Monthly Archives: October 2015

Ryn’s Songwriting Suggestions ~ #5 ~ Plagiarism

We’ve all been there… 

So, this happened to me this week. I accidentally stole one of Sarah McLachlan’s lyrics, used the same number of repeats in my chorus, and even did a similar melodic inflection on the second repeat. Either I had heard the song before and subconsciously “recycled” the lyric, or I hadn’t heard it before, and it was just a coincidence, as it is a common phrase, and a common melodic change to use. Either way, I was pissed off, and swore a lot when someone pointed this out and sung Sarah’s song to me. I do swear a lot generally. But in this case, I really went the extra mile.

The whole reason I started songwriting, when I was a kid, is because it occurred to me that there are only so many scales in Western music, only so many notes within them, only so many time signatures and rhythmical combinations to use… I was an oddly jaded 13 year old, and I was sort of convinced that all of the songs that had been written had used up all of these possibilities already ~ (thankfully, I’m absolutely fucking terrible at maths, so I didn’t think about the odds…) Anyway, that’s what musically started me off. I wanted to prove my-world-weary-self wrong. Turns out, when you’re that absolutely shamefully shite at examining statistics, proving oneself wrong is really easy to do. Hence why I’m still writing songs, and not basking in the glory of a mathematical doctorate from somewhere expensive.

So with all those odds in my favour, (or not in my 13 yr old favour, really, if you think about it.) Let me rephrase… So with all the odds in creativity and musical combinations’ favour, it seems double-annoying that I had to steal the same words as someone else. I thought, you know, with ALL the THINGS it is possible to say in the entire English language, that my lyrical abilities would not succumb to anything so base as saying the same thing as someone else! Poopy-poopy-parp-sharts! (There – if that last phrase wasn’t original I’ll deliberately soil myself.                                                                                                   …I just had to Google it just in case. My trousers are safe and so is my dignity. And my originality, come to think of it.)

I mean it’s not like I haven’t stolen melodies like the craven thieving harpy that I am… I unintentionally steal melodies all the TIME! I just usually realise in time to change a vital note or two ~ thus generally improving the song and actually making my sound a bit more interesting. Some could argue that a bit of self-aware pilfering could improve one’s melodic game entirely, but you didn’t hear it from me, okay? Great. Ta.

But words. Words are different. If you change a word, you change a meaning, a concept even, change to the wrong syllable and you change someone’s perception, or you snuff out a perception that someone will have that would have never occurred to you. I do love that about certain songs. To one person they could be about a tragically broken heart, and to another, about how to fall in love, with integrity ~then in the next year to the same person~ a way of looking out for one’s own mental health. Songs can be so wonderfully open and abstract, whilst holding the listener emotionally, even if said listener don’t have a clue as to which concept was originally the main focus from the writer’s perspective. I try and write like that. I try and write as openly as I can, and in that way I suspect it’s a bit like abstract paintings, in that you can project whatever world you inhabit onto it, and it still seems entirely congruent and emotionally real. I can put so much of myself in the work like that, because every time I sing them, the songs mean something subtly new and still relevant to my life. It doesn’t matter how many times I sing them live. To me, then the work is doing its job, and is alive, for me as much as it is for any audience. The music itself holds the emotions, and the lyrics can go where they will. That’s why I’m not a poet, I guess. Music holds your heart, while your mind can wander around nuances of meaning from the lyrics, in a more leisurely way than in poetry, and actually, somehow the meaning can be either secondary to, or can utterly inspire, the emotional reaction in the process. I often wish poets would savour their phrases like singers do. It’s too fast, usually, for me to squeeze all the meanings out of the words in a satisfactorily thorough way. I am a woman, therefore I’m utterly skilled in the art of “how to unnecessarily over-analyse,” which means my brain gets snagged on certain phrases and generally can lose the plot if I don’t make it behave. Woman-brain should really be a recognised medical affliction. Especially if the woman in question, like me, happens to be a lesbian. Then, if you’re lucky enough to have a lady, you have to deal with double-woman-brain on a daily basis, and then you’re totally fucked! (But you’ll probably like my music, so there is a consolation prize!) Of course, that is a good skill to have if you like getting creative with words ~ or as some might say, becoming a cunning linguist. (Badaboom-tssssssch! ~That was an old favourite lesbian-joke, by way of explanation for those who have never heard of cunnilingus. Wow… How did I start talking about this? What’s going on?! Oh. Songwriting. Right. *Flustered.*)

