I’m often asked, “How do you write a successful popular song?” It’s a good question, and after all these years plying my trade in this vocation, I still find it an impossible question to answer. For me, there is no trusted formula. Every song that somehow appears to me is born of its own unique set of circumstances and inspiration. In fact, when I have tried to impose a formula on the conception of a song, nine times out of ten, I have failed miserably! And when I have tried earnestly to force the issue, the muse has stubbornly refused to obey my wishes. Songs have always come to me primarily of their own volition – as if they themselves chose the time, place, manner and form in which to be brought into existence. The alchemy of song construction is truly a mysterious art form and, to a great extent, remains unexplainable to me. I have heard songwriters say that they feel as though they were conduits for a song to pass through, as though they were the mere instrument of a greater, unconscious force. On many occasions, I, too, have felt as little more than a midwife to the song’s composition. If all this sounds rather “other worldly” and spiritual – well, for me it is. How else to explain how melodies, harmonies and chord sequences can be plucked from thin air and placed within the human brain?
Of course, while armed with a basic knowledge of the rudiments of music and an unquenchable desire to accomplish the task at hand, a songwriter also needs the tools of his or her trade – be it voice, manuscript paper, guitar, piano, tape/digital recorder, etc. – to allow inspiration to bear fruit. And for the successful songwriter, there still remains the cardinal rule: TURN UP FOR THE GIG – and, by that I mean go to work each day and write!
Then, with a bit of luck, there’s every chance that fate will bestow upon the fortunate tunesmith the most treasurable of things – a song! In my case, some songs are born quietly and peacefully, while others come screaming and kicking into the world. For example, “These Dreams” (recorded by Heart) took me about 20 minutes to write, while “Fallen Angel” (recorded by Robbie Robertson) took me over a year to complete. The cool thing is I still feel that I’m learning something new with every new song I sit down to write. It’s like traveling on a journey down a different path every time. Sometimes the path leads to somewhere wonderful and rewarding, while other times, it leads to a dead end, frustration and no result; but I think it’s the gamble of the unknown that I find so exhilarating and addictive – and, as the saying goes, a song is never finished, it is only abandoned.
“We – are we not formed as notes of music are, for one another, though dissimilar?”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
MARTIN, at the taping of his recent guest appearance on the German reality TV show “FlatStar”, talking to the contestants about his songwriting experience. (The show also aired on the internet, where this segment from the 2nd Episode can be viewed in 4 parts.)