Tech Tip:Writing on Assignment
Staff writers at publishing companies are often called upon to write on assignment, but even if you're not in that position you'll hear about recording projects you'll want to write for. If you're a "project" writer who works best with specific guidelines, this is a great exercise whether you've been actually given a project or not.
Tailoring songs for a specific artist is a calculated and methodical approach. You may have written down or recorded some great ideas during the heat of inspiration but now, in the light of what you'll learn about your target artist or project you'll look at the ideas with a whole new perspective. Let's say you have a 'prescription' to write. You know that the producer is looking for positive, up-tempo love songs for an artist. If you can, get information from the producer about the artist's vocal range, point of view, attitude and philosophy. If it's not convenient to do that and the artist has previous albums, get them. Make a synopsis of the lyric of each song like, "He left me but I know I'll get over him," "I've had my problems with other women but I know she'll be different," "My friends think I'm crazy to love you but I don't care," "They all want you but I know what you want," etc. See if the songs the artist records—particularly the successful ones—fall into a consistent pattern. Most artists don't like "weak" or "victim" songs that say, basically, "You can walk all over me and I don't care. I'll still love you no matter what you do." Other artists have been successful with that attitude. Pay attention to the established image of an artist.
You can often get additional information from reading interviews with the artists in trade or fan magazines. When you hear their recordings check out the kind of melodic passages the artist sings well. Does he/she have a great voice that loves to hold onto long notes and style them? Does the artist not have a great voice, coming off better doing story songs with lots of lyrics and short choppy lines? Does the artist phrase well or have a stylistic trademark that you'd do well to accommodate.
Notice if the artist seems to prefer a particular form. Does he like a form that allows them a minute to "jam" on the hook during a fade? Does she prefer short, four-line choruses with lots of repetition or four different lines with a strong "payoff" line? Is the song for a group with more involved vocal parts, needing parallel lyric lines to intermesh? Once you've listened to enough of the artist, you can visualize him/her singing your lyrics and melodies and it gets much easier to write for the style. A valuable exercise is to try to write a follow-up song to an artist's last hit, taking into consideration all the artistic factors that you feel contributed to it's success.
Some writers hate this approach to writing because they feel it's calculated, uninspired hack-work. Other writers love it because they welcome the artistic challenge of saying something that comes from them but is tailor-made for someone else. They look at the parameters as an architect would look at building a house for a family's specific needs. Matching form with function is the challenge. If the music that comes from this approach seems uninspired, the writer has no one to blame but himself. All those great inspired ideas you wrote on all those little scraps of paper or sang or played into a tape recorder should inspire you again.
Norman Gimbel had the phrase "killing me softly" in his notebook long before Lori Lieberman (who he and co-writer Charles Fox were producing) told him about her emotional reaction to experiencing Don McLean ("American Pie," "Vincent") in concert. They used (1.) the need to write a song to fit her style, (2.) the inspired phrase, and (3.) Lori's own experience to put together a fresh and original classic that was later a hit by Roberta Flack and even later by the Fugees (featuring Lauryn Hill). Many of the successful writers I've interviewed have felt that some of their best work was done under deadline or for a specific project.
For a writer/performer writing primarily for yourself, it can be an artistically liberating experience to write for someone else and not be identified with your words, to be able to say something in a way that you wouldn't state it for yourself. It allows you to expand the parameters of your craft, and that can't hurt. For non-performing writers who depend on others to record their songs, tailoring is a valuable discipline to develop.
A possible criticism of this approach is that you may write a song that's too tailored to only one artist. If that artist doesn't record it, you may end up with a great song that no other artist could hear themselves singing. I don't agree. I believe that if it really is a great song you'll find another artist to cut it, even if you have to re-write or re-demo it.
A great song is a great song!
This excerpt from John Braheny's book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting (2nd edition, 2002, Writers Digest Books) has been edited for length. It's available at bookstores everywhere. For info about John's critiquing and consulting services, go to www.johnbraheny.com.