Emma Ballantine

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Four kinds of failed song

With so many types of terrible, it's amazing anything ever gets written at all...

One of the questions I get asked most often is 'how do you write your songs?' People want to know which comes first, the music or the lyrics? Do I write all of one and then all of the other? Do I write on piano or guitar?

The truth is different for each song, but it owes a lot to the two great patrons of artistic endeavour: Trial and Error. For the four new songs I've written since the last EP there are dozens that didn't make the cut or simply fizzled out halfway through. Here are just a few of the most common types of dud I encountered, each doomed to failure in its own distinctive way...

1. The oh-god-I-really-must-write-a-new-song song

This involves shutting inspiration in its room like a naughty child and saying 'you're not coming out until you've got something to say'. Your old material's done the rounds, the band are getting itchy feet, and you've had to attempt ambitious stand-up comedy routines to spice up the live set. IT'S TIME TO PRODUCE SOMETHING! Except your mind is blank. All you have to work with are some chords you rejected last time you wrote something good and a riff that sounds suspiciously like something already in the Top 40. You sit in an airless room churning round the same bunch of notes and words for hours, only to produce something less fresh than the drooping lettuce in your fridge. You play it to your flatmate, who agrees.

2. The damn-I-wish-I-could-find-the-right-home-for-this-chord-sequence song

This is like learning a really cool trick, but realising you don't yet have enough material for a magic show. You've stumbled upon a sequence of notes so great that you could sell them to a chart-topping artist tomorrow. You sing this four-bar phrase or riff all the time: on your way to work, into your mobile phone so you don't forget it, to the band, who all think it has the makings of a classic. You dream about it after you've gone to sleep. Except you're still 2:45 short of a complete song. You try the new idea as an intro, as a verse, as a chorus, in 3/4 time, in swung quavers. You try it on every instrument you own, as a ballad and as an upbeat number. You play it on a loop for entire day on end. But by the end of the day all you really have is that one really cool line. You consider going into jingle-writing.

3. The oh-dear-I've-been-listening-to-too-much-other-music song

Wow! What an idea! Such vision! Such cohesion! It's so good you can't believe someone hasn't written it before. And then you realise they have. It's either already on your phone or your flatmate intervenes again to tell you where you got it from. You abandon it in disgust and vow never to listen to Joni Mitchell/Bob Dylan/the radio ever again.

4. The I-just-really-need-to-get-this-off-my-chest song

This is the dangerous kind. You've been dumped, or been otherwise rejected, or you've just had a really bloody terrible commute home from work involving a tourist that didn't understand Escalator Etiquette. And you think the world would be a better place if you found a way to translate this unique pain and your unparalleled insight into the human condition into musical form. You write the song. It's beautiful: poignant, raw, cut through with biting social commentary and wit. You imagine your ex/rival/fellow commuter listening to it and vowing never to be so callous again...

You play it to your flatmate, and all she hears is a long, unbroken musical rant involving every lyrical cliche in the book. Aspiring songwriters, trust me on this one: if the song even verges on the ranty, just put the pen down and go for a walk. If three weeks later it still sounds good, you might just have a 'Rolling in the Deep' or an 'I Will Survive'. But then again, you might not.

Until finally... the Good Stuff

Then it happens - usually at a highly inconvenient time, when you're meant to be doing something else. For me, it's usually at about midnight on Sunday, when I should be getting an early night before work. A germ of an idea will suddenly spring to mind: a fragment of melody or a catchy bass line. And one idea leads to another, and the chords just fall out in fully-formed progressions and cadences, and the moment you've written the first verse, you know exactly how the chorus and the rest of the song will go. You write it down in a haze of excitement - usually on the back of your latest bank statement or whatever's to hand - and you don't even need to play it to anyone to know it's going onto your next set list.

If someone asked you how it happened, you probably couldn't retrace your steps. And next time you sit down to write, it's all such a wonderful blur in your mind that you have no chance of reproducing the process. So you go back to options 1-4.

11.16am 5th May 2014