Song-writing: A Thinkpiece

Ben Timi Nuga

Since my first song released back in 2020, I’ve often been asked about my writing process and how I put my lyrics together.

Quick disclaimer: I’m far from being a ‘professional’ songwriter, and my process varies from song to song, but hopefully this piece will help anyone having a tough time getting started!

I’ll start by saying that inspiration can come from quite literally everywhere. For reference, of my first four songs, one was inspired by a football jacket, one by a bad friend and another was a Christmassy number about my views on racism. Inspiration - quite literally everywhere.

Secondly, this is being written from the perspective of a self-confessed verbophile. I love languages, crosswords and word-related puzzles, which I try to incorporate into my writing. As an artist, I’d say that my strength is in my lyricism, though I’ve had to train myself to be less obsessive over smaller lyrical details. No song will ever be universally perfect, and chasing that ‘perfect song’, especially as an early writer can really wear you down!

Overcomplication will often lead to inaction, and it’s better to write a bad song than to not write any song at all. I’ve written some terrible stuff in my time, but a couple of years down the line, I’m finding myself going back to those lyrics and incorporating them into new projects. Whilst some artists prefer sitting down and writing in long bursts, I prefer to work on multiple tracks simultaneously (currently around 15), adding to each as new ideas come to me. With time, you’ll find what works for you. As long as you’re ready and prepared for flashes of inspiration (keeping a pen and pad handy will change your life), and you know when to stop tinkering with your lyrics, all will be well!

My second piece of advice would be to try and stay honest with yourself. What are you writing about? Why are you writing the song? Who are you writing the song for? Do you care how well the song does? How will you measure that?

Say, for example, you’re writing a song about your love for stinky cheese. Is the purpose of the song simply to express your turophilic sentiments, or are also you trying to convince listeners to your way of thinking? If the former, then your ideal audience is likely to be comprised of those who already share your passion. The latter? Perhaps less so. Maybe you don’t even care about cheese, but you’ve chosen to write about it because it’s an outlandish topic, which might help you go viral on TikTok!

All the stated reasons are valid, and as long as you’re real with yourself about your motivations, your writing process will refine itself the more you practice. If you want a viral song, research how to write one. If you want commercial success, you can find songwriting formulae online and further detailed statistics on what sells best. If you’re writing to express yourself, who cares how it’s received!

That being said, it’s also important to be realistic, so as to not get a cheddar yourself… ;), or feel too disappointed if a release doesn’t go the way you planned. You could write the most fantastic, cheesiest song ever, but if your listeners are all lactose intolerant, it might not be received as intended! To date, of my current four releases, my most ‘successful’ song has been the one that took the least time to write. Whilst that doesn’t take into account my inconsistent promotion methods, or the general appeal of the track, it did make me think.

When I listen to music, I often don’t remember lyrics, but I do remember how songs make me feel. With my own music, the enjoyment I get from writing tends to reflect in the enjoyment I get from listening to the finished product. Incidentally, this seems to carry through to my listeners too! In short, whatever the motivations behind your writing, try to keep the process as fun as possible. Take breaks, write bad songs to allow the good ones enough space to come through to the front, and celebrate the small victories. That buzz you feel after finding the perfect rhyme to finish off your verse? Hold onto that feeling, savour it, and look forward to the next time you feel it again!

Admittedly, I didn’t tell myself any of this before I first started writing, which led to long periods of creative blocks and anxiety. Like most other art forms, I find that music and song-writing in particular have become increasingly commercialised, which made me feel pressured to tailor my writing style to suit what I thought was more ‘industry appropriate’ to try and win more listeners. This was in complete contrast to the approach I’d planned to take when I first started putting my ideas on paper back in 2018. I’d always told myself I was going to stay away from the kind of music that was already circulating, to try and be unique. Those feelings still present at times, and though I still feel daunted by the idea of being boxed into any one genre so early on in my journey, I’ve grown to accept that’s it’s okay to do what’s been done before *just with the added J3TSY touch*. All my songs will likely fit an existing sub-genre, but that doesn’t necessarily detract from my integrity as a musician. So, to whom this may concern, it’s okay to draw inspiration from what’s already out there. Ideally don’t copy and paste, but don’t let the fact that a path has already been trodden dissuade you from walking, or even running, on it (for what it’s worth, I’m a slow jogger). As long as you’re being authentic, nobody will be able to do you better than you can! In the same vein, don’t be afraid to be experimental. I, like many of my friends, love finding new sounds and different types of music!

Finally, before you start writing, remember to keep your emotional wellbeing front of mind when release day finally comes. With statistics so easily available and trackable, it doesn’t take much to fall into the trap of weighing your numbers up against other artists’. As the adage goes, comparison is often the thief of joy! Going straight from the dopamine hit you get off reaching a milestone to an emotional low because you’re comparing yourself to those ‘doing better’ than you can become draining, especially if you’re an independent artist. Whilst there are a whole host of metrics by which you can measure success within the music industry, like anything in life, the only means by which you can measure the ones that matter will be found internally. If you’ve written a song for yourself, you are the only person who gets a say on whether it’s good enough. Do your best, and while you work on making your best better, have fun! Where possible, surround yourself with people who have your interests at heart. Friends off whom you can bounce ideas and those who’ll push you to hone your craft. Those who’ll pick you up when you’re doubting yourself, and those who you can call to celebrate your wins with!

Reading back over this, I don’t even know if I’ve answered the question. So, in summary: song-writing, like learning any other instrument, takes time and practice to perfect. The only way to start writing is to…well…start writing! If you ever feel alone or frustrated in your process, you know where to find me!