Keeping It Simple

The other day I came across a question on the interwebs from an aspiring songwriter who was having trouble coming up with choruses for his songs, so he asked for advice on how to approach them. My answer was a bit long winded, so I won’t repost it here, but the long and short of it was that he shouldn’t force himself to write choruses if his songs aren’t demanding them. This got me thinking, and I decided to write down a few thoughts as to why I think keeping things simple is the best way to go when it comes to songwriting.

Dare to write simple

I’m a great believer in minimalism. I don’t think there’s any point in forcing yourself to cram things into your songs that aren’t absolutely required. In fact, I routinely slash things out of my songs in order to make them simpler. But I wasn’t always like that.

A lot of songwriters (and I used to be one of them) are afraid to write really simple songs. I think it is in part a desire to be original and clever (“Wow, that’s a lot of chords in one song!”), and in part fear of being exposed. You see, a really complex soup of notes and chords is a really good hiding place. Whereas if you go out there just strumming G and C, it’s all you and the passion and emotion you’ve put in the song. It took me years to muster up the courage to accept that my songs wanted to be really simple.

Generic vs. familiar

I know some of you might be thinking that you want to write more complex songs to avoid sounding generic. I used to think the same thing. But does that actually make any sense? I don’t think so. I don’t think the songwriting itself is what makes songs sound generic. It’s the sound – the production values. And those shouldn’t be dictated by the complexity or lack thereof in the compositions. If you think about some of the most unique and respected songwriters in the world, their songs tend to be really simple. Take Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, just to name a few. Their songs are mostly very simple compositions. Some of them have one chord! But do any of those artists sound generic? Obviously not.

Now, the other side of that coin is familiarity. A lot of the time you’ll hear a very simple song and it’ll sound instantly familiar. Not like you’ve actually heard the song before, but it just reminds you of a whole host of things you know (folk songs, classic genre motifs etc.). And I would argue that whereas sounding generic is bad, a certain amount of familiarity (as long as you’re not copying) can be extremely beneficial. Because those are the songs that stick to the brain. Think about it. What makes a song catchy? It’s not that super complex bridge section with the gigantic guitar solo. It’s the simple melodies that tickle something in our subconscious mind and bring about some kind of nostalgia through that peculiar familiarity. That’s why folk songs work – they’re simple, easy to learn and have earned a place within the collective consciousness of their culture.

Forced complexity

As I said before, I didn’t always embrace this kind of minimalism. In fact, I used to try to force myself to write as complex as I possibly could (which would be difficult, because I’m not that technical a musician). So I spent days pouring over jazzy chord progressions, or trying to put together crazy prog-rock compositions. And then, inevitably, I would throw 90% of these out. At the same time I also wrote a lot of simpler songs, but I kept dreaming about these heroic, genius compositions that would make it difficult for anybody to pick them up or play on their own. My simple songs were good, but for some reason I felt they were inadequate.

One of the turning points came when I received a very special email from a guy who had heard one of my songs – a very simple song called On the Edge of Town. He wrote to me saying he really loved the song and asked if I could send him the chords so he could play it himself. I was touched. At this point I had only just begun getting my music out there, and felt extremely flattered that somebody loved one of my songs so much that he wanted to learn to play it himself. And what really stuck with me was that this was a really simple song that had just sort of flowed forth – not needing any forcing of complex stuff in there. Maybe there was something to this simplicity stuff.

This wasn’t the sole moment, but it was a part of what helped cement the idea that music is best when it comes to life organically, as simple or complex as it needs to be, no more.

A very special request

This is the note I received
This is the note I received

Now let’s fast forward twelve years. Me and my band did a fantastic live show a couple of years go. It was in a tiny place (the stage was nowhere near big enough for us), but the atmosphere was electric. As we were making our way through a prog-folk-heavy metal kind of oddity that I wrote (I know…), someone left me a note in front of the stage. We finished the song and then did a quiet and beautiful version of Edelweiss (a gorgeously simple classic), and after that it was all over. That’s when I got a chance to look at the note.

Here’s what it said:

“12 years ago I sent you an email and asked for the chords to “House on the Edge of Town”. You were touched. I was touched. All were touched. Play it?”

