Joni Fuller is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who has been featured as an 'inspirational teenager' by The Independent, and as 'one to watch' by PRS For Music. She has also won LIPA's MIBI songwriting contest twice. Joni released her EP 'Letters from the West Coast' in May 2015. Here she discusses her songwriting tips.
- Do you have a daily songwriting routine or do you wait for inspiration to strike? Definitely the latter! I can go for days or weeks without writing anything new, and then suddenly I'm working on three songs at once. It used to worry me... what would happen if the inspiration just didn't come back - but I've learnt to be patient!
- Do you have any tricks to get the creative juices flowing? No, I really do just wait for a moment of inspiration. Having said that, I did some co-writing for the first time last year, and that had more routine about it. More recently, I've taken to using a BOSS RC300 loop-station to deliver my live shows, and this has influenced my songwriting. Knowing that I'll be performing the song solo, using a loop-pedal has shaped some of my songs. It's also a great way to 'jam' with yourself in that I can build up ideas and harmonies and swap instruments whilst writing the song.
- Do you find you normally start with a melody or lyrics? Both come at once. I've been approached by some really good lyricists and poets over the years, wanting to collaborate together, but when I write a song, the lyrical theme comes with the very first plays of the melody and chord structure, so it would be odd for me to use someone else's words. The stream of sub-consciousness usually finds words that fit the music, but it sometimes lets me down and I have to go back to the lyrics and make changes, but I try to stick as closely as possible with that original spark of lyrical creativity.
- Do you think that melody is the most important aspect of a song? Yes, but I'm very conscious of how important the lyrics are in enhancing the way the song communicates. An inspired melody can be ruined by lyrics that don't support it. I guess the key is to get both right!
- How long does it take you to write a song? The music is usually written in one (often intense!) session. I find it hard to walk away from an unfinished idea, so I am pretty much tied up until it's done... not good if I have any other commitments at around the same time! The lyrics often take longer and I’ll return to them over the following days, sometimes weeks, until I’m completely happy with them.
- Could you explain a little about the writing process behind a few of your songs? 'Pretty Blue' tells a story rather than being a personal reflection or expression. It was actually quite a moving experience writing the song as I actually got to feel I knew the person in the song as a friend, and I found myself empathising with her. Like a number of my songs, it features the violin, which gives it a kind of mournful country feel. Also, I recorded all the parts myself, so it has a very personal feel, with the little touches on piano, vocal harmonies, etc that characterise my music. 'Wild Wild West' is the first song I have written around the loop pedal. I had a few ideas mulling around in my head, and then found myself in a studio in Scotland (on the banks of Loch Fyne with stunning views across the loch and to the mountains), and the song evolved in that setting. The wild and untamed landscape definitely played a part in the musical and lyrical theme. The opening riff is also very 'loop-friendly' which made it easy to build on - and play live too. 'The Penny' is the song that really defined my new sound and style. I wrote it last year (2014) and at the time it seemed a departure from what I had been used to, with much stronger folk and country influences. I liked the uplifting feel of the song and it made me want to get back to gigging, as I had taken a break from playing live for a few months whilst I reviewed and redefined my sound. The first challenge was getting this into the solo acoustic, instrument-swapping set using the loop pedal. Once I'd cracked it, after having to overcome a number of technical hitches, the flood gates opened and other songs just seemed to follow.
- What songs that other people have written do you particularly admire? It would be a long list... just about everything on Prince's Parade and Joni Mitchell's Hejira albums for a start. Kate Bush is another songwriter I really admire - Hello Earth is probably my favourite; seeing her play it live last year was an amazing experience. I'm also currently obsessively listening to the new Brandon Flowers album - The Desired Effect.
- Do you think that a technical knowledge of theory is important or does it get in the way? My first instruments are violin and piano, so I've studied theory as part of a classical training. I don't think I consciously refer to any technical knowledge when writing a song but it can be very useful when I’m arranging for recording and performing.
- Do you tend to revisit your songs and rewrite them? I usually leave the melody and chords, trusting the moment of inspiration that brought them to life. I do revisit lyrics though, although it can be hard, especially after an intense creative and development process, and whether I remember to sing the new words when I'm playing live is another matter!
- Do you write songs with a view to being commercial and following current trends? No, although I feel I have really concentrated on honing my sound over the past year. I started writing songs when I was really young (from around eight years of age) and really just allowed myself free creative reign, particularly when it came to arrangements and production, so the back catalogue is a very eclectic mix - which I'm proud of, but felt needed refining into a more consistent sound. This was especially important given the new solo acoustic live act where I swap instruments, using the loop pedal. The current acoustic sound has all the ingredients of the styles of music I love, but within a more defined and identifiable sound, which feels very natural.
- Have you done much co-writing, and if so what do you see as the benefits? I did some co-writing for the first time last year, and enjoyed it. I took some basic stems, and sometimes just a beat and then improvised over and around them. Sometimes the finished songs seemed to bear very little resemblance to the original stems, but it was definitely a different way of working and was actually rewarding. I didn't feel as intensely pressured by the songwriting process as I would do with a solo write, and it probably allowed me to explore some new areas too. I can see how this could be a good way of introducing some routine and regularity into writing, especially if the creative process was at a natural lull for whatever reason. It's always good to link up with other musicians too.
- Who do you view as great songwriters. Who has inspired you musically/ lyrically? I was Christened Joni Amelia, so it's probably no surprise that Joni Mitchell has been a big influence on my musical development and songwriting! Ironically, her song Amelia has always been an inspiration to me, especially the lyrical content. I remain completely in awe at the ease with which she finds the words to paint pictures within her songs. Prince is another big inspiration. Not just as a prolific songwriter, but also as an all-round musician and consummate professional and perfectionist - setting the bar very high for everyone else to follow.
- Do you feel that when there's conflict/struggle in your life that it inspires better songs? I don't think it has any bearing on when I write a song, but I tap into experiences and memories whilst I'm in the process of writing which makes the song more personal and honest, and probably more powerful as it comes from a personal experience.
- Do you have any idea where you ideas come from? It's a bit of a chicken and egg question, but I think the music drives the lyrical theme. For example, sombre, minor key chords/melodies will inevitably lead to darker lyrics. I rely on this musical inspiration to find the lyrical theme. I think I would find it very difficult to have to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and write words after the music was in place.
- Do you have any advice you'd like to share with budding songwriters out there? My mantra is to be honest to myself and write (and then perform) music that means something to me and inspires me in some way. You can only then hope that it does the same for others! The songwriting process can be an intense and sometimes traumatic affair - and maybe at times, to produce an inspired song, it needs to be.
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