From The Mailbag April ’12

I recently received this email from Joel Patterson (link to his website below), who describes himself as “the enfant terrible of the recording website Gearslutz”.  I’ll let you read his email and my response is below:

Hi Irene,

Great site! Glad you’re so willing to help out the neophytes out here.

I’ve got a question, it goes like this: every so often I will hear a familiar phrase in a “new” song, I guess the latest was in the Enrico Iglesias “I Like How It Feels.” This may be an ancient song… I’m not too exposed to the current scene… anyway, he weaves the phrase “ticket to ride” into his lyric.

Or, whoever wrote the song did, is Enrico a talented guy? A front man for a larger organization? Isn’t he descended from Julio Iglesias, some kind of star of a previous era? So many questions, so much I don’t know…

“Ticket to ride” is obviously a quotation from the Beatles‘ tune “Ticket to ride.” I am on the fence between thinking this is a heavy-handed, blatantly obvious, cheesy play, and thinking it’s cool and hip.

If I were to work the phrase “rolling in the deep” into a new, original song, in a way that worked within the song and had a completely different melody from the Adele hit, I’m just wondering how that would strike you, overall? Cheesy? Hip? What’s your take?


Joel Patterson

“Hi Joel,

“This is a great question!  First of all, I think timing is everything.  If you encompassed “rolling in the deep” into a song in the very near future, I would consider it tacky because it would APPEAR to be the use of a phrase in order to draw attention to your own song.  You have no idea how many people hit my website using that phrase just because I did a bit of a critique on Adele’s song!  So people out there looking for that song lyric, or a discussion or critique of it, would also potentially find any other song containing that lyrical phrase if it was posted on the web.

Continue reading “From The Mailbag April ’12”

When “Broken” Rules Work

I did an article once called Songs That Break The Rules, giving some examples of songs that went outside the lines in terms of doing things that you are often told NOT to do when writing a song. Songwriters get a little riled up when it comes to the word “rules”, but I think there’s a lesson to be learned from understanding those “rules” and then going beyond them and finding your own songwriting voice in spite of them.

Certain things just don’t work, and there’s a good reason that they don’t work. Not very many people want to listen to crazy, unorganized noise. I suppose some do, but that’s beside the point :-). Once you figure out what works, you’re ahead of the game. The songwriters I often admire are those who take those rules and turn them upside down, and STILL come up with a great song.

Recently I was asked to work out a song for a guitar class called “Late Bloomer” by Canadian songwriter Sarah Harmer. I’ve heard her songs before and like her style, and she’s definitely got a distinctive voice. When I was teaching it to the class, one of my students commented on how it was tricky to sing because of the way Sarah emphasises certain words in it. You might think that’s a bad thing…because how many times have you been told (by myself and others!) that you can’t put the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble? In other words, you need to make the music work with the natural stresses of the lyric.

Well, Sarah breaks this rule all the time, but it works!  There’s a line in the first verse  “oh, late bloomer, the rumours were true”.  The first time she sings it, her melody matches the stresses just as if you were reading the line;  OH, late BLOOMer, the RUmours were TRUE.  But the second time she emphasizes it differently;  OH, late BLOOMer, THE ruMOURS were TRUE.  And in the second verse, she does it again in the second line;  to read it you would see “it was NOTHing to be ALways LEFT beHIND”.  But her emphasis is “it was noTHING to be ALways LEFT beHIND”, putting the emphasis on the last syllable of the word ‘nothing’ instead of where it naturally occurs.

Now, many times when I’ve heard something by a newer songwriter where there is an incorrect stress in a word, I’ve heard it as a mistake.  With Sarah’s song, I don’t.  Why is that?  My guess is that she does it on purpose and likes to play around with the stresses of words like that, and this has become her distinctive style.  So she doesn’t sound like a “newbie”, instead she has created a sound for herself that makes her songs and her singing stand out.

And that is what we’re all trying to do, isn’t it?  Find a voice that can be easily identified as ours and ours alone.  Sarah Harmer may not be a massive, money making music star, but she has a following and continues to write great songs.

So what is the lesson here?  Same as always;  learn the rules, and then break ’em :-).  Have a listen to “Late Bloomer” and consider buying one of Sarah’s albums if you like it.  The lyrics are below:

Oh late bloomer the rumours were true
You know I checked your ID when you left the room
I didn’t want to see it coming, I showed off my heart
Now there’s a scar in the shape of a question mark
Oh late bloomer the rumours were true
Scattered leaves are all that’s left of you

I never thought I’d be the marrying kind
It was nothing to be always left behind
From the ship that would sail with everyone on it
I said ‘give me the land, I know what I want and where I’m wanted’
But you came in whistling ‘I’ll go if you’ll go’
And I was waiting around to play like an old piano

And honey I couldn’t see the trouble sleeping down deep
Where these lights won’t go
I couldn’t see the trouble underneath
I set my sights on what was alright
My will didn’t know, where these lights won’t go
I couldn’t see the trouble underneath