So yes, with my lyrical choice dilemma of this week, I did change one of the words. I was experimenting with just putting entirely different lines in, but that didn’t seem to fit what I had to say. What happened eventually was that I said the same line, then left out a word in the second repeat and changed the melody completely from the original similar variation I started with. In the third repeat of the line it is completely different anyway but I still changed it to keep myself happy and plagiarism-free until the next time my subconscious mind chooses to be a bit of a cock lord.

I think ultimately every songwriter will have had a similar experience of their own at some stage in their lives. Sometimes you can’t tell if you’ve come up with a timeless archetype, or if you’ve accidentally ripped off Frank Sinatra’s more obscure work that you heard in the background of a musical that was on TV when you were 6 and thinking really hard about whether or not you could fly if you jumped off the arm of the sofa. Either way, unless you are likely to be facing a lawsuit any time soon, I wouldn’t worry. Your friends will probably do that thing of haltingly, wincingly breaking it to you, and then you are within your god given rights to swear like a young Glaswegian woman whose eyelid has just been stung by a wasp.

Your subconscious only did that to you so you can write better songs anyway. So I’ll close this post by saying:

“Dear Subconscious and brain in general,

I’ve finished some of my swearing now, and I understand that you’re coming up with your best stuff, even if most of it is probably a bit similar to that-thing-I-can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on, but you do a great job when you’re not shamelessly filching other people’s ideas, and that’s what really counts. Thanks for not always being unoriginal. And when you are, thanks for giving me other people’s ideas to adapt the ideas I’ve just realised are other-other people’s ideas with.” (If you can interpret any meaning from that last sentence, you’re doing better than the majority of my brain.) “And thank you for when you are original. And thank you for being funnier than when I used to try to put jokes in my essays at school. And I just wanted to say you are very well versed in adding all kinds of meaning into my life, so thank you for that. And also, why do you keep mentioning those things you always mention? RSVP.

Remember, you are love.

Xx Ryn”

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Ryn’s Songwriting Suggestions ~ #4 ~ Where To Start ~ Chords On Guitar

Okay, I want to write a song. I have no idea what I’m going to write. Where do I start? 

Chords. They are lovely when they’re weird. Like people. But if you’re just starting out, you need to establish some ground rules before you develop delusions that you are Claude Debussy… Or at least I needed to! I learnt a three chord sequence and went wild with that when I was first starting out. Wrote about 20 songs all in D major before I got extremely bored of myself and decided to improvise a bit…

I still absolutely love just having a play around with some ideas on my main songwriting instrument, the guitar. For this particular post, I’m going to be talking about guitar, as opposed to piano, or uke, or the Vietnamese nose-whistle. (That’s a real thing, I just Googled it.)

Because I’m mostly self-taught, when I discovered E minor at the age of 13, I thought I was some kind of mystical genius. I ran to show my dad this new amazing thing that I’d discovered, only to be cruelly thwarted by the discovery of the fact that everyone else who had ever spent more than 16 seconds with a guitar had also discovered it. But I was a stubborn little sod, so I carried on trying out new things until eventually they challenged my dad’s musical theory, and then I was smug, and stopped trying so hard.

