Liam McClair is a talented Manchester based singer-songwriter who has received airplay on BBC 6 Music, and been championed by BBC Introducing. His latest EP 'Honest' is available to pre-order now. Here he discusses his songwriting tips.
- Do you have a daily songwriting routine or do you wait for inspiration to strike? I play my guitar every day and I try and put something new together each time, sometimes it happens immediately other times you need to try to vary chord structures. Often I will play through covers and take inspiration from their chord sequences. My inspiration usually comes after I have the chords ready. I would like to try writing by having a concept and then beginning to write on that topic.
- Do you have any tricks to get the creative juices flowing? Not really, I am trying to find inspiration in a variety of topics. Recently I listened to a audiobook series on Ghengis Khan and I would love to write a song around his quest for an empire and relate it to communist culture of today. I watched Breaking Bad in its entirety and the day after I finished the show a couple of ideas for themes of songs appeared. I also find listening to a really great song inspires me to write; usually from unsigned artists but from signed musicians too.
- Do you find you normally start with a melody or lyrics? Usually melody first, I will get a chord sequence together and begin to sing over the top. Nothing in particular, just fishing for a melody I like and that fits the sequence and the rhythm of the track. Within the random singing I will just add in lyrics just to have something over the top. When the lyrics work, I will listen back to them and find a theme in them or create a theme using some of the lyrics that fit. Once that stage is over I will then begin to transcribe lyrics and chose phrases that fit the theme of the song.
- Do you think that melody is the most important aspect of a song? Definitely. My first experience of composition was during music lessons at school and I always remember my teacher, Mr Dewhurst, saying you know it is a good melody if you can wake up the next day and instantly start singing that song. Making it memorable is the biggest thing for me when writing. I use this rule in all of my writing because if I can’t remember the melody, how can I expect fans to?
- How long does it take you to write a song? It varies from song to song, a few songs I have written have taken 15-20 minutes, it’s like they have been full formed inside me waiting to be discovered. I have had a few that take a couple of days from the genesis of the idea to the track being finished. Occasionally I have an idea that sits for a while as a demo recording and then one day I will be able to put it all together, It is normally no longer than a week.
- Could you explain a little about the writing process behind a few of your songs? 'How' was the first song I wrote that I knew had potential to be liked by other people. I like all of my tracks but I felt like this song had a broad appeal. The idea of the song came from how the dynamic of a relationship I was in at the time had changed. I was trying to describe and capture the feeling of pure excitement, nerves and wonder when you are incredibly attracted to someone, I took a lot of time over writing the song and carefully considered each phrase. It was the start for me as it got played on BBC Introducing Merseyside a couple times when I was a student in Liverpool and that support gave me the belief to go on and continue writing and performing. 'Honey' got my instantly excited. I knew it was a good song because it followed the melodic advice I had been given by my music teacher. When it came to recording it, the people that I was working with helped to confirm its potential to be a good song. I wrote it in my Mum’s house and I was trying to express how I want to feel when I am in love with someone. It’s a letter to my future partner; it is also an expression of how I want to feel when I am with someone. It’s about being honest and candid and making someone feel appreciated. This song came very naturally to me and because I was really excited about it, that helped the song take form much faster. 'Lose My Faith' is a song I wrote after I had been seeing a girl as a student in Liverpool and I was in my final year. We got on really well and she very refreshing and exciting. I’d never met anyone like her, when I finished University I moved back home to Cheshire and during my 3rd year I didn’t handle the situation very well and ended up drifting apart from her. So the song is about the feeling of wondering should I go back and try and rekindle the excitement or is it too late and have they moved on? I was playing around with new chords and the second chord in the sequence I stumbled upon and really liked. I never transcribed any of the lyrics to this song, it all just flowed out of me. 'Honest' is my latest single and quite an old song, I wrote it long before Honey and Lose My Faith I was just unsure of how I wanted it to be recorded. When I was in a previous relationship I confused being honest with keeping the person happy and it was eventually to my detriment. Therefore this track was a confession of being totally open and candid with someone in order for them to see the real you. It can very naturally and I feel it is my best song structurally. The verses and choruses are clearly distinguished.
- What songs that other people have written do you particularly admire? I really admire Joni Mitchell as a songwriter, her turn of phrase is brilliant. It hits you then when you think more about it you find a deeper meaning in the lyrics. Her song 'Case Of You' is a fantastic song and the sentiment behind it is wonderful and I would love to write a song in a similar vein. 'American Pie' by Don Mclean is a great song because it is a catchy song with a great chorus but the verses are all metaphorical for significant moments in history and he replaced the famous names in the story with characters. I also really like 'Father And Son' by Cat Stevens, I feel like I can relate to both sides of the story and it is a brilliantly observed song. It speaks of youthful excitement and resentment towards aging and fatherly wisdom and sage advice.
- Do you think that a technical knowledge of theory is important or does it get in the way? I think it has really helped me in my song writing. I studied music at GCSE and only learned the basics but that knowledge has made me the songwriter I am today. It helped me with song structure and also showed me what chords complement one another.
- Do you tend to revisit your songs and rewrite them? I find revisiting songs really difficult. Once I have a put a melody over chords or a sequence of chords I can’t sing anything else over them. If I was to rewriter a song it would keep its original melody and I would change a few lyrics or I would add a varying section. It is something I am going to look at doing more as I think it could yield positive outcomes.
- Do you write songs with a view to being commercial and following current trends? I try and write commercial songs in as much as I want them to be viable as a product for people to buy. In terms of following trends I think it’s a dangerous game because I find popularity is becoming very fickle and what is popular one month will be old news the next month and the time it takes to get a release together, your idea of commercial maybe far away from the trend that is present when you release your music. I think it’s important to make music that I like and that I would want to listen to and music has such a wide spectrum of tastes that I know I can find an audience for my songs without chasing after trends
- Have you done much co-writing, and if so what do you see as the benefits? I haven’t to be honest. I have written additional material for a song that is already formed but I have never started from scratch with an artist in order to make a new song. It is something I would like to try in order to challenge myself.
- Who do you view as great songwriters. Who has inspired you musically/ lyrically? Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Johnny Cash, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Laura Marling, Nick Mulvey, Justin Vernon, Carly Simon, Paolo Nutini, Coldplay, Radiohead. Musically I feel I am inspired by all sorts of music, when I first started writing I was listening to Coldplay, Radiohead and Nick Drake. I have never really been compared to any other artists therefore I feel I have been inspired and created my own style through my admiration of these artists.
- Do you feel that when there's conflict/struggle in your life that it inspires better songs? I think so, often in an unconscious way. When I have gone through emotional periods in my life or difficult times, songs about those situations don’t appear until I am through the worst of it. I have written a couple of songs regarding emotional events in my life and I find them the easiest to write and the most difficult to share just because they are much more personal than any other track and sometimes the writing of them is pure catharsis and helps me to process the emotions and to get through the situation
- Do you have any idea where you ideas come from? Sometimes I feel I am the master of my creativity, others I feel I am a conduit for something more difficult to explain. I have often not given the organic songs much thought and let them be the way they were formed initially. I really like the idea of the song being considered and dissected by the crowd and by myself.
- Do you have any advice you'd like to share with budding songwriters out there? I would say write as much as you can, don’t worry if your songs aren’t amazing initially just look to other examples of mastering a task. It takes practice to discover how you work best and what sequence of crafting a song is suited to you. Enjoy it as I find it an amazing thing and seeing people sing your lyrics or post your songs is incredibly gratifying and humbling.
This interview was by Ben Williams. Find Ben on TWITTER, FACEBOOK
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