Have you ever wondered how country songwriters come up with their hits? Country music is a genre that goes back decades, and has a long history, and the hits of this genre are some of the most well known songs ever to be released. Once a song is a hit, you know it never really goes out of style. Today we sat down with Melissa Koehler, a young and upcoming country singer-songwriter from Ontario, Canada, to talk to her about how she goes about writing a country hit song!
Enjoy our chat!
YC: Hi Melissa, how are you today?
MK: I’m good, thanks! How are you?
YC: Very good. There was something I wanted to talk to you about.
YC: Basically, I want to know how to write a hit country song! Can you help me out?
MK: I will try my best haha!
YC: Ok, great! Just to clarify, you’re a country singer songwriter, right?
MK: I like to consider myself that, yes.
YC: And you’ve written some songs. Which ones do you consider hits?
MK: Haha, probably “Chevrolet” and “Monster-In-Law” off my EP, called Narrator, as well as “Easy” which was a song I wrote about a year ago. Those are songs I’m proud of both lyrically and instrumentally.
YC: Ah ok, and so then the inevitable question of “What makes a hit song?” .. or a hit country song, because there might be a difference between writing a hit for country, and writing one for say.. alternative rock, I’m assuming.
MK: Country music is lyrically driven. First and foremost, it’s about stories. They can be sad, they can be funny, they can be happy, they can be clever, but they are always about stories. There’s always a point behind it. That being said, all the lyrics don’t necessarily have to be there when you first go to write the song, but your idea or your point, or your concept as I like to call it, has to be there. I think you have to know what exactly you want to write about when you sit down to write a song.
YC: What’s a hit song you like? Maybe from today, or yesteryear?
MK: “Follow Your Arrow” by Kacey Musgraves. Hands down.
YC: So.. why this track?
MK: Looking at it lyrically, the verses start off with these clever one liners. “If you save yourself for marriage, you’re a bore / If you don’t save yourself for marriage, you’re a horrible person.” Notice the play on words with the word “horrible.” It’s just so clever. And the lines in the verses all have a point. She’s putting out all these things that are opposite of each other like sleeping around vs.saving yourself and drinking vs. not drinking and basically saying you lose either way. And you’re like “okay, where is this going?” and then it all comes together perfectly in the chorus. In the chorus, she puts out more examples of things that are maybe frowned upon, like same sex kissing and smoking a joint, and basically says just do what’s right for you and stop caring what people think. And she sums this all up at the end of the chorus by saying “Follow Your Arrow,” which is the title of the track and the whole point of the song.
YC: Aha. Yeah, so she’s putting a lot of thought into the lyrics, and making a point.
and the song is of course pretty catchy. So is that all it takes?
MK: It’s super catchy! In country music, you definitely need to put a lot into your lyrics. But it’s also about structure, matching the chords to the feel of the song and making sure that the music doesn’t distract from the lyrics. Most country songs follow a verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus structure. It’s also about choosing chords that are country sounding rather than, say, jazzy sounding. It’s mostly about 4/4 time. And it’s important to choose a strumming pattern that doesn’t distract from the lyrics.
YC: I guess we’re kind of just focusing on how to make the song itself a hit, as say, compared to what you have to do after you write the song to promote it or whatever. Because those are kind of not the same (promotion of a song vs writing of a song). Like, as far as the song itself goes, what you’re saying all makes perfect sense for country music. If you had to make a little list of who writes the best country hits these days, who would you put on it, aside from Kacey Musgraves, whom you already mentioned. Because obviously you’re taking pointers from some of these folks in your own writing.
MK: I have slightly different reasons for liking different artists, but above all I like the artists who aren’t afraid to say things. To me, Kacey Musgraves has a very country sound instrumentally, yet incredibly clever and contemporary lyrics. Other favourites of mine would be Dean Brody. I think he’s an amazing storyteller, from sad stories to happy stories, and he’s not afraid to experiment with melodies that range from pop-country to country-country. I also really admire Kip Moore. He’s got more of a country rock sound, and he writes story type of songs, but then he’s also got a ton of songs with that focus on a point or a message. They all write songs with a purpose, and I think that’s important to do when you’re writing a country song. You start with a topic/point/message/concept, and then you define the sound of that song based on that story or message you’re telling
YC: Ok, so back to you and your songs to tie this all together with how it relates to you. Let’s take Monster-in-Law.. because it has kind of an interesting title. What are you saying with that song?
