There are two types of questions people ask me about songwriting. The first question is "How do you write a song?" and the second is, "What comes first, music or lyrics?"
"How do you write a song?"
It's a hard question in the sense that I think songwriting is different for everyone. For me, if I just sit down and say “Now I’m going to write a song” it usually doesn't lead to anything very productive. A lot of the time I end up thinking about it too much, thinking about 'what chord am I going to play here' and 'what's the correct thing to do after that'. I’ve noticed that my best songs come when I'm not really paying attention, when I'm not really trying. Paul McCartney said that songwriting is easiest for him late at night when his mind is hazy and he is more open to trying something new.
good example of this is Remarkable Plans which is a song I wrote with
Brooks Paschal. We spent quite a long time one day sitting in the studio
with the intention of recording some more material for my self-titled
album. We didn’t feel like recording that day so we decided to write a
song. We started out as we usually do, strumming a guitar, humming
different melodic ideas. After writing a verse and chorus we realized
that it wasn't turning out very good at all. It was sounding really
unoriginal and we had spent three or fours hours on it already. We
decided to take a break and go get something to eat. Before we left,
Brooks sat down at the piano while waiting for me to get ready. He
started playing an A chord over and over and started singing a little
melodic line. He was about to get up to leave and I said, “Hang on, that
sounds kind of cool, do that again.” Then we changed the chords around
and made the verse, I picked up a guitar and started playing what ended
up being the chorus. The whole song took just over an hour, lyrics
included. It didn’t feel like we were trying at all. It happens like
that a lot of the time.
"What inspires the lyrics?"
"What comes first, music or lyrics?"
For me, usually the music and melody will come first and then I’ll start trying to work on the lyrics a little bit. As to what inspires the lyrics, it is usually 50/50. Sometimes it is something that has actually happened to me, something that I’ve experienced. Sometimes I’ll write about something more fictional. Maybe I’ll be watching a movie and be moved by a certain part of the story or a particular character and write about that. Other times I’ll just be playing a melody on the piano and I’ll start singing words over it that actually end up making sense, which is kind of cool. I always hope that inspired lyrics provide the basis for my songs subject matter. However there are definitely times where a pragmatic approach to lyrics is necessary as well.
I had to choose, I would say I prefer writing the melody and music over
lyrics. I am fascinated by how a melody can transform the most ordinary
chords into a unique sounding piece of music. Writing music uses a
different part of my brain, allows me to be more imaginative and
music and melody come from more of an ethereal place and demand that
intrusions be set aside. You have to be aware of what it feels like when
a song is being inspired and take advantage of the moment when it
strikes. Stop everything you're doing and let it happen! I take very
little credit for some of the things I've written. When you're being
inspired to write it feels like you're just allowing the song to flow
through you. You're not thinking about anything, you're just lucky
enough to be the receiver of the music. The songs I consider to be my
best have come out of being flexible and surrendering to the process.