Who knew it would be you through the wall
Listening in to a voice on a call
And hearing the strings and a shoot ‘em up show
Little did I know then what little did I know
Long before listening forever
Was shot down before it was ever delivered

And honey I couldn’t see the trouble sleeping down deep
Where these lights won’t go
I couldn’t see the trouble underneath
I set my sights on what was alright
My will didn’t know, where these lights won’t go
I couldn’t see the trouble underneath

Oh late bloomer the rumours were true
You know I checked your ID what was it I knew?
I didn’t want to see it coming, I showed off my heart
Now there’s a scar in the shape of a question mark
Oh late bloomer the rumours were true
Scattered leaves are all that’s left of you

Released: 08-28-2010

Using Life Experiences To Write

I was at a funeral for an old acquaintance yesterday and on the way home it occurred to me that there were a lot of lines and phrases spoken by others that I could easily use in a song lyric some time in the future.  Quite often you may have come across the idea of reading or watching TV or seeing a movie to find some inspiration, but the truth is that your very own life is probably a great source if you handle it just right.


Of course, many of you already write about your own life, and many songs you’ve heard over the years are a reflection of the writer’s life, not just fiction.  But instead of writing about the typical things like love, loss, partying (:-)) and every other clichéd topic, there are probably events or snippets of conversation happening around you all the time that might make for interesting lyrics.  So any of you out there complaining (and many of you do!) that you don’t have anything to write about, maybe you only need to open your ears and eyes a little more.  Almost anything can inspire a song lyric if you know what to do with it.

For instance, one thing that was said yesterday by the brother of the person who passed away was that in losing his brother, he learned something about him,  and he also remembered something that he had forgotten.    The “new” learning came in the form of stories that people told him after his brother died.  The thing he had forgotten was how he had always thought of his brother as his hero.   I could see turning that into an idea for a song.  Another idea that came to me was when the pastor spoke about how we only know a part of a person, and when we get together during such an occasion, the memories others have, when we put them all together, paint a much more complete picture of that person.

Do you see what I mean?  Whatever lyric came out of that wouldn’t even have to be about death, only about getting to know someone, or a kind of philosophy of life.

I’m not even afraid to share these ideas with you because I know that if you use them, you would probably write a completely different song than I would 🙂  Years ago I used to lead a kind of online songwriting workshop on a songwriting message board I used to hang out on, where I would get everyone to submit a song title.  Then we’d vote on the title and have a week or two to write a song around that title.  Sometimes it wasn’t a title, but just a lyric idea.  It was a great exercise, but what it taught me most was how completely different all of the songs were that came out of it.

So take something from my experience above, if you like, or pay more attention to your own experiences and don’t be afraid to share them.  You never know where you’ll find a new song!


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Finding Your Private Brill Building

A guitar student of mine recently decided he wanted to get into songwriting for the first time.  Having dabbled in it just a little bit, his first questions had to do with where to start.  I have long since forgotten exactly what my process was (I was only 12!), but I do remember what caused me to sit down and write.  I couldn’t really play very many chords, meaning I couldn’t play the songs I wanted to, so instead I decided to make up my own.  It came naturally in that I didn’t spend too much time worrying about how it was coming out.  I hadn’t yet developed an “inner critic” or a sense of having to get “somewhere” in terms of a finished product.

Brill Building
The Brill Building in New York

And that is a really important point to remember.  If you’re reading this article and you’re only just starting out, try not to read or think too much!  You don’t write by reading about writing, you write by writing.  It might take you a minute to get your head around that line, but essentially if you start loading your brain up on HOW to write, you may actually impede the process.

So I’m not going to tell you how to write in this article, I’m going to give you some ideas to get you in the mood to write.  If you’re 14 years old, outside of school and homework and maybe some chores around the house, you’ve got lots of time to fiddle around with writing.  If you’re 42, you probably don’t.  Many songwriters will express the idea of only writing when the inspiration hits them (yes, and I’ve said that too!), however, it’s not always practical to jump out of your chair at work or out of bed in the middle of the night when inspiration hits and start writing.  But you can write it down and work on it later.

Continue reading “Finding Your Private Brill Building”

Great Song, Mediocre Lyrics

I was working out a song for a guitar student by a British artist named Jamie Cullum called “All At Sea”, when I discovered a gem. I liked “All At Sea”, but it’s written for piano so translating it to guitar is a bit of a challenge, and some chords just do not translate well. I decided to explore Cullum’s repertoire and I came across one that I just loved called “I’m All Over It”.

I enthusiastically worked it out just for my own pleasure…not an easy song to play by any means. Cullum is considered somewhat of a jazz-pop artist, and his jazz influences certainly come out in his writing. His first releases were mostly jazz standard covers but he began throwing in the occasional self-penned song by his second and third albums. By his fourth album “Catching Tales”, the majority of the songs were original. The song “I’m All Over It” was co-written with Ricky Ross and appears on his fifth album “The Pursuit”.
Continue reading “Great Song, Mediocre Lyrics”