Hold Back the River – James Bay

James Bay“Hold Back the River” became a huge international hit soon after its release in late 2014. Universal themes of nostalgia, regret, and lost innocence are conveyed in conversational yet evocative language. The chorus melody is memorable and has a folksy authenticity that adds to the singer’s credibility.

There are many simple songwriting techniques here that you can use in songs of your own: a family of related images, words that have emotional associations, varied phrase lengths in the melody, and an easy trick for catching the listener’s attention with your chorus. Let’s take a look at how these work together to create a hit song.

TECHNIQUES TO HEAR AND TRY:

• Use images to intensify emotion.

• Create contrast between sections with phrase lengths.

• Add an octave to lift the energy.

Read the lyrics here: Hold Back the River – James Bay

Buy it now or listen on your preferred music site (Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, etc.)

Watch on YouTube.

Recorded by James Bay
Writers: James Bay & Iain Archer

GENRE/STYLE  (What is a genre?)
I’m going with Folk/Rock on this one. The lyric palette features images of nature and rural life. The melody is fairly straight ahead, closer to the Indie Folk style of “Gone Gone Gone” by Phillip Phillips than to the quirky, unpredictable melodies of Alt Pop or Alt Rock, where it is sometimes classified. The track relies on acoustic guitar-style melody lines and strumming (although played on electric guitar), there’s not a whiff of synthesizer or electro anywhere around. The drums are live (and great). Folk/Rock has made a very successful comeback after being out of fashion for the last few decades.

SONG STRUCTURE
This structure looks complicated but sounds cohesive and natural when you listen to the track. The verse melody functions as both an instrumental and vocal hook. The bridge reappears at the end of the song as a tag, after which we hear the hook one more time. Every melody is used and reused. There are, in fact, only three different melodies: 1) verse and hook, 2) chorus, and 3) bridge. Continue reading

Beautiful Day – Joshua Radin

Joshua RadinI usually feature a hit song from the music charts in this section, but this time out I want to take a look at an artist who has built an extremely successful career on Film & TV placements, Joshua Radin. More than 40 of Radin’s songs have appeared in top TV series, including Bones, Parenthood, Grey’s Anatomy, Beauty and the Beast, Hart of Dixie, 90210, and the list goes on. You won’t find his songs on the mainstream music charts, nevertheless, he has sold over 2.5 million singles and 700,000 albums.

Radin’s songs are atmospheric, mood-based, and emotionally evocative rather than attention grabbing radio hits. They tend to feature refrains instead of big, over-the-top choruses, as radio singles do. The production is simple but carefully thought out, with chiseled performances that lock into a groove.

Each song is a gem filled with insight, fresh twists, and beautiful payoff lines that are perfect for film and TV uses. If you’re a singer-songwriter looking at the Film & TV market, here’s an artist who’s worth studying.

TECHNIQUES TO HEAR AND TRY:
Turn a simple idea into a compelling lyric.
Add interest to a melody with unpredictable phrasing.
Create an arrangement that supports your lyric concept.

Read the lyrics here: Beautiful Day – Joshua Radin

Buy it now or listen on your preferred music site (Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, etc.) or watch on YouTube

Recorded by Joshua Radin
Writers: Joshua Radin & Kenneth A Pattengale

GENRE/STYLE  (What is a genre?)
The song’s genre is Contemporary Folk/Rock. It fits right in with songs by Passenger, Phillip Phillips, Ed Sheeran, American Authors, and Iron & Wine. “Beautiful Day” has been featured in three primetime TV series and a Subaru commercial. Radin recently released a second version of this song featuring Sheryl Crow. You can reference either one since they’re essentially the same. I like his solo version better.

In many of his songs, Radin pays his respects to the Singer-Songwriters of the 1960s. The relaxed, conversational vocal style and harmonies, image-filled lyric language, and strummed acoustic guitar track are reminiscent of Folk Singer-Songwriters like Simon and Garfunkel. Yet Radin’s songs fit right into today’s Indie Folk renaissance. If you’re a fan of the ’60s Folk scene but want to pitch your songs to current projects, listen to Joshua Radin for techniques that will help you update your sound without losing heart and soul. Continue reading

Let Her Go – Passenger

Until recently you would only have heard a thoughtful, acoustic-based folk song like this on college radio stations or eclectic NPR shows. Certainly not among Billboard’s Top 10 Pop hits. But there it is, right there with Katy Perry, One Direction, and Pitbull. Wha? If you haven’t heard this song on the radio then you’ve probably heard it on a national TV commercial or featured in series like “Elementary” or “The Vampire Diaries.”

