“How do you write your songs?”

This is probably the most asked question after “what is that?” in reference to the electric violin. There are many ways that we go about it, and our method has changed over the years.

For us, the most important element is the melody, especially because our music has no lyrics. From time to time we’ve both tried to write songs with words, but neither of us is very good at it. Our lyrics just seem cheesy or cliché, and we don’t have the singing ability to get away with it either. So we’ve decided to stick with what we know. That’s also part of the reason why we like to write in so many different styles. It keeps things interesting for both you, the listener, and us.

Most of our songs begin with Tom noodling around on his guitar. He’ll start with some open tuning or another, trying out different “shapes” on the fretboard. To those non-guitar players out there, composing in open tunings (see Tom’s Tunings) is different than composing a song in standard tuning. Chords are no longer the same and new patterns must be found. Each tuning will have certain chord shapes that work well depending on where they are played. Once he finds a shape that sounds good he moves it up and down the guitar to see what comes out. Sometimes the sounds aren’t that nice, and if you didn’t know what he was doing you might think he ‘s a rank beginner. But then he lands in a place where it sounds beautiful.

He keeps going like this, stringing chords together that sound good. At the same time coming up with a fingerpicking pattern that either has a nice groove to it, or he writes a melody to go with the harmony. At this point we don’t write anything down. We figure that if it’s any good, he’ll remember it. If he can’t recall it the next day, it’s not memorable enough to stand on its own.

When I start to hear him play the same thing every day for a few days, that’s when I know he’s onto something. Each day he adds a little bit more, maybe a couple of chords, or he changes something to sound better. As I hear him working on it, I start to hear a part for myself in my head. Most often the genesis for the violin part happens when I’m away from my instrument. It usually comes to me while I’m doing household chores. If it’s really sounding good in my head, I’ll grab my violin and head downstairs to try it out. Often as we play together things start to jell, and one of us will hear where the music should go next.

When we start to get a few sections, we start sketching it out on paper, mainly so I can see what chords he’s playing so I can determine what notes will sound good. The notation of the music is very cryptic, with just enough information to keep me from getting lost or forgetting where I’m going. Often it’s at this point where he tries to figure out what chord he’s playing. This always amuses me. He’s got this gorgeous sound coming from the instrument, but he doesn’t always know what the chord is that he just invented. So he either gets the tuner and plays each note until he can build the chord, or he counts up the steps. “let’s see, if the open string is E flat, then this is, F, G, A flat, B flat! It’s a B flat! So that makes this chord an F minor eleven with the C in the bass!” Most popular music uses simple chords and progressions, but because of the open tunings we always seem to use complex chord voicings and progressions. We’ve gotten so that we listen for the unusual.

Recently I’ve been writing more music. When I write it’s a much slower process, because I need to hear the chords and the groove in order to write something new. Since my instrument is a melodic instrument, that means I have to somehow convey to Tom what I want him to play. Sometimes I sing it to him, but my singing leaves a lot to be desired and it’s often no help at all. On “Toes in the Sand” I wrote the groove on the violin, and showed it to him. He took it down two octaves and added chords to it, and then I was able to write my part.

I’m working on a new song and I’m using the computer to help me write it, but the learning curve for learning the software can be exasperating. It seems like it’s easier to do it the old-fashioned way!

Josie Quick