From lyrics to melodies: songwriting and self-discovery
6 September 2023 – Vol 1, Issue 1.
But things are not that simple. In order for that joyful moment to happen, there’s a trail full of little crumbles signalling the way home. I need to take that path first. The creative process to get there is long, laborious, and not absent of obstacles. Then, when everything falls into place, it transforms into songs.
To describe my creative process of writing lyrics and melodies, I need to look back and explain how creativity came to me from quite an erratic and aimless condition to a more focused and song-oriented one.
I’ll start with the lonely learning curve.
As I child, while I was discovering what I was put in this world to do, realising that every favourite game of mine had something to do with singing, I also developed the (mistaken) idea that every singer must write their own words. So, as I started shaping the idea of myself as an artist, I was sure that if anything, the combined words singer/songwriter would define me in the future.
Listening to instrumental music was more than an invitation; it was a challenge asking me to ‘complete’ an idea with melodies and lyrics.
My father and older brother would play records, so music was always in the background at home. While doing routine duties, like washing my face in the bathroom sink, making my bed, or cleaning up my room, I would hear the instrumental music and would come up with word games and short melodies, almost instantly. This was a way of discovering an open channel of expression, a bridge between some mysterious hidden place (in me?) connecting with the outside world.
That’s when it all started to make sense. That’s when I started to find a purpose.
As annoying as it was for the rest of the family (me not shutting up every time a song was played; if instrumental, me improvising; if lyrical, me singing along) – I was amazed by the discovery of the things that I could create in a simple act. Melodies and words.
Those were the times in which my non-formal education started to take place. Because, even if creativity may come naturally, it does need help, nourishment and more than anything, practice.
Sung and unsung songs were like positive and negative canvases that were providing me with information about rhyme, rhythm, singing and silence all in the space of a three-minute story telling.
Then, came the time in which I felt the need to start separating things. Of course, it was an unconscious process that came in the form of a ’need‘, not a lineal scheme I had come up with to follow.
As a singer who writes her lyrics and melodies, I think that even if those things come together at some point, they involve separate creative paths: writing, composing the vocal melody and actually singing.
I have to look back a little (as little as three decades!) because the creative process, or processes, have changed over time.
First, I went into poetry. Back then, singing was something I intended to do, but writing had taken my whole attention. I would write in free verse; rhyme was almost non-existing and I was not really looking for it. I didn’t know then, but that was an exercise to help me maintain and keep the word flowing. In order to achieve that, I had to train myself to write without intention or prejudice. The rule was not to have any.
I used to go everywhere accompanied by my scrapbook, where I would pour any idea or sensation that came to me at the exact moment it came. I would write and draw. Write and draw. Even though I am not good at drawing and the drawings had no artistic value whatsoever (not then, not now), the art did help. It’s like I was training to let that channel of expression open, unrestricted. I cannot count the amount of gel black ink pens (my favourite back then) I squeezed until the last drop.
I started attending poetry events and reading evenings as well as attending plenty of band concerts. I was not yet a performer but an artist in the making, searching her way and nurturing her spirit.
That was the writer.
As far as singing, though being passionate about it, I was tremendously shy (no surprise about an artist being shy, right?). As much as I could sing my lungs out while being alone, that openness shut out completely in the presence of others. I would chock, and sing out of tune. That is how frightened I was about singing in public. My body actually fought against me, holding me in.
Every invitation I received and accepted to sing with friends and family who had already started their path as musicians and had formed their own teenage bands, was an absolute failure for me.
Imagine not being able to listen to you – or to others – on stage; not having the experience to keep your melodies in tune, accidentally hitting the mic with your teeth, and other shameful experiences that would instantly kick me out of bands as a backing vocalist. This was not great, but also it wasn’t what I was aiming at. In spite of not being able to be what I thought I was, I knew that my path was elsewhere.
Is the technique important? Does it have a place in the creative process? Well, it is and it isn’t. It does and it doesn’t.
