Cordelia Fellowes: How I Write a Song

Talented songwriter and regular contributor to The Early Hour Cordelia Fellowes shares her creative process and songwriting tips…

I’ve been writing lyrics for as long as I can remember. For years I filled notebooks with songs, almost all of them about love – most of it unrequited! It was only when I began my first band at the age of fifteen, that music started to accompany the songs. I didn’t then and still don’t, play an instrument competently and so have always relied on other musicians and/or producers to provide the accompanying instrumentation.

Once I was able to sing fully fledged songs with the help of my band, I began to assess their lyrical content a lot more and so started to branch out in to wider subject matter. Newspaper headlines, random words in a dictionary, snippets of overheard conversations; these could all inspire a flurry of lyrics. Suddenly I was writing songs about religion, family, death, drugs, travel, crime…  I didn’t consider any subject matter untouchable, and as a result I composed some fairly unconventional and, at times, controversial songs.

In the years since that first band, I have studied for an HND in songwriting; been in several more bands; released a solo EP; signed with a publishing company and seen many of my songs used in short and feature length films. I have learnt a lot about the craft of songwriting and my overall piece of advice to anyone looking to write would be: write what you know.

If nothing comes, walk around the room, shake your limbs about, phone a friend – distract yourself for a few minutes and then go back to your pad and pen

This doesn’t mean you have to write about your own personal experiences. I do find it relatively easy to write from the heart, but many others prefer to write about the lives of others. This also doesn’t mean that you can’t be abstract. You can use your imagination and you can embellish all you want to, but a familiar starting point – i.e. a scene you have witnessed; an argument you’ve had; a love you’ve lost – will enable you to get the ball rolling at least.

I have written songs ‘organically’ – that is, lyrics and melodies have just entered my head, seemingly from nowhere. If you are immersing yourself in music and writing, you may find that this happens often. When I was studying songwriting, and so focusing on it almost entirely five days a week, I wrote almost a dozen songs this way, many of which I would consider to be my best material.

However, if music is more of a hobby for you, then your mind may be on too many different things for this to happen. In that case, you might want to just sit down and try to write a song from scratch. This is the method I increasingly use, as I am now a mother and so my ‘baby brain’ is thinking of a thousand things at once – almost none of them music-related.

First of all, get some inspiration. The radio is my favourite because it stops me from gorging on one artist and also the breaks between songs give me a chance to absorb what I’ve just heard. I would’t recommend bogging yourself down with one genre, as you can overload your head with melodies and find that when you come to compose, you end up using the melodies of songs you’ve just heard.

When you’re feeling suitably creative, I strongly suggest getting yourself in to a very quiet and comfortable place to do your writing. If you’re anything like me and are easily distracted, then a laptop (with access to the internet) is the worst place to begin! I find a notepad and pen much more effective.

So – you’re comfortable, you’re positioned with your pen… What to write about? As I mentioned earlier, a good starting point is something you have experienced personally. When did you last laugh out loud and why? Who did you last cry in front of? What in the news emanates with you at the moment?

If you’re still struggling for a starting point, then some ‘free writing’ exercises are a brilliant way to engage the creative part of your brain. Either just write thoughts or single words or any gibberish that comes in to your head, or stop your finger on a random word in a magazine and write all the words or sentences that you can think of that relate to that word. You’ll surprise yourself at how many things you think of.

Don’t get frustrated. If nothing comes, walk around the room, shake your limbs about, phone a friend – distract yourself for a few minutes and then go back to your pad and pen.

My final piece of advice is that once you’ve started to write a song – finish it. Even if you start to hate what you’re writing, or you lose interest, try to see it through to the end. I have practically forced my hand to finish songs before, but it’s so rewarding when you do. On occasion, you may revisit that same song later and find that you love it. So never, NEVER throw your finished songs away – much like that questionable item of clothing in your wardrobe, songs will go in and out of favour with you…

Photo credit: Stephanie Masiuk