In honor of Women’s History Month, I have decided to re-publish this article, which many of you seemed to have found interesting, as a Mylene’s Monthly Series entry. Please note that I received help compiling this list, so this isn’t solely my input. Feel free to suggest other kick-ass female songwriters in the comments section! I know lots of talented songwriters are missing, but I think it’s a good resource, nonetheless. Alright, let’s go…
What goes into songwriting? Well, it’s not that simple. Every songwriter has their own process. So, if you’re wondering what some of the best female songwriters have to say about the subject, you’re in luck. Let’s take a look, shall we?
I start with Amy Winehouse because not only was she one of my biggest inspirations but also because of how soul-baring her lyrics were. According to Mark Ronson, “when Amy Winehouse wrote a song, there was no editing”. Considered one of this generation’s best songwriting talents, Amy Winehouse was also popular for her haunting vocals, in addition to her emotionally evocative lyrics. Although she was gone too soon, Amy earned three songwriting awards for “Stronger than Me,” “Rehab,” and “Love is a Losing Game.”
Amy Winehouse on songwriting:
“I write songs about stuff that I can’t really get past personally – and then I write a song about it and I feel better.”
“All the songs I write are about human dynamics, whether it’s with girlfriends, boyfriends, or family.”
“I really started writing music to challenge myself, to see what I could write.”
Adele’s soulful tunes have touched millions—and with great success. She’s found astounding international success with hits like “Hello,” “Rolling in the Deep,” and “Someone Like You.” A two hit combo of heartbreaking lyrics and ethereal vocals have earned her the respect of the music industry and fans alike. In 2012, Adele was named “Songwriter of the Year,” followed by a slew of awards in 2017 for her last album.
Adele on songwriting:
“I don’t write songs about a specific, elusive thing. I write about love, and everyone knows what it is like to have your heart broken.”
“Heartbreak can definitely give you a deeper sensibility for writing songs. I drew on a lot of heartbreak when I was writing my first album, I didn’t mean to but I just did.’’
“I’d love to be an artist always, but if no one wants me, I’d love to write songs for other people, be a manager, nurture new talent.”
The lady Dolly Parton is not called the Queen of Country Music for no reason. One of the industry’s most prolific songwriters, she was destined for success shortly after her arrival in Nashville. Fans around the world love her extensive library of greatest hits, including “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” and ‘’Coat of Many Colors.” In 2001, Dolly was inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame.
Dolly Parton on songwriting:
“I feel fortunate that I’ve had a lot of songs recorded by other people, because I take my songwriting very seriously.”
“It’s therapy. It’s fun. It’s creative. I love getting on a big writing binge and staying up a couple days working on song and knowing at the end of those two or three days that I’ve created something that was never in the world before. […] Songwriting is a hobby and to me it’s therapy. It’s a joy. It’s a thrill. It’s like mind exercises or something.”
I became an instant fan of Alicia Keys after she rose to success with the release of 2001’s “Fallin.” Later on, I was even more impressed when I learned about her numerous songwriting credits. Besides producing her own hits, this classically trained musician has also written songs for Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, and Whitney Houston. Some of these songs include “Million Dollar Bill,” “Angel,” and “Impossible.”
Alicia Keys on songwriting:
“I dream about speaking in big forums about issues that need to be spoken about. I dream about helping others who I know and love, helping them realize their dreams. I dream about being able to express myself through acting and writing, definitely. I dream about bringing more realism into the world. Sometimes I just feel like certain things are so glossed over and covered up and swept under the rug and I just want to bring them out.”
Hillary Lindsey comes up for mention for the simple fact that she has contributed to a lot of songs I like from many artists that I love. She has penned songs for some of today’s biggest selling artists, including Lady Gaga, Faith Hill, Shakira, Bon Jovi, and Taylor Swift. A Famous Music Publishing songwriter, she has helped produce 15 number one singles as of 2015.
Hillary Lindsey on songwriting:
“We will write three or four songs in a day. You can almost not turn off the writing juices. We will write all day, then it’s wine time and then you write more and eventually make it into your pajamas.”
There isn’t enough I can say about Joni Mitchell to fit in a short article as this because the magnitude of her songwriting prowess and achievements would fill volumes. In fact, looking at her body of work, it is easy to see why she is widely considered to be one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Proof of this is in the fact that she has won her Grammy Awards in several different categories, including pop, folk music, and traditional pop. Mitchell remained a staple in the industry until her retirement. Several music outlets have also honored her with awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 2002.
Joni Mitchell on songwriting:
“You could write a song about some kind of emotional problem you are having, but it would not be a good song, in my eyes, until it went through a period of sensitivity to a moment of clarity. Without that moment of clarity to contribute to the song, it’s just complaining.”
A classically trained musician and accomplished songwriter, Tori Amos famously tackled topics including feminism, sexuality, religion and politics, in her most celebrated songs. Her best known songs include “Cornflake Girl,” “Silent All These Years,” and “A Sorta Fairytale.”
Tori Amos on songwriting:
“Musically, I always allow myself to jump off of cliffs. At least that’s what it feels like to me. Whether that’s what it actually sounds like might depend on what the listener brings to the songs.”
