I recently made this song which has a lot of southwestern themes and thought it might be fun to write a blog post about my songwriting and music production process.
I hope you find this helpful whether you are a songwriter yourself or a casual listener of music. I think this will be beneficial for anyone out there who fancies themselves artistic and wants to hear another perspective on creating art.
How a Song Starts
I started making this beat in the summer of 2020 in Dortmund, Germany at a hostel. I made a really brief, simple beat more to demonstrate my gear to some people sitting at a table than to try to create a song. I was more interested in just showing where music and audio production technology are at the moment and what’s available to people.
This short and simple beat sat on my computer for about 6 months before I opened up the file to take a listen. I heard some interesting themes and concepts but it was just a simple minor chord type progression with a bass line and a beat. It didn’t really have anywhere to go, but it wasn’t enough to make a whole song either.
Include Others in Your Creation Process
The beat was cool but I was stale on song ideas. So I decided it’d be a good idea to send the beat over to a guitarist. I broke my MIDI controller / keyboard during my hike down the Balkan Coast which I detail in my recent book.
Being without a MIDI controller is no fun because then you have to draw in all information for your song rather than play the various parts on a keyboard live and have the software record it. The beat itself had some human factor to it from when I recorded it during my hostel demo, but now it was getting pretty rigid sounding, not unusual in electronic music.
Getting a guitarist would potentially add some more “live” feel to the song to distract from the mechanical beat aspects of it. Production tricks can also manipulate things to make them sound more random and less robotic, but in my experience adding guitar to a hip hop track makes sense the same way I add garlic, salt and pepper to anything I cook.
I came up with another chord progression, this time for a hook. It was really long and the chords were whole notes that lasted over 4 bars a piece. It made sense in terms of the progression, but it was too slow for a hook. This eventually became the outro, and I shortened it in half to an 8 bar sequence that would work for a hook.
As the process moved along, I got back some acoustic and electric guitar parts which I arranged, edited and processed with effects. I sought out a strings player because I imagined that adding another stringed instrument with live feel would complete the picture.
The perfect lyrics: just add reality, feeling, inflection, and a few other things
Now that the hook was sitting there as a blank space and a chord progression, I had to figure out a melody and some lyrics. By this point the song was more or less written by way of verses. 3 rap verses with the usual fare, add in some current events and a message of how to overcome adversity and deal with uncertainties and you’ve got a tried and true formula.
Since the hook was a great opportunity to provide some counter motion, I decided it would be good to have long notes and words to contrast the rapid vocal delivery used in the verses.
Becoming the Performer: a Producer Gets the Job Done One Way or Another
I hired a vocalist/lyrics writer but it didn’t work out. I didn’t feel like they could tell the story with how they sang the hook. This put me on the hook, pun intended, to create my own chorus idea and get the job done.
I fancy myself a solid rapper but a singer not so much. However, I know the strengths and positive range of my voice. It’s all about finding your own voice, pun intended, but more especially what octave and section of the musical scale is your voice going to add to?
For me, since I exercise a lot, I can hold out notes longer than the average singer. It takes a lot of ability to manage and hold your breath. Even though I smoke cannabis and cigarettes, I’m still able to go out on the occasional non-stop 9-mile jog.
So playing to my own strengths, I wrote a hook that had as few words as possible, but the lines built in terms of intensity and also the direction of the melody corresponded with the feeling. Also it would allow me to get into my optimal singing range which is somewhere between bass and baritone.
“…and I’m flying away
and I’ll burn out in flames…”
If you listen to the song you’ll notice that I go up in tone when I say “flying” as well as “burn out”. I feel like this is a natural way of injecting relevant feeling and emotion to really bring the lyrics out as being more than just words.
Eventually the hook completes the original thought with:
“…and if I don’t live to see tomorrow
best believe I’ll go out in a blaze”
My thoughts for writing this hook was to make it bittersweet but epic, a commentary on the life journey of anyone on this planet.
I spent 6 separate days recording my parts for the song, each time about an hour or hour and a half. I think I only ended up using takes from 2 – 3 of those days, but as the song producer I feel like the song lives or dies on my example, so I’m willing to put as much effort into the project as possible before the inevitable law of diminishing returns takes over.
I tied some sheets from the curtain rod over the window to the bedroom door as my vocal booth. It worked surprisingly well. My microphone’s an iRig USB condenser microphone. I mix and listen out of a Focusrite Scarlett in/out box.
A lot of takes and a confused neighbor later
I had a bunch of material, now it was time to edit. Fortunately I had done so along the way, making the tough decisions of “keep it or toss it” for every single one of my vocal performances. Rapping’s gotten harder the older I’ve gotten, but fortunately I’m still able to pull it off.
Fortunately I can still do a whole verse in 1 take and keep it intact without having to do too much audio splicing to cover up mistakes.
Sweet Spots and Imagery in the Song
One of my personal favorite moments in the song is where the first full hook leads off into a bridge of acoustic guitar motives blended with some string backing. I feel like this drastic change of setting takes the listener and transports them somewhere into the southwest or maybe they can imagine stumbling out of a saloon into a dirt road into the middle of a brewing duel.
I really love to visualize potential settings as if the song were taking place as scenes in a movie.
The Finishing Touches
Torture is mixing and mastering a song, no doubt about it. I feel like you eventually get to a point where you don’t know how it’s supposed to sound. You might even spend 2 full hours listening to a single kick drum over and over.
But if you go a little by the book, avoid clipping, keep some gain but also leave in the dynamics, and study and keep up to date on the various sound levels required for online streaming websites, you more or less come out with a solid production.
At some point in a music producer’s day, he has to call the song complete. Sure, you might turn this level up -.1 db or that one down -.3 db. At the end of the day it won’t matter and you’ll come to that realization sooner or later.
The mix is never done. No song is ever perfect. The beauty is most people who listen to music don’t make music, so they don’t hear the less obvious mistakes or issues with a song. I believe a lot of a song’s success is built on trust, that you know it’s going to be compelling enough to keep listening to it as you hear it.
Also, the more you make music, the more mistakes you’ll hear in the pro’s as well.
The Last Word on Producing a Song
Producing a song takes a lot of stick-to-it-ness. At some point you pretty much lose your mind. But hopefully you gain a great song in the process.
You’ll deal with egos the various communicating styles of everyone contributing, money if you’re paying them, timelines, mistakes, good takes, bad takes, and refusals to re-do bad takes and/or do additional takes even when they already offered.
I had a headphone situation during the final phases of this song’s production. So I had to also do a lot of consumer audio research and info to buy the perfect set of cheap consumer audio headphones with a flat response that would accurately reflect the sound. For me it was a pair of Sony’s, the last of its kind on the shelves in the electronics store in a small coastal town along the Adriatic Sea.
But maybe more than anything, I’m proud I got the job done, and I hope you enjoy the song. All the material was recorded remotely in people’s houses, home studios or the bedroom of my Airbnb.