April 22

The Localist: How to Write an Album, Part 1

As I’m in the process of putting together and thinking through a fourth record, I figured it might be good to put together some guidance on album-writing, while the thoughts are still fresh. I’m not going to pretend that what I’m drafting here is a definitive guide on how to write a good album. There are probably a lot of ways to do it. That said, this may provide some perspective and guidance on one way of thinking about album-writing which might be helpful for you in thinking through that process.

Why Write an Album in the First Place?:

First, let me make a distinction that bears repeating throughout, which is the source of much anxiety in music-making in general. There are many purposes that you might have in putting together an album or making music in general. Maybe you see putting a record out as a kind of bucket-list life accomplishment. Maybe you want to have something that you have to show your close friends and relatives. Maybe you find writing music to be therapeutic. Maybe you want to shift the prevailing artistic paradigms in earth shattering ways. Maybe you enjoy participating in a community of musicians that you share a special bond with. Maybe you want to put out something that will make you streaming income in the long term. These are all valid reasons to put a record together, and in fact they are all valid reasons to make music in general.

That said, while there are many perfectly good reasons to make music, many or maybe even most do not inherently involve intending to put the music out for public consumption. Music can be therapeutic without anyone outside of yourself even knowing about it. Music can be played between friends and family while the greater world is completely unawares. This is to say: You don’t need to release music for public consumption in order to be a musician.

Let’s say, however, that you are intending to release music for public consumption, and in fact, you want to release an album of material for public consumption. If so, you are the type of person that I’m intending to give some guidance to. Even here, there are many reasons that you might have for releasing an album to the public. Maybe you want to release an album publicly because you want to stick it to all those people who told you that you could never do it. Maybe you believe the sonic frequencies that you record will help to control the world’s mosquito population. Maybe you want to become famous. Maybe you want to become immortal.

For the purposes of this guidance, I’m not dealing with how to write an album for any of these reasons. Instead, I’m giving some general guidance for a very particular type of musician – someone who is intending to write an album for public consumption, because (1) they have something they want to say through the album, and (2) they believe that if people listen to it, those people will thereby gain some benefit, broadly construed. I’m not a betting man, but I bet that this characterizes the aim of most people who put an album together for public consumption. Really though, this isn’t surprising because this is sort of what we mean by public consumption in the first place. When you release an album for public consumption, it is intended that they “consume” the album by listening to it so they can hear what you have to say – as opposed to using its smooth sounds for bowel loosening, blasting it to annoy the neighbors, or drown out the noise of a crying baby.

This may have all seemed like a bunch of prefatory comments. But if you’re looking to put an album together, it’s actually a good idea to get clear on why that is, because many people really don’t have a great handle on what it is that they’re intending to do when they talk about releasing a record. You should ask yourself: Do you have something to say to the public? If you don’t, it’s worth spending some time going through the myriad motivations that we’ve looked at, and figuring out what you want out of the process. Suppose, on the other hand, you do have something you want to say, or at least intend to develop something you want to say. What then?

Part 2: Giving Strangers a Reason to Listen

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The Localist is a column focusing on issues relating to aspiring local musicians in New York City. In his free time, the author performs as St. Lenox. St. Lenox’s most recent record, “Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love” was placed on Best Albums lists at Pop Matters and AllMusic. AllMusic credits St. Lenox with “some of the most unique and unconventionally thrilling pop music in the late 2010s.”