Ever since, though, the smugness has at least residually remained, and I have continued to pick out weird chords that make my spine all tingly. If you want my advice on writing harmony, I guess that would be it. Play around until you get a spine tingle. Then if you can sing something even more tingly over the top, (and by that I mean using unusual melodic phrases or big jumps in intervals to 7ths, 9ths or to other unexpectedly delicious places) you have won! Congratulations! Imogen Heap puts lots of very delicious harmonies into this acapella track, Hide And Seek: 

She frequently makes me feel like I’m on music drugs with her use of harmonies and incredible vocal range. Buy all her stuff now. Also, if you haven’t seen this… It might not help you with songwriting unless you’re really into tech, but it is just so fucking awesome that I have to show you: 


Basically, I have been doing weird chords since I was a nipper, and I would heartily recommend trying out random shapes along the guitar neck. This will also help to hone your sense of relative pitch, which is always useful for remembering melodies and making up harmonies.

I started using DADGAD tuning, as opposed to standard tuning, a few years ago and haven’t looked back. I love experimenting with new tunings when I have no idea what the theory is. I just don’t engage the theory side of my brain when I’m “in the feeling” of creating a piece, or even just a mood, and I like being surprised as to where it wants to lead me. A few months back, I started playing in DADF#AD tuning, and I’m still having loads of fun figuring out what the hell is going on and which shapes lead to which sounds!

Some people really like structure. They love putting limits on themselves and challenging their sense of music. For me, I think the biggest challenge I could set myself these days is to write a good, musically interesting and engaging two chord song that keeps you listening. I used to be able to do that when I was about 15, but I seem to have lost the knack! (Probably because when I was 15, I didn’t know how hard it was so I did it without thinking! Curses.) So I guess I haven’t put enough exercises in these here posts yet… Here’s one, if you don’t feel like writing a two chord song… Write a song with no normal chords in it. By that I mean no major or minor traditional happy or sad chords. Only use made up chords that you have not thought about. And if your sense of theory is such that you have to think about it or nothing will come out, play blindfolded or with your eyes closed, don’t think about being musical, and just make weird shapes with your hands on your preferred instrument until something sounds like it would like to become music. This, on the guitar, doesn’t always work if you’re playing all the strings at once, so maybe devise a plucking pattern if your chords are a bit “far out” and that usually registers as melody for people then, and isn’t as overwhelming!

Happy writing,

Remember, you are love.

Ryn xx


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Ryn’s Songwriting Suggestions ~ #3 Inspiration Versus Instigation

Do you just “Go with the flow,” or do you keep on keeping on?

There are ways of doing both that I have found useful.

When all of the things just work ~

That first little quiver of excited inspiration – that frantic dash to pick up a pen or get to an instrument in anticipation of the perfect phrase, chord, melody, feel – the satisfaction of knowing it sounds as good as it did in your head – sustaining the creative flow in the moment – looking back and playing through your work as though it’s just appeared by magic. This is the stuff my dreams are made of! When this happens, I feel justified in whatever feelings of accomplishment I get in the moment, and I often actually get little bit high off the creative rush of making something that really works… When this actually happens. This is how I know I am meant to be a songwriter. This is more satisfying than pretty much anything else. Apart from the obvious. Of course that’s great too. And you probably lose weight.

We’ve all heard the stories of how so-and-so wrote this really stunning song in 15 minutes and didn’t have to edit it. I’m talking about that. It happens, just not that often…

The miraculousness of writing a song like this has become such a rare occurrence for me, what with that tricksy “Having to have a job” business, that I’m lucky if this entire process – from start to finish – happens for me twice a year… And still wanting to write songs, this leads me to my next point quite nicely:

When inspiration just doesn’t work ~

Okay, I’m actually going through this (sometimes lengthy) process at the moment. I generally find that unless I have an idea for a first line, either of melody or of lyrics, then all the fancy chords and rhythms in the world won’t help me start a song. (Having said that, sometimes the opposite is true, it just depends where I’m at really.)

So generally I start with a line. If I’ve played through it enough, sometimes more comes out quite naturally. The guitar part either happens before the line (like I’ve been experimenting and just not come up with any more apart from the guitar bit) or the guitar part will just sort of shamble sheepishly out behind the melody line in deferential reverence, much like a serf, behind his ascribed knight or vassal, in the dark ages.

