Jim Byrne on Songwriting

Added on Saturday 8 Jan 2011

I'm interested in how other songwriters go about their craft; to that end I put together a set of questions that I send to songwriters. For a wee change, here are my own answers to the same questions.

Why do you write songs?

I enjoy playing my guitar and I like making things up; I guess I haven't lost that childish compulsion to invent things.

I get a lot of satisfaction from the writing process itself, i.e. the 'construction work' required after the initial inspiration.

Always at some point in the process of writing a song I'll think to myself, 'this song is a work of genius and it can't be anything other than a world wide smash hit'. It's great that I can fool myself every time; how could that feeling not make you happy?

What genre/style(s) do you write songs in?

Right now I write acoustic country blues style pop; Americana but with a Scottish/UK influence. In the past I've written punk songs, garage rock songs, swamp blues, jangly guitar pop, dissonant guitar music, and jazz influenced pop.

What type of music did you mainly listen to when you were growing up?

When really young - mainly pop music on the radio and anything that was on Top of the Pops. As a teenager; punk, rock, acoustic and electric blues, new orleans piano players, Jazz - and anything that was on Top of the Pops or the Old Grey Whistle test.

Name some of the artists you listened to when growing up?

Steve Forbert, Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Big Bill Broonzy, The Sex Pistols, Siouxsie & The Banshee, Buzzcocks, Talking Heads, Tom Waits, Bob Wills and his texas playboys, Hank Wangford, The Creeping Charlies, Professor Longhair, Dr John, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Big Star, Elvis, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, Grandmaster Flash, Reggae, Johnny Cash, REM, Dinosaur Junior, Orange Juice, Elvis Costello, Captain Beefheart.

What genre/type of music do you mainly listen to now?

I like lots of roots, rock, folk, pop and classical music - but I go through phases of listening mainly to a particular genre. Right now it's mostly stuff that has been influenced by old style blues, country and rock and roll.

Names some of the artists you listen to now?

Kurt Wagner and Cortney Tidwell , W C Stoneking, Big Star, Song of Dave, Elliot Smith, Fionn Regan, Lambchop, John Prine, Avett Brothers, William Elliot Whitmore, Tom Waits, The Carter Family, Hank Williams, Nick Drake, Steve Earle, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Gram Parsons, Wilco, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Lisa Hannigan, Ryan Adams, Devendra Banhart, Eels, Beck, The Magic Numbers, Teenage Fanclub, The Poozies, Edwyn Collins, Gene Vincent - anything that Spotify throws up.

What cover songs did you first learn/play?

Beatles, Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry songs, twelve bar blues, Rockabilly and Rock and Roll, punk era songs from Siouxsie & The Banshee to The Sex Pistols.

What musician/bands in particular have you learned the songs of?

When young, The Beatles and Stones; now John Prine, John Martyn, The Carter Family, Gram Parsons, Big Star. I've played very few 'cover songs' over the years - though I'm intending to play a lot more in the future.

What age were you when you started writing songs?

Probably about 13 or 14.

How long have you been writing songs for?

Over 30 years.

What instrument (if any) do you mainly use to write?

I come up with initial ideas on Guitar but will play bass and keyboards when arranging the song.

Of those songs that you are most proud of, what is it you like about them?

I'm proud of different songs for different reasons. Some are very simple songs but they have endured - as I still play them years after they were written. Ultimately I suppose I like those that have the undefinable, 'good song magic' - whatever that is.

What is the first thing that happens - that leads to a song being written?

Mostly I pick up my guitar, put my fingers to the strings and play something. Occasionally someone gives me lyrics to work with - and sometimes something will just pop into my head that sounds like a chorus or the first line of a song.

What percentage of the songwriting process would you estimate is down to inspiration as opposed to perspiration.

Getting a songs started is 100% inspiration. Finishing a song is 100% perspiration. Makes not sense to me either.

What subjects do you mainly write about?

I've written a lot of love, relationship and domestic drama songs - but also songs about building houses, the weather, personal tragedy, philosophical musings, cars and holidays.

List three techniques that you use when writing songs.

An awareness of the idea of building and releasing tension in music, based on an ingrained understanding of simple blues progressions; trial and error when trying to find chords that fit a melody; openness to changing the song repeatedly to fnd the best way to play it or throwing it away if I decide it's not good enough to finish.

List three overall ideas or 'things that you know' that help you finish a song

The belief that when I'm stuck, the solution will appear sometime in the future. The belief that I can write songs that are worth listening to; the belief that I've recognised some magic in the early stage of the song - which is why I'm writing it.

How do you create melodies for your songs?

Most of the time I have a set of chords to work with and either I hum over the top or sing nonsense lyrics; the melody comes out of that process.

How do you come up with your lyrics?

sometimes I starts with nonsense words and eventually leads to one or two lines - which in turn leads to more words. At some point I decide what the song is about and write the rest of the words based on that. Other time I just come straight out with a set of words - in one big splurge.

Did you learn music as an academic subject?

No, though I can read music a bit.

If you had to choose - would you say you are better at - the words or the music?

Music probably - but I think I've got better at words in the last few years; helped by the involvement of my wife Pat in the songwriting process.

How did you learn the techniques/mechanics of songwriting?

By playing other peoples songs when I was younger and by continually writing songs.

What makes your songs different from everyone else's?

Everyone is unique; these song are by me - or by me and my writing partner and wife - Pat. I can only assume that's enough to make them different. Apart from that it could be the lyrics are a bit different from the norm; straightforward, lacking in pomposity (I hope) and avoiding anything that could be mistaken for poetry.

What advice would you give to a person who is just starting out writing songs?

Just keep writing songs. Ignore any negative comments you might ever get about your songs and believe that you are good at it no matter what evidence to the contrary is presented to you.

Where can people hear examples of your songs (URL).

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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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