On Songwriting | Musings On How To Write a Song

Rita Hosking On Songwriting

Rita Hosking On Songwriting

Northern California’s Rita Hosking sings of forest fires, culture clash, demolition derbies, the working class… and hope.

From major California music festivals to Bob Harris’s BBC show, Rita is moving audiences around the globe with her stories in song and doubly sweet and sinewy voice. A descendant of Cornish miners who sang in the mines, she grew up with a deep regard for folk music and the power of the voice.

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”B00BI46XOY” locale=”us” height=”110″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51yiIotr4NL._SL110_.jpg” width=”110″]Rita’s style of country-folk has been lauded for story and sense of place, and her performances praised for capturing the audience. She’s received album accolades for “[easyazon-link asin=”B005PTDO7C” locale=”us”]Burn[/easyazon-link]” and “[easyazon-link asin=”B002FG9LS4″ locale=”us”]Come Sunrise[/easyazon-link]” here and abroad, and she was winner of the 2008 Dave Carter Memorial Songwriting Contest, and finalist in the 2009 Telluride Troubadour Contest. Her brand new 2013 record, “[easyazon-link asin=”B00BI46XOY” locale=”us”]Little Boat[/easyazon-link],” is scheduled for release in the U.S and Europe… today, March 5!


What inspires you to write original music?


I’ve always had music in my head, and have been labeled as “quiet” most of my life. Music became the strongest, most effective form of expression for me, so I like it to be my own. You know what I mean? It comes from the core. Not to say I can’t put heart into cover songs — I can — but I’m extremely careful about where/how I lay my soul out to be heard. Plus I just love coming up with songs. I have as long as I can remember.

Rita Hosking On Songwriting

Rita Hosking performed in Sutter Creek, CA in June 2012. Photo by Don Dowell


The songs you write have been described as heartfelt, defiant, vivid, and authentic. Do you purposely strive for these qualities, or do they emerge more organically as your songs develop?


I’d say I definitely strive toward heartfelt and authentic. I guess I’m looking to get through people’s skin. That’s the power of music. I will craft the songs to give me an opportunity to deliver it, and I work hard to bring it to my performances. I’m very thankful for the chance to do it!

Being vivid is part of being a good storyteller, so I certainly try to paint pictures and get attention with words. And defiant, well, I’d agree that is a part of what I have to express.

Defiance can come as anger, or as dignity in the face of demise. Gratefully, the art allows us to say these things and more in a “safe” space, where performer and audience can share it and feel it in a kindred way, without having to respond beyond an applause.


You’ve been amazingly busy since releasing your first CD in 2005 — five projects to the good and another being released today*. Where is all this creativity of yours coming from?


There always seems to be creativity, if I have the mental and emotional space to let it come. The hardest parts are finding time enough to write, perform, and promote — and finding money to record, publish and promote. I see so many possibilities when I write songs, it can be overwhelming — the amount of choice there is. Choice of sound, feeling, message, rhythm, etc… Sometimes I feel like what I come up with, for a record, doesn’t do justice to the wide array of options to be had. I have to assure myself that I can’t do it all in one album. ☺


What, in your opinion, are the essential components of a good song?


First rule of songwriting is that there are no rules, right? With that disclaimer in place, I’ll take a stab at a couple.

For one, there is a balance between consistency (or repetition) and variation in melody. Say I’ve come up with a basic verse, chorus, bridge, etc. tune. It’s not done, of course. I still have to sing through it many times until I get all the little alt-melody starts and endings just so.

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”B005PTDO7C” locale=”us” height=”110″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/31hb-GAwokL._SL110_.jpg” width=”110″]If only I change that second verse a bit in the middle, growl through the third one, and then end it with an upward push, it will strike the needed balance between consistency and variation. I will drive my family crazy singing it over and over—with very little changes here and there–testing out the nuances to find the right combination.

Another stab: the lyrics have been studied and edited to make sure that each word has a specific role. Every line, every phrase has a job to do in delivering the song. Even if it’s the role of space-filler—“I put in the word ‘the’ because I needed one more syllable to sing it like I wanted to.” That’s totally fair. Or, “na na ya oh baby ya” is there because it sounds cool and is fun to sing.

Very good, just as long as you know why it’s there and you’re happy with it. It’s tough to sing a song with real heart if you’re not behind every word.

Rita Hosking On Songwriting

Rita Hosking at the Kate Wolf Festival in 2012. Photo by Lea Ann Bernick


What is your process for writing an original song?


I usually come up with a small melody idea, and sing it with mostly nonsense (vs. hard and fast lyrics.) Maybe I’ll keep a few words of the nonsense, but mostly I was using it to hold onto the melody. Then I’ll sit down and play around with the melody—try variations, try different rhythms, try different keys, try to identify if it’s a potential verse or chorus.

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”B000TXNIRU” locale=”us” height=”110″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51GjusU0xwL._SL110_.jpg” width=”110″]Meanwhile, I’m searching for meanings—maybe I had a meaning in mind when it came, or I need to start on one. Often I’ll keep some of the original nonsense words, because I enjoy how they sound, and they fit an idea. In other words, they begin to make sense.

