Songwriting Steps: Let's Gain Weight!

by Susan Cattaneo
Posted May 7, 2014 at 1:12am

Huh? Did she just say that? Well, if you’re talking about gaining weight in songwriting, then the answer is YES, LET’S GET HEAVY!

One of the most wonderful and useful concepts we teach at Berklee is a technique called “recoloring.”

Recoloring is when you structure your verses so that your chorus “gains weight” in meaning every time you hear it.

I first learned this concept from my mentor and fabulous teacher, "Pat Pattison. It a technique I use frequently in my own songs, and it’s a powerful way to learn the concept of verse development.

Effective recoloring requires thought and deliberation, so it’s something that very rarely happens in the first draft of a song. As a matter of fact, looking for recoloring opportunities is a great way to immediately improve your song on the first round of rewriting.

So, tighten your belts, folks…or in this case, let’s loosen them and begin!

THE CHORUS (OR REFRAIN) STAYS THE SAME…

That’s right. Your repeating sections whether they be a full-blown chorus or just one line at the end of your verses doesn’t change. The magic in this technique happens in the verses.

It’s what material you choose to put in your verses that will make the chorus or refrain resonate in a different, deeper, more profound way every time we, the listeners, hear it. So the song gains emotional weight and power as it develops. Using this concept makes your chorus or refrain section work for you every time.

I think the best way to illustrate this is to give you a real life example. I’m going to show you the process my co-writer and I went through to write a song called “Red Light Kiss.” You can hear it here>>

My friend and talented singer/songwriter, Kristin Cifelli got together to write a song.

The idea was this:

She’d been sitting at a traffic light with her then boyfriend, now husband and they’d kissed quickly before the light changed.

So, the hook she brought to the co-write with was:

Red Light Kiss

We both liked it, and it sounded cool and singable. We were feeling it as a rock song, so she started strumming some chords, and we both fooled around singing some melodies.

I thought this would be a terrific title to recolor. The first question I asked myself:

WHAT DOES THE TITLE MEAN? LITERALLY…

Kristin had already given us a great place to start. Literally, the first verse set up was: the singer kissing a loved one at a traffic light.

I then start working on “setting the scene.”

SHOW DON’T TELL

One of the most important concepts to think about in your songs is how you can show rather than tell what’s going on. The key here is to zero in on detail, image-based lines that will set up the framework of your song. Even if the song is a metaphor, these details paint pictures so your listeners can experience the songs as well as hear them.

With this in mind, I thought where are we in the song? What are the people in my song doing? What are they hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling?

Here are the first verse lyrics we came up with:

Love is easy when you’re cruising on Saturday night
Free Falling’s on the radio and everything’s alright
You got one hand on the wheel and the other holding mine
Here we are at 14th street and Vine
The traffic’s stopped and we’re not wasting time
I say baby, quick,
Gimme a Red Light Kiss

Notice that details in the verse support and write to the idea of a Red light Kiss. Details like the steering wheel, Saturday night, traffic, what’s playing on the radio, the location - 14th street and vine, etc. all help describe the environment around the hook. They also all support the meaning of the “red light” being a traffic light and the kiss being an actual lip lock between lovers at that light. It’s a literal interpretation of the hook.

Now, it was time to tackle Verse 2. So, thinking about “gaining weight” in meaning, the next question we wanted to ask ourselves was:

WHAT DOES THE TITLE MEAN? METAPHORICALLY…

Our first verse wrote very nicely to the actual physical act of kissing someone at a traffic light. Now, the key was to think what the hook meant metaphorically. The “red light” was an actual traffic light in verse 1. What else could a “red light” mean?

We decided that the “red light” in verse two could mean the idea of stopping to enjoy your life, being present in the moment. So with that in mind as our deeper concept, here is what we came up with for verse two:

Right now, Monday’s about a hundred miles away
Soon enough, it’s gonna catch up and turn into today
So let’s roll down the windows and dare the stars to stay
Gotta hold on tight til morning comes
Gotta live this life before it’s gone
Slow it down to this
A little Red Light Kiss

Notice now that the “red light kiss” is directly tied to the line of living life before it’s gone. So, now our title means slowing down the rush of time and enjoying those little intimate moments.

Our song at this point was ready for a bridge. We needed a change in music and lyric so that the listener wouldn’t get bored of the form. So, now I asked myself:

HOW CAN I GAIN MORE EMOTIONAL WEIGHT?

The red light was literal in verse one.
Then it became a metaphor for stopping to enjoy life in verse two.
What to do now?

Well, our first two verses focused on the “red light” aspect of our title. What if we tried to transform the kiss this time? What if the kiss itself gained power?

Here is what we came up with for our bridge:

The world around us takes another spin
But we’ll be standing still
In a kiss

To misquote Casablanca, now this kiss is more than just a kiss. We actually gave that kiss the power to stop time. Pretty cool, huh?

Now, it’s your turn! Take a song title, and see if you can figure out ways to have it gain emotional weight as your song goes on. Fatten up your verses with content that so that each chorus or refrain line is light, heavy and heavier with meaning and purpose. Good Luck and let me know how it’s working for you!

Susan Cattaneo is a Boston-based singer songwriter who released her fourth album Haunted Heart January 21st. Her music has been played on country and Americana radio in over 30 countries, and she recently was a regional finalist for the New Mountain Stage contest. In addition to her performing career, Susan has been teaching Songwriting at the Berklee College of Music for 15 years. Find out more and purchase her album here: http://susancattaneo.bandcamp.com/