By Annie Reuter
Have you ever written a song? The task can seem daunting. This is especially true if you’re a beginner, but even seasoned professionals feel it, too. There is simply no shortcut to writing songs you are truly proud of, or crafting hits that get played on the radio.
However, there are some ways to make sure you’re headed in the right direction.
“I always tell people to chase their passion,” Kip Moore tells Radio.com. But that ‘chase’ also comes with a warning. “My advice to songwriters is, unless you’re truly serious about it, and it’s all you can think about doing, it’s all that’s in your heart, leave it alone. Trying to do it for a career, it has to be all or nothing. It’s gotta drive everything in you.”
Whether you’re serious about making a career out of songwriting, or just dabbling in it occasionally—or, frankly, even if you’re a longtime veteran—there are always things to learn.
We spoke with more than 20 songwriters and artists, asking them for tips on everything related to writing songs, from how to jumpstart an idea to what goes into creating a memorable chorus. Read on to discover solid writing advice from some of country music’s biggest hitmakers, including Moore, Lady Antebellum, Big & Rich, Brett Eldredge, Kacey Musgraves, Jerrod Niemann, Charlie Worsham, Steve Wariner and Clint Black.
1. There’s no set way to write a song
“There’s no right or wrong way to write a song,” Lady Antebellum‘s Charles Kelley advises. “We’ve written many different ways. We usually start with the melody first and then it always evokes some kind of feeling, whether it’s a song or melody. It always finds its way. Some people come in with lyric ideas or a poem.”
Clint Black says many times his songs take their first shape as poetry and then he puts music to them.
“Sometimes I’ll have a musical idea that I have to come up with a lyric for,” he says. “The music beats the lyric to the finish line and the lyric becomes the Rubik’s Cube. I have to figure out how to make it all work, to say something in a unique way and make it rhyme.”
“My process is I write and try to write a great song,” Steve Wariner admits. “Write something unique or clever. I may have a guitar riff and something may fall out. Sometimes I start with no title or anything and I’ll keep building around a that. Try to discipline yourself to be able to do it in different ways always. I’ve also been in a restaurant where I’m trying to not eavesdrop but you hear a great phrase [at] the next table and you’re like, ‘That’s a great song title.'”
2. Be aware of your surroundings and stay tapped in
“Songs are everywhere,” Wariner confesses. But, he adds, as a writer you must always be paying attention so you’re ready for that inspiration to strike.
“There is always a song in something, somewhere,” Smith adds. “You just have to open your eyes a little bit.”
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Worsham adds that songwriting is “just a switch you can’t turn off. I’m always jotting something down on an airplane. It’s this thing that keeps you up at night. It wakes you up in the middle of the night, it gets you up early. You just can’t shut it off. You can’t ever put the pen down. It’s constantly gnawing at you in an excruciatingly beautiful way.”
Meanwhile, Big Kenny of Big and Rich said the thing that makes great songwriters is paying attention when those great ideas hit you. “If you’re not open than it won’t happen.” Bandmate John Rich passed along advice from another recognized songwriter. “Tom Petty said it great, ‘I don’t get ideas. I just stick my antenna out.'”
3. Write from the heart
Most of the artists I spoke with said the best songs often come from something he or she has experienced firsthand, Kacey Musgraves being no exception.
“The best songs for me come from things that I have actually experienced or have some kind of insight on,” she says. “It all has to resonate somewhere within me. It can’t be completely fabricated. It always starts from me and that’s my favorite kind of music. You can tell it’s truthful.”
Westin Davis, who has played a part in co-writing Kip Moores’ past three singles “I’m To Blame,” “Dirt” and “Young Love,” says the only way he knows to write is by being totally honest.
“I carry all of my yesterdays into my co-writes. I carry my hometown, I carry everything bad that ever happened to me. So when I’m writing, I’m giving everything I have just like an entertainer would if he was performing for an audience,” he says. “I’m not trying to be nobody but me. Even later in life, I’ve battled demons with addiction and drugs. Most people, they try to hide from that. To me, it’s therapeutic to get it out there. This is who I am. I’m a long way from perfect but I’m trying.”
4. Be a student of songs
“Study writing. Don’t just study songwriting. Study writing period. Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, go all over the place. Study lyrical geniuses too,” Davis stresses.
Kip Moore says this is exactly what he did, adding that when he got in a room with writers he admired he paid attention to how they did things.
“I just studied my butt off with great music and I taught myself how to write songs. I just did it over and over until I figured it out,” he recalls. “I can remember how discouraging the whole process was for me and how much it beat me up to where I just don’t know how to tell people. It was such a tough road. It was all I wanted to do, that’s what kept me going.”
He adds: “Study who you like. Figure out. You’ve got to sit down and you have to listen over and over for hours and hours of laying there at night and trying, understanding who the greats are, who your favorites are and paying attention to how they did it. It will soak into your mind and teach you how it’s done. That’s what I did. I studied the greats and the guys that I loved and that’s how I learned how to write songs.”
“A lot of that comes from listening. I have my go-to artists and writers that I listen to be inspired,” he says. “That’s why I started writing. They keep me in my happy place so I can continue to write.”
