10 Songwriting Tips from Paul McCartney

What if you could get in the mind of Paul McCartney and learn his best-kept secrets about songwriting? Well, thanks to our list, you don’t have to wish. McCartney shares it all (well, most of it).

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Through these 10 tips, culled from several interviews McCartney did with Lily Cole and her Impossible website along with a little help from PaulMcCartney.com (links below), we have categorized what the former Mop Top has to say about penning proper songs.

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1. On which comes first: music or lyrics

“It depends. Most of the time, if you’re lucky, they come together. You just sit down and start…You start blocking stuff out with sounds—I do anyway—and eventually, you hear a little phrase that’s starting to work, and then you follow that trail.”

2. On writing with guitar and piano

“Guitar is interesting because you kind of cradle it. You kind of almost cuddle it. You hold it to you, and you play. That gives you a certain kind of feeling. With piano, you almost push it away. It’s just two different attitudes.”

3. On writing with John Lennon

“Writing with John [Lennon] was the ultimate collaboration. I think we were both very lucky to find each other, because we played perfectly off each other… I think we wrote just short of three hundred songs together—and I look back on it now in some kind of wonder, because we never had a dry session. Every time we got together and sat down, we’d work for about—only for about three hours— but we would always come up with a song.”

4. On why his partnership with Lennon worked

“We met through a friend of mine, who was called Ivan, at a village fete. We came together through a common interest of songwriting and then just started having sessions—normally at my house—where we’d just try and write something. We wrote our earliest ones which were very innocent. We didn’t think they were good enough, but it was a start and an exciting thing to do. We just gradually started to get a little bit better. And that was the great thing about something like songwriting; if you do get better then it really is a great journey. Our original songs were all very personal and they all had a personal pronoun in them; ‘Love Me Do’, ‘P.S. I Love You’, ‘From Me To You’, ‘She Loves You’. We were directly trying to communicate with the people who liked us. As it went on we felt that we didn’t have to do that. That was the nice thing, we actually started to climb the staircase and feel that we could get a little bit more complicated.”

5. On time

“You have to do it a lot. It’s that Malcolm Gladwell theory of 10,000 hours. He says that’s why The Beatles were famous. We did, without knowing it, probably put in about 10,000 hours. I think the more you do it, the more you start to get the hang of it. That is my advice for when kids say to me, ‘What would you do?’ I just say, ‘Write a lot!’ Don’t just write three songs and say, ‘I’ve written three songs,’ because it’s not enough. Write four and then continue with that.”

6. On structure versus chaos

“I think structure’s great. But I also like to start with chaos in order to get the freedom. You know, if you structure too early it’s like [makes hitting the breaks noise]. But if you’re just creating, just free and flowing from chord to chord and idea to idea, something then sort of lands that you think is a good idea. Then I think it’s a good idea to structure it.”

7. On writing about the personal

“It’s just you and your angst, or your love, or your desires, or whatever. You’re putting that in your song.”

8. On character

‘”Eleanor Rigby’ came from a combination of old ladies I’d known when I was a kid. It was sort of a cross between wanting to do good work, but at the same time a fascination by these older people who had gone through stuff, that I hadn’t. For some reason or another I was drawn to those people.”

“Some of the people—mostly they were made up—but some of them did actually come from somewhere.”

9. On embarrassing lyrics

“There are lyrics I’m embarrassed by. Like in ‘Rockshow’—references to ‘axe’ and Jimmy Page—they seem a little bit dated. But they are. That’s exactly what they are.”

10. On lyrics he loves

“Eleanor Rigby’ is nice, ‘Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door’. I sort of think, ‘Pretty good work for a 23 year old boy!’ Something like that I think, ‘Yeah, that’s really nice’. So I like that.”

“Currently I’m liking ‘Another Day.’ It’s just very sort of regular life of this girl. [Sings verse ‘Everyday she takes her morning bath’.] It’s just all what a girl might do: ‘Wraps a towel around her as she’s heading for the bedroom chair.’ And then she goes to the office, has a coffee, finds it hard to stay awake, and it all just seems to ring true to me. But it’s just another day.”

Fans can read more from McCartney here and here.

Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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