It was towards the beginning of spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic first forced us into a lockdown across Europe, that we stumbled upon the wonderful services of DAWter by Elise Cabret. The Townsville based songwriting school offers courses and workshops on all things songwriting and music production! Founder Elise Cabret just recently launched a YouTube channel with plenty of cool tutorials that cover topics such as melody-writing, lyric-writing and writing songs from scratch. We talked to Elise and asked her for some tips for anyone who wants to start writing original music.
Elise, welcome to the Song Brewery Blog! We are excited to have you on and are curious to hear what the basic ingredients for a good song are? Is there a certain recipe you would recommend?
Thanks so much for having me Katie! I’m always excited to talk about my passion for songwriting.
In answer to your question, there are many ingredients that go into a song. For example, lyrics, melody, chords, groove, etc. Each song will have a different recipe depending on the type of song it is. For example, Bob Dylan often wrote story songs, where the lyrics were the centrepiece. The recipe for a good story song is usually a repetitive, predictable melody and instrumentation that doesn’t distract you from the story. You wouldn’t want a big fat four-on-the-floor drum patten stomping all over Dylan’s poetry would you?
Another example would be a groove based song, where the recipe would be completely different. Think about Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes. That song is all about the bass line. It wants to get inside your body and make it move! This song is much less concerned with the lyrics. In fact, Jack White could change up the words every time he sang it and it would still be just as good.
As songwriters, it’s good to be aware of what your song is trying to achieve. If you want to tell a story, then showcase your lyrics, if you want to make people dance, then showcase the groove, if you want to make people cry, make sure your words, melody and harmonies are all carrying the same emotion.
What do you recommend to newbie songwriters before getting started?
I think the key to becoming a productive songwriter is mindset. Just like anything else, songwriting takes time to get good at, so you need to be ok with sounding bad at first. It’s absolutely crazy, but most of us think we are going to write a massive hit first go. Then these expectations are what cause people to get frustrated and give up. It’s nuts! You wouldn’t expect to be get into the World Cup in your first game of soccer (or football for non-Australian’s haha). Songwriting is a skill-set that takes practice and dedication. So quit putting pressure on yourself!
What is one top melody-writing tip?
Simplicity is key! Less experienced songwriters tend to think that complex equals sophisticated, when actually the opposite is true. Simple melodies are more memorable and more singable, and that’s usually what you are after! My top tip would be to try and limit yourself to 4 notes or less when writing melodies, and use lots of repetition!
When feeling stuck, what should you do?
Be patient. Some ideas come out all at once, and some take a little longer. Try not to get frustrated, and instead try to be grateful for the idea in the first place. It is still progress!
When I get stuck, I will take out my phone and record everything I have so far using the voice memo app. Then I’ll airdrop the file to my computer and put it in a folder called “Developing.” This is where I keep all my current “works in progress.” That way, I know my ideas are safe, they wont be lost or forgotten, and in the meantime I can move on to something else.
After a few weeks (or months), when I can’t come up with anything new, I will go through my “developing” folder and revisit these old ideas. Usually I will connect with one of them straight away, and within a few hours I’ll have a finished song. Other times, the spark is gone, and I have to let that one go.
Things to avoid when writing a song? What is a pitfall?
Comparing yourself to others. This is a tricky one because analysing other people’s music is a great way to learn. However, problems happen when we look at a song by a well-known artist and think “my song isn’t as good as that, therefore I suck.”
Let’s use Taylor Swift as an example. Say you are a big Tay Tay fan and you want to write and sound like her. You try your best, but nothing you do sounds as good as the songs on her latest album. Why?
Because in reality, not even Taylor Swift’s songs sounded that good when she was writing them. By the time you hear them on a record, they have been arranged and reworked by a world-class producer, they’ve been recorded in a multimillion dollar studio, and polished to perfection by the best engineers in the industry…
…And you are trying to compete with that?
This doesn’t mean that your song isn’t good. It only means that your song is in its early stages of life. You need to nurture it and encourage it to grow, and not stifle it with comparisons.
Do you think it is necessary to be able to produce music in order to write a good song?
It’s definitely not necessary. Songwriting is melody, chords, lyrics and structure. Having a solid understanding of these will always come first to production, in terms of writing a good song.
However, being able to produce your own music is a powerful creative tool. Even a basic understanding of how to record your tracks and arranging them with different instrumentation, will open up a world of new creative possibilities.
