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Digging deeper on songwriting: an interview with Berklee’s Andrea Stolpe

Digging deeper on songwriting: an interview with Berklee’s Andrea Stolpe
In SessionJuly 1, 2020

Recently, Sofar had the opportunity to host multiplatinum songwriter and Berklee Online instructor Andrea Stolpe in our webinar series for artists, In Session.

Andrea delivered a fantastic songwriting workshop and all the artists that joined had so many great questions during the webinar. Andrea sat down with In Session host and Sofar’s Artist Community Manager Billy to answer some of the ones we didn’t get to. 

During the webinar, Andrea delved into 20 tips for songwriting success. In this interview, we go a bit deeper to get Andrea’s take on co-writing, writing for other artists, specific techniques like song complexity and hooks, as well as her personal process on writing a new song and staying creative.

Songwriting structure

What is a song “hook”, and what are some of the best ways to use one in songwriting?

Andrea: That’s something that if we generalize, we would say typically if you’re talking about a lyric paired with a melodic hook, it will usually fall into the chorus, and might at one point fall into the verse at the end or the beginning of each section, but it depends. If you’re looking to write for others, you should do your research with the specific area of the commercial industry you’re writing for — that will help you understand what to include and where a bit better. 

Whether we’re writing for ourselves, getting in touch with publishers, etc, a hook is a way of saying “I know how to draw your attention to my main message.” It’s important for the listener to walk away and understand exactly what you’re trying to say. A hook is a beautiful, concise melodic fingerprint and a “seed” from which everything else grows and points back to. A melodic hook is often repeated multiple times throughout the section. A hook might take a section of that and repeat some or all of it, change the rhythms, etc. We want to make sure that our content and verses point to that hook, and I can substitute hook for “title” in many cases too, they are often the same. 

How do you expand upon the complexity of a song while avoiding repetition or “listener fatigue”? 

Andrea: My way is melody and lyrics. I’m going to mess with the length of the phrases and the position of the rhyme. A lot of times folks will look at new chords or try to add chords they don’t normally use, but instead of that try thinking about the length of phrasing. Two measures of 4/4, a measure of 2/4 and another 4/4 can throw off the harmonic expectations and cycle, so it feels like you’re changing mid-measure. 

When you do something that is not what we expect, you need to use immediate repetition of it and not go off into another variation and another, because then the art has no commonality.

Writing from different perspectives

Why is it so difficult for artists to write from the point of view (POV) of an object or fictional character while still maintaining truth/realistic narrative to the lyrics or story? 

Andrea: What songwriters are actually asking here is “How do I write about things that aren’t my life?”. They’re stuck. I teach a lot about writing from the lens of something else to take on an emotional mood that I personally might not embody in that moment. Your typical style might be slower, moodier, etc. But this is a tool to foster different ideas and push a songwriter out of their familiar comfort zones.

Changing the POV to third person (he/she) narrative suddenly makes questions come up that we didn't have before. It’s not about the character, but the story of that character. “What happened to her to make that transition?” When we use that POV, it’s more distant — it’s not necessarily about the character, but about the story. 

Overall, try to identify what you don’t want to repeat about your own writing. Explore tools and transitions you might not lean into automatically. Take lyrics you would write naturally and flip the POV, or try different pronouns and see what happens.

Inspiration and creativity

How do songwriters avoid copying or imitating already existing art? 

Andrea: We’re allowed to imitate, and we’ll continue to imitate without even trying. We want to be original of course, but it’s not going to happen all the time realistically. For me, I keep going back to the specifics. 

When I’m writing with my own personal characteristics or attributes involved, I end up imitating more. I can’t sing like Beyonce, I don’t have the experience in her genre like she would — when I approach that my best bet is to try and fuse what I do best with that genre. It might mean i’m not going to successfully create something she would ever do, but it does mean I’m going to harness what I bring to this craft to create something that people haven’t heard before. I consider that area where my artistry can play a role and shine, where in other cases I go back to research and understand what this artist could/would do and try to write along those lines. 

Do you have any tips for fostering creativity and fueling inspiration?

Andrea: The challenge here if you’ve been writing for a while is to change things up: different instruments, tunings, etc. However, there are some really awesome focused activities that you can do that will result in different bits/pieces of songs. One of my favorite things is to have several songs (5-6) in the works at any given time. And as I work on those, I’m constantly adding to them by spending ten minutes to write a new melody or chord progression, or I’m grabbing inspiration from a song a friend wrote and using that. That’s co-writing to an extent, but you’re doing it on your own. Not being afraid of taking inspiration from everywhere you can while using your time most economically when writing new music or songs. 

Co-writing and writing for other artists

What are your tips for co-writing with someone? How do you find that balance between playfulness and productivity? 

Andrea: I like to make sure I’m prepared enough ahead of time, bringing something that I feel is of value. Having the idea that “I’m not going to be precious about anything” is important because it allows you to be more open to the ideas that your co-writers might bring in, and you can think about how you can help their ideas evolve.

Ask questions like “How do you hear this title?” or “What would you put underneath this melody?” It allows you to get honest about what you really like while enabling someone else to use their strengths. You’re then able to take ownership of what you like and don't like and then work around that. I’ve written with people with completely different styles than mine, and some work out, some don’t. I was able to say “that’s okay, I'm going to bring it home and play around. Give it time and then explore it again when I’ve gotten my bearings'' which is okay too. 

What does it take to establish yourself as a songwriter for other artists? Where do you start? 

Andrea: I moved to Nashville and decided the best way to do this was to try and get a publishing deal. The thing to remember is that publishers’ function is to get you connected with people who want to record your music, and similarly connected people who would like to write with you. In a sense, these aren’t things we can’t accomplish ourselves. In the music industry we approach it like it’s some strange, different beast of an industry compared to others, but it’s not. How do you become successful at anything? Understanding your competition and understanding what the standard of quality is for people who write for bigger names or producers.

It’s a process of meeting people, getting clarity through doing the work and being present. All of that helps get a much clearer picture of “what can I contribute?”. Pro songwriters can contribute natural, easy to sing lyrics that are exactly what the artist needs. At the end of the day, constant practice is what will help a writer recognize what kinds of elements they might need to change about their songwriting to enable a new voice or pinpoint how they may be perceived. 

The music industry is not so different from any entrepreneurial pursuit;you need to meet people, thank them for your time, and do the necessary networking to set yourself up for those opportunities to learn from others, receive feedback and work with people instead of just using people in their positions. 

It seems like everything you mentioned distills down to a few basics for any pursuit: build a network, be adaptable, and practice practice practice!

Andrea: Yes! And be willing to recognize when you do something that is really, completely your own and maybe not something a publisher might want on their roster. That doesn’t make what you do bad or wrong. There’s different ways to go about working in this industry. Letting critique roll right off your back is important too. You’re going to be told “no” a lot and that’s okay! Stay positive and keep working. 

Thanks to Andrea for her time and expertise! To learn more about Andrea Stolpe’s written work, songwriting retreats and more, visit her website.