

This was how it was laid out to me, and honestly, it made sense. I struggled with if I was “selling out” because that word is thrown around so much in this industry, but looking back I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything in the world…re-writes and all.

Through the years, I’ve had the opportunity to write with some of the best songwriters in the business and I feel like it has made me a better musician in many ways. Is it possible to get a song on the radio without following this format? Yes. Has it been done before? Yes. Is it common? No.

2. Melody Is King

This one may not go over very well with some lyricists, but you can absolutely have a hit song with a great melody and mediocre lyrics. It’s much harder (maybe impossible) to have a hit song with great lyrics, but a disconnected melody. Melodies are what get stuck in our heads first. Sometimes the lyrics don’t ever stick at all. Meaning, we’ve all been guilty of singing the wrong words to a song that we love. Even without words, music and melody can hit an emotional nerve in us that can literally change our mood and bring us to life. But make no mistake, lyrics are very important. That’s why…

3. Lyrics Are Queen

This was one area that I spent a lot of time on in the studio as I talked about in this post. When I came into the studio for the first time, most of my lyrics were very abstract. They could be interpreted many different ways, and honestly, it gave me an excuse to cut corners. When I first sat down with Don Gilmore to go over lyrics, he read through them trying to understand what I was trying to say. A lot of the lyrics didn’t make sense to him. I always thought that the lyrics should be interpreted by the listener (and still do to a certain extent), but to hide behind “abstract lyrics” was just making excuses for not digging in and finishing a thought. As I pushed backed against his suggestion to try to make the lyrics better by making them more clear, he told me that a song will be considered good if the music and melody are great, but if the lyrics are also great and you create a personal connection with the listener, then you’ve just turned a really good song into a really great song, and it will connect with more people.

(Random pages from my lyric notebooks. Some pages were just ideas and words to spark inspiration)

Looking back I received more emails than I ever dreamed of people who connected with my lyrics as they were going through something in their life. The lyrics created a bond between us that would have never happened if I had decided to leave them abstract. I still don’t write lyrics that are completely literal, but I do think it’s important to take the listener on a journey if your goal is to create a connection.

4. Be Honest

The best advice I have, without going into detail, is to be honest when writing lyrics. That will always look a little different for all of us, but in my experience, the best way to authentically connect with someone through your lyrics is to be honest with yourself and lay it all out there. This doesn’t mean necessarily to be literal with every word, but rather, be honest with your emotions, how you feel, how the experience of the moment made you feel, what you thought, all these things. Get vulnerable, that’s where connection is made.

The one thing I know for sure is that there is no sure way to guarantee a hit song. My best advice is to get clear on what you want and get busy writing. The more you write the quicker you’ll find your unique voice. Whether you want to write songs that will be on the radio or just want to write music without rules, there will be people that want and need to hear your voice. I encourage you to be brave and share your music with the world!

Leave me a comment below with your thoughts on songwriting. ?

Kevin

PS – I have a lot more to say on the subject of songwriting and I’m working on a short but information filled ebook about my thoughts, ideas, experiences, and the system I use to write. If you’d like to be notified when it’s finished, just enter your email below. Thanks!

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  • |Antonio| Y2J_SAVE.US

    Great read Kev!
    It is sadly to see how the radio world works and how can it make musicians rise or put them on the ground just to satisfy labels and make them richers.
    I have a question: with the upcoming ascension of streaming services, would it be better or worse for musicians to came with their own styles and how can it affect the mainstream music universe?
    (Sorry if it is a too long/tough question, and again, sorry for bad spelling! xD)

    As always, keep rockin’ Kev!

    • Kevin Palmer

      Hey Antonio,

      Thanks for leaving a comment! I agree with you, it is sad that labels sign bands with the sole purpose of pushing them to radio. I wouldn’t trade the opportunity I had to write with some amazing songwriters and learn from their successes, but I don’t think our label did us any favors by hinging our entire success or failure on whether we had a radio hit or not. Their plan was was to throw a song at radio and if it takes, the band has a chance to be successful, but if it doesn’t they get dropped. I have many friends who were signed and their album never even came out because their single didn’t take at radio. It’s completely unfair to the artist. No effort whatsoever was put into trying to grow our fanbase, which in my opinion, is the lifeblood of any successful band.