Once I have a basic verse and chorus structure, the real maze of words begins. The paper I use is completely full of lines written at different angles, circles, lots of arrows, labels….let’s just say I use the whole piece of paper.

I really enjoy the process of finding lyrics, watching a story or message develop, and putting them all into place like pieces of a puzzle. In the thick of it I’ll decide I need a bridge (or not,) or some kind of riffing, and the song arrangement slowly falls in place after playing it over and over, until I feel it’s tight and moving.


Do your songs tend to be born as spontaneous combustion or percolated on the back burner for a while?


Some of both, but largely they percolate. It can take me anywhere from 24 hours to a year to write a song, but I’d guess that most take a couple weeks to a few months. Deadlines help, a lot.


What insights can you offer about the process of marketing original music?


If you are the writer and performer, you are putting your 100% behind the music. It can feel very risky and scary to put it out there.

People want to sum you up in a one-liner, and if you fight it, you’ll lose.

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”B002FG9LS4″ locale=”us” height=”110″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/511geXbpf3L._SL110_.jpg” width=”110″]Think about how you see yourself and your music, and help define where they’ll put you, because they’ll definitely put you somewhere. You can use your promotional material as an opportunity to help listeners understand you better and become more interested in your music. Who are your listeners, and how can you relate to them more?

I’ve found that telling audiences some background behind the songs has opened many doors to relating.


What have you learned (so far) about the art of composing music that would be helpful to other songwriters?


Well, I’m always looking for tips myself! Here’s a bit I’ve shared:

Develop some tricks to get past being “stuck.” For instance, if you’re stymied by a tough rhyme for a line, make a fast “rhyme list”—list all the words that rhyme with that word. If that doesn’t help, choose a synonym to rhyme with. Or skip it, move on and come back later—maybe you’ll decide on different words anyway.

If you have a topic in mind for a song but can’t seem to start anything, try a different, easier topic and write a song about that. Or make a “spider map”—brainstorm imagery, sounds, smells that you associate with a central idea. Have a piece but don’t know where to go? Try a completely different rhythm. The worst thing is giving up entirely.

If you perform your own songs, write for your voice. For instance, we’re not all pop singers, so if you give yourself a huge soaring chorus when you don’t have the vocal chops and auto-tuners to back you up, it’s not gonna sound good. If you write to your own strengths, people will think you’re fantastic… and you are!

Rita Hosking On Songwriting

Rita Hosking on stage at the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley CA on January 27, 2013. Photo by by Rick Warrick


Tools of the Trade

What instruments do you use when developing a new song?

Rita:My acoustic, dreadnought guitar—it’s a 1967 Epiphone Frontier. Solid, old, maple body. It has beautiful tone—a choppy but smooth sound where the notes in the chords are sewn together so well it’s hard to see the seams.

What devices do you use to record your songwriting ideas?

Rita:I just turn on the [easyazon-link asin=”B0074703CM” locale=”us”]MacBook Pro[/easyazon-link] laptop and use Photo Booth, I guess? I video-record, it’s horrible quality, but it’s very quick and I can see my hands playing and recall the melody clearly. I only do that for a basic, quick melody idea. After I’ve worked on it, I won’t forget it.

Do you use any software in your songwriting process?

Rita: No.

Are there any other items you consider essential for your songwriting toolkit?

Rita:Paper and a pencil or pen. Sometimes I’ll consult a dictionary or the computer to look up the meaning of a word, synonyms, and so on. Or I’ll need to research a bit — “wildflowers of Norway” or something strange like that. I do own a rhyming dictionary though I find I prefer to use the rhymes my head comes up with, as they make the most sense.


Rita’s Links:




Music by Rita Hosking:


[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B00BI46XOY” locale=”us” height=”500″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51yiIotr4NL.jpg” width=”500″]


[easyazon-link asin=”B00BI46XOY” locale=”us”]Little Boat[/easyazon-link]

[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B002FG9LS4″ locale=”us” height=”500″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/511geXbpf3L.jpg” width=”500″]


[easyazon-link asin=”B002FG9LS4″ locale=”us”]Come Sunrise[/easyazon-link]


[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B000TXNIRU” locale=”us” height=”500″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51GjusU0xwL.jpg” width=”500″]


[easyazon-link asin=”B000TXNIRU” locale=”us”]Silver Stream[/easyazon-link]


[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B000CAEJVO” locale=”us” height=”500″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51vwObDC7eL.jpg” width=”500″]


[easyazon-link asin=”B000CAEJVO” locale=”us”]Are You Ready?[/easyazon-link]


[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B005PTDO7C” locale=”us” height=”200″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/31hb-GAwokL.jpg” width=”200″]


[easyazon-link asin=”B005PTDO7C” locale=”us”]Burn[/easyazon-link]

One Comment

  1. I am loving my copy of “Little Boat.” I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Her song “Clean” is a 5-minute lesson in Excellence in Songwriting. Each song on the CD has something unique and beautiful to offer. Highly recommended.