The Songwriter’s Craft
October 1990 / Keyboard Magazine
By Andy Widders-Ellis
Top Tunesmiths Tell How To Hook Listeners
What does it take to write a hit song? Darned if we know; whoever has the magic formula isn’t talking.
Though we can’t give you a foolproof recipe for making hits, we can deliver the next best thing: inside information straight from people who write hits and get them cut.
In an effort to shed some light on the subject of song writing and creativity, Elliot Wolff agreed to share his tips, ideas, opinions, and perspectives with us.
Do you have a favorite way to start a song… perhaps with a melody, lyric, chord sequence or groove?
I don’t have a preconception of what I’m going to do. I’ll start with drums, or bass, or chords, some little piece. Actually, I try not to use chords, because for me, they tend to limit the melodic possibilities. I like to have the freedom to let the melody go where it goes. Then I build the chords up around it.
It really depends on the kind of music I’m writing. For dance music, I start with a groove. With rock, I might start with guitar riffs. I rarely work from lyrics. Lyrics come more naturally to me from the music itself.
How do you find musical inspiration?
I don’t wait for inspiration. I’m in my studio everyday, writing. I write until those creative moments come, I don’t care how long it takes. A lot of the writing is really just experimenting with different ways of thinking about the attitude that I am trying to go for. Sometimes I go to a lot of different places before I finally settle into where I want to be.
How do you store those initial ideas?
I write to a cassette; I just sing the ideas. After a bit, I’ll play the tape back and see which ones stand the test of at least a short period of time— maybe half an hour. If an idea looks as if it’s headed in the right direction, I move that way. Sometimes I have to come back the next day to really get a perspective on it.
What’s the next step?
Once I really feel like I’ve nailed the attitude that I’m going for, I begin developing the song. And not in any particular form. I think it’s a mistake to structure your song around a particular form, because it’s confining. A song requires internal structure, but there’s no particular form that’s right or wrong. There are a lot of ways to think about form. I don’t go “Okay, now I have to do this section here, and now I’m supposed to do a bridge here.” You can’t think in terms of what you’ve done on other songs. You have to treat each song for what it is. Sometimes you end up with an unusual form; that’s thrown me before. I’ve had occasions where I know the form is right for the song, but I’m thinking, “Which part is the hook?” Or, “Why did I decide to do two bridges in a row?” It’s because that’s what I had to do. And you can’t always know what’s going to happen. Each song has a life of its own, and it will show you where you have to go.
How does technology affect your writing?
I don’t use my gear to write. I don’t get a bunch of happenin’ stuff going in a sequence or anything like that. It’s real basic, playing the part to the cassette with some cheesy keyboards and singing along in a microphone, just like the old days.
How do you know when a song is done?
I’ve found that if I have a spark of doubt, then it’s not right yet. And it doesn’t matter if nobody agrees with me, I know it’s not right. So often somebody has liked something that I knew wasn’t happening, and I tricked myself into not dealing with it because enough people liked it. I figured, “Oh, I’m probably overreacting.” I’ve found that its best for me to be honest with myself, utterly. I’ll go back to the drawing board and start over if that’s what it takes. There’s a lot of garbage that doesn’t get outside that little room I work in. But if it’s really happening, and people don’t like it, it doesn’t bother me because I know I did what I wanted, whether or not it’s going to be cut. I’ve found that whenever I feel that way about a song, things usually work out for the best anyway. You have to trust yourself.
Do you write songs because you get inspired? Or do you mostly write on demand, for specific projects?
I usually don’t let a project determine my writing; I write for myself. If a record company calls and says they have an artist who needs material, I try to send them something that I think is appropriate. If it suits them, fine, but if it doesn’t, it’s not such a big deal.
Do you favor a particular time of day for writing?
I get up real early and I work real late. That’s it, basically. I’ve often thought about it. You know, creative people get very obsessive or superstitious. Nobody really knows what it is that brings those moments. I try to think, “What is it? Five to seven in the evening that I’m peaking? Or is it when I wake up?” It’s inconsistent, there’s no real pattern. I could wake up at 6:00 in the morning and walk into the studio and get something that I want, or work all day and get nothing that I think is any good.