      As we gear up to write some new music, our goals have completely changed from back in the day. Our number one goal when we get going will be to grow our fanbase and our direct connection to them (not get signed or get on the radio). This is also known as the direct-to-fan approach. In the past, most bands (us included) wanted to get signed because we believed that was the only way to get our music out to the world and have the chance to become full-time musicians. Today everything has changed. We now have the ability to grow a fanbase without a label, which means you can write the music you love without restrictions and you are able to find people who dig what you’re doing without radio. My focus is not on the mainstream music universe anymore, it’s on growing a group of likeminded people who I can have a direct connection with (through avenue’s like email) just like I’m creating a relationship and connection with you and others through email and sharing content. If you can build a fanbase that loves what you do, and you have direct access to them (through social media and email) you have the ability build a career. There’s a lot to digest and unpack here, but I plan on writing about this topic in more detail soon.

      As for streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, I have definite opinions on how artists should view and use them also. In short, I believe that any new releases should be released directly to your core followers through your direct channels before releasing any music to iTunes, Spotify or any of the services that sell or stream your music, but which the artist earns next to nothing on. That’s why I believe it’s so important to grow a fanbase that you have direct communication with. Grow a fanbase, create a connection with them, give them some free music and insights into your world, and when it’s time to release new music, release it directly to your fanbase with no middle man taking most of the profit. Once sales have slowed, then release it to the streaming platforms to grow awareness and hopefully get on a playlist that really spreads the word about your band.

      Wow, that was a lot just to say, I think you should write the music you love!

      Take care bro!
      Kevin

      • |Antonio| Y2J_SAVE.US

        Thank you again for answering me!
        To be honest, I sure thought on begin to write poems (I wrote one this week that just came into my heart) and man, it is greatest thing I could do in years!
        I took you and other guys to inspire me (Like Eddie Vedder, Aaron Lewis, Layne Staley and others who just connected with me so deep), and it tastes like a adorable white flag for the wars on my mind!
        And thank you again for giving me hope to save myself!

  • Travis Blair

    Very insightful. I never really thought about the thinking that goes behind getting songs on the radio. I notice on albums, sometimes songs are longer and sections get cut out for the radio edits. It makes a lot of sense. I can also totally understand that feeling someone might have when they question if they are selling out by writing songs fit for radio. I can’t imagine being in that position! And you are totally right, melody is so important. Songs I hate with awful lyrics gets stuck in my head just because they are catchy, but it’s the songs that have good lyrics AND melody that stay with you forever.

    • Kevin Palmer

      Completely agree! I have a few songs that I really love because the music and melody are just so good, but the lyrics make no sense to me. I can’t follow where they’re going. If those songs had lyrics that took me on a journey, it would be incredible. As a musician, I’m good with just rocking out to a great song with a killer riff, but the songwriter in me knows that it would so much better if the lyrics connected in some way. Thanks for taking the time to leave me a comment! -Kev

  • Katherine O’Boyle-sheffield

    Thank you for sharing your insights into the music industry. I am always fascinated by how musicians find their way to stardom. I wish more would be as open as you regarding your experiences.

    • Kevin Palmer

      Thank you! I’ve said for years that I wanted to write about my experiences and I finally took the plunge and started a blog. I appreciate you following along! -Kevin

  • Mark Taylor

    I’m really enjoying reading your stories! I consider TRUSTcompany a huge influence in my writing.

    I also have a few formulas i use to keep songs short and sweet! But you’re absolutely right, when i write a bridge riff that throws down, i want to do it 16 measures longer than necessary, for the sake of rocking out!

    • Kevin Palmer

      Yes!!! When we played live shows, there were a few parts that we would rock out to much longer than the album versions. On some of the bridges, like Dreaming In Black & White, I didn’t even sing during the bridge so I could just rock out for awhile. Thanks for the comment bro! -Kevin

  • Chase871

    Hey Kevin, to what extent did you write the guitar parts for Trust Company? I don’t write lyrics but am always trying to write creative guitar riffs and parts to put in songs. I’ve been playing for years and am gradually getting better and more creative but it’s still a frustrating process. I think a lot of that is due to me being a perfectionist and wanting to create songs that sound fresh and that are structured a little differently than the norm. These blog posts are interesting and I’d like to see one involving guitars and the songwriting process. Thank you!