It starts with an idea.
A very small one.
A smaller idea than you might think.
Optional: something I want to write a song about. (Because sometimes I figure out what the song is about when it is well underway.)
Not optional: A fragment of lyric and a melody to go with. They generally pop into my head together and they provide the foundation for the rest of the song. For (real) example:
"Look at me now,
when I can’t find the trail to your heart." ['Pirates']
“Red flares on the highway;
whatever they were for is gone.” ['Red Flares']
“Heard you screaming in that tenor —
the boy with the baritone heart” ['Lose Your Love']
That small seed of inspiration is really all I have when I start.
I used to write songs while driving my car. I would hammer a beat out on the steering wheel and sing loudly until I was happy with a verse, singing it over and over to try to keep it in my memory. Then I started carrying a tape recorder around (this was a long time ago!) to capture those fragments. Once I got home, I’d transfer the concept over to the piano and work out the chords — which by that time I was generally hearing in my head.
These days I often get the flash of idea right before bed. I scribble down the words & some notes and hope I remember the rhythm and feel the next day. In the morning I go right to the piano.
I figure out the notes I’ve been singing, determine the key, try out some chords, and fit them to the line I have. Then I start by repeating the melody line and try out other lyrics against it. I’m quick at rhyming; this is fast. Now I look to move the melody somewhere else — I try different chords and come up with a few other lines of melody for what usually becomes a verse. Lyrics come out of my mouth at this point virtually subconsciously. I write them down (pencil on paper! Rarely, music paper — usually I just jot the letter of the note down). Some of them will stay; some are atrocious and will be edited later. I poke and work until I have a full verse’s worth. And then I take my scribbled notes upstairs to my study and sit down in an editor.
At this point, I know what I’m writing about — either the scratch lyrics have a theme, or I already had one. I write out another verse, and usually I pen a few lines of what may become a chorus. For some reason, almost always, I find that what I’ve written at the piano is the second or third verse (“Lose Your Love” is an exception here), and so the new verse I write is the first. I edit some of my garbage lyrics. Even if I started writing about something real in my life, a lot of poetic license enters the story at this point! I print the lyrics out neatly and carry them back downstairs. (Does going up and down the stairs help my creative process? Maybe!)
Back at the piano, I compose the melody and chords of the chorus, sometimes adjusting the words a little in the meantime. I try to make the song move somewhere interesting from the verse in the chorus. If my initial try doesn’t sound different enough, I will try something else until it feels strong and catchy. Then I run through the other verse(s) I’ve written to make sure they scan, and finally play through the whole song thus far.
And then I’m done?
This is just part one!