Advanced Songwriting Tips and Techniques for Serious Rockers

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Today we (YTMS) interview accomplished singer and songwriter, Fauxtown Records’ very own “indie rocker” Young Coconut (inset right), to ask him to provide some songwriting tips and techniques for songwriters and rock dawgs who may already know a few things about how to write a song, but want to know even more.  Today we dive deep by examining some of his musical catalogue and personally asking him where he got his inspiration from, how he wrote the music, how high he might have been, and squeeze him for any other advice he might have.  The guy always has lots to say, so let’s get to it!

YTMS: Hi there Young Coconut.

YC: Call me YC.

YTMS: Ok, YC.  We know you’ve written a lot of songs over the years.  Can you confirm this for the people at home?

YC: Yes, it’s true. I’ve written and recorded a lot of songs. 

YTMS: What style would you say they are? 

YC: Rock, I guess.

YTMS: Ok, let’s share one to give people an idea of what you do.  This one’s called “Hangin’ With The Clones”. 

YC: Yep, that’s Hangin’ With The Clones.  What do you want to know about it?

YTMS: Ok, well let’s start with how you wrote it.  What do you remember about writing it?

YC: I wrote it maybe two and a half years ago on the same acoustic guitar I write a lot of songs on.  It was just a little chord progression I was fiddling with.  Four chords to begin with, kind of a sad sequence.  I was feeling forlorn, I believe it was summertime.

YTMS: So you were just sitting around sadly strumming these chords and then at what point did you feel like it was an actual song, rather than just a riff or progression?

YC: At the time, I was listening to Cyndi Lauper’s first album, which has Time After Time on it, which is one of my favourite songs.  I was kind of thinking about writing a song that’s similarly sad, but epic.  That’s when these chords came about.  I just wanted to write something as good as that song, which of course is very hard cause that song is a timeless classic. 

YTMS: Well, at least you tried!  Once you had the progression, then what was next?  Did you immediately hear it as a rock song of some kind?  A ballad perhaps?

YC: No, not really.  I just had the chord progression and then I started to think about a vocal melody, which came to me as a very sort of high, sad melody.  I was trying to think of a topic for what the song might be about.  Then I started thinking about how people sort of absorb personality traits from other people, like the way they speak and act, and certain mannerisms.  That lead me to thinking about how I know certain people that seem to hang out with people that really aren’t cool, and they themselves just become like those people, and the whole situation is kinda sad, because they just kind of become a clone.  That’s why it’s called Hangin’ With The Clones, because if you hang out with too many boring, stupid people, you become like that too.

YTMS: Hm, that’s not an explanation I would have expected for this song.  So the song is about that, then?

YC: Yeah, that’s when the lyrics started to appear in my head, and I started to add them to the song.  Sometimes the lyrics pop up and I just start trying to apply them to the melody I have in mind.  If the lyrics are super interesting to me, I’ll change the melody a bit to fit them, but sometimes the melody I like so much I won’t let certain lyrics be used because it changes the melody too much, and I consider a song’s melody to basically be its most important feature, besides the overall rhythm. 

YTMS: How important do you think the topic of a song is?  This one, for instance, has a weird subject matter that maybe no one would even guess.  Do you think songs should be universal in some way so that everyone can enjoy them?

YC: Personally, I don’t really care if people get what the song is about.  Sometimes even I don’t know, or maybe I do but I’m not going to spell it out for people.  That might make the song less “universal”, but I find that there’s enough fairly predictable songs out there.  When I hear a song that comes at you from a different direction than most, I’m usually interested to hear that song.  Didn’t Sting once say something about predictable music being annoying to some people or something?

YTMS: I don’t know.  Anyway, ok, so you wrote that verse part, but eventually then you wrote the chorus and the bridge.  The song isn’t that short, and it has a lot of parts.  Is that something you like to have is a lot of components.

YC: I think this song does have a lot of subtle shifts, but it’s also a fairly repetitive song in some ways, which is fine by me.  Usually once I’ve got one part of the song, my thought is just to write something cool to go with it, and then bingo! – I’ve got a chorus, and I particularly like writing the bridge of a song.  It’s like having a bonus part to work with.  I really like some of the bridges I’ve come up with the best, often more than the verse or chorus. 

YTMS: You sound like you just crank out parts to songs easily.  What about people who have writers block?  Do you ever get stumped for adding another part to a song? 

YC: You know how they say if you can’t write something in 5 minutes, it isn’t good?  That’s kind of true.  Often I just whip it out and the song is written quite quickly when I’m in the right mood.  Other times I’ve sat on a riff for 10 years, not knowing where it should go.  I think it’s about my mood.  Sometimes I’m in a good mood for creating music, and it’s easy.  Other times, not so much.  But it doesn’t matter, because generally, I find myself in the mood to at least create something.  I’m good, I think, at coming up with little bits of songs, and what happens with me is that as long as I’m holding my guitar, I can usually figure out something that I at least partially like.

YTMS: Structurally, with Hangin’ With The Clones, what do you consider the bridge of the song to be here?

YC: This song is kind of weird.  I guess the “you’re busy all the time…” part, but I almost consider the “ah ah” part near the end to be kind of like a bridge.  To me it’s whatever is not the verse or the chorus, and so that could be one of two things here.  Sometimes I use the same chords and the challenge is to try to write a different melody to go with it.  So this song is a bit mish-mashed.  I like how it turned out though, it’s one of my favs of my own stuff.

