The Queer Magic of Songwriting.

Guest Writer, singer and songwriter Pritham Bhatia, takes us through his personal song-writing and creative process; exploring how his connection with music and his queer identity continues to inspire growth and motivate his work.

By Pritham Bhatia


The world of Music and it’s unruly little sister - the dancefloor - has for centuries been a haven for queer expression. Our leading queer artists of today such as Sam Smith, Troye Sivan and Lady Gaga not only owe gratitude to original LGBTQI+ icons such as Madonna, Cher, George Michael and Boy George who paved the way - but even further back to the queer Greeks and Romans who used music to express non-straight desire.

As a modern songwriter, I have long been inspired by these brave artists turning their pain and life stories into art, and viewed going into songwriting sessions as the ultimate act of self-creation. The idea of a ‘songwriting session’ provided me with the armour of performing as an ‘artist’ - giving me an ability to be vulnerable and to look at the world and observe, whilst creating a safe space in which to do so. If done properly, sessions left me feeling connected or having learned something about my true self. When I was trying to write a ‘hit’ - I felt empty, disconnected, pressured and stressed.


A select few times, I would have written something about myself that would become true in the future, or would not make sense without a few years hindsight. Listening back to old songs, it’s astounding to think ‘how did I know that was going to happen?’, or even ‘how did I get myself through that?’, leading me to believe that songwriting is a powerful source of self-knowledge, healing, identity and even fortune-telling.


After writing over 200 songs, some for myself, some for famous bands and singers - I know first hand that great songs can be written by anyone, regardless of previous success. You may just need a few tips, tricks and practices to find the magic.


Here are a few steps and processes that I hope you may find helpful in your writing practice:


1. Structure & Storytelling.


One of the joys of leaning into your Queerness is that there are no rules. If you equate your essential queerness with songwriting: you can literally write or sing about anything. Yet structures are helpful - sometimes limits can help you become more creative, and formulas and templates help when you are stuck.


There are two major components to a great song, and they are structure and storytelling, but can also be known as aesthetic and content, music and lyric. When you listen closely and widely to a variety of songs, you will learn the traditional structure which is: verse-prechorus-chorus, verse-prechorus-chorus, middle8, chorus - and I recommend using this structure at first as a template.


But a great song is nothing without a story to tell. If the whole world is a stage, as Shakespeare said, then we must all play our own parts. Which story do you want to write?


Let’s start with the basics:



2. Writing to a title.


This is a helpful and quick way of writing songs, and assists you in getting a cohesive set of images in your lyrics. I have a notes section on my phone where I jot down interesting words, images, associations, things I notice or phrases my friends say - and use them as titles to write a song from. Sometimes it’s fun to join the dots or see common themes in what you write - and these can become great ideas for album titles. I also recommend keeping a journal to source things from.


When I settle on a title, I write a whole list of images, words or phrases related that I can use in the song, and use these to start writing verses. Metaphors and Similes can also make great titles and serve as great images for songs, eg You’re My Flashlight, We’re beautiful like Diamonds in the Sky etc… The trick is to understand what the metaphor can relate to in the human experience, or to find a title, phrase or image that encapsulates your emotion or experience. I’ve found this can be therapeutic, as it helps you see your situation in a new light, or offer profound perspectives on life-long patterns.



3. Verses.


Verses are the main script of your song, and nowadays sound conversational and natural in terms of cadence, lyrical content and tone. This really is your chance to play around with images and structure, and to create moods and pictures that are uniquely yours. Play around with mood boards and Pinterest to paint a picture of a world that you want your music to live in.


I’ve found that we spend so much of our lives as queer people trying to assimilate and survive, that writing authentic verses can be difficult but is ultimately liberating. In the queer experience, we have often taken a backseat to others in life, or played secondary roles, sometimes hiding in the background. Through songwriting, you now have the opportunity to be the main character - and to find and voice your own narrative.



4. Chorus.


I would say - too many people worry about writing loads of hooks in a chorus and making it catchy. Although these things are important, the key thing in chorus writing is to nail the heart of the song's messaging. This can be a process of discovery - what is it about your story that is the headline?


