Desmond Child shares an insight
at the ASCAP EXPO.
Photo by Rick Miller
Clay Aiken "Invisible"|
Aerosmith "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)"
Bon Jovi "You Give Love a Bad Name"
Kelly Clarkson "Before Your Love"
Ricky Martin "Livin' la Vida Loca"
Desmond Child Discipline
Desmond Child is a hit machine. He's written or co-written successfully with a diverse array of artists, including Kiss, Ricky Martin, Joan Jett, Aerosmith, Hall and Oates, Iggy Pop, the Baha Men, Clay Aiken and many others. According to the Miami native, making it to the writing elite is as much about industry as it is inspiration.
Start with the title
Child says his early writing style was relatively haphazard. "I'd sit at the piano, play chords, and mumble along until some melody or word sequence would come to me," he recalls. And while he had a few early hits using that method, he changed his creative process in his mid 20s. "I met [songwriter] Bob Crew, who taught me the complete opposite approach — which is actually the most professional way," he says. "Come up with a title first, and then write the rest of the lyrics geared to setting up your title — which is the usually subject of the song."
Let the lyrics tell the story
Though many writers like to get their tracks or melodies down before working on the lyrics, Child feel that the lyrics are essential to finding a song's musical center. "You get a thought in your mind, and that thought turns into words," he explains. "And then you open your mouth and you express yourself. And then you sing the words. If you just open your mouth to say nothing, it's pretty silly. So the logical progression of singing is that it's a communication, but it has to communicate something."
Speak in rhythm
Even before he has a melody, Child will "speak" lyrical ideas as he plays the piano. "I set my voice into the chords of the particular key I'm playing in, and I start saying the words set to music," he says. "I just start feeling the rhythm of the words, and that rhythm implies a melody because spoken language has melody built into it. That's why English spoken by Jamaicans has a different melody [than that of Americans], and that's why their music sounds the way it does — because it's natural for them to accent some syllables that we don't.
Tune in to others
Child writes both on his own and in collaboration with other artists. When he collaborates, he sees himself as a conduit for the feelings and ideas of his partners. "For many years I've collaborated with Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora," he says. "We get together and we talk about what kind of song they want to sing, then we establish the mood of the song, and what kind of energy they want the audience to feel when they're onstage performing it. For example, they might say 'I was really moved by 9/11, and I want to express something about it.' And I'd say 'Do you want to express anger, or sorrow, or forgiveness? Do you want an angry, edgy song or do you want to mourn the dead?' And that will shape the song. The artist is in a position to say: 'I think my fans will want me to sing about this aspect of my life.'"
Know the market
A good song is useless if it doesn't find its way to the right artist. Child's knowledge of the people in the music business helps him match his material with marquee talent. He cites Clay Aiken's "Invisible" as an example: "You see somebody like Clay on TV and imagine 'Invisible' would be perfect for him, because his image is of the unassuming person. The song lyric goes 'If I were invisible — wait, I already am.' That says it all for Clay Aiken — even though it's ironic that he's one of the most famous people in America. It works perfectly because it captures the imagination of the audience."
"Songwriters should learn how to engineer and program their own records, play every instrument, and sing, so that they don't have to depend on the outside world." - Desmond Child
Learn the studio
With today's emphasis on tracks and production, Child, who is also an accomplished producer, feels that songwriters can no longer concentrate solely on their ability to pick out a catchy melody or write a powerful lyric. "One should be as versatile and as self-contained as possible," he says. "Songwriters should learn how to engineer and program their own records, play every instrument, and sing, so that they don't have to depend on the outside world. They should invest in their career and have a [studio] to work in where they're not charged time.
Develop your image
Songwriting might be personal, but Child says that success requires a clear public identity. "You can be a nerd in the studio, but if you don't have an outgoing, winning personality, that could hurt you," he warns. "One should work on one's appearance and be as appealing as possible. You need to be the total package to be successful.
Keep a business attitude
Although he's an artist, Child says you must always remember that music is an industry, and business rules do apply. "People show up with their guitar in their hand and say 'can I play you a song?' I say sure. Are the lyrics typed? 'Oh no, I never wrote them down.' Do you have a tape? 'Oh no, I couldn't afford to get it recorded.' Well, then you're not in business. People think music is somehow different from other businesses, that you can just fly in on a wing and a prayer. Professionalism, protocol, having an upbeat, positive attitude, and never giving up — all are important. Drive and ambition can get someone really far, even with little talent. And even if you have talent, you still need the ambition and drive! People need to be truthful with themselves, not in a negative way, but to really establish their strengths and weaknesses — and work on the weaknesses while continuing to build the strengths.
Write Every Day
Where some artists wait for inspiration to strike, Child says that top-level professional songriting is as much about grinding out the work as it is waiting on your muse to show up. "I was lucky because I grew up in the music business," he says. He watched his mother, songwriter Elena Casals, networking, sending her songs around, working at the business — and how it paid off. "Every day you're writing a song. Every day you're making a demo. Every day you're figuring out how you're going to get it to the artist. She still gets royalty checks!" he says. "To me, songs were a magic carpet to take you to the life you want."
Go for it
Songwriting is among the most competitive fields in the world, and therefore, Child says, a writer will only make it to the top by being completely committed to every aspect of the job. "It's not enough to wish for things with the front of your mind," he concludes. You have to wish for them with your whole body and soul."