YTMS: Do you like a lot of your own stuff?  Some people wouldn’t say they listen to or like their own music at all.

YC: Yeah, no, I do like my stuff.  I guess I think of songwriting to be mostly for me.  I like creating my own little worlds of things, whether it’s art or music.  So with songs like this one, for instance, as long as I have my mind on it, I can usually keep working on it until I don’t hate it.  And once I don’t hate it, I like it, and once I like it, I will pretty much always like it to some extent.  You gotta love yourself first, man.

YTMS: Nice hippy axiom.  Ok, let’s hear another song.  This time it’s called “Opening Line”.

YTMS: This is kind of a grunge song, or…?

YC: Yeah, I guess.  You know, I didn’t even write this song.  My buddy Phil Delisle did.

YTMS: I was told you wrote it!

YC: Nah, Phil wrote it.  It’s getting old, this song.  20+ years.  He wrote it when he was 20, now he’s 41.  I always liked it, and was always wanting to record it myself.

YTMS: I guess you did!

YC: Yeah, it only took like 18 years to do it.  This song was already recorded a long time ago by one of the first bands I was in, Mon Chere.  The song was much different then, in a way.  The rhythm wasn’t the same, but similar.  I think it was slower and had maybe more screaming.  It was the first song I heard one of my friends write where I was just like “Wow, you wrote that?  That’s a cool song!” 

YTMS: What did you like about it? How did you hear it?

YC: We used to visit Phil in the summer at his parent’s place, which was pretty cool and had a lot of space to hang out.  It was a huge house.  I think they still own it.  Anyway, one time me and some friends dropped by and Phil had been recording songs on his four track and he played us that one.  I was immediately like “That’s so cool!  How’d you do that?”  He was just learning the art of low fi recording, and I had never gotten as far as he did, so I did eventually get a four track too and that had a big impact on my songwriting, once I started using it.

YTMS: What did you like about the song? Don’t avoid the question, sir!

YC: The way he sings it is quite different from how I sing it cause we don’t really sound the same at all, but I just liked the idea of the song.  There’s a sense of humour, and it’s just kind of a wacky song to me, but it has some truth to it.  Where you want to introduce yourself to a girl, but you can’t think of what to say to sort of have that excuse to talk to her.  I really just related to the sentiment.  I used to play drums on the song, so my job at the time was just to pound out this beat to work up the song into a screaming fit and a bit of a solo later in the song.  The point of the song was to get him to start yelling.  It was fun.

YTMS:  You do some yelling here in this song yourself.

YC: Yeah, I do sometimes yell and shred my vocal chords.  It’s hard to get a good shriek going.  But I got a few on this song for at the end.

YTMS: What else can you tell us about this song?

YC: When I recorded it, my buddy Kyle was like “This song is boring…” He was producing and had no interest in the song.  He did like it better by the end, because the thing is, people who don’t have any emotional investment in something rarely see the potential it has in the beginning.  By the end, he had to admit it was kinda cool.

YTMS: This is one of those basic rock songs with the four-note bass type of thing. 

YC: Yeah, totally.  It’s a very basic kinda grunge song.  But that’s kinda why I like it.  I think if the lyrics were different, I’d hate it.  But the lyrics make it less of a 3 Days Grace type of shit song. 

YTMS: Not a fan, I take it. 

YC: Nah, not really.  I can’t handle those types of songs.  They just strike me as being written by some angsty teen ager, but it’s actually an angsty 35 year old with no sense of humour.  Whatever, anyway…

YTMS:  Ok, got time for one more song?

YC: Sure, why not?

YTMS: This one is more electronic, and it’s called “Good Streets”.

YC: Yeah, that’s Good Streets.

YTMS: What does “Good Streets” mean? 

YC: I can’t tell ya.  I haven’t thought about it much.  I think I just like it phonetically.  This song kinda has a really stupid history.

YTMS: What does that entail?

YC: I wrote it with a really super cheap keyboard that had jungle sounds on it and I basically tried to write the most simple keyboard riff ever, and this is what I came up with.  It was recorded on a tape recorded at like 2am a long time ago and I’m not even sure what I was thinking.  I was just in my apartment screwing around.

YTMS: So the inspiration here was what?

YC: There really was none.  I was just purely messing around with a really cheap keyboard and making up this song that I didn’t even like.

YTMS: Why were you doing it then if you weren’t in the mood, as you were saying?

YC: I don’t know.  I actually don’t know.  I was just sitting on our carpet and had a bunch of junk around me and probably should have been sleeping, but this keyboard was fairly quiet so I seem to remember adding a lot of layers to the track, which sounded bad, just to see if I could make it sound audible.

YTMS: Do you still have that recording?

YC: Um, let me check.  Yep, apparently.  Here it is.

YTMS: Wow, that audio isn’t the greatest.

YC: No, it’s not.  I agree.  We also did a rock version of the song.

YTMS: Do you have the audio for that?

YC: I do. Here it is.

YC: This was with the Approachables.

YTMS: Was this before the electronic version?

YC: Yeah, way before.  The electronic version I did last year.  The rock version is from 2007, and the original is 2001. 

YTMS: Why do you keep re-doing it?

YC: Not sure.  I think of songs like movies that I like.  I like to revisit them once in a while.

YTMS: Even though people basically aren’t aware of any of the versions?

YC: What are you saying?

YTMS: Correct me if I’m wrong, but none of these versions of this song are that famous.

YC:  This interview is over… <slams mic on floor and leaves>.

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