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How To Make A Song Written In A Classic Style Sound Contemporary

Unless you’re a very strong performer, it’s difficult to make a dent as a songwriter without having good recordings of your songs. Otherwise how are people going to hear them?

So I’m going to start occasionally using this blog to look at the recording aspect of songwriting. It can’t be ignored. Even if you don’t become a sophisticated producer/engineer (few do), having some knowledge of what you’re listening to and why it works or doesn’t work is important… just as it is with writing.

Also, you can watch the 10 minute video to your right for some basics ->

Though there are many new and exciting things happening in songwriting right now, many of the songs that become popular, or even hits, are still quite traditional. However, they’re usually dressed up, production-wise, in ways that let the listener clearly know they’re hearing something contemporary.

Hip Hop has been doing this for a long time – originally by the DJ using old samples and the MC layering something new on top.

Sometimes I compare this to fashion. You can wear something vintage, but if it’s combined with something recent, or from a different period, it puts a different spin on it. Something that might have looked dated can, because of what’s next to it, become very contemporary.

As a simple example of this principle, I’m going to use a song I discussed last week, Duffy’s ‘Mercy’, produced by her co-writer, Steve Booker (listen below). As I said last week, the song and production have a ‘60s feel. Arrangement-wise this is created in the Intro by the ‘Stand By Me’-like bass line that starts the song (played by pizzicato strings), the classic cheesy Farfisa organ sound, the chant of ‘Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’. But…

Duffy’s quick talking at the very beginning hints that all is not as it seems (“Take it to the Verse now”). Then, about 23 seconds in, when the song hits the Vminor chord (discussed at length last week), they drop in  a sound that could never have come from the era that the rest of the instruments and parts suggest – an analog synth patch that sounds like it’s right off a Thomas Dolby record from the ‘80s.

This blows up the whole ‘authentic’ (if ironic) ’60s vibe and changes it into something else.

You don’t have to be keeping track of the eras of these sounds to sense, maybe subconsciously, the juxtaposition and to realize that the blend of eras tells you this is a contemporary recording (at least it was 8 years ago), not a ’60s one.

This is a simple and effective example of taking an element or elements that traditionally speaking don’t fit together, and between them creating a hybrid that feels neither really ‘old’ nor completely new. The recording is looking back at Then… but looking from Now. It feels ‘retro’, not ‘classic’.

I’m not suggesting one is better than the other, but sometimes it’s interesting to think about how you can take a song that’s traditional in its writing and, by blending in some arrangement elements that weren’t around in that classic period, whenever it was, create a recording that feels ‘Now’ instead of ‘Then’ – sometimes  without changing the writing at all.

Please let me know your thoughts in the Comments section below:

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