Take a look at the official video on YouTube and then let’s dive deeper into this song to see what makes it work so well and how you can use some of these techniques in your own songs.

Official video on YouTube.

Read the lyric here.
The Shortcut numbers below refer to specific chapters in my books “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” (“Hit”) and “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV” (“Film & TV”).

GENRE/STYLE: Folk / Singer-Songwriter  (What is a genre?)
The lyric, melody, and structure of this song are all reminiscent of the folk genre, with a nod to both authentic English ballads and the folk songs of the 1960s. If you still love to sing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” then this song is for you! There’s even a subtle group sing-along on the chorus, almost as if everyone is gathered round the ol’ campfire.

But even though the retro underpinnings are clearly there, the melody has interesting twists that give it a modern edge. If you’ve got a few old fashioned folk songs tucked away (and I know some of you do) consider giving them a facelift with these tricks. Continue reading

All My Days – Alexi Murdoch

Alexi+MurdochHere’s a successful singer-songwriter song with simple production and an honest, moving lyric. Alexi Murdoch has sold over 50,000 CDs through CD Baby making him one of their biggest sellers of all time. He self-releases his music and has turned down several offers from major labels. Most of his sales came as a result of the film & TV uses of his songs.

You’ve probably heard his song “All My Days” without realizing it. It’s featured in a commercial for Sprint and has also been used in several TV series, including CSI, Scrubs, and The OC.


Recorded by ALEXI MURDOCH
Writer: Alexi Murdoch

Lyrics are available online.
Shortcut # refers to my book “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV.”

GENRE
The genre is Indie Singer-Songwriter, a style the film and TV market absolutely loves!

 There are many similarities to English folk revival and folk/rock artists such as Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, and John Martyn. The simplicity of the recording and intimate vocal style both owe much to the work of Nick Drake, an artist Murdoch has cited as an influence. Drake is another artist whose work was introduced to a broad audience through TV commercials and films.

SONG STRUCTURE
The structure is: VERSE / VERSE / VERSE / VERSE / TAG out.

This is a traditional folk song structure. The song doesn’t have a fully-developed chorus. Instead, it relies on a memorable, repeated refrain line – “All of my days” – after the first and third lines of each verse to provide the hook. Continue reading

Gone Gone Gone – Phillip Phillips

For all you Folk/Rock lovers out there, this is certainly your moment. Between Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, and half a dozen other artists, Folk/Rock hasn’t been this hot since the 1960s! So dust off your acoustic guitars, your harmony vocals, get a drummer who can play a cool syncopated beat to update your sound and you’re good to go!


“Gone Gone Gone” recorded by Phillip Phillips
Writers: Derek Fuhrmann, Todd Clark, and Gregg Wattenberg

Lyrics are available online.
The Shortcut numbers below refer to specific chapters in my books “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” (“Hit”) and “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV” (“Film/TV”).

GENRE/STYLE
Here’s a folksy song that builds into a big Americana anthem. This song climbed up the Hot Adult Contemporary (Hot AC) charts. At Billboard it reached #3 on the Rock charts (which is a very broad chart these days). Figuring out what genre this song is in is a little tough but I’m going to go out on a limb and call it Contemporary Folk/Rock.


SONG STRUCTURE 

The song form is…
VERSE / PRE-CHORUS /  CHORUS
VERSE / PRE-CHORUS / CHORUS
BRIDGE / CHORUS (TAG out on the bridge)

The structure of this song is pretty obvious. Why? Because there’s so much contrast between sections – and I’m not just talking about the production! This is a great song to study for contrast.

Both the pre-chorus (“Give me reasons to believe…”) and chorus (“For you, for you…”) feature a big jump up in pitch at the beginning of the section.

But, more importantly, the pre-chorus melody features an ear-catching change in rhythmic feel, giving listeners a clean break between the verse and chorus.  Listen to the song – you can’t miss it! Both the verse and chorus feature a melody with a mix of long and short notes, strong and weak beats. But the pre-chorus is just straight-ahead, even beats. Continue reading