Let Others Write Pop Songs

The Scribes welcome singer, song writer, and guest blogger, Jen Vanderlyn today!  What’s on your mind, Jen?

There’s an art to writing the three-minute, radio-ready pop song. And many have tried to – though few have – mastered it. Me? I took a right turn on the way to that class and headed to the local record store.

You see, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about songwriting it’s that everyone has their own approach, and their own style. Mine’s folk-rock – inspired by Romantic poetry, Arthurian fantasy and Carroll-esque dreams. And music. And experiences. Of all kinds.

Which is why, one day, you’ll find me dissecting Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound,’ and another lying between two speakers, wrapped in the folky deliciousness of an 11-minute jam song on Fairport Convention’s “Unhalfbricking.” Or, I’ll be staring at a bowl of marbles. Or wandering Mount Olivet cemetery. Or freewriting by candlelight wearing a dress I got at Stevie Nicks’ yard sale.

Sometimes, inspiration comes from the unlikeliest of sources.

When I write, I’m not particularly concerned about whether my song will be radio-appropriate, i.e. what the general public wants to hear. Instead, I’m more concerned with getting the overall mood, theme and story down on paper. Most of the time, that involves a freewrite consisting of quasi-lyrical phrases, words and images I’d like somehow to incorporate into the song.

Following that, I let it percolate. For hours. Days. Weeks. My personal best is fifteen minutes. But then, there are times when a song takes months. There’s no way to predict it. As they say, the muse is fickle – you write when she wants you to.

Melody almost always follows lyrics, but only just. Often, I have a base melody in my mind when I’m phrasing the lyrics, which helps give the song its structure. Then, when I flesh out the melody, it becomes a balancing act – it needs to be sing-able, and match the lyrics. But in the end, it doesn’t need to be a pop song. Because pop isn’t the only way.

So, here’s my kernel of wisdom: songwriter, or writer, find your own approach and remain faithful to it. Let others write pop songs. There’s a fan for every style.

What’s your favorite song (it’s OK if it’s pop!) and why? I have too many to list, but right now, because of its intensity, this is one of mine.

Jen Vanderlyn is a singer/songwriter/guitarist dedicated to telling unique stories through music and performs with an eye on blending modern folk-rock with the folk-rock experience of the ’60s and ’70s. Reminiscent in sound and style of Joni Mitchell and Richie Havens, Jen performs with her sister Kate as the duo Free Thought. Together, they perform at coffeehouses, town greens and festivals around Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island and are currently promoting debut album, “In Her Eyes.”  Check her out her website.   Here’s a link to J Monkey’s current favorite Free Thought tune, Brave and Handsome Soldier.

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15 thoughts on “Let Others Write Pop Songs”

  1. Jen, Thanks for the words of wisdom and encouragement. It’s so true that we all beat to our own drum. We all have our own unique style and that’s what makes for great music, art, writing, etc. I’m an out-of-the-box kind of girl myself which is a major reason I decided to go indie with publishing my own work. I had stories that I was told were good but didn’t fit the “market”. I figured since the “market” changes on a dime and I knew there was an audience for what I write, I’d have to make my own path or cave in and try to write what the industry pros were telling me I had to write, thus changing my round peg to fit the square hole. I’m so glad that there are now options for writers who want to write something different and that there are audiences who want to see, hear, read something different. The hard part is reaching that audience without the support of big marketing budgets.

    As for favorite songs, I love soulful music and right now, even though you might consider her a “pop” artist, I think Adelle has both beautiful lyric prose and a captivatingly soulful voice. So much talent in one young heart. I just hope the “market” doesn’t chew her up and spit her out.

    I’m of the mindset that some is good, more is not better, and you can burn out a great artist when you demand too much. It’s the same in the writing world when authors are required to produce three or four books a year and the quality of the writng suffers or all the books start sounding alike. There is no forcing the muse to bow down to contractual agreement.

    I was fortunate enough to have written three YA novels that I think are print-worthy, so I will be able to quickly create a backlist of indie-published books which seems to be a must in garnering attention from an audience, but once that is established I’ll be bale to settle in and write two full length novels a year and perhaps several short stories to include in anthologies. With all the avenues to get published and produce the music of our hearts, it is a wonderful time to be an artist.

