Lyrics and music: songwriting masterclass part #1, inspiration

Much as I studied music to “A” level and sang in a hand-knitted muesli, finger-in-the-ear all acoustic folk band in my youth, I can’t claim to be much of a songwriter. Most of the songs I wrote were either pseudo-classical orchestral scores or boring dirges in a minor key describing someone’s messy suicide – not exactly what you’d call chart-toppers.

But as songwriting is a very popular and very important element of “creative writing” in its broadest sense, I asked three supremely talented musicians to share their views on how they go about it. Here in Part #1, we’ll look at how they get inspiration for their own music and lyrics. In Part #2 we’ll share their views on the more in-depth, technical aspects of writing lyrics and music, and in Part #3 we’ll share the advice they’ve given for all you aspiring songwriters to create meaningful lyrics and music of your own.

First up is the one and only Jacqui Dankworth, jazz vocalist extraordinaire whose talent has been described by UK chat-show supremo Paul O’Grady as “the most magnificent voice.” She is the daughter of Dame Cleo Laine and the late, great Sir John (Johnnie) Dankworth, so jazz and amazing talent obviously run in the family.

“Primarily I’m a performer first, songwriter second,” says Jacqui. “What this means is that I approach composing music with quite a useful advantage, because I know straight away what will work for the vocalist and what won’t.”

Jacqui Dankworth: “in the main my first inspiration will come for a lyric”

“There’s no cut and dried answer to that, but in the main I’d say my first inspiration will come for a lyric. It might be an article in a newspaper or a chapter in a book, or it might be something someone says casually … anything like that can trigger an idea for a song,” she continues.

“Having studied drama at the Guildhall and worked as an actor as well as singing, I love stories and many of my own compositions tell a tale. Some are autobiographical, some are about characters and plots that I create. Story-telling is really back in fashion now – and of course, melody never goes out of fashion.”

With Memphis-born piano/vocalist Charlie Wood, about whom Jazz Times has said Remember the first time you heard Dylan, or Springsteen, or Costello, or Waits? Charlie Wood delivers that same jolt” (and as of recently, Jacqui Dankworth’s husband – congratulations!) inspiration for a song comes with a more even balance of lyric and melody.

Charlie Wood: “the easiest ones to write usually end up being the best”

“My songs are typically built on an idea I have for a sung line; i.e., a lyric and melody already combined.  This is usually pretty brief and needs a lot of elaboration, but it gets things rolling.  As the song progresses, there is usually a process of adapting new lyrics to an existing bit of melody (or vice-versa), but the easiest ones to write usually end up being the best,” says Charlie.

“I try to get as close as possible to expressing whatever feeling or idea it was that initially inspired me to write the song. More than any particular element, I think a sense of wholeness or cohesiveness is a priority for me.  I think songwriting is like cooking in the sense that intention, inspiration, technique, etc. matter considerably less than the quality of the end result.  I try to bake a cake I’d enjoy eating.”

Whereas Jacqui and Charlie are focused on (and famous for) jazz, blues, and more traditional forms of soul and popular music, James Miles – vocalist/bassist/composer of the young, up-and-coming indie band South Sea Company – finds he starts with instrumentation first, as is common with many rock and pop musicians.

James Miles: “people can tell if someone has written lyrics from the heart”

“There is nothing worse than hearing a song on the radio, and knowing that the lyrics have been shoehorned into rhymes and rhythms. This was something I was initially guilty of myself, but eventually came to realise that what was more important was the integrity and validity of the lyrics in their own right. Regardless of whether it’s a story being told or a statement of beliefs or whatever subject, most people can tell if someone has written lyrics from the heart,” says James.

“I do find myself returning to certain subjects more frequently than others. These are probably the things that I feel most strongly about or have affected me in the greatest way. When it comes to writing songs in general though, it’s usually the influence of other artists I listen to. If I hear a really beautiful or clever piece of music, I feel a sense of competition stirring within me, and this leads me to try and write something just as beautiful or clever.”

My grateful thanks to our three masterclass experts who have so kindly contributed to this series of articles: jazz vocalist Jacqui Dankworth, pianist/vocalist Charlie Wood, and South Sea Company vocalist/bassist James Miles.

In Part #2 we go into the deeper and more technical elements of writing lyrics and music.

This article is one of a series of three. Links are as follows:

Part one: inspiration

Part two: techniques

Part three: advice

Do you want to set your writing to music?

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“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

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  1. This is very nice post view to lyrics and music,i have written really good lyrics and i need to find a musician that is willing to do a joint venture with me and put music to the lyrics, i am looking for people with the same general style as Rob Thomas, John Mayor, Jason Mraz etc. i live in Tacoma Washington.

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