Our panel of singer-songwriters offers tips to write better songs & capture them brilliantly in studio demos.
As our panel of working songwriters proves, no two writers go about creating a song in precisely the same way. And that’s good. We all have to discover our own unique creative processes. But still, learning how successful songwriters have made a go of their art can provide inspiration, both aesthetic and practical in shaping your own songwriting process.
While you might loosely describe our panelists as working in the folk genre, as we’ll see, their approaches (and the instruments and tools they write and record with) are decidedly different from one another.
Working with inspiration
Writing a new song is usually night work for Andy Hackbarth, a Colorado native who mixes folk with classical guitar on his three albums, including the brand new Panorama Motel—written and recorded during a painful breakup.
The business of song-starting is generally a late-night endeavor for me—when the noise of the day is finally dying down and I can hear myself think again. It's my favorite time of day. I'm not sure if it's out of habit or want, but I just seem to always reach for my guitar, prop a pillow up and lean back in my bed and see where my hands land.
If something develops musically, I have a million song ideas that I can look to. Stuff I've stored in my phone, little melodies stashed in the voice memo archives, hooks/song titles or just random thoughts I had after watching a film or reading a book or hearing a song on the radio. I think we're most honest, vulnerable, and open, late at night when we're tired and bruised up a bit, so that's where the best songs are born.
Folk-Americana singer-songwriter Sarah Lou Richards, who recorded her first EP Emerald City in 2009 and recently signed with SteelDrivers lead singer Gary Nichols to produce her sophomore full-length, will tell you that time of day doesn’t really matter when she sits down to write or where the session might take her. But she has stuck with one aspect of her process from the very beginning:
I generally sit down with my guitar and song notebook (I’ve been writing in the same one since 2008!) and dive in. Sometimes I know what I want to write about, sometimes I don’t. It usually takes a few minutes of quiet to clear my head and get in the space to create. What happens next is anybody’s guess!
For veteran composer-performer Kate Campbell, currently touring behind her 13th CD, 1000 Pound Machine, it’s a matter of realizing when an idea has staying power.
I've been writing since I was a little girl, so I usually know when a story or phrase pops into my mind or hangs around in my mind for a while that I should pay attention. Then, when I sit down to write, I try and figure out why that notion is so interesting to me to get behind the hook.
For the record
Writing a song is one thing. Creating a work in progress, one you can perfect when the time comes, is another. And as with the act of creation, there’s more than one way to go about creating song demos. Hackbarth, for instance, embraces a reasonably high-tech approach to recording.
I've tried quite a few different interface/software combos over the years, but I'm pretty much just running Cubase 7 now, on a PC, with mostly Waves plug-ins. Cubase makes sense to me; the way it's laid out. Visually, I really like it. I have Pro Tools 10 as well but just haven't taken to it as much as Cubase.
I ran an M-Audio Fast Track Ultra for a long time, but recently switched over to the Komplete Audio 6 interface, just because I'm always on the road these days and needed a better mobile setup. I rarely record with my desktop anymore.
I have a Neumann TLM 103 and a pair of Rode NT5s that are my go-to guitar/vocal microphone setup, and I try to always borrow a Grace preamp when I can. I'm starting to get more into Kontakt 5 for sampled instruments, although more as a writing tool. It's amazing how a small change in instrumentation can alter the direction of a song, from a writing perspective.
Richards has a straightforward and simple DAW setup when it comes to recording demos of her songs:
Once I have a pretty solid song I try and record a decent guitar/vocal version of it right away. I use Garageband on my Mac and have a Focusrite interface, M-Audio BX5a monitor speakers and Shure 58 vocal mics in my home studio.
Campbell, however, keeps technology use to a minimum.
I'm very old school—pen and paper. If there's a musical thing I don't want to forget I'll use the voice memo on my iPhone.
Tools of the trade
It’s no surprise that Andy Hackbarth composes on a guitar, since folk and classical music were among his early influences and he studied classical guitar at Aspen Music School.
My main guitar is a Larrivee LV-09. I bought it when I was living in Nashville. Larrivee guitars are BIG there among writers, and for good reason. I honestly haven't played a guitar I liked more. Ever. Wish it came in Sunburst. I also have a Martin D-28 and a 1964 Gibson Hummingbird (that I want to say was from the Earnest Tubb estate) that I play live as well, but the Larrivee is my baby.
I also play on a nylon quite a bit, both for classical/Spanish style music as well as some of my original indie singer-songwriter tunes. My travel nylon guitar is a La Patrie CW Hybrid—a really beautiful-sounding guitar. And I have a handmade Carlos Pina as my “concert” classical guitar.
You won’t find classical guitar music in Sarah Lou Richards’ repertoire, but when it comes to writing and performing she’s still primarily a guitar kind of gal. Though she also knows her way around the piano.
I generally write and play on my acoustic Breedlove guitar. I also have a Taylor and a Takamine, but generally I am drawn to the Breedlove, affectionately named Lucy O’Connor. I also do a little bit of writing on the piano, which is always a breath of fresh air. I love the challenge of creating through a different filter and the piano allows for just that.
Need to brush up on the ins and outs of acoustic guitars? Take a look at our Acoustic Guitar Buying Guide.
The same goes for Kate Campbell, who says she typically composes on guitar or piano (“whatever is handy”), though she switched from piano to guitar as a teenager during the folk-rocking ‘70s. And stuck to it almost exclusively ever since. The notable exception is her new LP, 1000 Pound Machine, on which she returns to the piano, the instrument she learned to play as a child.
Clearly, there’s no wrong way to write a song. What matters is finding a method that works for you and applying yourself to it with dedication. As Richards says, once you’ve done that, what comes next “is anybody’s guess.”