Songwriting Methodology with Andrea Stolpe

by Corey O'Flanagan

Andrea Stolpe is a creative consultant who became a staff songwriter in Nashville in 1998. She has a degree from Boston's Berklee College of Music and has penned songs for Faith Hill, Julianne Hough and many others. Andrea has also written several books on the subject, including Popular Lyric Writing and Beginning Songwriting. In this episode of the Songfacts Podcast, we call on her expertise to explain various songwriting techniques (like where to find the power positions for a hook) and to analyze some specific songs, including one of my personal favorites.


Getting Started

I had written some songs in high school for my older brother's makeshift band. I was a Cyndi Lauper fan when I was 13, so you can imagine the kind of ballads that I wrote with a classical piano background. When I got to Berklee, I wanted to move beyond that and it wasn't really until my last year that I realized, "Oh, crap, I'm going to have a music degree. What am I going to do?" And so then I really started to ask myself, "How do I connect my skills with what might be possible in the industry?" That's how I found staff writing in Nashville.

I started picking up guitar and playing really basic. I began researching a lot of folks in the industry who didn't play guitar so well, yet wrote these fantastic songs. I started to get more groove into my writing and I was able to write some different stuff. I think that my classical background ultimately set me up to understand what a melodic motif is. You can't play Mozart for 14 years and not have that just carved into your brain.


Music Theory

Anybody who comes out of Berklee has their four semesters of harmony from one through four and two semesters of traditional harmony. You've also written a couple of counterpoint Bach tunes. I always relied on my ear to do those things and there's always more for me to learn.

When I found things like secondary dominant and Elton John, that was a moment for me, like, "Oh my gosh, I can actually use theory to arrive at a new harmonic movement."

When writing other elements, like the companionship between melody and lyric or melody and chords, I ended up relying on my ear a lot more than anything else. I always come back to the thought that theory without an intention and without intuition is not worth anything at all. At the same time, all of what I do is focused on supporting the songwriter, and who doesn't want more tools? To rely entirely on those tools is not useful either because there's no inspiration.

We're constantly trying to figure out, "How do I grab enough theory." I tell a lot of my songwriters, "If it's interesting to you and you find that you get joy from learning theory, then by all means go do it. But if it's a struggle, let's look at other things that we can do."

I think we assume as songwriters that we need to find a new chord. Well, okay. That is one way to create contrast in a song. But what about simple changes like moving from a verse where you're changing chords once per measure?

The big word that everybody talks about in songwriting of course is contrast. But why? Why do we contrast? How do you do it? That depends on your own musical influences and what you like and what the song needs. As songwriters the end goal is to gain more tools, but then be sensitive to how you use those tools to create the experience you want for your listeners.

Who Do You Like?

I'm a huge fan of Caylee Hammack. The song I've been listening to lately of hers is "Small Town Hypocrite." If you think about it, she is in the country market where it's kind of hitting a cultural stereotype on the head, even with the title itself. I love songs and songwriters like that. They kind of squeeze your face right up against the glass of your assumptions.

Another writer who has done that for me is Sting. I'm a huge Sting fan. Sometimes he can be cheesy and he can be poetic and abstract to the point that I'm kind of rolling my eyes. You know, nobody else gets to say that to you and get away with it. I find it very intriguing and I've always enjoyed looking back at his songs because they're just legendary and timeless.

Contrast

In country music, what really pushes that genre to influence and really stretch other genres is the ability of songwriters to help us get to know the characters through sensory language. We call that furniture. And in Caylee Hammack's song "Redhead," the sensory language is just unreal. In songs like these, the contrast that comes out can sometimes be traced back to musical aspects, but lyrical aspects as well.

In this case, "redhead" is a visual image, but at some point there's going to be a statement or a thought that broadens the song, giving us the sense that the song has deeper meaning. So in this song you have the furniture:

Mama was a hot head
Daddy was a redneck
Grew up in a single-wide when Reagan was president
Spooning in a twin-size newlywed business


And then we get the last line and here's that contrast:

Didn't know they're going to have themselves a little red head

That's the line that says how they're thinking and feeling.

This is something that country music makes so clear, which is the difference between the pictures and the thought/feeling language. I found that single tool monumental. That is perhaps the most critical tool of songwriting that I have ever learned in my whole life.

Many people are afraid of lyric writing, and I get it. It's hard to write lyrics and they're no fun at all when they're not working. It's hard to get feedback on your lyric writing in particular because people don't necessarily know how to fix an issue. They can tell you all day what's wrong with it or that they don't get your main message, but figuring out how to manage that feedback and what to do with it is another thing.


Rhymin' And Schemin'

Let's say you're using a rhyme scheme that's "food away, new stay." So you've got A-B A-B. if you continue that rhyme scheme throughout the song, the trouble for the writer can be that we ended up using the same length of line and we get kind of stuck in the rhythm that we've been using for each line, which then creates a melodic rhythm, and that works against creating contrast.

[Berklee professor] Pat Pattison has written a lot about couplets, and Shakespeare has done a little bit of that in creating an expectation through the rhythm of the line, which has to do with the syllable count. Syllable count and rhyme scheme are just different structural tools that control the flow for the forward motion of the song, and you don't want the forward motion to stall just like in a speech. If it's monotone, it stalls and we don't hear the message in what you're saying. So the rhyme scheme is just another tool that gives the listener an expectation. When we create a pattern but then we don't fulfill that expectation, it highlights what we're saying underneath it.