Unfortunately I didn’t see this until we were done, so I couldn’t play it for him, but I did in the video below.

In a way, this experience was the last bit of proof that I needed. Simple is better. This song, which I was really insecure about when I wrote it because I thought it was too simple, resonated so much with this person that he requested it at a live show 12 years later. That, to me, is amazing. And when I started thinking about it, the handful of more complex songs I actually managed to finish at that time I’ve stopped playing years ago.

Here is the song that was requested:

It’s not the size that counts, it’s what you do with it

As I already pointed out, simple doesn’t mean generic unless you make it sound generic. The fact is that when it comes to arrangements, simple songs tend to offer the most freedom. The more complicated the composition, the more difficult it can be to come up with harmonies or to put in a bunch of different instruments that don’t clash. In fact, I wrote a song years ago that’s not really complicated at all, but it contains a couple of chords that don’t really make sense within the key (which sort of surprise you, and add a hook, but don’t make it overly complex in any way). Just the fact that those chords don’t follow what your natural instincts expect within the context of the key made it really difficult to arrange vocal harmonies for that song, because they couldn’t follow the melody logically, since the chord progression didn’t follow the key logically.

To me, a song that is classically constructed, following the “rules”, is the easiest to play around with when you arrange and/or record it. Again I can cite the songwriting greats I referenced before, but an even greater example is one of my favorites, Eels. Mark Everett, or Mr. E, the man behind Eels, usually writes really simple songs, and in fact many of his songs are very similar. Where he really shines, though, is in his imaginative arrangements. Through those he can take two songs that are structurally and musically almost exactly the same, and make them into very different works of art.

Another example of how much freedom simplicity allows you is a cover version me and the band made of Michael Jackson’s Beat It. This is an extremely simple composition, and even though most people can’t imagine a different version from Jackson’s (it’s iconic, after all), it’s actually open to any number of interpretations. It’s only 3 chords (but mostly 2). It’s like putty, really. We turned it into a waltz, but it could just as easily lend itself to polka or bluegrass, or anything you’d care to throw at it.

Below is a terrible live recording of my version. I’m working on a better version.

The flip side

A complex song, on the other hand, makes playing around with arrangements a lot harder. Let’s take a song like Bohemian Rhapsody as an example. I’m sure we’ve all heard some cover version of that or other. And I’m sure most of them are terrible. I have heard some a capella versions that don’t suck, but those don’t add much – they’re basically vocal versions of the original arrangement. In fact, I’ve never heard anybody really make Bohemian Rhapsody their own, without it sounding like (or being) a parody. I think that’s because the song is so rich and complicated that it doesn’t offer any leeway when it comes to the arrangement. If Beat It is like putty, Bohemian Rhapsody is like diamond.

Find your voice

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think everybody should only be writing simple folk music, or that complexity doesn’t have it’s place. Not by any means. I grew up listening to Queen, so I certainly enjoy some complex songs. Bohemian Rhapsody might be the greatest rock song ever written. My point is that it should never be forced. Most of us don’t have the ability to weave together really complex music and still make it catchy, like Queen did (although some of their most popular songs were still pretty simple). For the most part, if you try to force complexity, it will fall flat on it’s face. If I had a dime for every singer-songwriter I’ve seen who makes a big show of writing complicated, open-tuned guitar licks and then adding vocals on top, making the guitar playing impressive but the song itself entirely forgettable, I’d have enough for a few beers, easily.

My point is not that everybody should write the same kind of stuff. And it’s not that my style of songwriting will work for everybody. My point is that while inspiration (and when you’re starting out even copying) is great, the only way to find your own voice and be successful as a songwriter is to allow your craft to flow naturally. If your song needs a chorus, write a chorus – but it may not. If your songwriting style is complicated and your songs are prog-rock masterpieces, then keep it up. But if you’re like me, and your style is just as simple as it can be, never feel inadequate, and never try to force it to be anything different than what it is. Because you can never find your voice and hone it if you keep try to force it into a mold it doesn’t fit in.

What do you think? Is minimalism boring, or is it essential? Does this apply to other artforms as well? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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