A songwriters blog

Added on Sunday 11 Jan 2009

Millie McTernan emailed me after listening to my CD to say that - as a songwriter herself - she is interested in hearing about the process other songwriters go through - and suggested I should write a songwriting blog.

Hmm - this might - or might not - turn out to be that blog. For now though, I'll give it a go.

Thinking about the last song (a very very simple song based on a fairly traditional chord progression) - this is how I remember it evolving:

Writing a song: the first thirteen steps

1. Picked up the guitar and played - with no intention of writing anything - just messin'; at some point an interesting rhythm and feel caught my ear.

2. I developed a basic chord progression that seemed consistent with the style of the rhythm.

3. I played through the chords absent-mindedly - over and over again. When my brain decided to spit out a line of nonsense lyrics, I scribbled them down. I'm not trying to make any sense of anything or trying to write a song about anything in particular - just waiting to see what comes out - with little sense that I'm in control of the process.

If I was being airy fairy I'd say I'm trying to open the door to my sub-conscious mind - in the hope that it does the work or writing this song for me. Or perhaps it's that classic idea that I've heard other songwriters mention; trying to capture as song that already exists out there - and just transcribing it.

4. I forgot about those first lyrics (I usually lose them) - and repeated step three for a few days - scribbling down different lines.

5. Kept banging away at the chords until I seemed to be singing the same couple of lines - lines that somehow feel good in my mouth - and reflect the feel of the chords and rhythm. Wondered what the song was about - I didn't know at this point.

6. Came up with a few more lines that seem to follow on from those I have. Looked at them - still didn't know what it's about.

7. Let my wife Pat hear my idea for a new song. She asks me 'what is it about?'; this helps me focus more on the subject matter of the song. I often use Pat as a sounding board for new song ideas.

8. Pat - being a 'let's get it done' kind of a person encourages me to do more work on it - and we start to work on the lyrics together.

9. At this point in every song I have ever written I go through a period of 'is this a crap song or a good song, is this song worth writing, does it have any magic in it, should I stop wasting time on it right now.' I go through a period of liking it, not liking it, thinking it's crap, thinking It's got potential, thinking I don't like the words, thinking there are some words I do like and so on ad-infinitum. I also think - 'would I sing this song live and would I record it - is it in a style that is consistent with who I am - is it in a style I'm comfortable playing and putting my name to.

10 At this point - many songs hit the skids and I don't take them any further - say 1 in 10 or more - don't get past this stage. As we are talking about the last song written - clearly this one got beyond stage 9.

11. Play it over and over again - getting a clearer sense of the song - and changing the words accordingly. Also changing the words so that it feels nice to sing, has words that I'm happy to have written (or co-written as Pat is now helping with words for this particular song) - and are stylistically consistent throughout the song.

12 While this a going on I was developing the chords and the melody. I never think about developing a melody; the melody is just whatever I sing; it's formed by the words, the style of the song; the chord structure; my likes and dislikes; my singing style. None of this is done consciously - the melody just develops as the song is written. The chords usually arrive - as I develop the idea of what type of song this is - and what chord progression is consistent with this type of song.

My 30 years of playing my guitar and writing songs - probably comes in to play here. The building of tension, releasing tension idea, that is part of blues music (which I listened to and played a lot when I was younger) probably plays a part in helping develop the chords. So does a knowledge of chords that go together in a particular key; which from my point of view is drawn from experience not from any technical knowledge or musical study.

13 I know that forever more there will be lyrics in this song (and every song I've ever written) that I will never be completely happy with, and bits of the music that I'll never be happy with. But - there comes a point when I'm no longer writing the song, no longer changing the lyrics and no longer developing the chords. The creative tension that led to writing the song has dissipated; the song has been written; it's finished.

The song this blog describes is not at this point yet - it's still being written - though it's nearly finished; most of the words are written and all the melody and chords are done. I'll post a rough demo of it when it's finished; after what I've written above I'm sure it will be an anti-climax to hear this particular song - as I said it's the simplest of songs; and quite light in tone and subject.

All the best,
Jim

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What the critics said about 'Every day is sunshine' by Jim Byrne.

  • "a heady and exotic mix. " Q Magazine.
  • "..full of cinematic turns of phrase, dressed up in alluring melodies delivered by some of the most respected players on the modern-day Celtic Folk scene." UNCUT
  • Album of the week on Celtic Music Radio
  • Added to 'God's Jukebox' on Radio Two Mark Lamarr show
  • "A beautifully produced collection of Americana" The Daily Record. Four Stars
  • "Great record... a complete, compelling listen. ", Adam Levy (Songwriter/artist, guitarist with Nora Jones)
  • "ten beautiful, atmospheric songs..", Folk, Blues and beyond
  • "a fresh, original album", Eilidh Patterson (singer songwriter, vocalist with Beth Nielsen Chapman)
  • Sounding like Johnny Cash never left Folsom prison...meditations on life that'll soon sound like old friends. Spiral Earth

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