How to Write a Song - "Natalia Chai Style"

Songwriting is often a very personal and intimate process where real emotions and moods are captured and translated into a musical form. "How do you write songs?" "Do you follow a formula?" "How do you have so much to write about?" "What is your process?" A lot of my friends often ask me these questions and I am so humbled that they literally put me on a pedestal and admire that I write my own songs! (Have I ever told you how awesome my friends are!!) There is no right way, but there are many ways that are right to its creator! This blog will walk you through how I write most of my songs to give you an idea of my creative process and how my jumbled ideas and sounds in my head comes to its glorious end when you hear it!

When I write a song, it can either flow easily as if it writes itself and I'm sitting back and watching it all happen. OR and most often, it is actually a frustrating process believe it or not. It's frustrating when I feel blocked! When this happens, I can try to force something but then I get more frustrated and then I have to leave it for a few days and go back to it. There are times, when spontaneity springs up on me and it happens weirdly enough when I am just about to go to sleep or fall asleep and sometimes in the bathroom and then I have to whip out my phone and record my ideas! I literally have 50+ voice recordings on my phone of random melodies/harmonies on my phone! HUH! It's a very peculiar process unless you're like SIA who can write a hit in 15 minutes, and she will have 4 hits within an hour - I am on my knees worshiping her and hope that one day I can write a hit song in 14 minutes!! :)

1) The EMOTION 

I write strictly based on my emotions. My emotions are the ideas and concepts. I am a very emotional person even though I may come off stoic at times. I also DO NOT like talking about feelings at all! It's super weird, awkward and I get super squirmy. But R&B and neosoul helps me express my "feelings" through musical chord progressions without feeling awkward at all. In fact it feels right, it feels communicated, it feels good in a way so indescribable! So when I start my writing, you will find me sitting at my piano and/or keyboard and just literally messing around with no plan and no expectations. When I find THE SOUND that I like and it makes me feel a certain way that I want to capture, I am solid! Then I proceed to find the next chord progression by messing around again, following no rules   whatsoever - all based purely by sound and feel!

 

Speaking from a theoretical point of view, I am doing everything wrong - theoretically! That is because 99.99% of the time I hardly know what chords I am playing (and I make my producer figure them out for me and sometimes he can't even figure them out!) and in turn, I do not know what key I am in. This will make it difficult when I start collaborating with other musicians but I will worry about that later! 

2) The MELODY 

How do I make a catchy melody line? It's hard and a very long process and often requires input from people outside of my own head! Once I have a solid chord progression, I spend hours and days and sometimes weeks sitting at my piano playing the chords and I start humming nonsensically. Usually the first melody line that I find is the chorus - makes sense because the chorus is usually the point of any song that resonates with the listeners. And then I repeat this process over and over again, sitting at my piano until I hear a TOPLINE (that is, the melody that occurs while humming, oo=ing and ah-ing before the lyrics come in!). Now here is where I can get into one of my traps. Because I write strictly by myself, sometimes my songs sound the same in chord progressions and also in melody lines. In a way, this means I have my own "style" that is unique to me and it could make it easier for listeners to identify elements of a song that speaks Natalia Chai music. However, it can get pretty bad when even myself, as the creator can confuse one for another (it's only happened once)!

Writing is always a learning curve and as I write more, I notice the importance of repetition and using shorter phrasings that could link up to bigger phrases makes it easier for listeners to remember after just one listen! Collaborating with other musicians and producers in the beginning stages of songwriting reinforces that melodies don't have to move around a lot to be interesting. Although R&B/Neosoul are known for their interesting melody lines, sometimes a monotonous melody can have interjections where a lyric is being stressed or unsuspected melodic turns can catch the listeners' ears - for example, the bridge of a song can often change from a major to a minor key that signals a different section of the song but can regain your listeners' interest. All that I must consider when I'm writing! 

3) The LYRICS 

Aka. my nemesis. I am NOT good with words nor am I a good communicator for that matter when it comes to feelings. I've mentioned this many times in other blogs. Never was the strongest in language arts/english and not sure if it's a personality thing or a cultural thing. Free association is a technique that I've learned really helps when I get into my lyric block. This is when I have an idea but not sure how to start the lyric. So I bust out my notebook and I start to write anything that comes into mind that is associated to the particular theme and later on, I take small phrases or words to write my song!

