Writers Room: How Do You Write Songs? by KT Tunstall

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Written by KT Tunstall

Isn’t it kind of incredible, with the limited amount of black and white notes on the scale of a piano, paired with the exponential amount of human beings creating and releasing music, that “new songs” are even possible anymore? I think about this. 

It fascinates me that, in my own experience of over 30 years of sitting down to write a  song, myself and hundreds of thousands of others are still able to craft something that,  somehow, feels undiscovered. These 12 notes feel like the number of possible combination codes with just 12 numbers (nearly 500 million). But these original musical combinations are not just math. They rely on our truth-telling, on our commitment to push into places unknown. Otherwise, we may repeat. 

And then, in all of this, how to be heard? A few years ago, I gave a talk on the subject of  the great quest of a writer and performer to discover their “signature sound.” It’s one of the holy grails of music, is it not? To carve out your own recognizable and inimitable corner of the music landscape and be the only one who can grow your particular sonic crop. To travel the world with your music in your heart, and head, and body, and hear it sung back to you in places you’ve never been, by people you’ve never met, and that’s your actual job!? It’s a rare and beautiful experience, and anyone would be forgiven for believing it to be something supernaturally summoned. 

But in all the time I’ve written songs and all the hundreds of interviews I’ve given, I feel  I’ve never really answered the question, “How do you write songs?” 

Sure, I get asked about the process, if the music or the words come first, how long a  song can take to finish, or if they are autobiographical or observational, but I feel I never nail the answer to how I write a song. How? Where does it actually come from in the first place? 

The answer is that I am definitely not sure. My suspicion is that it is partly by not getting in its way. 

I remember as a kid being obsessed with piano at age 4, pleading for this huge, magical machine to be squeezed into my small bedroom, and then constantly playing and exploring, crouching beneath the protruding keys and putting my ear to the bowels of it, holding the sustain pedal down and thumping the wood with my fist to listen to how long the deep, ghostlike echo would last, how long it would ring out. Don’t get in the way of that sound. I took lessons, but that wasn’t where the joy was. I liked making stuff up.  

Keys. Resonance. Sustain. Play. Compose. 

I love these words. I never got great at the piano, to be honest. It wasn’t entirely a natural fit for me. Over a decade of tuition was superseded almost overnight by busking with a guitar at 15 years old. Finding the guitar was a huge breakthrough for me—this was my instrument! No one was going to tell me how to do it this time. No lessons, no exams. Just fun, fun, fun. And hey, I’ll sing at the same time. 

Keys to the universe. 

Resonance in my soul. 

Sustain the energy. 

Play like a kid. 

Compose yourself in the face of being known. 

It took another 15 years before my songs found their way into the ether, and amazingly, they have stayed there. And over the years, I’ve wondered where they come from. I have looked back from the end of an album process over and over again, holding the vinyl of the thing in my hands, and wondered how the f*ck did I write all that?! Where did it come from? How am I going to do that again? 

The best answer I have, standing now on the precipice of the release of the final album in a seven-year trilogy of records that spans death, divorce, moving continents, a global pandemic, and a glorious rebirth, is to be as blisteringly honest as I can bear. Not just in the words, but with myself in all things, in the sound, the style, following what thrills,  shedding what bores, pushing into what frightens, and all the while making the commitment again, and again, and again. I cannot worry about anyone else’s opinion of it, because that is where dilution is and we don’t want that. I need to find a new combination code. 

And finally, to zoom out.  

Music. Our deep, universal, beautiful, soul communication system transcends language and connects us, like sonic love. Every song we craft into being is another patch to add to the quilt that keeps us all warm. A huge sound tapestry of storytelling to wrap around ourselves.  

And like a patchwork quilt, if you look at it from a distance, it all fits together and seems whole. But every piece that gets added is somehow different, as it should be.

Photo by Cortney Armitage / MadINK PR

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