Classically trained pianist Fiona Apple began writing songs at the age of 8—and quickly rose to fame in later years for her sultry vocals and raw lyrics. Fans remember her best for thought-inducing songs such as “Sleep to Dream,” “Sullen Girl,” “Criminal,” (which caused a bit of controversy back then), and “Extraordinary Machine.”
Fiona Apple on songwriting:
“I really, really enjoy fitting words together — but I only enjoy it when it’s easy, when it sort of rolls along by itself. I never erase anything [and] I hardly ever write anything down… The song will be finished before I write it down…”
One of my reasons for loving Ani DiFranco’s music is because the singer-songwriter confronted social issues in some of her best known songs. She’s often described as a powerful lyricist for writing songs such as “Not a Pretty Girl,” “Jukebox,” and “Glass House.” An award-winning songwriter, Ani is also an accomplished poet.
Ani DiFranco on songwriting:
“When I first started writing songs and being very explicit, it was hard, but one of the main things people respond to in my writing is that ‘just say it’ attitude of my songs. There really is nothing personal or private; it’s all universal, if you can just find the courage to be open about your life.”
Stevie Nicks forged her own path following her Fleetwood Mac successes. Besides frequently collaborating with Lindsey Buckingham in the past, Stevie has produced a number of memorable song performances. Her best known hits include “Rhiannon,” “Dreams,” and “Silver Springs.”
Stevie Nicks on songwriting:
“There is a part of me that has to depend on fantasy, because if you can’t be somewhat of a fantasy person, then you can’t write.”
Nicknamed the “punk poet laureate,” Patti Smith has made an incredible mark in the industry with her songwriting. She is best known for her involvement with the New York City punk rock movement but she’s also known for hit songs such as “Because the Night,” co-written with Bruce Springsteen. In 2007, Patti was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Patti Smith on songwriting:
“Often the simplest song is the hardest to write.”
“Poetry is a solitary process. One does not write poetry for the masses. Poetry is a self-involved, lofty pursuit. Songs are for the people. When I’m writing a song, I imagine performing it. I imagine giving it. It’s a different aspect of communication. It’s for the people.”
Classically trained Regina Spektor rose to popularity with self-released records in New York City’s indie and anti-folk music scenes. One of the things that impresses me the most about Spektor is that she never writes anything down but has been able to churn out about six high-quality albums so far. Fans enjoy her eclectic musical style and her broad vocal range in songs such as “Fidelity,” “Better,” and “The Call.” Oh, and if you’re a fan of the Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black,” you’d need to thank Spektor whose “You’ve Got Time” opening song has helped to boost the show’s popularity.
Regina Spektor on songwriting:
“I just like being all over the place and writing whatever comes to mind. Having the tools? It’s such a gift.”
“I think songwriters are more related to fiction writers. The Odyssey was a story in song. To me, that’s so beautiful, all those painted characters, all those travels and adventures.’’
After achieving international success as a part of the Eurythmics, Annie Lennox went solo with 1992’s Diva. Famous for writing and performing songs like “Sweet Dreams,” “Walking on Broken Glass,” and “Why,” she’s also won a Golden Globe and Academy Award for The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King feature song, “Into the West.” In 2013, Annie received the Music Industry Trusts Award for her career achievements in music and charity.
Annie Lennox on songwriting:
“You know, I would say that songwriting is something about the expression of the heart, the intellect and the soul.”
“I also started writing songs because I had this burning activity in my heart and had to express myself.”
“Every artist has to make their own statements and they have to live with them.’’
“I think music is the most phenomenal platform for intellectual thought.”
I kept this magnificent artist for last because there is so much to say about her. Sia Furler – better known as Sia – is a great inspiration to me artistically and personally, in music, dance, and just how she lives her life in general. She shot to fame in the last decade or so, but Sia started out writing hits for artists like Christina Aguilera before pursuing a full time solo career. She contributed to Christina Aguilera’s Bionic album, in addition to co-writing songs for numerous recording artists like Beyoncé, Flo Rida, and Rihanna. So prolific has Sia been that she was able to launch a chart topping album, filled with songs that were turned down by artists such as Rihanna and Adele. You can identify a Sia song from a mile away: that soaring, uplifting chorus in songs such as “Chandelier” and “Titanium,” as well as the vivid metaphors. No wonder her songs have appeared in some of the biggest movies in recent years, including the Fifty Shades trilogy.
Sia on songwriting:
“I’ll be the songwriter for pop stars and then they can be the front person and I don’t have to be famous.”
“People call me for the ballads. Apparently that’s where I’ve been pigeonholed. But it’s really interesting and really fun. It’s my favorite part of the job, writing.”
So, here’s my take after a look into the art of songwriting….
Songwriting isn’t just a man’s world. Women from around the world embrace songwriting as an expression of their inner selves. Some even dominate the field. Others have immortalized themselves as legends in their own right.
And the best thing?
These women inspire ambitious musicians who eventually become fantastic songwriters as well. All in all, I take my hat off to the great songwriters out there who are capable of taking something from concept, to producing lyrics and harmony, to the song demo production stage, and finally to a complete song, ready for the airwaves.
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