Smith says that she learned similar advice from songwriter Don Schlitz (“The Gambler,” “Forever and Ever, Amen”), who she calls her Yoda. “He very much encouraged me to be a student of songs. He kept giving me music and would say, ‘Go listen to this person and go listen to this person and try to write a song like that,’” she recalls. “I think it was one of the best exercises as a new artist to town. Go listen to all these writers who people have listened to for years and years and learn how they did it.”
5. Don’t fake it
“One thing I’ve noticed after writing in town for a publisher for almost four years is that I write my best stuff when it’s coming from the heart and it’s exactly what I want to be writing,” Dylan notes. “If I’m trying to chase something that’s out right now, that’s on the radio…some people will ask you to write songs to sound like this type of song that’s out on the radio right now. I’ve noticed when I’ve tried to chase things that I don’t feel the songs are going to be that good.”
He adds: “Write what you know and write from the heart and hope someone else understands that. The listener will understand the emotion in the song. If it’s fabricated they’re going to know it’s fake. If it’s real and from the heart people notice that. They believe it.”
6. Write every day
It’s hard to imagine a time when Dierks Bentley hasn’t been on the radio. He has had hit after hit but things didn’t start off that way. He took some songwriting advice with stride early on in his career.
“One guy said to me, ‘You know what? You need to write about 500 songs, and just put them all in a drawer. When you get done doing that, call me up and I’ll write with you,'” Bentley recalls. “I thought he was being a d–k, but basically what he was saying was—you can’t be precious with your songs—you just got to write ’em and file ’em.”
He continues: “You want to be a songwriter? Write every day. 500 songs is a lot, but I got what he was saying. Don’t type them up on a nice sheet of paper and put ’em in a three ring binder. Just write ’em up, then go on to the next one. Keep writing.”
Bentley’s upcoming tourmate, Moore, said he would often force himself to sit down every day and write two songs.
“I would force myself to write, write, write. Now it’s more of an organic process, where I almost always come up with the guitar groove or melody in my head, and then I sing it into a recorder, and then I live with it for days in my bunk and let it soak into my brain and what I feel like it’s supposed to be saying,” he admits. “The more you do it the better you get for sure. My songwriting process changes from day to day, it’s not always the same.”
Davis makes the analogy that songwriting is just like working out. “If you went to the gym everyday and worked out your biceps every day, they’re gonna grow. If you exercise your brain it’s going to grow,” he says. “If you want to be the best writer, read books. Find out words. Follow the people you look up to. See how they said something and [realize], ‘Oh my gosh, they said that in a different way. How could I do that?’ It’s like anything.”
7. Write with people you connect with
“A lot of times writing appointments, that’s like our therapy,” Angaleena Presley confesses. “We can’t really afford therapy at that stage in our career so we are literally each other’s therapists. A good therapy session you have a great song about whatever problem you’re going through.”
Dylan says he often writes with songwriter Victoria Banks who he doesn’t even have to pitch ideas to anymore.
“We know each other so well in the room that we don’t have to think about whether the other co-writer is going to like the idea. We already know,” he says. “What I start seeing in certain writers that I write with a lot is, I know we write this type of a song well together. I know how to pitch my ideas to certain writers.”
Often, it’s these songwriters that keep you grounded and show you the ropes, which was the case for Davis.
“I’ve been doing this professionally now for five to six years,” he says. “Writing every day you find your circle of people that you connect really well with. And then also they’re seasoned as well. I still have days when I go into a room with a newbie that comes into town and I remember being that newbie and thank God for people like Dan Couch (“Somethin’ Bout a Truck,” “Hey Pretty Girl”). When I first got to town, he showed me from right from wrong.”
8. State powerful truths
Stuck on a chorus or song idea? Worsham suggests stating a universal truth.
“Some of the best advice I ever got on chorus writing was listen to the Beatles and Tom Petty,” he admits. “If you listen to their choruses, ‘And I’m free. Free fallin.’ ‘All you need is love.’ If it’s a really powerful truth sometimes all you need to do is say it and then repeat it two more times.”
Sugarland‘s Jennifer Nettles says it even more succinctly. “Keep those big topics simple.”
9. Don’t play an instrument? Use karaoke instrumentals
“A lot of writers who don’t play instruments, I recommend to get karaoke music to the genre that you’re trying to write to and sing along with those songs,” Dylan advises. “A lot of the chord changes are similar no matter what song it is. You could start finding other melodies just by listening to that music. It’s a really good way to think of new melodies. You don’t have to think about playing guitar or lyrics.”
He adds: “I’ll play karaoke from different artists, they have instrumentals of everything and I’ll start singing melodies along with that music. Usually I’ll find something that falls out. It’s always a good way to cure writers block. It works, I’m serious. Because you’re singing along with songs that are on the radio and you’re not hearing that melody, you can take the melody and take it to a different place and change the music to what you’re doing and you have a song. It’s a good thing to do if you’re not an instrumentalist.”
10. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable
“As a songwriter you have to not be afraid of telling these stories,” Brett Eldredge stresses. “If you want to be 100% honest, you can’t be afraid to tell it.”
Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott agrees. “You have to keep your heart open and your ears and eyes open. The best songwriters are those that allow themselves to be vulnerable,” she confesses. “When people really feel what you’re singing about is when you allow yourself to be vulnerable going into the room. Don’t be afraid because we all feel alike. We all feel the same emotions. The listener knows when you’re being authentic.”