MK: Haha ok. I think country music is one of the only genres that allows funny stories to be told and to be taken seriously. With Monster-In-Law, I wanted to tell a story that would make people laugh. One day, I was reflecting on a past relationships and “Monster-In-Law” popped into my head and I thought “hmm that could be a funny song.” So later that day, I sat down to write with that concept/title in mind. I figured out a chord progression that I felt could match the feel of the song, and then I started writing the lyrics. I wanted the first verse to set up the point, which would be disclosed to listeners in the chorus. Drawing on a past relationship for inspiration, I described how great the guy was in the first verse. Then I wanted the lyrics in the chorus to completely turn it around, and flip the song on its head. The chorus is meant to shock. It’s meant to be funny. I started writing about all the bad things and tied the whole point of the song together in the chorus. The second verse is meant to expand on the bad things…
YC: Right, right. We’ll have to post the lyrics. It’s a funny song! And I mean there are weirder songs out there…
MK: Here’s the lyrics!
First verse: That boy made my heart race, was perfect in every way
He bought me a white dress, a house with a picket fence
I complained he didn’t have a flaw,
Well then I met my soon to be mother in law
Chorus: And I never ran so fast, it’s a pity our love couldn’t last
I really tried to like this lady, but she was actually crazy, by dessert I was long gone
That woman was his flaw, I didn’t like what I saw, I didn’t want his crazy mother to be my monster in law
Second verse: She didn’t like the way I dressed, said my hair was a mess,
She said I didn’t love him right, I cried myself to sleep that night
She made me want to run and hide
I had no choice but to say goodbye
He swore up and down that she was nice
I’d rather have a broken heart than this lady in my life
YC: It’s kind of a lesson song in a way, because it’s not just a joke.. it’s also like.. watch out!
MK: Haha true!
YC: I think a lot of hit songs have that resonating truthful quality, and the lyrics are relatable .. maybe not to everyone, but to some people.
MK: For me, for this song, I really just wanted to entertain. I wanted to tell a funny story. And I kinda wanted to write a breakup song that wasn’t a typical break up song. But I feel like anyone who’s had to deal with difficult inlaws or parents of their significant others would get a laugh out of it. I love playing that one live. It gives me a chance to tell the story and make the audience laugh. It gives me a chance to connect with them.
YC: Right.. well, it’s sort of self-deprecating in some ways maybe. The lyrics.. but more like, she’s the one making you feel bad. The mom-in-law / monster.
MK: Hahah yeah.
YC: It’s quirky like a lot of hit country songs. It could be a hit! Has anyone gotten a hold of it yet?
MK: That song actually peaked at #6 on the CFMU 93.3 MHz – Hamilton Top 30 chart. College radio haha, not commercial.
YC: So people have heard it. I guess sometimes it just depends on who gets to hear it. Those big execs out there, or whoever. People sniffing for the next big thing.
MK: Yeah. It’s on iTunes and it’s my most popular song.
YC: It’s a good song! Maybe it’ll go nationwide, you never know. Just to wrap up here, if you were to give some quick advice to up and coming country songwriters who wanted to write a hit, what would you say to them?
MK: I would say figure out what you want to say and don’t be afraid to say it. Decide which country artists you like, and figure out what it is you like about them and use that as inspiration. I would also say learn lots of country songs. You’ll see a pattern in the structures of the songs and the chords used, and you’ll learn a lot about the genre.
YC: That seems like reasonable advice! Do you differentiate between writing a hit or just like a.. non-hit? I assume you just write..and see what happens?
MK: Thanks! I think country music is very formulaic, and because I listen to it so much, and love it, it’s just the way I naturally write. I don’t think too much about it. I sit down with an idea, find the music, and then write the rest of the lyrics. If it is catchy I keep it, and if it’s not, I don’t.
YC: So you think about catchiness when you write? You don’t keep songs around that are kinda blah?
MK: Nah, I don’t want to sing a song that’s boring haha.
YC: True. Keeps things interesting! Well thanks for chatting with me, I have to go see a man about a horse! And also with your tips I will secretly start a country music empire muahaha
MK: Haha that would be awesome! But thanks for taking the time to chat with me!
YC: Anytime! Ok bye for now Melissa.