As we all know, there’s no wrong way to write a song. But have you ever wondered how your songwriting process compares to that of the most renowned songwriters of the last 50 years? Read on to find out how Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, and more take songs from a spark of an idea to a full-blown work of art. Perhaps you’ll get inspired by one of their methods and try out a new approach to songwriting!
1. Paul McCartney: “There’s no rules”
Though Paul McCartney was primarily known as the bassist and co-writer of many Beatles songs, he was also a proficient drummer, guitarist, pianist, and mandolin player. Despite being a better trained musician than John Lennon, McCartney claims that in regards to songwriting, he doesn’t have any sort of process that he follows, and says that he doesn’t “know how to do this.” “Yesterday,” arguably his most famous tune, came to him in a dream.
“Every time I approach a song, there’s no rules,” McCartney says. “Sometimes the music comes first, sometimes the words – and if you’re lucky, it all comes together.”
2. Bruce Springsteen: It’s a “light, trance-like situation”
Affectionately known as “The Boss” by his fans around the world, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band brought something fresh to pop music, absorbing elements of ’60s folk and rock ‘n’ roll with punk and big band music. With lyrics relating to the working man, he cut to the root of the problem of the American Dream, creating characters from real places with real problems.
As for his songwriting methods, “I’m sort of in the process of just working on what is speaking to me at a particular moment,” he explains. “That’s very common for me right now.”
In another interviews he describes his songwriting as a “meditation,” explaining that “it works best when you go into a light, trance-like situation.” He claims that when he first started songwriting, his ratio was “five percent success to 95 percent failure.”
3. Michael Jackson: “Like a gift that is put right into your head”
The King of Pop reigns supreme for a very good reason. Despite not being terribly proficient on any particular instrument besides his voice, Michael Jackson could write an entire song in his head and then record every part: guitar, vocals (harmonies as well), bass, and drums, all before studio musicians ever touched it.
“He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part,” sound engineer Rob Hoffman explains. “Had it all in his head, harmony and everything. Not just little eight-bar loop ideas. He would actually sing the entire arrangement into a micro-cassette recorder, complete with stops and fills.”
As Jackson once explained it back in 1994: “The lyrics, the strings, the chords, everything comes at the moment like a gift that is put right into your head, and that’s how I hear it.”
4. Bjork: “I let my subconscious do the editing”
Electronic, experimental, and poppy are all terms that describe the visceral experience delivered by Bjork. For her, melodies always come first: “I guess I’m quite conservative and romantic about the power of melodies,” she says. “I try not to record them on my Dictaphone when I first hear them. If I forget all about it and it pops up later on, then I know it’s good enough. I let my subconscious do the editing for me.”
When it comes to writing lyrics, though, it’s more case by case. “Sometimes a song is about a particular emotion, so I sit down and gather all my thoughts,” Bjork explains. “Sometimes I have to write lots of thoughts down in a diary and edit them until I have the right words. Sometimes the words will come in one go.”
5. Taylor Swift: “The more it seems like an open letter, the better”
Taylor Swift, now one of the most internationally recognizable superstars, started songwriting at a very young age and has spent years honing her craft. In a 2010 interview, Swift explains that the most effective songs happen for her when it’s as though she’s writing a letter to someone. “The more it seems like a journal entry, the better. The more it seems like an open letter, the better,” she says. “The more true and honest and real it gets, the better – where you’re naming the places you went and the time it happened and all the things about a relationship.”
In a more recent interview with American Songwriter on the creation of her latest album, 1989, Swift explains how inspiration can truly strike at any moment: “I’ll just be out and I’ll get some zinger in my head and I’ll just write it down in an endless note-thing in my phone,” she says. “A lot of those lines [in 1989 songs] were just things that I came up with in the past year, like ‘Darling I’m a nightmare dressed as a daydream.'”
6. Lady Gaga: It’s “a 15-minute vomiting”
Lady Gaga describes it bluntly: “The creative process is approximately a 15-minute vomiting,” she says. “15 minutes of vomiting my creative ideas in the forms of melodies (usually) or chord progressions and melodies. And some sort of a theme lyric idea, and it all happens in approximately of 15 minutes of this giant regurgitation of my thoughts and feelings and then I spend days, weeks, months, years fine-tuning.”
However, she notes, “You have to honor your vomit. You have to honor those 15 minutes.”
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