If you ever needed a reminder that the excellence of music in the pop genres (or any genre) starts with the quality of the song, you need to listen to this great interview/discussion of music on the “Professional Musicians React” YouTube channel.
In that video (“This bassist has played on over 2000 ALBUMS!!!“), bassist Leland Sklar, who has played on, as the title says, over 2000 albums (25,000 songs!), says this:
Ultimately at the end of the day, everything is about the song… You don’t impose yourself on the song. You’re there to support the song. And it doesn’t matter if you’re doing a metal-fusion project, or you’re doing the simplest Barbra Streisand ballad like ‘Evergreen’, you find what that song wants from you, and then that’s what you bring to the table.
To speak that way about the song makes this tacit assumption: the song is a good one before it ever gets to the studio.
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Of course a blog about songwriting is going to focus on the quality of songwriting, from the songwriter’s point of view. But every once in a while it does us all some good to listen to performers — the ones who will ultimately be making your song a reality — and see what their perspective is.
You could be forgiven for thinking that if the song you’ve written has problems, a good performer or good producer will be able to fix those problems in the studio. To a certain extent that might be true, but Leland Sklar’s words remind us that good performers don’t see “fixing music” as their role in the studio. They aren’t there to make a song greater. They’re there to help an audience realize how great that song already is.
And that puts a special responsibility on anyone who calls themself a songwriter: fix whatever structural problems your song may have before you get to the studio.
How do you know your song is ready for the magic touch that a band or producer can add? Try singing your song unaccompanied or with a very sparse keyboard or guitar accompaniment — sparse enough that you focus solely on the song. The song should work at that level. If it all sounds solid with little to no accompaniment, it’s ready for whatever a good accompaniment can add.
The best, most legendary producers in the business, and the bands/performers they’ve produced, would never have amounted to anything if they didn’t have great songs to produce.
So the onus is on you as the songwriter: work and rework a song until it stands on its own. Once it has reached that stage, then it’s ready to take to a band or studio, to let some great producers and performers help the audience hear how great the song already is.