    I say, cheers to change and kudos for being a round peg!

    1. Likewise! And I love your comment, “There is no forcing the muse to bow down to contractual agreement.” It’s one of the biggest reasons I decided not to go the route of the professional songwriter, the kind that works for a publishing house and has a monthly quota of songs to fill, with a certain percentage of those being hit material.

      As you said, the market changes and what’s in one day is out the next. I know of some who have made a good living morphing into whatever the market wants, but I don’t know that I’m one of those people – in the words of one of my favorite songwriters, Dave Cousins, “You must take me as I am. I cannot change my colors, I am but a simple man.”

      And I love that there are so many ways to get our work out there for others to see, but like you said, without the financial backing or the clout of a publisher or a record label, it’s frustratingly difficult – and a double-edged sword – there’s so much new art, but there’s so much new art – few have the patience to look through it all, so a lot of good stuff gets lost.

      I think Adele has a great voice and is a brilliant example of British blues/pop. I, too, hope she doesn’t burn out – it’s easy to do in the world of art.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my post!

  2. Thanks for this post Jen and Jen. Your words were encouraging and passionate. I enjoyed how you follow your own star, with focus.

  3. Hi! My fav song for the last 15 years or so has been Lovers in a Dangerous Time by the Barenaked Ladies. I love the sound, the urgency of the music, the lyrics too. And of course, Ed Robertson, BNL’s lead singer, is on my list. He’s yummy!

  4. Thanks Jen for visiting with us today!

    I find this an interesting topic right now because I am in the process of conforming to the market…just a little. 🙂 My novels don’t fit market lines, and I know I will have a hard time going traditional with them. So I will set them aside for the month of November, which is NaNo month, (writing a novel in a month) and I will write that traditional book that follows the rules. The goal: to establish a name. Then will see what doors open for me after that.

    As for music…I love my music! And I love discovering new musicians out there. I will check your stuff out.

    1. Oh yes, establishing a name is the hardest part – once we’ve done that, we can go off in any direction we want to and still get the same amount of respect, most of the time. Brilliant example = Picasso!

      I try to conform a little bit to the market, as well – some of my songs err on the commercial side in the hopes they will garner some positive attention from the radio.

      Thanks, hope you enjoy the music!

  5. Hi Jen,
    I have to agree with you in that we, as writers, must write what is in our souls rather than try to fit into the popular market. That’s like putting a square peg in a round hole. Although some would fit, it is not comfortable for the peg or the hole. As for favoite song … I love ALL types of music so I could never pick just one. Thanks for giving sharing with us in such a heartfelt way. All the best. Gerri

    1. Loving all types of music is my favorite way to go! From opera to bubblegum (I know, bubblegum is about as ‘pop’ as you can go, but when you wake up groggy with a sore throat and the sniffles, it actually makes you feel less like crap and more like a happy kid, which I am all about today – allergies, don’t you hate them?).

      Great way to put it, by the way, “it is not comfortable for the peg or the hole”!

      Thanks for reading and responding!

  6. Hi Jen! Welcome to the Scribes. And it’s awesome to hear from a writer in another industry. Music has such a big impact on all our lives. We hear music everywhere (waiting rooms, restaurants, commercials, movies), not just when we set out to specifically listen to it. I’ll be honest, I don’t really listen to pop music at all. So thank you for being original!

  7. I’m a little like Paula and Katy, writing stuff that I think is well written but doesn’t fit within one genre. I am often torn between writing something sellable or writing something I’m proud of.

  8. I guess that I am not like most people, in that I do not attach myself to individuals songs, but to genres and subsequently, groups. My favorite genre has long been for female vocalist and all girl groups. My current favorite (for over two years now) is The Runaways. For you youngsters, this was a short lived late 70’s all girl group, not loved in America but very popular in other countries such as Japan. there were two members who went on to very successful solo careers,Joan Jett and Lita Ford. Worth mentioning, there was a very gook movie, The Runaways, starring Kristin Stewart and Dakota Fanning released last year, but to limited runs in limited theaters in my area, so I bought the DVD.

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