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Becoming Songwriters

Hej all! How are you doing? I just came back from my long study tour in London with my public health core course. More on that later, but today, I want to talk about my songwriting class!

Why Swedish Pop Music?

Before I talk about the class, let me touch on Swedish pop music. Have you heard of… “I Want It That Way”, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, or “Stone Cold”? I bet you have. But did you know they are produced and/or written by Denniz Pop, Max Martin, Shellback, and Laleh, all Swedish producers? And I bet you already know ABBA, and probably Rosette, Zara Larsson, First Aid Kit, SHY Martin, Avicci… to name a few Swedish artists. Clearly, Swedish pop music is significant in the music world. Learning more about the music scene is a great way to glimpse into Swedish culture.

(If you want to learn more about the Swedish pop music scene, look up This is Pop – Stockholm Syndrome on Netflix! I watched it in my songwriting class.)

Overview of the Class

This semester, I am enrolled in Songwriting Workshop: Swedish Pop Music. Songwriting? Yup. In this course, taught by our lovely teacher Maria, we (Alice, Niklas, Olivia, and I) explored writing songs inspired by songs by other artists, and other art forms, and wrote music to each other’s original ideas. Music has been an important expression medium for me, but I have always sung songs others wrote. I would play the keyboard and sing some tunes to relax and have fun. Thus, at the start of the DIS Fall semester, I spoke to Maria about borrowing the keyboard to play music. She agreed and kindly invited me to sign up for her course. The idea of learning how to sing and exploring Swedish culture through music was intriguing. So I did. And I am so glad I did. This course has been a fun challenge to look within and around, experiment with words and music, tell stories, and become more comfortable with singing and performing.

When we first started the class, I had no idea how much songwriting we were going to do. But during our first week, we were already assigned to co-write a song from scratch. My co-writing partner, Olivia, and I had practically zero experience with songwriting, but we just dived in headfirst and tried our best, taking inspiration from artists like ABBA and Veronica Mars. Since then, in this course, we have each written around 3-4 songs and shown them in class. I am grateful for our class – together we have a mutual understanding and commitment that we want our classroom to be a safe space for us to explore – and I think this is important as we make daunting attempts at performing and creating.

Field study: Getting inspired by art forms around us + Our first individual song

The first song we wrote individually was on our reflections and observations from our field study at the architecture and modern art museums. We immersed ourselves in the exhibitions, intently engaged with the artworks, and noticed how we experienced them. I enjoyed viewing and reflecting on the creative work of artists, reading the description of the art and the biography of the artists, and spotting connections between different artworks with each other and relating them to my own experience. During our first visit, I saw themes of “home” and “unfamiliarity/familiarity” popping up in various artworks and gravitated toward them. This theme thus inspired my first set of lyrics! (Hmm… next time if I get writer’s block, I should probably go read and get inspired by books too. Just food for thought.) Other than writing individual lyrics and music, we also composed music to each other’s lyrics. It was fun seeing how other people interpreted my lyrics and surprised to find their music aligned with what I was going for.

Here are some artwork that inspired my first set of lyrics on home and belonging:

Meeting Local Artists: Guest Lecturer and Field Study

Other than working on our singing, learning basic music theory, and sharing our songwriting work, we also got to talk to and learn from local Swedish artists. We visited ODA studio which is an independent studio reserved for women and non-binary artists and talked to a singer-songwriter based in Stockholm. During the visit, we had the honor to delve deep into Julia’s creative process. She showed us her digital studio (Logic) projects, muting and unmuting individual tracks to demonstrate the layers of sounds in the finished products. It was fascinating to see how different the song sounds with and without something as small as white noise, or something as simple as flipping piano chords (from loud to soft when piano chords are played, to from loud to soft). Julia described it as having some “ugly sounds” (e.g., white noises) and “pretty sound” (e.g., vocal, piano, etc.). It was also eye-opening to see how sounds can be manipulated by processes such as equalization, compression, and reverb. I was so impressed by her and her creative partners’ determination to find the right sound; she shared how it took her friend more than a thousand tries to find the right piano sound. Now when I listen to music, I challenge myself to spot as many details as possible. We had a lot of fun speaking to Julia and exploring the musical instruments she and her creative companions use for music-making.

Some pictures of ODA studio and us messing with the instruments:

We also had a guest lecturer, Will Oaks, who shared with us his music-making processes. William graduated from KMH, the music school in which DIS is located! He showed us the progression of his now-published songs, from melancholy to uplifting, individual to choral. Some ideas even sat with him for ten years. Through that lecture, I learned about the importance of spending time with my instrument and just making something happen, not worrying too much about the correct tune or word, as well as the importance of embracing changes (your idea and music will keep evolving as time goes, you will add something, take away others, add something again…), and paying attention to phrases I hear and stories around me. I even got to share with Will my project in progress and received some incredibly helpful feedback from him on chord choices!

How has it been so far?

This adventure to discover and own songwriting has been exciting, challenging, time-consuming, and cathartic. It takes hours to complete half a song (and it was just rewriting lyrics to a Swedish folk song!) but the hard work is so worth it. I get to process my experiences and turn them into work I can keep revisiting and making changes to – the music evolves as I do. From the first field study we had, when we learned to observe and get inspired by art forms around us, I have been making connections between various creative works I come across to music, my experiences, and the people around me. For example, hearing classical music, I would pay attention to what is being repeated, and how similarly, certain themes/phrases are also repeated in contemporary music. I would also reflect on themes and connections between artworks when I visit museums in Stockholm and during my travels!

As my time in Stockholm approaches the end (with only less than a month left!), my class is preparing for our performance at the DIS Festival. We will each be performing 1-2 individual song(s) and one as a group. Speaking of that, I need to head back to DIS and work on that! Tack för att du läser (Thanks for reading), vi ses ❤


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