Settled in front of a camera for American Songwriter’s Behind The Mic Facebook Live series, cheerfully talking all manner of details on co-writing, instrumentation, song structure, and more from his home near Tampa, Florida, it may surprise some that Stephen Christian only did his first full band livestream with iconic alternative rock band, Anberlin, just a few nights ago. At this moment though, Christian is engaging as a songwriter of many stylistic hats, across not only his work with Anberlin but also his solo pursuit, Anchor & Braille, which just released a fourth full-length album titled Tension, on May 22, 2020 via Tooth and Nail Records.
A plethora of songs across several albums available for performing and discussing, Christian emphasized the songwriter portion of his live session at every opportunity, even right after telling the story of how Anchor and Braille came into being.
“This isn’t gonna be like a normal acoustic set, you know, where I’m just gonna perform the entire time. This is [for] American Songwriter Magazine so, I kinda want to dissect a few parts and pieces and show you how I constructed these songs,” Christian says.
In fact, Christian wastes no time getting down to nuts and bolts even before playing a single note, explaining the logic behind his decision for early Anchor & Braille song “Blur,” to have a “driving piano line, to [the point] where that was almost the lead instrument.”
In somewhat of an amusing coincidence with this jump to providing insight, Christian makes a comparison with Led Zeppelin by pointing out that with some of the band’s strongest chorus-centric tracks, “[listeners are already drawn into the song [and] they already know what song it is, even before [Robert Plant] starts singing.” Christian says he was attempting to “draw [listeners] into [“Blur”] with a chorus and a hook, even before the song started.”
After taking time to express gratitude for the songwriting prowess of Anchor & Braille’s first album producer Aaron Marsh, Christian shifts to encouraging some fundamental exploration with two of the songwriter’s most versatile tools of the trade.
“I wish I was more proficient at [piano and guitar],” he says. “If you’re out there and you’re an aspiring songwriter, there’s a few things that you need. You need to know basic piano, know basic guitar, the better you are [and] the more proficient at it…Man, the more that you can have input [in the songwriting process.] [Additionally,] the differentiation of chords – you know, just understanding what’s going to sound good where. The more that you can expand your musical horizons with an instrument, the better your songs are going to be in the long run,” says Christian.
Not one to stop at the usual tips for beginning composers and musicians, Christian doesn’t forget to mention the value of knowledge around a good Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) for once songwriters have their pieces all figured out and written down.
“Learn ProTools. Learn Logic Pro X. Learn something. I mean, I know very basic Logic Pro X [but] I wish I was more proficient at it throughout the years because I feel like [not being so] held me back. So if you’re a songwriter, man, start today,” he says.
Those however, who might just be bursting with one or more good stories to tell but have yet to pick up a notebook, let alone start up a DAW, can benefit well from the suggestion Christian then shared about how he made the tracks on Anchor & Braille’s third album Songs for the Late Night Drive Home, fit together so well as a cohesive album’s worth of material.
“A lot of times what I do as a musician [and] as a songwriter [is that] I kind of have a theatrical theme that plays in my head while I’m writing the songs and that way, it kind makes all the songs on a record sound a little more like they’re supposed to fit [together] on a record,” Christian says.
Indeed, approaching an album, or even a single song, with a thematic pillar, can help provide that lyrical focus when the options for what to write about or which words to use to describe one’s story, feels a little overwhelming. Again taking the time to really outline the meticulous reasoning behind the bones of his chosen repertoire before performing, Christian proceeds to break down the careful placement of the choruses in Anchor & Braille song, “Watch You Burn,” even tossing in an endearing family anecdote to illustrate his point about excessive repetition.
“So basically – I’m gonna keep calling them choruses. I know that’s not the proper terminology, for those of you that are co-writers and songwriters – I heard, I believe it was John Lennon that said, ‘Write a chorus. Move it forward, and then write a chorus.’ And so there’s three different hooks in this song,” says Christian.
“You want to keep the listener engaged,” he continues. “There’s something called ‘burnout.’ Burnout is like when you’re listening to a song – there’s a lot of pop songs do this – you’ll hear it and think, ‘This song is so good!’ I’ll give you an example. My [six year old] daughter is into Trolls 2 the movie and she loves the song “One More Time,” the techno version that’s [in the movie soundtrack.] Well, I went back and showed her Daft Punk and I was showing her the Daft Punk version of [the song] and by like three minutes of the album version, she was just checked out. And I know this is a myopic way of explaining [burnout] but because the redundancy was so strong, she was like, ‘I don’t want anything to do with it.’ So when you’re writing a song…don’t repeat yourself to the point where it’s just exhausting for the listener and they’re just going to skip that track or just skip your band all together,” Christian says.
Gathering the conversation back in toward the details of refining a song and putting together the creative pieces, Christian ties everything together by making the distinction between the moments when he lets something go versus working through it to ultimately strike that personal songwriter’s gold.
“You gotta find your own pattern. You’ve gotta find your own rhythm. For me, if a song doesn’t talk to me, it doesn’t tell me what it’s about, it doesn’t already sing it’s own melody line, I skip the song. If I’m writing and my brain just can’t catch [the melody,] I just stop,” says Christian.
“[But] let’s say I’m co-writing with somebody in a band and they say, ‘No! That chord progression! Do you hear it? I hear it!’ and they like it, I’ll come back to it another time. There are plenty of Logic Pro files on my computer, that are the same song with different titles because I went back months later and re-wrote the song because I wanted to forget the old melody line [and] forget the old lyrics and try it again in a new light. So, for those struggling with writer’s block: find what work’s for you. You can’t force things to be good,” he says before offering a crucial, optimistic reminder.
“It’s not about giving up. It’s about saying ‘Okay, creativity isn’t with me today. I’m going to out and do something that’s inspiring and perhaps I’ll jump back in tomorrow morning on a different song and perhaps I’ll come back to it.”