Gareth Shute examines the varied ways songs are written in the modern era by speaking to three artists who’ve released work recently – Herriot Row, Raiza Biza and October.
The last two decades have seen digital technology offering new possibilities not only for the recording process but also the act of songwriting itself. To get a concrete impression of how these changes have (or haven’t) affected songwriters’ ways of working, I spoke with three artists, each with a vastly different musical approach: rapper Raiza Biza (whose latest single clocked an impressive 500k Spotify streams), indie artist Herriot Row (who studied with Graham Downes and has received plaudits from Neil Finn), and avant-pop act October (whose song ‘Cherry Cola’ was amongst our best local songs of 2016).
Herriot Row’s Simon Comber wrote his latest single, ‘Out Of the Ordinary,’ in the archetypal way you’d imagine an indie musician working – he pieced it together with a guitar and notebook: “A friend left a beautiful Martin D-18 acoustic guitar in my care and the guitar was in a tuning I’d never used before. I set myself the goal of writing a song with it and eventually ‘Out Of The Ordinary’ became the first (and only) song I have in this tuning. As for the lyrics, I was going through a notebook from 2013 and repeatedly found the line ‘take me out of the ordinary’, as if every few weeks I’d write it down one more time, hoping I’d finally find a way to use it. It became a refrain for the song, though it’s not really a ‘chorus’ as such.”
In hip hop, it’s far more common for a rapper to source beats from different producers and then curate a selection that will suit their style. Even within a group like SWIDT, there’s a clear separation between the beatmakers (Smokey Got Beatz, Boomer-Tha-God and JAMAL) and the primary rappers (SPYCC and INF). Raiza Biza’s Day and Night EP has four producers over its six tracks, but they cohere because they’re mostly downbeat numbers written around jazz loops.
Raiza wrote lead single ‘Strong Woman’ over music provided by Villette. “I always wanted to make a song like Tupac’s ‘Dear Mama’ but could never find the right beat, the right combination of words for such an important song. But when Villette sent the beat, it started coming together almost like flashbacks, in my head … I write all my records a few times. I’ll freestyle the first draft, then I’ll write down the decent lyrics. From there I’ll keep tweaking lyrics and flows until I feel it’s ready. So it was definitely a process that took weeks to complete. I came up with the melody of the hook before I wrote the verses, but I came up with the words for the hook after I had written the verses.”
Raiza’s decision to write to the beat rather than drawing from pre-written ideas shows the importance for a rapper to find words that flow perfectly with the rhythm of the track (as opposed to a melody-based track where a syllable can extend over a few notes). Of course, while the prevailing approach is for rappers to write over other people’s beats, it’s more of a trend than a rule. An example is beatmaker/rapper Lukas whose track ‘Comfort Clouds’ has wracked up a solid 100k streams on Spotify. It’s also worth noting that Raiza’s producer, Villette, also writes her own hip-hop-inflected R&B tracks.
In pop music, the historic approach is for a young artist to work with songwriters and a producer – a formula that goes back to ’50s-era of songwriting factories like the Brill Building. Yet modern pop artists know that if they want to control their own career and gain remuneration from publishing royalties then it’s essential they take part in songwriting. While Lorde may not play an instrument, she relies on her taste and her melodic and lyrical ideas to drive her songs. For her last album, Melodrama, she worked primarily with Jack Antonoff, but brought in other writers/producers to add flavour. Her most collaborative song, in terms of credited writers, was ‘Homemade Dynamite, which had four songwriters (though this isn’t unusual – a recent study of the Billboard chart found hits now have an average of 4+ songwriters).
Yet back in New Zealand, it remains difficult to get started as a pop artist without being able to play an instrument, though some have managed it. Take Chelsea Jade, who isn’t known for playing an instrument and relies primarily on her producers/co-writers to make her vision into a reality – her last single ‘Ride or Cry’ was a collaboration with NZ expat producer Leroy Clampitt (aka Big Taste), who has also co-written with Justin Bieber and Adam Lambert.
More often you find acts like Broods and Ruby Frost, who wrote songs independently before getting to the position where they could work with a producer (in fact, it was a challenge when Broods worked with Joel Little, since he hadn’t recorded live instruments as a studio engineer before). Rising talent October produces her own work and her breakthrough single ‘Cherry Cola’ is emblematic of her process:
“First, I came up with the main ascending pentatonic scale which I used as the motif and built the chords around that. Everything I produce has to generate an emotional response, otherwise, I don’t pursue the song further … Most of my lyrics come from little phrases or poems that I write in my phone or notebook, but they’re always folded to a melody I come up with first. I think in terms of sound. I’ll never profess to being an incredible lyricist, because I’m not, but they’re honest … At the time there was this trend in pop music that focussed on portraying youth and teenagehood, and it was all a bit cringe. ‘Cherry Cola’ was a bit of a piss-take on youth culture as this prepackaged notion that we emotionally buy into to make ourselves feel a part of something monumental – possibly quite hypocritical coming from a 19-year-old! It just came from this place of cynicism – listening to too much Morrissey obviously. I’ve described the song as ‘lovingly contemptuous’, because I know that although I’m critiquing it, I’m a part of it anyway.”
