How To: Write A Song

Part of a new series where we ask Pakistani musicians about their process of making music, from writing to distribution.

Listen, I know we’re all starved, we’re so very starved. For love, attention, art, culture, recognition, vengeance, Johnny & Jugnu, you name it, we’re starved for it. But if there’s one thing I hope to do in my career as a (music) journalist, it’s ending information hunger. The purpose behind all this is simple: to find out how musicians in Pakistan make their music. I’ve googled all sorts of dumb, seemingly inconsequential questions about how the people who I look up to, do what they do. How do they write music, how to they arrange and compose it, produce it, market it, sing it? Well, no longer will we be starved for knowledge about what all the brilliant minds in music are up to. No more guesswork, I’m asking questions. Now get in losers, we’re going shopping (for knowledge). 

The first part in this series had to be on songwriting, naturally. Simply because when covering songwriting, you inadvertently end up covering melody too, thereby answering the time old question of what comes first, lyrics or melody? And the answer, as you’ll see, is not straightforward, it varies for literally everybody. Another reason why we must begin by talking about songwriting: the lyrics often decide the mood and the direction of the song. Not to say you can’t have preppy, up-beat songs about wanting to die (looking at you Phoebe Bridgers), or vice versa, but usually, it’s a good starting point. 

One last note before we begin for realzies: I am by no means claiming that this is an exhaustive official Guide on How to Write Music™, and that this is how everyone should do it. If anything, consider this an insight into the minds of established musicians from the Pakistani music industry, and perhaps a source of inspiration in case you feel stuck. That is all. Let the show begin. 

Nadir Shahzad of Sikandar ka Mandar

On the confidence of ignorance 

Nadir started writing songs when he was 15 and granted most of them were about the more juvenile joys of like (aka hating on your sister), but to a fifteen-year-old, they were The Best Thing Ever. “That confidence pushed me, and it was like mujhay gaana khatam karna hai kisi tarah se, and I don’t know how, so I just went for it and came up with whatever I could”. He would also set goals for himself: writing a song that’s better than that Pearl Jam song, but that also speaks for how he’s feeling that day or finishing a song in a set amount of time. “It’s not the best way to go about it, but I would basically push myself to get a song done in half an hour, and obviously it might not be the best quality, but…’ he trails off with a laugh. I get what he means though. As long as you’re pushing through and writing something, you’re good. You can always edit and tweak and fix things later, but the important part is to force yourself to get something, anything out there. 

On following your dreams…literally

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind was this vague memory of Sikandar ka Mandar’s 2017 Lahore Music Meet performance. Before kicking off the song ‘Tu Fikar Na Kar’, Nadir shared an interesting backstory about the song’s origins. Apparently, the song was about his now deceased grandfather, who came to him in a dream, and the dream itself served as inspiration for the song. I asked him whether a lot of his ideas came from dreams. “My ideas have come from dreams”, he cautiously confirms, adding “A certain idea, a certain narrative of a dream that I feel like could be a cool song, a lot of that comes from dreams. People’s spirituals can have a lot of impact on my songwriting.” And this is something that comes up often throughout our conversation; he’ll be describing a song and casually mention that the narrative was inspired by a dream. A reminder to always follow your dreams. 

On how a university assignment turned into the song ‘Badshah’ 

An assignment at school required Nadir to come up with a tourism campaign (including a national anthem) for Baucis, one of the cities in Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’. So he created a gibberish anthem, for a tribal sounding nation, and somewhere along the way, he realized that portions of it sounded like the word ‘Badshah’. That reminded him of a story he had read about a king, who spent a year in the jungle at the behest of his music teacher, and afterwards reported how he had heard the trees grow and the sun rise, and other intricacies. Pleased, the music teacher confers that this was the lesson: beyond our physical self, there is a lot that needs to be understood about the world in order to be better musicians. “And so the song eventually becomes about the subjects praising the king for his talents as a musician, so it’s a very non-personal, removed song that’s kind of like a scrapbook really” he says. 

On using a stepney when you’re stuck

Hey! Guess what? It’s perfectly fine to use a placeholder word when you’re stuck on something!! Nadir does it too. In fact, as he told me, even The Beatles did it. “Just put in something gibberish in place of where you’re stuck, and be like this is my stepney word right now and I’ll come back to it when I have something better” he says. He also highlights the importance of not wasting any lyrics or phrases that you may like. Just keep them stored away safely, and maybe someday in the future you’ll come up with a song that’s perfect for those stowed away lyrics. “I have a song called ‘Jo Bhi’, and I wrote the chorus two years before I wrote the verses of the song, and if you read the lyrics they don’t relate to each other too much, but they have a sort of theme that links them somehow” Nadir says, adding “I often take phrases or ideas from scrap songs, and put them into songs that I really like.”

