New Orleans rock & soul outfit The Revivalists have released three albums since forming in 2007, with their latest, Men Amongst Mountains, coming out earlier this year. Here, vocalist David Shaw writes about the work it takes to write a song, reimagining unused material and knowing when a song is finished.
Its kind of funny, it’s not really an actual process that I go through to prepare to write. When the lightning strikes I try to grab hold of it and focus whatever that inspiration is in order to put it on the paper. That inspiration can come from something that happened to me, something I was told, a memory that floats to the surface, basically anything that inspires an emotional response. From there the song is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Songwriting is work. Its not always this mythical thing that comes out of the ether. Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes it is, but those songs are usually very few and far between. The reality of it is you’re going to sit down, and work on this song, and work this feeling that you had in order to create something that expresses it in an interesting and articulated way, and hopefully it is in a way that hasn’t been done before. Because thats what true art is: serving as the filter and the frame for these different emotions and feelings, internalizing them, and then putting them back out in the world in an artistic way that resonates with other people.
Lyrics vs. Music
Usually starting with lyrics or music fully depends on my mood. If i wake up in the morning and want to dance around in my PJ’s, then I’m going to work on some dance music and worry about the lyrics later. The truth is most songwriters are going to have a large backlog of material to grab from, and when you write, a lot of times you’re going to be sitting in this revolving circle of making the new stuff fit in with the old stuff. I’ll take something that I wrote last month, and put it with something I wrote two years ago that didn’t fit at the time. Sometimes that older puzzle piece just needs to be seen from a new perspective and through the new experiences I’ve had over that time. You can look back on something and have a new and greater understanding of what that really meant to you when you wrote it that will give you a deeper appreciation of that line or hook and allow you to see it in a whole new light.
Strategies / Thought Process
As I’ve said before, songwriting takes work, and you have to think of it the same way you would a muscle. You need to just continue to write and to sharpen your blade. If you don’t try to write something daily, that muscle is going to atrophy. If I don’t write anything for a month, and I pick up a pen and a pad, I find it incredibly difficult just to get going. You always have to keep on top of it and write stuff down, something somebody said, a few words that pop into your head, whatever, just write something. Another thing – which is more of an academic tool – that is one of the ways I like to approach writing a song, is to start with “here’s what happened” and follow that with “here’s how I feel about it.” If you present the image, and then tell the listener how you feel about the imagery, they can get a picture in their mind before connecting with the emotion itself. That way you can help the listener get to the emotion along with you. The chorus itself can be separate from that, as a greater overarching thought or feeling or to provide a more concise imagery to what the song is about.
How do you know the song is done?
Once I’m into the song, I know I’m onto something when the goosebumps hit. I’ll be sitting down just playing chords, or scatting random lyrics, and when a part of the melody or lyrics strike me in a certain way, and I just know its going to connect with me, and then with the listener. I’ll know that song is done when I don’t have any kind of feeling that I need to go back and work on a certain part. When I stop thinking that “this could be better” I know I can walk away. Basically I’m going to sit down, write something, put it together, and then step away. When I come back and look at it, I’m going to comb through the song and the verse, chorus, bridge and see what works. If something doesn’t connect then I’m going to sit down and work on it, move on to another part, and then step away again. Then I just come back and repeat the process. Over time its less about the combing process more about making some parts more concise and adding some flourishes to the parts that work really well. Once I reach a point where nothing is standing out that needs fixing, I know it’s ready, and I can step away from the song and let it out into the world.