Glasgow Songwriting festival is an annual event celebrating the art of songwriting. Around 40 songwriters of all abilities gather for twelve hours of songwriting workshops led by four experienced tutors who for 2019 were Boo Hewerdine, Carol Laula, Emma Pollock and Festival director Findlay Napier.
Despite that fact that I run my own songwriting workshops this was the first time I've ever attended anything like this so I was really keen to see how other songwriters approach it. And these were not just any songwriters. The four tutors are all hugely accomplished with a wealth of experience way beyond anything I've achieved, so I felt really excited to learn from people with such a pedigree.
The event kicked off on the Friday night with a 'songwriter in the round' style concert featuring the four tutors. That was really enjoyable and then on Saturday morning we set to work. I think it's very common experience for songwriters to get stuck in a rut. One of the main things I got out of the songwriting residency at Peoples History Museum was to force myself to try and write different types of songs to my usual. So this weekend I was also determined to push myself out of my comfort zone, especially around two things - melody and co-writing.
Most of my experience has been working with people who have little or no musical experience - for example working with homeless people, people in prisons - so my workshops have always been 'entry level'. They are about having fun, trying something new so I have tended to focus exercises around lyrics and rhythm for quick results and not worry too much about melody.
So one of the things I loved most during the weekend was in learning more about melody and ways to approach making my melodies more memorable and creative. It's made me realise that a lot of my own songs - whilst being strong on lyric and rhythm - aren't always melodically strong. I'm no Brian Wilson! So I felt I really learnt some useful tricks around how to push that within my own songwriting.
Another interesting part was that we were encouraged to co-write and collaborate with others. Our group had 8 people - ranging from Chris who has written thousands of songs to Freya who had just written her first. The mix of abilities worked really well - everyone had a different perspective. We wrote with speed and against the clock. We were given rules and structures and these limitations were really helpful to move us along. I can't remember who said it but one of the tutors said songwriting was really about making decisions. That's certainly rang true with me - and I remembered having to write to deadlines on the museum project and the point at which you no longer have the luxury of an opinion - you just have to decide which lyrics to use, which chord to pick.
Here are a couple of rough song sketches from the session.
Rough song sketch #1 : You see everyone (and you see no one)
This song was created during a songwriting workshop with Boo Hewerdine. This song was written in three stages over a couple of hours involving three different people.
- Stage 1. Susie wrote a narrative piece of prose describing an incident in her life.
- Stage 2. Fiona took Susie's prose and wrote a set of lyrics based on it but to a structure prescribed by the workshop leader. It had to be 3 verses of 4 lines each with one line repeated as a hook.
- Stage 3. I was given Fiona's lyrics and I had to set them to music. I took the liberty of repeating the last line of each verse to effectively create a 5 line verse. Not quite working to the brief.
Rough song sketch #2 : Open Space
This song was created during a songwriting workshop with Carol Laula. This song was written and sketched in about 45 minutes between myself and Chris Annetts. We used a technique of using a 4 letter word against a grid of notes to randomly generate some chords that we then had to use in this song. It was interesting as the chords were got all fell into the key of D, apart from F which I would not ordinarily use. But we pushed the F chord in and it worked - it comes in the bit that goes "I see no point in fences". Chris was playing the piano and he came up with the very Beatley descent on the chorus. With the lyrics we were given limits too - each line had to no more than 5-6 words. The bridge had to be 7 words.
The thing about these songs are that they were created with speed and against conditions. So you end up with something you would not usually have come up with. I loved this process of exploration it was a lot of fun.
Huge thanks to Findlay, Emma, Carol and Boo for their insight and encouragement and to my fellow songwriters Freya, Chris, Susie , Adriana , Michael, Fiona and Jean.
You can find out more about Glasgow Songwriting festival at https://www.glasgowsongwritingfest.com/
I'd to acknowledge and thank Help Musicians UK's Transmission Fund who awarded me a grant to cover the cost of attending the festival. The fund provides support for musicians who want to focus on developing their creative practice and furthering professional development.