I’m not much of a songwriter. Inspiration seldom comes to me in that shape, and I tend to be too wordy – it’s a very specific skill writing lyrics, and I haven’t got it. Nor am I a natural tune writer. However, I’ve sung and played music since childhood, and this means I spend most of my time with other people’s work. Picking material is a major process for anyone in my situation. So, what to pick, and how? These questions don’t have to be tackled in order.
I tend to look at traditional folk music, rock and pop for my source material. A song therefore has to work stripped down. It needs enough melody to work with me signing it, and must not depend on complex multi-instrument arrangement. Many pop songs, deprived of their backing, sound like nothing at all, so for me the first measure of a song is whether I can sing it unaccompanied.
Question two is, does it make sense if I sing it? Is it personal to the singer – again often an issue with pop – or is there something universal here that makes sense. Is there a story, or a message, a mood or a concept that I can express? Do I like, value, engage with those things such that it makes sense for me to sing them?
I then have to ask if I have the vocal range, technical skill and playing ability to do the song justice. I might well not know until I try. I did, once, sing the entirety of Meatloaf’s ‘Bat out of hell’ unaccompanied in a folk club. Mostly for giggles. It’s surprising what can be got away with. I know the entire song because it is such an excellent vocal workout, I use it for exercise.
There will be other factors – how the song makes personal sense to me. Who wrote it. Who I first heard singing it, and where that was. Every song acquires a story about who I’ve sung it with and why. There’s also an arranging process of figuring out how to make it mine. There is a difference between ‘doing covers’ and singing someone else’s song. Here are three I’ve recently put on my youtube channel.
Hazard, by Richard Marx was around in my teens. The original sounded like a pop song, but it strips back to something that’s pure folk – a strong narrative with much of the plot implied but not present, a strong melody, powerful emotions. That ticks all the boxes for me. It was written for a guy to sing. I like the way that my singing it with a couple of minor word changes turns it into a different story. I’m not usually at all visible in my bisexuality, music is one of the places that gets expressed.
Elation, a Levellers album track. This was a struggle to learn because the original isn’t in a key I can sing in. It’s goddessy, and there are so many people it needs singing to, who are heart-sore and need hope. Every time I sing it now, there is also a pang of missing the chaps I used to sing it with, and hearing where they are not. This arrangement always sounds a bit thin to me, because I know what it’s missing. Some losses we just have to carry.
Sit Down was at number 2 in the charts when I was 14 and Chesney Hawkes was at number 1. And although I adored young Mr Hawkes, this was always the better song. I’ve only been able to sing it since acquiring the bouzouki – it just doesn’t work for me unaccompanied. everything this song says has always been true of me, it is how I feel, it is the song I would have written if I could. I have yet to sing it in person with all the people I most want to sing it to, but I know who they are and they will almost all be at Druid Camp.
If you sing something frequently, it becomes part of your life, and part of who you are. It’s worth choosing carefully.