The next stage of a song’s development is to refine it and – while a rock band like Racing might “road-test” a song, in the age of laptop composition (and, for bigger artists especially, fans uploading every performance to YouTube) feedback from live performances is becoming less common. However, October says she wrote ‘Cherry Cola’ after performing the laid back songs from her first EP and deciding she needed a track that was more ‘upbeat and playful’. She was also driven by her desire to create a unique soundscape: “I want it to be full of texture that is almost tangible; I try and incorporate a lot of rough and abrasive surfaces in my music. There’s often a lot of distorted elements and I definitely had an obsession with metal sounds during the making of this track. My textural obsession applies to the percussion in particular – I use a lot of non-drum samples such as chains dragging along a concrete floor, or a branch breaking, or a submarine door creaking, or pennies dropping. So I often contrast these hard, metallic and rough sounds with quite glossy or airy synths. The contrast needs to be there in order to notice the different textures.”
For Raiza Biza, the progression of a track is more about deciding what other voices he wants to contribute. In the ‘90s, rappers often brought in singers to perform their hooks, though modern artists like Kanye West and Drake have shown that doing their own singing (whether auto-tuned or not) can add emotion to more moody tracks (as has David Dallas closer to home). Raiza Biza takes this approach – providing a nice bit of laid back singing for the chorus. However, he brought in singer Mukaka for the atmospheric outro: “I’d been wanting to work with her for a while but had not found the right record, so once I finished recording, it became apparent that the track needed something more. I sent it to Mukuka and she did exactly what I was hoping for without me having to really explain it much.”
The Herriot Row song took quite a different journey, with Comber putting his guitar aside, so he could consider the lyrics as written text (“you can’t see a lie or a cop-out when you sing it, not if it feels good”). It went through another transition after Comber flew to the US to record with John Vanderslice (known for producing The Mountain Goats and Spoon).
“Two Bay Area musicians (Rob Shelton on keyboards and Andrew Maguire on percussion) played on the song, in a super-old school ‘press record and see what happens’ manner. As soon as they had an idea, Vanderslice started rolling the tape … There’s no editing, or auto-tuning, or shifting of drums on any grid at his studio, Tiny Telephone. That’s intimidating as hell when, like every modern songwriter, I’ve gotten used to the luxury of endless takes on a computer, and the anxiety of watching an engineer with nervous energy editing your performance just because they can. But, at a certain point, it became really joyous to embrace the limitations of Vanderslice’s recording aesthetic. It’s not that I was recording to tape in some vain attempt at authenticity (was there ever any such thing in the history of recorded music?), but that the approach suited my songs and demeanor.”
October took a more solitary approach: “I really hate showing people my stuff before I release it. It’s so nerve racking. You gotta understand that these creations are like my children! I’m quite happy just doing my own thing and then people can comment afterward. That way I somewhat minimise the indecisive freak out I seem to always experience pre-release haha.”
In order to gain some perspective, October relied on listening to work by other producers: “I’m always fervently on the lookout for new music, so ‘Cherry Cola’ was just born out of a period of musical change for me – I was listening to different music while I was creating it and was experimenting with new production styles.”
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Raiza Biza had fewer options when it came to developing his track (since Villette’s beat remained similar throughout), though hip hop artists always have the option of doing a remix with new collaborators. A prime example is Scribe’s ‘Not Many (The Remix),’ which was originally a slightly-sprawling album track with a great hook. It was reinvigorated by bringing in Savage and Con-Psy (aka David Dallas) to provide more taut verses which then led Scribe to lift his own game, resulting in his most anthemic track. Pop songs also sometimes get remixed, but it isn’t common for the new version to outstrip the original (not since the ’80s era of 12” remixes anyway).
When it came to doing a remix for ‘Strong Woman’, Raiza Biza brought in Australian rapper REMI and the resulting version racked an impressive 500k Spotify streams: “REMI is another artist that I’ve admired for a while. He’s an artist of substance and I knew that if he heard what I was talking about on the track, he would have some stories to share. I sent him the track for the remix and within a couple of days, he had the finished version. It gave the track new life so it was a blessing to have his input.”
Across these three artists, it seems that genre provides a template for working, rather than a straightjacket. Why wouldn’t a pop artist produce her own work as October does or an indie act like Herriot Row work with session musicians or a hip hop MC like Raiza Biza sing his own hook? In fact, the idea of ‘genre’ has eroded over the past decade and, rather than new genres emerging, progress in music has relied on artists blending ideas from across the spectrum in bewildering new ways. So while it’s still possible to make the kind of generalisations about genre that I’ve made, the edges are fraying. My only future prediction is that you won’t be able to write an article like this in ten year’s time.
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