On lyrics vs. melody

What comes first, chicken or the egg, lyrics or the melody? It doesn’t really matter apparently. Says Nadir “I do like to compose on the guitar for sure, and I’ll put together a couple of chords, literally. Like Badshah is a two-chord song. But melody is king anywhere. I’ve learned that while there are raags and melodies in nature, it’s also very important to screw around and have fun and just play and see what makes sense to you, and I feel that I get more interesting things when I do that. So, I need my guitar to lead me. But sometimes it can be me wondering what the appropriate note would be for an idea I have.” 

On where to find stories for songs

I was curious about narratives within songs, and whether Nadir prefers writing from experience, or if he likes to create fiction, and he pointed out, it’s kind of the same thing ultimately. “Even when you’re writing from the perspective of other people, you’re using your own words and expressions, so it’s still you”. He also shared another great tip: prompts. “Another good way to go about it is writing prompts. I gave a bunch of my students three options: a producer approaches you and says I want you to write for either BTS, Nicki Minaj or Shamoon Ismail, and it can be your style, but it needs to be something they want to sing. And it drives you to look at different chord structures and melodies styles.” 

On advice for beginners

“I feel like I’ve been very lax about how I went about my journey and I just waited around for inspiration and things to come my way, and thinking ‘oh this is coming from Somewhere Else, this is divine inspiration, it’s not coming from me’ – it’s always coming from you” he said, explaining that we tend to let our laziness get the better of us, under the guise of ‘waiting for inspiration to arrive’, when in reality, inspiration has always been in us the whole time. He also reiterated the need to work hard and put in the time to better your craft, saying “Whenever a force that wants you to have this gift has already put this in you but you need to go the nine yards and explore it and discipline yourself to hone that skill.”

Bonus guidance tools

For people desirous of that extra push of guidance, Nadir also offers classes! He teaches guitar, vocals and songwriting, and I do think that there’s no better way to learn music than from a well-celebrated musician like him. You can get in touch with him by contacting him on Instagram (@NadirShahzad). 

Natasha Noorani

On hating production

Natasha would like to point out that in a world where musicians are magically good at everything, from playing instruments to mixing and mastering their own songs, she really doesn’t like production. “With production, I’m like I don’t care, this is not my job. My job is to write my emotions and feelings. I’ve learnt just enough production to make a demo,” she says, explaining that the demo showcases the basic structure of the song, and the chords she’s using that in turn dictate whether the song will sound happy and upbeat or sad and mellow. “For me, all the fun stuff is before that demo making process.”

On picking a favorite child

Most of her songs are two chord songs with the same beat (because she hates production with a burning passion). Once Natasha knows the chords she wants to use for a song, the next thing she focuses on is melody. “Within my songwriting, I think melody is the child I love more, I’m willing to say it. Melody is at the forefront. So, on those same two chords, I’ll play around with different melodies. I also tend to forget them very quickly, so I need to record them on my phone, because when I’m in the process of purging ideas, that’s what happens.” Echoing Nadir, she says that for her, at this stage at least, melody is indeed king. 

On the merits of a cathartic purge

Before she begins to actually write the song, Natasha has what she calls a ‘honeymoon session’, where she lets everything pour out in an admittedly self-indulgent way. This time period is great, because you get to use your anger or grief or joy and turn it into literal art. And it doesn’t even have to be fully formed coherent sentences really, just something to get you started. “For the melody to sit, I need to say words, but like 70% of what comes out initially, is babble. I’m not one of those artists who can be like ‘oh I have a thought let me say it in a set poetic sentence to you right now’, like improv is not a strong suit.” But as she points out, what happens in that environment is that when you listen back to a ten-ish minute long recording, you end up with some 6-7 words or lines that are genuinely great and coherent. “Because at some point during the babble, I think I do start to say what I really wanna say” she explains, adding that all her initial song demos are mostly gibberish. 

