Rules of songwriting – Pete Astor

Pete Astor

The Loft, Weather Prophets, Wisdom of Harry, Ellis Island Sound: singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Pete Astor has had a hand in some of British music’s most joyously wonky pop moments over the last four decades.

With impeccable indie credentials, and a back catalogue spanning illustrious labels Creation, Matador, Heavenly, Peacefrog and now Fortuna Pop!, he’s unleashed some of the jingliest, jangliest kitchen-sink pop ever to grace the sixth form stereo.

More recently, he’s found a home in songwriting research and education, and currently works as a music lecturer at the University of Westminster, London.

Still a prolific writer, we asked him to pen his Rules of Songwriting. Here’s what he gave us:

  1. A good song should be like the words of a drunk who can no longer contain himself.
  2. Or someone all alone who finally starts telling the truth, thinking no one is listening.
  3. Think of song titles like bumper stickers (in a weird, sad world)… or the punch line of a really good joke; or a really bad one; or a really sad one. Or a really sick one.
  4. Don’t try and be clever, but sometimes try and be stupid.
  5. The people you’re singing to should get what you’re saying straight away but they should also get more and more out of what you are doing the more they listen. So, the chorus should make a connection straight away but the verses can wait a bit.
  6. Make a list of five songs you love; find out everything about them; invade them; inhabit them; stalk them. Then steal from them.
  7. Make the chorus like the best strapline to an ad you’ve never seen.
  8. Songs are not poems set to music.
  9. Never use chords with more than two letters in them.
  10. Don’t learn to play your instrument too well before starting to write songs.
  11. Become obsessed with a song; try and work it out; fail; write your own by mistake (see above, in relation to lack of musical literacy).
  12. Collect titles like firewood, as if you lived in a tent in the middle of nowhere (fuel).
  13. As Simon Frith says, songs are everyday language put to extra ordinary use. He also says: lyrics are not about words but words in performance. Both very true.
  14. Write a song with only one chord.
  15. Write a song with no chords.
  16. Write a song on an instrument you can’t play.
  17. Look up; find the first four letters you see that are the same as a chord: make these the four chords in your song.
  18. It’s often good not to write the words down but memorise what sounds and feels right.
  19. Be the person that’s writing the song, whether it’s you or not.
  20. Never let the truth get in the way of a good line.
  21. As Hemmingway said, ‘write drunk: edit sober’.
  22. Write a song from the point of view of someone that knows you really well and is (understandably) very pissed off with you.
  23. Set yourself the task of writing a song a day; or seven songs a week; or seven songs a day. Don’t worry whether they are any good or not. You can think about that later.
  24. Buy a book on songwriting, any book. You don’t have to read it. Just buying it is enough.
  25. Imagine you’re another artist writing your song. So, what would Nick Cave write? Or Joni Mitchell? Or Larry David?
  26. Try not writing songs for a while, maybe a day, maybe a year, depending on how desperate you are.

This article appeared in the latest issue of M magazine.

You can read our full interview with Pete Astor here. Listen to the Pete Astor playlist here.


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