When I look back and read some of the lyrics I write, I'm like "DAMN GIRL" I can't believe you wrote that! But this part is usually the longest step in my process because it is extremely difficult to find the words to say when I mean but to also find words that fits into the topline and melodic rhythms that I have already created. Now sometimes, when I really want to use a lyric that doesn't fit into my topline, I have to change the latter. I have noticed that even though I am not the best communicator, I have A LOT to say. If you just take a look at the notebook that I use to write casually on, I have a lot of words. Even my friends have all said I have a lot of words and a lot to say in my 3-4 minute time frame of my songs, and sometimes almost to the point of rap (now there's an idea, perhaps I should consider rapping!?) 

Simple words, and repetition is key! In fact, this will actually help make the theme and message of the song more impactful rather than having to many syllables and having to remember them!  

4) The STRUCTURE - PRODUCTION 

Unfortunately I am not a multi-instrumentalist like a lot of musicians and artists are (like my producer) but I usually have a vision in my head of what I want the song to sound like in the end. This is communicated to my producer one of two ways: 1) I create an amateur pre-production on my own using Garageband at home that mimics the general sound that I'm aiming for or 2) I compile a list of songs that incorporates sounds/rhythms/effects that I really like and hope to reenact interpretations of the sounds in a way that sounds similar to what I hear in my head.

This is where production is so magical because Justin (my producer) can make two songs that may sound similar in its simplicity when it's just me and the piano playing and make that sound so different! A lot of people ask me how do I hear so many sounds that still work coherently together? Unfortunately the answer to that is, I just hear them and then I layer them one after the other. For example, production will always start with the piano sound for me because I wrote the song on the piano and I feel the most comfortable playing it on the piano. But many times unless I really want the authentic sound of the piano kept, we either switch it over to electric, or change it to a completely different instrument. Then the percussion comes in to give the song its groove. Then we layer on some bass riffs, lead guitars with its own personality. Depending on the song and the message, I can hear a brass section and maybe even a string ensemble that consists of violins and cellos. Synths and pads are often used too in my songs to fill in empty space but to also give the impression of light, airiness and dreaminess, but can also help to set and maintain the vibe and mood of the song. 

5) HARMONIES

I swear that sometimes I am tone deaf and which explains why sometimes it is difficult for me to find my own harmonies. When I complete my vocal tracking and Justin has it all tuned up he sends a copy to me so that I can listen to it on my own time and find the harmonies. I usually keep it simple and stick to the two part harmonies where I harmonize a third or sixth up or down. If I'm feeling super creative, I do a three part harmony where I find thirds, fourths, fifths or sixths. At times, Justin will also help me find my harmonies when I'm already in the singing booth to save time. Again all of this is through listening and finding pockets where harmony works because not all places need harmonic support. You can over harmonize a section and then it will basically kill the song!


I don't write all songs in this subsequent manner. In fact, it's all over the place. Sometimes, I will begin with a very small topline that I really like, then I hear the whole production before I know what the song is going to be about. Other times, I have 2-3 lines of lyrics written with no melody line or instrumentation coupled with it. Another time, I will hear only 2 seconds of the END PRODUCT and basically will have to dissect it and work backwards. Sometimes I can write a song within a couple of weeks - and others months. Sometimes I get a huge block and only write 1 phrase in 4 hours, and then another time I will be able to regurgitate a whole verse in 30 mins! The creative mind does a lot of interesting things and as a musician and songwriter, I am learning everyday that the inconsistency of the songwriting process is the actual beauty of it! Each song is unique and different on its own from the very start! The process from start to finish is so different that the process itself is what tells the story and message of the song. 

So Natalia Chai's music song writing formula is really NO formula at all! There are concrete elements of a song but if you're looking for an algorithm, I am sorry to say that in my 1 year of songwriting experience there are many methods and paths a songwriter can take. Fellow singer-songwriters, how do YOU write your masterpieces?!

Leave a comment

    Add comment