Steven Wilson On Songwriting – Notes from Sodajerker Podcast Interview

A fantastic interview for aspiring songwriters. Steven shared many insights regarding writing long songs, his influences, and how he develops a unique sound. He also discusses his approach to composing on guitar and applying a creative mindset to the instrument. The interview is a must listen for guitarists who are currently struggling with composing on the guitar.

The Sodajerker podcast with Steven Wilson is here.

Non-album single (7:00)

The concept of writing a single that wouldn’t make it on the album. The Smiths are an example of a band that did this. It’s an influence from the 80s. 

Writing long songs (11:35)

“I love the idea that songs can be analogous in a way to the world of cinema. You can take the listener on a journey not only in the course of an album, but in the course of a single song. The idea that you have a song which evolves and breaks down into different kinds of moods, textures, sections. Which really comes from the classical music tradition…”

Doesn’t start a song with the intention of creating a long song, the length is a result of ideas leading to other ideas.

A song is as long as it needs to be sometimes…”

Songwriting on guitar (19:45)

Wilson primarily wrote his music on the guitar, but on his latest album (The Future Bites) found he was bored and uninspired by the ideas he was coming up with on guitar.

I feel the guitar is largely exhausted as part of the songwriting musical vocabulary…”

There is an opportunity for guitar music to reinvent itself in the 21st century. So far it hasn’t…”

Innovative Urban Music (25:30)

I love Urban music right now, it’s why I feel the most innovative music is coming from the world of post Hip-hop and Urban music. They do things I don’t think traditional songwriters would do anymore. This Kanye West song (On Sight) had a section in the middle where it broke off into a completely different tempo, feel, texture vibe…”

When your ideas sound like your inspirations (27:30)

Collaborating with Producer David Kosten, took a different approach to ideas. If an idea sounded like one of my musical inspirations, we didn’t pursue it.

“Most people would be, yeah it sounds like the Beatles, let’s do it, and he (Kosten) would say, it sounds like the Beatles, let’s not do that…”

“Like a lot of people I tend towards the nostalgic, so if I come up with something that reminds me of something I love, it excites me, and it’s a path I will take. For David it excites him also, and it’s therefore a path he will not take…”

Sign of a great producer: David pushed Steven to come up with ideas that were distinctively his sound.

Calling something amateurish (38:00)

“People use the word amateur in a very derogatory way, of course the word comes from the Spanish word to love what you do. So when people say to me that something is amateurish, I take it as a compliment, it means that I’ve done it in a sense of love…”

Not knowing the theory (38:30)

I don’t know the names of the chords I’m using. I reckon that’s true for many of the classic songwriters. I don’t think Bob Dylan could tell you the names of some of the chords he plays, and why should he need to?” 

Thematic ideas (42:30)

On developing song ideas on “The Future Bites”:

I like to have a thematic strand, or one or two throughout the album. Did I have that when I started writing the songs? No, it’s something that developed when I realized I was writing more than one song about these subjects…”

Saving ideas in your phone (45:10)

Will use phone to jot down phrases, titles, arrangement ideas, lyric ideas.

Song Titles (45:30)

I’ve always been someone who’s looked for interesting titles, that is the first way you’re going to draw someone in. The first thing you’re going to make an impression with is the title. I like the idea of coming up with unusual titles. 

“I like the fact the titles, as well as the music, the lyrics, the sound, the style, I like everything to be part of a very unique musical universe…”

Hating Songwriting (47:30)

I hate songwriting…”

“The worst moment for me is the blank page, the best moment is when you have the breakthrough, that is the greatest gift to anyone that makes music, when you realize you’ve created something from nothing, you’ve pulled something from the air, you can sit back in your chair, hit play, and listen to this demo you’ve just made, and it excites you, that is the greatest moment…”

Songwriting can be like banging your head against a brick wall for days, and not even getting a chip in the wall for days. Weeks can go by like that. Until you see a little crack in the wall, and then you have something to work on, to build on. Eventually the wall crumbles and the song falls into place.

Starting point (50:30)

There are a trillion songs in the world, if you start with the point that everything has been done, that’s probably not a bad point of view to start with. So you might as well try to find the curveball, the thing to shake things up a bit…”

“It’s like approaching the guitar in a way that wouldn’t be the obvious way, finding the little twist to make something stand out…”

Balancing accessibility and ambition (53:45)

It’s bloody hard, it’s really hard to create something that has immediacy, and accessibility, but still works on a different level as well. It has experimental sounds, ambitious production, ambitious arrangements