On playing with her words

Even though she says her babble is just gibberish, it’s clearly not meaningless. Instead of it being a random haphazard placement of words, Natasha likes to weigh down the syllables of the word and see how it fits within the melody. “I like syncopation, I like creating little lulls with my words that are almost like playing with the music or the beat. So I sometimes break down a word; like in fever dream, I say con-ste-la-tions, which is me playing with the drums instead of saying you know, constellations” she says with a laugh. 

On the importance of taking a break

So, what’s the next step, post-babble? Walking away from the song for a few weeks. “I can’t immediately go back to a song. Very rarely do I write a song and immediately go like ‘oh wow bas issi pe kaam karo bro, ye hit number hai” she says, laughing. “That doesn’t happen very often in my life. For example, Choro, an unreleased song that I’ll be releasing soon, I found in my laptop’s webcam recordings, and so I was reminiscing and going through the recordings when I heard [the song], and I was like wow this is great, so I started working on it” she explains. Her next steps include making a basic demo using that two-chord melody, something with enough of a vocal melody for her to then listen to it on repeat as an mp3. That’s when the magic happens, and the actual words start pouring in. “One I’m listening to it on loop, I’m wondering how do I fill in the spaces? How does this make sense? Which of these phrases are useful and can tell me what the song is about? Because usually I find out what the song is truly about once I’m done with it” she says. 

On writer’s block

“The trick to dealing with writer’s block”, Natasha says, “and even to trying to figure out themes, is well, research”. She clarifies that she doesn’t mean scientific research, but rather, figuring out what your ‘lyrical mood-board’ is. Is it a color, is it a feeling, is it a person? Whatever it may be, it’s just something that you can keep going back to in your writing. She also tells me that it can be useful to see what other people are doing about that theme, giving her own foray into Urdu songwriting as an example. “I’ve been writing mostly in Urdu this year, and it’s been very very very hard” she says, grimacing slightly. “I’m not trying to pretend I’m writing Urdu poetry, and so it can be very hard to find a balance between seeming forced. And so I’ve had to read a lot more [Urdu] literature than I previously did, because I’m like what sounds authentic and conversational?”. She also suggests creating playlists of songs you like, elements of which can in turn inspire you into creating something similar. “But not in a way where you’re like ‘oh I like this entire verse’ so I’m going to pick it up and put it in my song, because that’s plagiarism guys!” she cautions with a laugh. 

On balancing inspiration and hard work 

Natasha stresses on the importance of letting things happen at their own pace, and not forcing them. “I’ve learnt not to punish myself for not being super on the go, also because Pakistan’s environment is also not conducive to that. Mujhay kya incentive hai ke mein gaana jaldi release karu? Wesay bhi mere saaray paisay uss pe urnay hain uski music video bhi banani hogi, and then it’s gonna die online within like 2 days after 2000 views, thanks yaar!” she says sarcastically. And she has a point. When musicians have record labels constantly checking up on them, waiting for that next single, it becomes harder to procrastinate. But what do you do when there aren’t any record labels? 

That’s not to say she completely dismisses inspiration, it’s just that there’s a time and a place for indulging in it. She creates that inspiration-fueling environment by getting a cup of tea and just being one with the instrument. “I can allow myself to be inspired and be like whatever the gods need me to be right now, but beyond that, it has to be sitting down with your music and listening to it again and again” she says, adding “I do think every artist should have that moment where they’re like ‘wow I feel a song coming’, but then just get that out of their system, but also don’t ruin that moment by being like ‘ok how do I make this perfect right now?’. That just kills the song.” 

On differentiating a good song from a bad one

So, what makes a Natasha Noorani song good or bad? Well, steer clear of cliches and tired phrases and analogies. More often than not, cliches are called cliches for a reason: they’re very mainstream and broad and generic, aka, not unique and definitely not personal. “I don’t want it to be cheesy or cliched, and I don’t want to use words that don’t mean anything to me but come up often in songs” she says, adding that she likes to stay away from oft-used tropes and themes that feel like they’ve been done before. If her lyrics on her album Munaasib sound very different, that’s because they are. Natasha admits to being possibly more cryptic than she needed to be, as she explains to me with a laugh “It’s very hard to write about your feelings and not air your dirty laundry”. 

If anything, it can be comforting knowing a lot of our idols went through the same stages of anxiety and procrastination at the beginning of their careers, and it just serves as a reminder to never give up. Here’s hoping you found this helpful in some way; as a token of gratitude you can write me a song using your newfound songwriting skills! See you in a bit with the next installment in this series, where we hear from some brilliant musicians about the secret behind a successful composition ☺  

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