Why I Love Writing: A Woman Of Substance

A Woman Of Substance – starts and final

Finishing a song is tough. Much tougher than the work that goes into it. It’s like having to share a close friend, a private friend you told no-one about but now everyone knows. Nothing’s worse than having an idea realised, and wondering if it’s as good as I heard it in my mind, questioning if I did it justice, if it could be better. But sooner or later, I have to to say ‘done’ and finish the song.

Here’s why I love writing so much. The audio here starts with the first idea that inspired the song, a snatch of melody that turned into the verse. It came to me and I recorded it, like so many others. “Gotta get home again”. I think that’s what I was thinking about at the time. Then a second part where I worked out what the song was about – a woman of substance, and also the line ‘force of nature’ which I eventually used in the bridge. Both came almost accidentally, inspired by someone I had just met.

1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. Edison, I think. So those first two ideas are the inspiration. Everything else is work: deciding on the structure (verse-refrain here), writing the additional sections, writing lyrics, arrangement, adding instruments, recording, mixing and mastering. You’ve got to love doing this to do it, otherwise it’s not worth it.

I had this song quite a while before I finished it. My inspiration to finish it was this quote from George Monbiot from Twitter:

Everywhere now – in politics, protest, the arts, journalism, organisational life etc – I see dynamic and inspiring women changing the world. It feels so good, after being brought up in a society dominated by a dull and stifling male monoculture.

I had most of the song written when I saw that tweet, but not complete. Seeing it made me think of the song and gave me impetus to finish it. I thought I had but this was the third verse:

a woman of strength
attracts the worst of men
their threats are mean to frighten
but she’s cement
they’ve met their match
a woman of substance

Not a terrible verse, and very true. I wanted to call out that women get a lot of shit for expressing their opinions and expertise. There are some awful people out there, and they’re almost always men. But the verse left the song a bit ‘clinical’, descriptive; there was no ‘I’ in the song, how it made me feel. That was something I learnt from my mentor – Suzan. Another woman of substance.

I recorded the vocal with the verse above before I realised the weakness, that my gut wasn’t happy with it.

I generally write a song melody first. Get the idea (as for this track), pad it out, arrange the instruments, get the structure and track, and then write the lyrics on top of that, so that they fit into the melody, but still have meaning.

That’s the tricky bit – avoid being too ‘rhymey’, going for the rhyme and the syncopation (the beat or pattern of words), not the meaning. For me, that’s the hardest part of songwriting – remembering that it has to be real, not just fit. Like filling in a crossword. 5 letter word starting with ‘f’? Sure. Fudge, fight, forget, flight. I can write those words in and they fit, but are they right words for the puzzle, or the song? And different words have different weight. Fight or struggle or try? They mean roughly the same thing in context but have very different emotional subtext. BTW – I’m not pretending I’m great at this. Just what goes through my mind.

I felt the third verse wasn’t working for me – brought the song down, even it was true, and to me was an important statement. So I re-wrote it to focus on my feelings, reaction to a ‘woman of substance’,

she inspires me to try
to be a bolder man
join the fight beside her
she says anyone can
make a difference
a woman of substance

‘Inspires me to try’ has a nice internal rhyme. I had ‘makes we want to try’ but ‘inspires’ was for me a stronger word and closer to the truth. She doesn’t ‘make’ (force) anyone.

‘Bolder man’ beat ‘better man’ which I had originally. ‘Better’ didn’t say enough – it implies a moral element, a relationship song, and a bit cliché. Better is generic, bolder is more specific.

‘Beside her’ is important – not ‘behind’ or ‘with’ but beside – as equals. To me it suggested inclusiveness and co-operation, precisely how this woman lives.

I wanted ‘she believes anyone can’ but it didn’t fit, and ‘says’ creates an aural impression which I think is useful. I can hear her saying it: “anyone can make a difference”. ‘Anyone’, not ‘everyone’ because it personalises it.

The vocal took me about 20 takes, in two sessions because I re-wrote the third verse. Then I picked out the best bits of each take, joined them together, edited out breaths etc., then adjusted pitch. I’ve learned the voice is the hardest instrument to manage. It’s so variable, so dynamic, and so powerful. It’s what people are mostly listening to, no matter how good the backing track. I have to work hard on my vocal tracks but I think I’m getting better at it.

Then, out of this chrysalis, from that rudimentary starting point a full song emerges, a butterfly not a grub. I listen back to the early takes and marvel that anything could have come from it at all, especially something I like and am proud of.

That’s why I love being a songwriter – an idea given shape. But I’ll miss that song and all the inspiration, hope, and enjoyment it gave me.

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