Kacey Musgraves

Writing Songs Reminiscent of an Earlier Time

You hear a lot of criticism these days about pop music, and how everything sounds the same. Not enough creativity, no one going out on a limb. In reality, pop music — at least the kind that makes it to the Billboard Hot 100 — has always been populated with songs that sound the same. So in that regard, there’s nothing new about the criticism.

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Being original isn’t easy, but one creative way to make your songs sound refreshingly new is to go retro. Songs that sound like they might have come from an earlier era have a way of drawing a bit of attention to themselves.

A great example of this kind of song would be “Slow Burn“, from Kacey Musgraves‘ recent album “Golden Hour.” When you listen to it, you’ll feel like you’re listening to something that might have been written in the 70s, a kind of mash-up of something by Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.

But of course, the song sounds refreshingly new. So how was she able to achieve this subtle taste of a bygone era without sounding like a simple rip-off of something older? Subtlety is the key ingredient.

To make something sound pleasantly retro, you need to hint at older styles. To be more specific, here are musical aspects you should be considering when you want your song to sound reminiscent of a past generation of music, while still sounding new:

  1. Focus in on chord progressions. The way that chords work hasn’t changed in over 300 years. But the kinds of chord extensions we like certainly have changed. You’ll notice, for example, that music from the 70s will use more major 7ths, major 9ths, and avoid the V-chord. So find ways to adjust your chord choices to mimic that older era that you’re interested in.
  2. Find an older song and copy some aspect of its performance style. Listen to the guitar intro of “Slow Burn”, and you feel like you’ve heard this before… maybe not exactly this way, but enough that it grabs your attention. Then listen to the intro to James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” and Neil Young’s “Old Man“, with the delicious dissonances, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s not a direct lift (as Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams learned the hard way.) But it’s a head-turning homage to earlier works.
  3. Don’t retro-ize everything. If you want your song to represent a respectful nod to an earlier generation of music, choose one or two aspects of your song to show this feature. Making a song that sounds too much like an older era makes it start to sound a bit like a novelty song, and it won’t be taken seriously.
  4. Ten years ago may not be retro enough. The problem with producing a song so that it sounds like something from 2008 is that much of your fan base is tired of that time, and your song will quickly sound dated. But going back 30 or 40 years — even more — gives you a cleaner slate. Enough time has passed so that the aspects of songs from those times have a chance to sound new again.
  5. Work with a producer. These days songwriters are just as likely to call themselves producers, but I’m talking about the kind of producer whose specialty is the sound of your music. Someone who has done this before, and who knows how to take your songs and make the most of them. If you’re serious about your art, and you’ve got a bit of money, I’d recommend hiring someone who can help you tap into the older sound of music while still making your music sound forward-looking.

To get a good sense of what retro can sound like, listen to Barca Howard’s “I Don’t Fall Much Anymore“, written in 2012, but sounding for all the world like a Dylan remake. And also check out Chromeo and their 2011 song “Night By Night“, which sounds like it could have been written in the 1980s.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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