Thoughts on Songwriting: On musical quotes, album cohesion, and Hamilton
They say all music is derivative, and I don’t disagree. Save one embarrassing incident where I thought I had written a funky pop chorus and it turned out to just be the pre-chorus of a new Justin Timberlake song I’d heard in passing, I’m quite conscious of how I derive my inspiration from existing pieces of music. I went through a phase of keeping notes on songs I loved, analysing what about it I liked so much - was it a particular repeated interval? A chord change? A production feature? A lyrical form? I would then refer to these notes whenever a song wasn’t quite clicking, and try out the same feature translated to my context.
I can identify many songs that I took specific inspiration from for aspects of the songs on my album. Most of them probably wouldn’t be surprising given my retro electro-pop genre - a nod to Kate Bush here, a bit of Passion Pit there, a teeny tiny sprinkle of Toto… I’ve made a playlist of the specific songs that led to certain features of my recordings which you can listen to on the right, and I’d be very interested to know what you think of the collection! I’ve stuck my own songs on there too in case you want to play a fun game of match-the-feature.
One song feels like a genre curveball on that playlist; Satisfied, from the groundbreaking hip hop musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The choice of this song in particular is just because it’s my favourite, but really it’s the soundtrack as a whole. At the time of writing, the Hamilton film has just been released on Disney+, so I figure it’s a good time to talk about this particular influence!
I was very late to the game with Hamilton. I’d heard the soundtrack in a friend’s car but hadn’t been hooked. It was only after listening to the episode of Strong Songs (an incredible podcast by Kirk Hamilton that I would wholeheartedly recommend) analysing Satisfied that I became absolutely hooked. The writing throughout the whole show is mind-blowingly good. The way each character has their own motif or chord structure, and how these subtly weave in and out and morph with such purpose and depth of meaning. The amount of cross-referencing between songs is insane and so intricate. I won’t go into detail because Howard Ho has done an amazing series of videos over on YouTube doing just that which you may wish to check out if you’re a music nerd like me!
This fascination of mine with the Hamilton soundtrack was happening in September/October 2019, at which point the recording process for my album was almost done, and I was thinking about how to tie the songs together. I really wanted to make an album that could be experienced as a whole and not just as individual songs. Attentively listening to an album start to finish is a joy that I didn’t appreciate as a teenager, with my endless shuffle on my iRiver MP3 player (does anyone remember those???), but I adore doing so now. And so that’s where the inspiration from Hamilton came in; weaving in some cross-referencing between songs to tie it all together into Definitely An Album And Not Just A Collection of Unrelated Songs.
Obviously the scope of what I could do in a half-hour pop album was very limited compared to a nearly 3-hour musical, but I still managed to slot in a few quotes at that late stage in the recording game. I decided that the instrumental riff that opens Grow Slow (00:16) would be the theme of the album - made sense what with it being both the opener and the titular song. That theme is brought back three times - translated to a vocal line at the end of the same song (03:28), in the first half of the Interlude (00:09) to tie together the tracks before and after, and at the very end of Freefall (04:36), the closing track. I thought it fitted really nicely at the end of that song in particular. Not to get too heavy into music theory terminology, but the line is diminished there, meaning that the meter is sped up with the melody taking fewer beats than it did before. I thought this made the line sound like it was falling down, which fit with the theme of Freefall.
The other cross-reference is a subtle one, which would only be noticed by the repeat listener. In Distant House, the trumpet plays a counter-melody in the breakdown section (02:12). That’s taken from Freefall; it’s the melody for the line “for the first time” (01:22), chosen because the meaning was also applicable to the lyrical subject matter of Distant House.
Navel-gazing over and out! This is my first proper blog post, but I have a bunch more planned, so hit subscribe if you’d like to be in the loop :) Let me know what you think of the post. If you're a song-writer yourself, how do you find inspiration from existing music?
P.S. Go listen to the Hamilton soundtrack if you haven’t already!!!!!