Often, if I have an idea about what I want to write about beforehand, the song will take on another topic at this time, almost without my permission! I’ve learnt to go with whatever my internal monologue is singing/saying. Sometimes it doesn’t say anything, and I’m on my own. I think that’s probably when I am either uninspired lyrically, or when I can actually stick to a topic! I think if I ignore this voice, at least whilst in the writing process, but more and more in life and work as well, that’s when I can’t continue with a song and I get stuck. It’s really important not to edit yourself too heavily before your words are on the page. I can’t emphasise this enough. Write it down, whatever it is. You can edit it afterwards, but in the writing stage, you have to learn to disengage your normal sense of self-critical judgement. *Other people don’t think in words, and I get that. I don’t want to exclude anyone here, and if you don’t think with words as your primary thought form, I would be fascinated to hear about your writing processes in the comments below!* Sometimes, the editing happens when you form the melody and rhythm of words, but don’t let the rhythm become too formulaic or you will end up boxing yourself in and not saying what you need to say. I’ve met songwriters who would rather say something that made them sound quite stupid than change the formula or their rhythmical pattern and say the (intelligent) thing they first wanted to say! A good example of someone who changes their rhythm to fit in all their meaning is Ani DiFranco. If you have delicate sensibilities regarding swearing, A) you’re reading the wrong sharting blog and B) you shouldn’t watch this video of hers:

I love how she makes it seem so natural and conversational that the audience is singing along easily, and yet when you analyse how she is using the rhythm of her words, she’s putting meaning first and catchiness later… and it totally still works!

I figured out how to do this: Don’t be afraid to start lines early. That’s pretty much it. Don’t be afraid to cram a few words at the beginning or end of a melody line, because the likelihood is that the audience will appreciate the variation of your melodic/rhythmic theme! Takes a bit of practise to get used to it, but when you’ve got it, it’ll serve you like a trusty steed. And you won’t even need to invest in a nose bag.

When you’ve only got half a song ~

Okay. You’ve got a good chorus and a solid first verse. Great. You play it over and over. Great. Yep. That’s it. Mmm-hmmm…

Gradually, a creeping sense of bummeriness lapses into your initial feelings of practicality, worthiness and accomplishment. Yes, you’re doing great things, and this half-a-song is really catchy, or emotive, or whatever… But then… What next? What if nothing ever happens? What if this entire process has left you, a broken husk of a human, with just half a song, a cold cup of tea and a creeping sense of the certainty that you are in fact inferior to every single other being that has ever existed in all of time and space, and in all possible universes, including even plankton and ticks… What if this song is the one that would equate to your lifelong achievement in all areas of your existence? What if this is your ‘Imagine’? Eh? What THEN, you SHIT HEAD?! (Obviously, for dramatic purposes, I have regressed to my teens for this section of my blog. I find it impossible to take myself that seriously anymore these days. But you get the gist.)

Basically, my advice is to just leave it. Don’t look at it. Don’t think about it. Don’t worry. You will find it on a recording in six months and go… “Oooh! I’m really clever! I’ll just finish that song now!” And you will. The perfect phrase will magic itself up, and it will be even better than you could have possibly imagined, you peanut, because you will have let yourself off the hook. This seems to be a theme in these blogs. Hmm… (It’s because for years my sense of self-worth was really heavily caught up in my productivity in relation to music, and I had an undiagnosed illness which made doing things pretty much impossible unless I forced myself to do pretty much everything, which of course made me get more ill, which reinforced my belief that I was pathetic and couldn’t do stuff other people could easily do, including music. Now I’ve started treating my illness, suddenly everything is WAY easier and I’m realising what a hard time it is possible for one to give oneself! Coupled with seeing my relationship to music back then as an unhealthy relationship, almost with a third parental figure, I was generally a bit intense about it all. I still am of course, but I care far less about what people think now, which is really rather a good choice that I would recommend to anyone.)

Sometimes, I have written on commission, and that is such an entirely different kettle of fish than writing for creative expression, as I do with my craft, that I will have to post another blog about it at a later date.

