Step 1: Feel all the feels
For me, a genuine song starts with a strong, often negative emotion. If i'm in a happy go lucky mood, I want to drink beer and laugh with friends. If I am feeling particularly crummy, I want nothing more than to mope alone in my room and write songs. While not necessarily a "step"-- I don't have any control over when my emotions run high or low -- this is a crucial aspect of my songwriting process. There are occasions when I write stuff that’s more upbeat, but it often feels forced. Harvey Danger says it best: "If you ask why I never wrote you a song, it's because happiness writes white." (Which, ironically, is a rather peppy song if you ask me.)
Step 2: Put those feels into words
This is my favorite step, and the one that comes most naturally to me. I have snippets of lyrics just about everywhere: multiple notebooks, various sticky notes on my computer, Google Docs, the notes app on my phone, post-it notes, pieces of paper… you get the idea. Lyrics often pop into my head while walking down the street or doing something that is NOT sitting down and trying to write songs. Writing lyrics is usually completely random for me. I would love for it to be a more controlled process, but the words feel more genuine this way.
Step 3: Create a melody
This is the part, for me, that is the least structured. To be 100% honest, most of the accompanying music in my songs is born from just fiddling around on the guitar. I’ll strum an interesting chord progression, repeat it a cazillion times, and slap some lyrics on top. If I don’t write down the chords or notes -- which I nearly always fail to do -- I will forget them instantly. So it’s key for me to record something right off the bat, even if it kind of sucks- you never know when it’ll spawn inspiration for a chart-topper :)
Step 4: Leave it alone and forget about it until accidentally rediscovering it months later
After recording a raw idea of a song on GarageBand, it’s typical for me to leave it incomplete and not get back to it until months later. It's rare that I'm able to write a whole song in one sitting. My songs mostly contain bits and pieces of lyrics I'd written over time, tweaked and fit together like a puzzle. Now, if I had an entire week dedicated solely to writing songs (my dream!), I’d be able to focus and produce a handful. But with life's innumerable distractions in the way, the process timeline becomes indefinite.
Step 5: Finalize, repeat, repeat again, and record
When I have a full song that I am satisfied with (at least for the time being), I play it over and over again until it feels solid and familiar. I’ll record it raw several times over before doing a “real” recording (in quotations because it’s done on GarageBand and is nowhere near studio quality.) Even then, most songs are always a work in progress. I often forget that the songs are mine and mine alone: I can literally do whatever I want with them. It takes some self-convincing to tweak a chorus or trim some lyrics.