A great technique that I learned was that if the verses are explaining a problem or an obstacle, then shift the perspective for the chorus so that it comes from a friend offering you advice - what would they say to you? Or flip it - what would you say to someone else in the same situation?



5. Finding Your Voice.


Artists can be driven crazy by searching externally, far and wide, in torture to find their voice. But the secret is, it’s always been there. Your true voice may be buried deep under fear, hiding, or trauma - but you do not need to travel the world or go through years of therapy to find it - though both of those have their healthy place of course! We all have a deep instinct that constantly guides us towards our authenticity.


If you don’t know where to start, I find it helpful to play with style, genre or identity - and to treat music like a dress up box. If I ever got stuck, I would try to mimic one of my favourite artists, and I would find that in the process I would naturally start changing melodies or words to sound more like what I like - and this is how I started to ‘find my voice.’ Sometimes you can trade the word ‘voice’ for ‘taste’ - and see yourself as a curator of beautiful words and melodies. And it is important to note that it is of far more merit to create something ‘authentic’ than to downright copy or purely write what is in ‘style’ as the world is already filled with far too much noise. We all need real art - that comes from the real you - more than ever.


Another magical thing is that the more active listening that you perform to other people’s music, the more you seem to learn to listen to yourself and learn what you like and dislike. Developing your muscle for noticing and filtering what resonates with you brings you closer to your true self as well as an increased ability to ignore the noise.



6. Removing All Obstacles.


Don’t play an instrument? It doesn’t matter. I know some amazing songwriters who have crafted UK and US number 1s who cannot play a single note. Your innate musicality is what matters and storytelling and messaging is king (or queen!)


This is your chance to truly be creative. If you don’t play instruments or have access to musicians, then download backing tracks, find producers to send you beats, or type Beyonce style instrumental (or whoever your current inspiration is) into YouTube and improv melodies on top.


Queer Magic is not about being perfect, but being true to yourself and present in the moment, and you always want to speed up your process to make it more immediate and expressive, rather than worrying about playing the right notes.

Luckily - we all have a studio quality recording device on us at all times now - our phones - and those voice memos of hums from your morning walk to work can turn into full songs.


Also, don’t forget to share your work. Music is meant to be heard, and it makes you a better songwriter to get constructive feedback on what you’re doing from circles that you trust.

If you want to take your career further - play local open mic nights, upload your music to SoundCloud and find a digital distributor like AWAL to release on Spotify etc - and use the social platforms to promote your music and to connect to other creators. It’s all about creating community.



7. Context is Everything.


One of the pillars of Queer thinking is that if everything is a construct, then we get to decide how we show up in the World, as well as our right to break stereotypical conventions. I love nothing more than a song that has devastating lyrics, but euphoric dance productions - or vice versa. This is Queer Magic at its most powerful - the power of subversion.


I dare you to challenge the musical templates and experiment with the context and symbolic meanings of your music. Write that joyful declaration on top of melancholic chords. Or if you need some inspiration, just listen to Robyn’s ‘With Every Heartbeat’ for the ultimate example of ‘crying at the disco.’



8. Focus on Quantity, then Quality will follow.


When starting on your journey of songwriting, the important thing is to just get writing. The rest will follow. Writing good songs is like turning on a tap that has been closed for a long time.


As Queer people living in a straight-majority society, we all have a deep well of emotions and experiences that need to be excavated and processed, and sometimes if that well has been stagnant, it may take a while for the water to run.

Writing songs can be a powerful way of spending quality time with yourself, getting to reconnect with your true self - either in solitude or with a songwriting partner.


Practice patience with yourself and be consistent, but don’t force yourself to write if you don’t want to. But above all, remember that writing is supposed to be fun, and that we all have access to our own Queer Magic, all the time.


Thank you for reading, and if you enjoyed this, I’d love you to check out my own music, or to hear from you over at one of my socials:


SoundCloud:

https://soundcloud.com/prizmusic


Instagram:

https://www.instagram.com/prithambhatia/


Twitter:

https://twitter.com/itspritham


 

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