So, on the whole, I would recommend recording your work in progress, maybe on your phone or a Dictaphone if you have one, as well as writing out the words as much as you need to.  Then, if inspiration fucks off, as it almost invariably does, think “Good riddance, you interfering task-master, I needed to flea the cats anyway.” Or whatever your particular example may be. And then get on with life. And then do what inspiration says next time it comes along, this time when it interrupts you trying to wrestle with garden furniture, or trying to fart quietly in the toilets at work.

Remember, you are love.

Xx Ryn

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Ryn’s Songwriting Suggestions ~ #2 Writing Lyrics ~ How To Get Around Your Own Roadblocks

Lyrics ~ How to make or break a songwriting process.

There are several ways lyric writing can go wrong for me. Luckily, I have pretty much sussed my own propensity for various forms of godawful failure, and can hopefully help you not to lyrically scupper yourself also!

  1. Writer’s block. Oh man. What is with writer’s block? I would heartily recommend watching an absolutely amazing and inspirational Ted Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on how to cope with the idea of “Genius” that we have in our society. Fantastic speaker. Seriously she changed my life. 

    Thanks Liz!

  2. Failure to think of any of the things. This used to piss me right off! I’d be all inspired and have a great structure, chord sequence and possibly even melody, and then at the crucial moment, I would suck at actually saying anything meaningful whatsoever. At first (and by that, I mean for about the first 13 years of songwriting or so…) I used to just push through and write down any old stream-of-consciousness thing that came to mind and seemed to vaguely fit, but then I realised that I’d probably done that technique enough to be able to relax a bit. Basically if you can’t think of anything to write, don’t try too hard. Either what you are writing will turn out to be vacuous shite, or it will be inspired and fantastic. Either way, don’t panic! It’s all experience, and as long as you feel like what you are saying is genuine, then you’re doing it right!
  3. Failure to write down what you want to express. This is a bit of a challenge… If I have an idea kicking around in my head of what I want to write about, there is no alternative but just to wait and see when inspiration strikes! I might need weeks or months to really clarify a concept enough to be able to express it. So be it. I find that if I’ve had a long time to think about things, they come out better than if I’ve tried 17 different approaches, which I would always do for my hundred or so years as a writer. Having said that of course, if you want to just try things out… There is absolutely no such thing as wasted time in songwriting, because every single idea you have, no matter how crass or crappy, can be recycled and used in another way. Case in point ~ my cheery little (plagiarised) Christmas song with the chorus: “All I want for Christmas is you. In a jar of formaldehyde.” (I hate Christmas music, but that’s because both my parents are music teachers so all I would hear from September until January throughout my childhood would be little Johnny from the local primary school scraping out Good King Winceslas all over the living room floor, on a half size cheapo violin. The bastard.) So, in retrospect, it is much easier to wait for that little tingle of irresistible inspiration, than to spend hours and hours agonising over whether you should use “And” instead of “But” in the middle of the middle 8.
  4. Inner Critic. I have always been somewhat tense with writing lyrics. It’s a bit like a dodgy relationship. At first, in the honeymon period, you float away on clouds of sexy inspiration to begin with and then, when you’ve got the first verse and possibly even a chorus, pressure mounts! You fear you cannot possibly live up to the glory days of that first inspired verse, and your resources desert you… Your second verse is flagging in the inspiration department and you realise how little you and the song have in common… Suddenly ~plop~ your brain falls out and your inner critic has a field day. The annoying little habits start to show themselves, and with them comes the frustration that you mustn’t just fall into the same old patterns again… The thing is to try to get the kind of working relationship with your inner critic that you get with a really helpful colleague or peer. You don’t want a love/hate thing going on because that shit is always too intense. What you need is a time and a place for meetings. Accept and approve of the part of your brain which wants you to do your best, but equally, don’t cross things out too heavily because you might wanna come back to them or reuse the concepts in the future. Find a balance between listening too closely and not enough to the part of you which is constantly questioning everything.

Basically I think the most important thing that you can do with your lyric writing process is not to worry. If you have something amazingly insightful to say, it will come out at some point. If you don’t, it’s okay, maybe you can write a funny song or a story about people you have made up in your head. Or maybe what would serve you best is to watch another episode of your favourite thing and not think about it! Whatever the case, please don’t beat yourself up about it. Trust yourself.