For me, it is like the chicken and egg situation. On the one hand, the experience helped a lot because I had to learn about relaxing and having more confidence. If the teacher is the right one for you, then you learn about your instrument (it is exactly that), your range; you learn how to take care of it, and also, you come to see if what you want to do is what you can actually do, or perhaps even more.
I studied with a few pop singing coaches but only a bel canto method teacher, who is also my mentor, succeeded in guiding me to get the technique’s pieces fit. Then, I had to come up with a way to bring it into pop music environment, which took me some time.
In my opinion, the technique is important but without expressivity it is worthless.
Coming back to the chicken and egg situation, I find that technique helps me open the gates to express what I need to express in the way I need to do it, and expressivity helps the technique find the energy, the way to support me to do that.
Does it happen from day to night? In my case absolutely not. I was born with some skills but not all creative channels were equally open. It took me years of work, try and error. Quite frustrating at times. Was I going to be able to put everything together?
I kept writing and recording melodies on my home tape recorder, just in case.
The creative process with others:
The first band I joined as a lead singer was called ‘Victoria’.
In one of our first meetings (attempting to make it a rehearsal), the guitarist asked me if he could take a look at my scrapbook. I let him; he chose a poem I had written, took it home and came back to the next rehearsal with the poem re-shaped to fit into a song he had been working on.
Besides turning it into a beautiful song, this simple event made me realise two things: first, I could actually do that (write a poem-song), I just need to start giving shape to my writing; and second, the process of creating a song doesn’t end when the song is written but it continues as it is performed. I’ll come back to that later.
That song in collaboration gave me the confidence to go further. Now, I should try and write some rhymes and, perhaps try creating my own melodies?
Up to that point, I was preparing. Without noticing, I had started a path of self-discovery, trying things, writing, being shy at singing, taking singing lessons, listening to other artists, and trying to mimic them while experimenting with my own voice…
I am not ashamed of that. Small children copy their parents, before being conscious of who they really are. In the same way, you try to imitate artists you look up to at the beginning of your artistic path. You want to know if you can sing that high, that low, or if you can scream or soften your voice as much as a whisper. The colouring of your voice is shaped by taking in mental notes and emotional notes before starting flying solo.
When I joined ‘Victoria’, I was in the middle of letting go of others and starting to be myself.
So far, it was all about me – my creations were made for me only, and they would probably have stayed there if I hadn’t joined the band. There are musicians who prefer to work alone, but I am more the kind that prefers to be in a band.
Of course, the creative process of making songs with others is completely different from working alone.
Now, as I heard a drum beat, a single chord or a chord progression, words and melodies started to flow ‘easily’ (if you are not taking into account all the previous work) and then the guitar would do something else, and then the bass, and then: “How do we go to the chorus from this? How about this and that?” And then I’d add another melody and we would complement each other in something that requires a lot of work, but I prefer to call it magic.
I describe the creative process as a humbling one because, in my opinion, it has more to do with clearing the path to let things happen than working towards an idea in a concrete way, whether it is writing, making melodies or singing. At least at the first stage. Let alone arranging and production.
Besides, I am always afraid that the last song I wrote might be the last one I ever write. What if that’s it?
Whether I was in my first long-term band, ‘Victoria’, or the second, ‘Cosaquitos en Globo’, the process of creativity and working together took some time. Perhaps not in terms of making songs, but in terms of becoming more than separate working units and transforming into a band with its own personality.
From the moment I started working creatively and to this day, the process has changed because it became almost organic, like breathing. More than seventeen years in the same band (‘Cosaquitos’) has almost brought my bandmate and me to know what we are going to do before even starting to play around. It is amazing and almost telepathic, but if you read this far, you know that telepathy needs some training.
From writing aimlessly in my room, on a bus, or in a bar, to being able to sing what I wanted to say, I can only say that the path has been amazing. Not necessarily smooth nor absent of obstacles, but amazing nonetheless.
Facing the fear of not being able to come up with new songs, a new creation is always a joyful surprise, regardless of the song being sad or melancholic. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been doing this, it’s always a surprise.
I am blessed with not being part of the so-called tortured artists. Even though I might shiver or drop a tear or two while in the process of unveiling a song, for me creation is joy.