Do you keep a writing schedule?
I try to work as many hours as possible to cover any magic moments that might happen. Sometimes I’ll work eight, nine, ten hours and get nothing, and of course that’s frustrating. It’s very easy to say, “Oh, I should just quit. It’s a bad day.” But I’m always aware that during the next five minutes, after I would have quit, I may come up with something. So I usually don’t quit. That works for me, constantly putting in the time.
Some people get inspired while they’re driving. Do you ever write in your car?
I know a lot of writers think of titles or ideas when they are doing other things during the day. But for me, I work when I work, and when I don’t work, I don’t work. And I don’t have a problem with that. If something strikes me while I’m not working, I’ll remember it, if it’s very good. But that really doesn’t happen so much. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with an incredible idea or drive my car and think of a great thing. Usually I just go into my studio, I write, and I come up with what I want. I don’t worry about it any other time.
Some people say that before you start writing with a collaborator, you should work out the percentages and sign a contract.
I always do 50/50, even if a person just contributes a tiny bit, because you can’t really put a value on that. Oftentimes, just being with this other person makes you think in different ways. Once you start putting a value on it, you start really making money your issue, and not the song itself. There are times when I’m hard-pressed to determine who was really responsible for what. In the end, it doesn’t matter, because the song wouldn’t have been written if we hadn’t gotten together. Their contribution, not in quantity but in quality, may have been even more valuable than mine.
It goes back to working with people you can trust, people who are in it for what it is, not for the money. Money can really change the way people think. You’ve got to remember that’s not why you do it. Hopefully, you’re doing it because you love it.
Should demos be simple or elaborate?
When I’m writing, I don’t use anything more than drums and bass, or guitar and drums. For me, a song has to work in its barest element. I find that sometimes when you do a really good job of tracking, it can cover up certain weaknesses in the song itself, so I try to make sure the song works with nothing. At that point, I know that my foundation is there, that I can build on it, and that I won’t find myself lost or trying to use production tricks to make up for the weaknesses in the song. So the demos I make for myself are just a cheesy version of me singing a melody. I usually remember the way I want to develop a track later.
When I hire a demo singer, I almost always record them singing to no track. They get a bass line. I build the song around the singer. The song is about the singer, really. They’re delivering a message, and it has to be about them to be true. So I build the track around the complete vocal performance. Later, when I’m working with the artist, I often have to make changes to the track. I can’t use things that I used before, because it’s a different singer. It’s important to be sensitive to that. So often I have to redo things, despite the fact that I may have already cut it as a master-quality demo.
Do you rely on feedback from friends or peers?
Earlier on, as you’re learning to write, I think it’s helpful to get feedback from people who might be sensitive to things that you might miss. But I think it comes to a point where you can no longer rely on that, because nobody really understands you like you do. If you allow people’s opinions to affect you, you’ll contaminate your style. You have to protect that; it’s a very delicate thing.
How do you approach a lyric?
Lyrics almost always rise out of feelings that I’m creating with the music.
Do you plan out the story?
Not necessarily how I’m going to tell the story, but the feeling that it has. You can
say the same things in a lot of different ways. Before I can write a lyric, I need to know the emotional perspective. I have to wait to really feel it, but once I do, the lyrics just come. When I need to know precisely what I need to say, they come more than one line at a time. I’ll often get whole paragraphs in one moment; sometimes I can’t keep up with the thoughts.
Is it crucial to stay abreast of current trends?
A lot of writers copy other writers, and lose what’s special about themselves in the process. When you bring your heart and soul to it, your special thing is revealed. You can tell; when someone sounds like somebody else, they don’t reach people the same way.
Do you listen to the radio?
I spend as much time as possible listening to the radio, because I love listening to good songs. It’s important to be aware of where you are and where the world is, if you’re going to reach them. Pop music is a real reflection of the culture & vice-versa.
Any parting advice?
Above all else, you have to be yourself.