What about them fancy beats? Is it something you need to incorporate in today´s music?
That really depends on the sound you are after. I think there has been a shift away from traditional instruments like guitar and piano, as more artists are wanting to work with beats and other electronic instruments. Billie Eilish is certainly leading that shift at the moment.
The main thing is to be true to yourself and what you want to create, rather than following what’s popular. I learned to produce my own music because I’m obsessed with genres like triphop, lofi and industrial. I’ve always been fascinated by manipulating samples, so it made sense for me to learn to produce beats.
Your online school is called DAWter, referring to a DAW, a Digital Audio Workstation. What is your background in music production?
My first introduction to music production was in Year 12. I was in charge of the music for my high school production, and my drama teacher, Mr Carney was kind enough to lend me his Macbook with a copy of Garageband. Honestly it blew my mind! This was a whole new world of music creativity I didn’t know existed.
After leaving school, I studied music at Tafe and then University after that, but I still didn’t focus on production specifically until 2016, after the release of my first EP. I had put my everything into that record, but I wasn’t happy with the sound of it. Plus, working in studios had been stressful and expensive. I knew I had to find a better way to make music, and that meant learning to produce my own songs.
It took a lot of work. Hours and hours of trawling through Youtube tutorials, trying to put together the basics. It was a slow process. Finally after about 4 years, I’ve started to see some real results. I’m now able to translate most of what I hear in my head into Ableton (my DAW of choice), and it’s just about the best feeling in the world! It’s just like songwriting really, it takes practice and patience, but it’s so worth it in the end.
A lot of beginning writers are scared of using technology. It can seem overwhelming for sure! What do you recommend for starters? Which DAW do you think is a no brainer to get started with and are there any introductory tutorials you would recommend?
That is totally understandable! Music production can be overwhelming for sure. There is a lot to wrap your head around, and it’s going to be a considerable time investment if you want to learn properly. So approach it with the mindset that you are going to give yourself a few years to learn this. You don’t need to know everything now!
In terms of what to get started with, if you have a Mac, Garageband is free and will give you a good introduction to basic concepts like audio and midi recording. If you want to move up from there, I would download Ableton Live Lite. This is a free version of Ableton, and will give you plenty to get familiar with before you need to invest any money into it.
What about your own songwriting? When did you get started and did you play an instrument then?
I have always loved singing and creating. As a kid I would make up songs. I started to take music more seriously when I was 14. I couldn’t afford a guitar of my own, so I made a fretboard out of a cereal box and that’s how I learned chords. When my parents bought me a guitar for my 15th birthday, I could already play some basic songs.
I took to the guitar really quickly, but songwriting was a different story. I struggle with perfectionism, and that made it really difficult to write. I hated everything I did, I constantly told myself I wasn’t good enough, that my ideas sucked. I had a horrible time. But I also couldn’t stop trying. I wanted to be a songwriter more than anything in the world. Eventually, I wrote my first song when I was 20, after about 5 years of trying. It was a pretty big deal for me. In order to write, I had to learn how to be kinder to myself. So in that respect I feel like my songwriting journey was also mental health journey.
Is playing an instrument crucial for a songwriter?
Not critical but it certainly helps! You don’t have to be an amazing instrumentalist to to write songs. If you can play some basic chords on a guitar or keyboard, that’s going to be enough to get you started.
You are releasing your own music under the name of „How to Stare at Ceilings“. When will you be releasing new music and what style will it be?
I’ve actually got some new How to Stare at Ceilings tracks up my sleeve which I am super excited about! The first single is called “The Knife” and it’s coming out in September. I just heard the final master today and it is sounding so good! This will be my first self-produced release, which feels like a mammoth achievement. The reason I’m so excited is because I’m finally making music that sounds like me – I owe a lot of that to learning production. The genre is triphop – I’m a huge fan of Portishead and Massive Attack – but there is a lot of wild analogue synths and industrial sounds going on that make it mine.
Where can people book lessons with you and how much do they cost?
I currently offer face-to-face lessons to the Townsville, Australia region, where I charge $60 per hour. If people are interested in getting lessons over zoom, that is something I am working on, so please contact me elise (@) dawter.com.au if that interests you. I also have a Youtube channel called “DAWter” where I post free tutorials each month.
I’m only really just getting started with my plans, so if your readers would like to stay in touch with me, they can join my mailing list at dawter.com.au.
Thank you so much for your valuable tips, Elise and all the best for the DAWter team!
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