Perhaps the torture is being left without it. The times I spent without making music or singing are, at the very least, absent of purpose.
That’s all about making songs, but what about recording? What about performing? Is there creation in that?
To come up with a song is like having the structure of a house, and now you have to paint it, add decorations, put a rug there, a light over there and so on.
Besides the enormous task of producing the song, making the arrangements and completing the whole music composition (which so far I have gladly let others take care of so I am not in full capacity to talk about) I can talk about the act of recording the vocals, which also requires some thought.
The creation process is not over yet.
What happens when you write a song is that you hurry to record a demo so everybody can come back to that and remember what they played/sang. In my case, with ‘Cosaquitos’, we do that almost instantly after having the basics. Normally, I come up with a melody and some words at the same time, sometimes the word is not even a word, more like a sound that reshapes into a word that fits that sound, and from there it flows into a chorus, a verse, sometimes both (normally the first verse and the chorus). That’s when the demo is recorded.
After this initial recording, I rush to find a piece of paper or a laptop (today the process doesn’t involve as much ink as in former years) and I try to finish the second verses while Sebastian, my bandmate and husband, starts working on the composition and arrangements.
And there it is. In most cases, the lyrics are completed, and my job is done until the time I have to record the final take. I might change a word or two before recording, though.
If the second verse doesn’t come within that window frame, between having the first draft of the song and me rushing to continue writing, it is more likely that it would take me some time, even months to come up with it. That’s a little nerve wracking because sometimes, the second verse doesn’t come and the song doesn’t go further than that.
With time, I learned not to give up so easily and the ratio of unfinished songs because of a ‘writer’s block’ has dropped dramatically. Sometimes you have to push a little.
By the time of recording the vocals properly, I, or we, decide if I am going to keep the same emotion of the demo version, if I am going to sing it completely differently, or if I am going to change some bits, add things, etc. I do some takes, trying different things and then we decide which one we like best. Most of the time we agree, but sometimes we have to compromise.
That’s the fact that proves that my original idea about a singer having to write their own words is so wrong. A song can change so much depending on who is singing and how they are singing it!
There’s also creation, translation, adaptation, interpretation and so many other things involved in the act of recording and singing, both in the studio and performing live.
“It’s not over till it’s over”.
The recording of an album is quite a stressful process because you have a responsibility (to yourself) to make it sound at its best (it’s going to be out there forever), but singing live, for me, is what makes the best sense of all.
Can I just say now that I write songs so I can sing them live?
Normally, the singing in the first rehearsals of the new songs, when your start to make preparations for live shows, sounds pretty bad, as if it is not your own. It’s a little discouraging, but around the third rehearsal, I would say, it all starts to make sense again.
Then, I need to start thinking about the live version of the songs. Sometimes vocals overlap in the recording and you have to decide which part you’re going to sing, and how, because some songs cannot be sung exactly the same way they were recorded.
The moment those songs find a translation in one’s body is when the final sparkle lights up. There are little dances, and energetic vibrations of having music come together with your bandmates. It is a lightness of being and a sense that everything in life is right, coming together as you step on the stage with all the fears and worries about not being up to what is required. But if you really, really let yourself go, you prove those fears wrong.
And… another part of creation comes in, that is of the audience taking a part too.
About the author
Maru Pardo Saguier is an Argentinean singer-songwriter with a career spanning more than thirty years. She co-founded two long-term bands, taking on the role of the lead singer: ‘Victoria’ (pop-rock) and ‘Cosaquitos en Globo’ (synthwave-synthpop). With the latest, she toured her homeland, Argentina, as well as Uruguay and undertook two European tours, touching cities like Berlin, Leipzig, London, Madrid and Barcelona. Their songs were included in many synthpop/synthwave compilations around the world.
Besides her full-time commitment to her band, over the years she has been invited to collaborate on different projects with fellow colleagues from Argentina, Mexico and Germany.
The present time finds her living in Berlin, Germany, starting a new life and a new musical journey alongside her long-time bandmate and husband.