Writers Talk About Writing
Songwriting the Message
When we heard that multi-platinum hit songwriter Wayne Cohen was a fan of the Visual Thesaurus we gave him a call, quick. Wayne says "the idea of seeing a whole array of possibilities from one word gets my mind moving." How he writes songs for stars like Jennifer Love Hewitt and soul sensation Curtis Stigers got our mind moving, too. So we asked Wayne a few questions about his songwriting craft:
VT: What do you write about in your songs?
Wayne: They're pop songs, so the main topics are love and loss and heartbreak. But I'm also a big fan of "message" songs like the Black Eyed Peas' "Gone Going," a tune about materialism and how people don't appreciate what they have.
VT: What are you working on right now?
Wayne: I'm writing a song called "Between Us." (click here to listen) It's a cross between a message song and a love song in that it's about how people spend so much time communicating via email and IM they forget what it's like to really engage with another human being face-to-face. It's really a message song wrapped inside a love song..
VT: How do you go about writing a song?
Wayne: I'm delighted that you asked. For me the process starts with a concept like the one I mentioned and figuring out how to express it in a way anyone can relate to. At this point I'm basically collecting data, and I have chunks of melody in mind. I'm not thinking about the structure, just thinking of the data -- lyric ideas and melody ideas.
VT: What happens next?
Wayne: Once I have the bones of the song, I have to think about the musical production to get it across. This song felt like it wanted to be sung by a young soulful female R & B/pop singer. So I started aiming for that direction.
But I have to say one thing: I don't initially write for the marketplace. The songs I've had success with have always been the ones I've just written and found the market after. I think this is really important for young songwriters -- or any creative person really. Write what inspires you and what you believe in, rather than worrying if it sounds like what's on the radio.
VT: How do you put it all together?
Wayne: I structure the lyrics to tell the story in a way that's fun and entertaining but still gets the idea across. The biggest challenge is giving people ear candy they enjoy listening to while making the lyrics stand out. Every lyric and every melody has to have a purpose, whether for people to remember it on its own or to serve as connective tissue between two ideas. Then, once I have a melody and lyric I believe in I put together a slamming track and demo. Producing the demo is the most time consuming part of the process. For example, in this case it took me three completed versions of the track until I finally got it right.
VT: What else can you tell us about songwriting?
Wayne: Well, like most writing, it's mostly a solitary process. Sometimes I collaborate but it's still an intensely "in your brain" kind of thing. I'll also say I find there's often a lack of appreciation for songwriters. We're the blue green algae of the business, the first ones to generate ideas -- and the last ones to get paid. Hey, the entertainment business is ever thus...