Meet the Maker: "Ghost Girl" songwriting process / by Sam Abelow

Songwriting

Every song I’ve ever written, by myself or in collaboration with other people, comes together in a somewhat unique way. Variation in the process can be subtle or dramatic, but there are some underlying techniques I use to help get the song to unfold. The writing and composing process of “Ghost Girl” is an outlier, because more often then not I start with the vocal melody and figure out the chords. But, in this case the usual approach seems to be reversed. I often record my ideas as I go, just in case anything spontaneous happens that could slip away. I will use these “voice memos” to demonstrate the description of the songwriting process.

 

Guitar Lesson

The inception of this song actually began with exploring the Lydian mode; a particular scale, which has a very open, major (happy) sound. I came up with the chord progression and rhythm in a guitar lesson. We began to jam on it and eventually came up with the riff you hear in the song today.

Inspiration for songs can come in many different ways. It is important to capture and stash away ideas that don’t immediately become finalized pieces. My sense is that the song is a puzzle, or a scavenger hunt and it can take some time to gather together all the necessary components. Having faith that the song is autonomous and exists outside of your intellectual, conscious mind, allows for a sense of “magic” or sacredness. With this philosophy, the song can be “given” to you, without any pressure, forcing or any other sort of tension.

 

Day One

Improvising connects oneself to the deepest sources of ideas. 

It wasn’t for another few weeks when I was sitting in bed one evening and a wave of emotion hit me. I began to just type of free-form poetry. This technique allows my unconscious to set the stage, describing the “moment”; the emotion, the scene that is the theme of the song. It’s similar to a dream, in that the un-edited ideas can seem loose and scatted, but with mindless persistence the content seems to formulate. I picked up my guitar and attempted to sing some of the poetry over the chords from the guitar lesson. It’s clear in the early "voice memo," that I never really found the cadence and melody to fit over the chords. The majority of these early ideas weren’t used, but they encapsulated the broad emotional palette of the song.

During this first day, while improving on the chord progression, the falsetto hook of the song spontaneously arose and was noted to be important. Improvising and then recognizing when a good idea pops up is vital. The chorus-hook of the song was left in a very rough state that night.

 

Day Two

There were a few ideas I really liked in the recordings from the first day. This included the lines: “sing a song, sing for me; your shallow eyes tear up” and “well, you're strumming on that guitar until your fingers hurt.” As I say the verse and chorus again and again, the cadences and melodies become more clear. At this stage the song is really set to formulate because I can write more lyrics that fit to the vocal melody. By repeating the content over and over, new ideas present themselves, and the song emerges from a place deeper than the conscious mind.

At this stage, I took the two favorite lines, which I was singing one after another and split them up. I decided to use them individually, to start each of the two verses. This is a sort of “copy and paste” method; moving around ideas until they crystallize. At this point, it was as simple as adding a couple more lines to finish out the verses. I came up with: “little bird, don’t you fear; you will soon break free.” The underlying concept, which had become clear, allowed for further lyrics to be written more easily. For the second verse I added “I always thought I was cursed, but now I’ve talked to ghosts.” 

With all the lyrics written and the basic sections of the songs composed it’s just a matter of refining the performance and nuances. This is done by playing and playing what you have, from top to bottom, until every second is discovered, known and can be replicated. At this point, with a “voice memo” I’m happy with, I see the song as completed, and move onto making a high quality demo.

 

Recording

The first day of recording is intense. I’ll start with laying down all the basic instruments; with this song being guitar, drums and then bass. I use computer-programmed drums and record the guitar over that, structuring the song very clearly and purposefully. “Ghost Girl” has a very simple pop-rock structure which repeats the same chord progression throughout the chorus and verse, just with different intensity in dynamics and rhythm. 

You’ll hear in the final version: [Riff] - [Verse] - [Chorus] - [Riff] - [Verse] - [Chorus] - [Breakdown] - [Chorus] - [Chorus].

What do you think of the final version of Ghost Girl? Quite a leap from the original right?

 

I do a “scratch”, or temporary, vocal on this initial recording. Many people would listen to this version and think to themselves that it is a finished product. For the most part they are right, because nothing entirely earth shattering will shift in the foundation, overall structure or general sound of the track.

Over the following months instruments are taken out, re-recorded, and refined in order to have the perfect tone and balance. I may play the song a bunch on my guitar, feeling out the vocal part before re-recording it again. With this track in particular, I was happy with the first few takes of vocals, except on the chorus, which I later decided to bring a whole lot more energy to for the final version. Live drum sessions takes hours to lay down and days to edit and mix. I bring in my bass player, Forrest Savage, to get the perfect groove on top of the new drums. These steps take a lot of time and effort, but bring the recording to another another level.

Being able to produce my own music songs is key to making my vision come to life. I know exactly what I want to hear and am able to achieve that directly. I often compose, and arrange the drum parts and explain directly to the musicians what it is I want to hear. Periodically, I will come back to the song and tweak the mixing and add little things which give the track those extra spices to tie it all together.

Performance of "Ghost Girl" at Freddy's Bar in Brooklyn, NY. This rendition features James Southworth on drums and Jeff Moss on bass.