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Simple is best: tips from Tony King, APRA/ASA Songwriter of the Year

Tip Published Monday 2 August 2021
Tony King - 2020 APRA/ASA Songwriter of the Year

Tony King is the winner of the 2020 APRA/ASA Songwriter of the Year.

With a music career spanning more than 30 years, Tony is a songwriter, producer, film composer, band member, and touring guitarist.

Tony shares tips that have helped him become a multi-award-winning songwriter.

Longtime APRA AMCOS member, Tony King, took out the 2020 APRA /Australian Songwriters Association (ASA) Songwriter of the Year competition. Tony took out two categories in the 2020 Awards – Lyrics category for ‘A Library Burns’; and the Comedy/Novelty category for ‘The Day The Queen Smoked A Joint’. He previously took home the ASA Songwriter of the Year award in 2009.

A multi-awarded - and currently unpublished - songwriter, Tony has won an ASA Best Song award eight times. He’s written three Top 5 singles, including a #1 single, had multi-platinum releases in Australia and overseas. He penned the 1992 ARIA Award-winning Highest Selling single ‘Read My Lips’.

Tony is also a producer and film composer. He performs live with his band, Beautifully Mad, and played guitar and wrote an album with Andrew Strong of The Commitments.

We asked Tony to share some insights into his songwriting process.

What’s your songwriting process?

I almost always write the lyrics first and then add the music, often requiring a shoe horn.

I love songs to be about something meaningful to me so I make the lyrics the boss. Not that the music is any less important, it's just that I care so much about getting the lyrics right, that I don't want the added complication of having to fit them into existing music.

Having said that, two of my favourite songs happened when the stork brought both lyrics and music simultaneously. I wish there was a switch for that.

How do you structure your songwriting time? Or do you just write when the inspiration takes hold?

I don't have a structure as such, but I am always writing. I scour my days for ideas, writing them down as they occur. I have lots of "spare parts" that could become songs, or bridges, or help finish a song at some point. I have always been an avid reader and books have always been great grist to my mill.

I have been blissfully married for 37 years and have written many songs inspired by my life partner, Kris Ralph, who is a bottomless muse to me. Love evolves, so I am constantly looking for ways to express those changes.

I used to be signed to Warner Chappell Publishing and wrote in a very structured way. It is a good discipline and I recommend it to young writers to set up a good work ethic and hone your skills.

If you darken a page every day, you are going to write a lot of ordinary songs but you are also going to write many good songs that would never have happened if you hadn't turned up to write.

Even if you don't have a structure, you need to be thinking about songs on a daily basis. It's the difference between being an ok or good songwriter.

Deadlines are a great idea. Set yourself a deadline for an album and chunk down when you have to have the songs written by in your calendar. One a week, or one a month. It's amazing what a great driver for creativity a deadline is.

You’re an accomplished and award-winning lyricist. How do you know when you’ve nailed a lyric?

I know a lyric is nailed when it makes me tear up, or laugh if it's a funny song. If I am wondering if it's any good, then it isn't. Dylan Thomas said "you know writing is good if it makes your toes curl" and I agree. It doesn't have to be the toes, but great songs evoke a visceral response.

What’s your lyrics thought starter?

If I get stuck or blocked, I pull out a favourite song and loop it to create an atmosphere for ideas to be born. Another tactic is to imagine the song being sung by a favourite singer you respect in the genre of the song you're writing. Can you imagine them singing it? If not, why?

What do you find is the most challenging part of a song to write? And how do you overcome that?

To make the weak bits as good as the best bits. My solution to this is to write more verses than you need. Lots more if you can. The reason being is that it's easy to get stuck on a verse that is never going to be great, I have got stuck on so many bad ideas believing I had a responsibility to make that verse work. If you write a lot of verses, some will jump out as having superior bones. You can then spend your time on those verses.

What songwriting advice do you wish someone would have told you when you were starting out?

You don't have anywhere near as much time in life as you think. Don't waste it.

Simple is best. Don't try to sound too clever. Sting gets away with it, and nobody knows how? LOL, but generally it's not a good idea. Dress up clever ideas in casual clothes.

Don't use unnatural emphasis on words just to make a rhyme. The more natural and real a song sounds, the more it is going to connect in a real way to the listener.

Learn to use small amounts of time to work on a song. Your life is made up of lots of small bits of time that add up to most of your life. The trap for creatives is convincing yourself you need a large slab of time or an empty schedule, and that the time to write is when you have an empty in tray. That hardly ever happens, so learn to use little bits of time.

Write your verses backwards. Decide what the most important points are in your song. End each verse with the most powerful thought that encapsulates that verse, and then go backwards to find the rhymes for that thought. That way your energy gets used for the most important part of the lyric. If you lock in a rhyme early in a verse you can limit the ideas available to you making a cracker of a last line.

Are you writing songs and looking for song comps to enter?

There are a lot out there, and we can recommend these two that are currently accepting entries:

  • 2021 Vanda & Young Global Competition is now open. $80,000 in cash prizes to be won. $50 entry fee supports the life-changing work of Noro – Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy.
  • International Songwriting Competition (ISC) offers prizes and international exposure. Now open for global entries.