John Wesley Harding Takes You Through The Songwriting Process

Written by September 25th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Since 1990, John Wesley Harding has recorded 18 albums and penned three acclaimed novels. His latest album, The Sound Of His Own Voice (out 10/11 on Yep Roc) teams him up with members of the Decemberists, as well as friends like like Rosanne Cash, Peter Buck, Laura Veirs, and Scott McCaughey. It’s also got the killer single “There’s A Starbucks (Where The Starbucks Used To Be),” which we premiered the video for.

Another track, the poppy “Sing Your Own Song,” is all about the joys of being a song smith.

Curious how Harding hones his craft? The audio file below charts the evolution of the piece over several stages, from voice messages left on his iPhone to demo versions to the final product.

Harding also writes in detail about the track’s journey from idea to finished product, which we’ve reprinted below.

Delve into this rare and fascinating look into the artistic process from one of rock’s most literary songwriters. The eightfold path (minus one) to enlightenment awaits.

Sing Your Own Song: From Start to Finish in 7 steps – By John Wesley Harding

This may not be the wisest experiment in the world, but sometimes, when you have an idea, you have to see it through.

I wanted to trace the origins of one of my songs from the very beginning. This is possible only because I habitually save most of my home demos. (Is that a good idea? probably not. At any rate, they’re there.) By home demos, I don’t mean “Things I Recorded On A Home Studio” but “Things I Recorded On My iPhone’s Voice Memo” program (and before that on an unwieldy program called Quick Voice, to which I was misguidedly loyal), literally at the minute I had an idea.

Needless to say, the progress of “Sing Your Own Song” occasionally includes recordings of the very direst sound quality, featuring me at my least tuneful: the first recording sounds like I’d been up very late the night before – maybe that was when I thought of the melody. Don’t think I think that “Sing Your Own Song” is particularly worthy of this attention: it’s just the one song of which I can find demos for almost every step of the process.

PART ONE

1. Sing Your Own Song #1 – Home (Brooklyn), Voice Memo recorded on iPhone (12.8.09)

This was probably recorded the moment I had the idea, or the moment I got home after I was walking and humming. There’s no tune at all; definitely no words; I seem to have a pretty horrible cold. All I really have here is the rhythm and a lot of chords that aren’t quite right.

PART TWO

2. Sing Your Own Song #2 – Home (Brooklyn), Voice Memo recorded on iPhone (1.24.10)

You’d think this would be perhaps a few days later, after I’d wandered around with it stuck in my head a little. But the computer tells me it’s a month and a half later, so this thing has been bothering me all over Christmas. At this point, I still have no verse tune but I’ve at least come up with some words for the chorus. It strikes me, listening, to this version that that one phrase owes something to Torrey Canyon by Serge Gainsbourg, which I’d never noticed before. And at 1.13, there’s a brief appearance of the thing that eventually became the bridge on the finished recording. I seem to have ended this recording, by giving up in slight disgust.

PART THREE

3. Sing Your Own Song #3 – Home (Brooklyn), Voice Memo recorded on iPhone (sometime between late Jan and early June, 2010)

Hey! Hello, lyrics! And tune too. The finished song has a weird structure, unique to me, where it starts:

Verse

Chorus

Bridge

Chorus

This is almost certainly because I thought the chorus was the best part of the song and should be in there as often as possible. In this version, I also try to insert another bridge before the last chorus, featuring some very dubious lyrics, so the song ends:

Verse

Bridge

Chorus

Chorus

Weird. It would have stayed that way until I realised that it was foolhardy to squeeze a bridge in between the last verse and the last chorus. Also please note one of kids joining in for the last verse and chorus as I soldier on.

PART FOUR

4. Sing Your Own Song #4 – Shelter Island Sound Recording Studio, NYC, Acoustic Demo (6.29.10)

 

And at some point, the song is more or less done. Generally, I await until I’ve amassed a bunch of new songs – in this case, 22 – and go into a recorded studio with a trusted ally to record them all in a mammoth session, generally in alphabetical order. This was recorded by David Seitz at Shelter Island in NYC. I always give these sessions a name, which ends up as the working title for the album: this one was called “Songs About Songs”. These sessions are kind of endurance tests for me, and you can hear that in the performance, which is a little rushed. The only real difference between this and the finished item (besides an astonishing band arrangement) is the phrase “it’s as natural as homemade bread” in the last verse, which I probably ruled out for being too cute.

PART FIVE

5. Sing Your Own Song #5 – Band rehearsal, Jenny’s studio, Portland OR, Voice Memo recorded on Nate’s iPhone (11.9.10)

Having decided to make the album in Portland, I went a few days before we got into the studio to rehearse 15 songs in Jenny’s basement. I have two recordings of this song during rehearsals; one from the first day and one from the second. This is the second day, and, despite the sound quality (for which I apologize), I think it sounds really great, as I in fact say just before the first chorus. (What we’re laughing about in the first verse is that certain members of the band hit the chord that’s meant to be between verse one and verse two, half way through verse one. I accuse them of being ‘too keen’.) At the end you can hear, if you care to, me and Scott fiddling with the arrangement before we forget what we wanted to say. That’s Scott and John singing the harmonies. It’s nice having your producer in there with you, making up parts, singing along.

PART SIX

6. Sing Your Own Song #6 – Basic Track, The Type Foundry, Portland OR (11.10.10)

And finally we get into the studio and here’s the basic track. No overdubs: band playing, me singing. Two of me on the chorus, it seems.

PART SEVEN

7. Sing Your Own Song #7 – Finished Track as released on The Sound Of His Own Voice (10.11.11)

Now overdubbed, mixed and mastered.

Come in,”Sing Your Own Song”. Your time is up.

DONE!

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