Storytelling

The tendency of songs and storytelling is to start with the detail. You start either by setting the scene, or with the problem, so naturally the point of the story comes at some later time after we've set the scene. So the contrast that we're talking about here is moving from talking about who, what, when and where in the verse, culminating in the why in the chorus, which is a very natural progression. Songs that start with the chorus, maybe that's more of a musical decision rather than lyrical decision.

You can flip it, but ultimately if you're talking about a problem in the chorus, you're not solving that problem. The problem with that is, why would we write a book about the moral of the story when we're still in the midst of the struggle?


Big Dramatic Babies

Faith Hill recorded "You Stay With Me," a song Stolpe co-wrote with John Kennedy, for her 2005 album, Fireflies.

"You Stay With Me" is a song that was kind of a turning point in my career because Faith Hill recorded this one. I've never felt that I've been a very good chorus writer. I've always felt like I could put as many pictures as you want me to put in the verse, but the chorus was my biggest challenge, in getting bold enough to summarize it. Because whenever we summarize, it can feel cliché or cheesy very quickly.

My co-writer and I struggled with this song. At this point in our careers, we were just frustrated. We didn't know what "they" wanted anymore. We were trying to write country, but neither of us grew up in the South. Of course, you get passed on most songs you write over and over and over again.

I had been listening to Train the night before and was at a point where I was like, "I don't even know anymore. I'm just going to write what I might like to listen to."

And it's very abstract and metaphorical for country music:

If I can't give you any more than weathered ships and distant shores
Would you still be my compass?
'Cause you keep loving me the same
I don't know how, but you still stay with me, baby
You stay with me, baby


I mean, blech. As I was writing it, I felt, "What am I saying? I don't even know." But I was influenced by Train.

I love Coldplay and I love these bands where half the time if you take away the fantastic music or the groove, we just sound like big dramatic babies.

But I decided to allow myself to say, "You keep loving me the same. I don't know how, but you still stay with me, baby."

I've had to remind myself that I'm not writing for musicians, I'm writing for people who just want to feel something. And in the end, if I'm going to say "baby" or typical language like "you keep loving me the same," it's OK. It's OK to summarize with those truths and those big truths are going to sound like platitudes sometimes.


"(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay"

A hook is a musical melodic and lyrical marriage that summarizes the main message of the song while providing us with a memorable musical moment. It can repeat itself throughout the song, or it can be a standalone contrasting melodic idea that makes the title stand out. "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay" is not a vocally explosive song. It's contained. It just really creates a strong musical fingerprint without having to access a variety of different pitches or a larger range.

Everybody knows this song. I haven't met a single person who's got an issue with it. How does it do that? I think very simply, the title is the musical hook and it occurs frequently throughout the song.

As a writer, we give our listeners so much information, and that's musical - how many different chords can we involve in one song? We do it lyrically when we try to write about a story that's big and complicated. And we do it melodically. We come into songs thinking, "I couldn't possibly repeat the motif of the first line three times, four times, five times, six times." And yet we fully accept the songs from other writers - our idols - who do this.

I wonder if what we're doing is trying to be everything to everyone, thinking, "I don't want to bore my listener and therefore I have to constantly vary the melody from line to line to line." But in this song that isn't there. There's so much repetition in this song from a melodic, rhythmic standpoint. He throws in a little interest chord-wise, but for the most part, it just continues as you might expect. Not every line has to have a moment, but there should be a melodic motif that within the first 15 seconds of the song we hear it and we say, "Oh, that's that song?"

That motif is a pitch identification, but it's also a rhythmic identifier that makes your small bit of melody that song. As a writer I really only have to write two motifs: two one- or two-measure melodies that are the basis for my verse and my chorus. If those melodies aren't strong or identifiable, I'm at risk of my whole song, musically, being so diluted that the listener can't really tell you what it is I'm trying to say.

I've been thinking about this idea of "vantage point." In any song we choose a moment, and therefore a place in time from which to tell the story and the song changes based on where you are in that story. In "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay," one thing that I love is he says: "Looks like nothing's going to change, so I guess I'll remain the same."

He's not trying to fix anything - it is what it is. I think this character is sitting with loss, sitting with the way things are. He's connecting with his humanity, truly accepting.


Root In The Moment

Many times with songs, we traverse several years of life. We meet someone, we fall in love, we fall out of love, we realize they were never good for us, and we go on the search for someone else. There's like eight songs in there, as opposed to the one song. You could write that as "I haven't met you yet," and that's it. Or "I just met you and I'm super excited." But the key is to grow some roots in the moment that you're in and look at the future, look at the past, but don't move.


Power Positions

We try to position the hook in what we call power positions, which are the first and last line of the chorus. The last line of a verse is a good place to position the title, and at the end of each verse. These are basic structural tools that keep the listener engaged.

As much as we can, we try to key into our intuition, following our inspiration and our intuition about where the main message should sit. It's hard when you're inside the song experience, writing the song. You don't always have an objective viewpoint and it's really easy to get lost in the detail.

I write by inspiration and then I look back on it. Maybe if I got through a verse and a couple of lines that I'm not sure if they're a pre-chorus or a chorus yet, I'll go back and do a few things. I'll look at the first line of the song and I'll consider, "Did I write a main message idea there? Could that be the title? What would it be like if I use that as the first line of the chorus? What would it be like if I came back to that at the end of the chorus?"

The way I like to think about this is that I'm taking clues that the song is giving me.
Part of becoming a skilled instrumentalist is knowing when to hold back, knowing when it's enough. I think it's that way for writers too. We will more often give the listener too much information.

November 25, 2020

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Andrea's website, where she has lots of great blog posts about songwriting, is andreastolpe.com. It's also where you can find information about her books and songwriting retreats.

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