Remember, you are love.


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Ryn’s Songwriting Suggestions ~ #1 “Finding Your Voice”

~The most annoying thing you can hear unless you have already “Found Your Voice…”

The reason I start with this little gem of a saying, is that I found it intensely irritating when I was writing to begin with… I mean, telling me to find my voice was a bit like telling me to become a person. It was patronising and disempowering. What it implied, of course, was that I didn’t have a voice to begin with, when I knew perfectly well that I had always been articulate. When I wanted to say something, by Zeus, it was said! I was always as gobby as absolute fuck.

So why then, were these patronising older and wiser types always telling me that I somehow wasn’t saying some mysterious arseing thing that wasn’t being said?! What did they WANT from me for god’s sake?

It turned out… They just wanted me to keep going. Nothing more. Just to keep ploughing through all the crippling angst and artistic self doubt and the bullshit of having to have a normal job and the prioritising every other shitting thing before I could get my guitar out and all of the not knowing who I was and all of that normal kind of early 20’s stuff you gotta do before you discover it sucks and that you have to make time to be you and it’s okay to value yourself.

The words “Find Your Voice” played on a loop in my mental merry-go-round at the time, and I found myself thinking about it from every angle. Of course at first I had assumed it had meant “Be more gooder at saying all of the things…” which of course is true (and will stay true infinitely, no matter how much you have become Sylvia Plath.) But then I realised that it could be about every aspect of your musical style. Certainly at the point I heard it, my performances were cripplingly shy. My musical style has always been a hotchpotch of stolen ideas from people who inspire me, (shhh, don’t tell anyone!) – but I needed to find out what worked for me in terms of a style I could call my own. So I guess maybe that could have been another aspect of that enraging phrase too. My melodic style has always been based on the melody of how things are said (often dramatically, very quietly into a bathroom mirror, at 3 in the morning.) That is a literal translation, I suppose, of how one finds one’s voice. Then that works its way into the song and you find yourself engaging more emotionally with the performance when the time comes. Rhythmically, I had always been rather enamoured with dark little waltzes, and I knew I needed to diversify in that regard. I just played and played and played until one day it didn’t suck when I tried to do a country riff or something. I’ll just add here, that apart from a few chords from my dad when I was 13, and literally two lessons when I was about 25, I am self taught on guitar. This will explain why, in videos, I hold my guitar like a seal, according to proper guitarists. Such is life. Fuck it, I think it sounds okay. So what if it’s a bit wonky. Right?! I’ll talk about all these things later.

I think what Find Your Voice really does not mean, is to become a broken record of yourself. Don’t get stuck in a zone until you become a clichéd version of whoever you are at that time… I think to really find it, you need to be comfortable with yourself emotionally. That does not mean play everything safe. It doesn’t mean give up on life so you can write better music! Quite the opposite! Live more! Live fuller, harder, BE more. Just be. Do more “nothing much,” if that’s what you need. Don’t run away from pain, you asshole, it takes less energy just to grab the bull by the unmentionables and face it. Of course now I’m writing to my younger self. Not you. But seriously though. What are you afraid of? From me to you… Here’s some of my own brand of patronising advice. It’s really lame to be afraid of fear. Then it has won. And in the gospel according to Ryn: Fear, not hate, is the opposite of love.

Keep going until life gives you a clearer voice. That’s all they meant. You don’t have to try harder than you already do. It’s probably easier if you try a lot less actually. Then things tend to flow easier creatively once you’ve let yourself off the hook. Just do stuff for as long as you need to, until what emerges is entirely true to you. You will find out if it is not true to you in performing it to other people. Once you hear it through their ears, you will know if such-and-such line needs to be changed, or if you would like the melody there to be gentler or more thought provoking. I guess you find out who you are more in essence along the way, with the whole process. Refining and redefining who you are. Or, just as accurately, you will edit out who you are not.

Remember, you are love.


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