How to Choose Songs for an Album:
Discover how Helen Shanahan chose songs for her album “Canvas” in this clarifying checklist:
Write lots of songs to choose from
Helen wrote songs each week in I Heart Songwriting Club to a total of 70 songs, which she then chose from to make this album. All of those songs were written simply for practice and to see what she could create. This no-expectation, non-attachment writing practice can allow you to discover new themes and ways of writing in a fun and exploratory way. Plus it will give you a lot of songs to choose from. And having a lot of songs gives you the luxury of perspective to discover your best work yet… and some hidden gems.
Make a shortlist of your favorite songs
Helen went through all 70 songs herself to find what she was feeling connected to and shortlisted 20 songs out of the 70. We recommend shortlisting what songs YOU love the most at this point.
Share your shortlisted songs with trusted people
Show your shortlisted song list to some trusted people and get their input. Helen makes a spreadsheet with some specific questions, including asking them to choose their 10 songs for the album.
As a writer it can be hard to critique your own work. We can get attached to certain things – which can be really good in one way as we want to be connected to our work – but it can also be really empowering and clarifying to have a few people that you really trust and you feel comfortable showing your material to, to see what connects with them and see if there’s any common ground between them.
Make your final album cut
Traditionally 9-12 songs made an album, but with digital releases, many traditions which were based on format have gone out the window. Helen chose 10 songs for her album “Canvas”. She used the feedback from others, to see what people were leaning towards, but in the end made the final call for herself.
When making the final song choices, consider the following points:
Consider variety and flow for the album set list
Look at the range of tempo, the dynamic of the set list and find a balance (you might not want an album of all finger-picking or all uptempo songs).
Consider any previous releases
Use your song choices to give your audience another way of seeing you as an artist; to show your artistic and personal evolution. Especially if this is not your first album. A powerful point Helen makes is that she wanted to set this album apart from things she’d previously released and show a new side of herself. This required her to be a bit brutal and cut songs she may have really loved but didn’t offer anything new.
Share your boldest songs unashamedly
Share what is unique to you unashamedly to the world. Helen used to choose songs based on what she thought other people wanted to hear. Her album “Canvas” didn’t conform to what anyone else wanted. Helen talks about how she can stand behind this album and the songs and message on it and know that she didn’t pander to anyone and can be proud of this.
Trust your gut
In the end, go with the clearest choices. If you’re labouring over choices and overthinking it, then it’s probably not the clearest choice. Go with the clearest choice. Helen says that the practice in the Club encourages her to trust her gut. The 1 hour writing gets you tapping into instinct and following that instinct.
How to Empower Yourself in the Recording Studio
Helen’s experience remotely recording “Canvas” from Perth, Australia with Brad Jones in Nashville, USA was an incredibly empowering and fortifying experience for Helen. But she also shares that not all her studio experiences have been like that.
There are so many varying experiences that people can have in the recording studio. From amazing creative and empowering experiences to experiences that are really, really different to that.
When things don’t go as expected in the recording studio, how do you manage this? How do you handle things when your song is not sounding as you had envisioned it?
Many emerging artists, especially those who are less experienced in the studio or around production, might not feel confident or sure about how to handle tricky conversations in the studio. Helen and Francesca share some ways that we can empower ourselves to ask for what we want:
Step away and get some perspective
If something isn’t going as planned, firstly flip the fear perspective and see it as a learning opportunity. Step away from the situation and collect your thoughts: Are you enjoying this recording experience? Are you feeling heard? What is different to how I expected it to be?
Reflect back to your initial conversation about the recording
Hopefully you’ve had a clear conversation about what you wanted to get out of the project and your shared goals. Reflecting back on the conversation, what is different from that conversation to what is happening now?
Make dot points about what’s not working (and what is working)
Be rational about this. We are dealing with our songs (which we are commonly very attached to), so making dot points can help us to articulate what’s going on for us, in order to be able to communicate with more clarity. Be clear to point out what is different to what you had initially discussed.
Set up a conversation with your recording engineer/producer
Bring your clear thoughts back to the collaboration and be straightforward. You can start with something like: “I feel the song isn’t being represented in the way that I envision it and there are a few things that are different to what we initially discussed…” and then go through the list of relevant and rational points about what’s not working about it. Balance this out with what is working, if this is relevant.
Listen after sharing
How the other person responds will tell you all you need to know, so listen. Was what you shared received well? Did they hear you? Are they willing to address the concerns? Are they justifying their choices and not willing to make changes?
Decide how you will continue
Here are your obvious choices – stay and work together in a way that supports the song, stay and work together in a way that is not empowering for you, or walk away. Which one serves you best? (we recommend choosing the one that allows you to feel most empowered).
You’re hiring a person to help you realise a project because you need their skill set, input or equipment. You are not expected to know everything about production – that’s their job. However, you know what you like and you know how you want your songs to feel. That’s the part that you’re bringing to this.
Because our sense of self can be intertwined with our songs, we can get disillusioned about what this relationship really is. When you hire someone, know that you are the client, you are the one paying the bills. Who do YOU want to work with? How can they elevate your songs and take them to the next level? And what experience do they have around this and what are they telling you about that? You’re within your rights to say what you want. It’s a transaction and you’ve hired them to do a job.
Whilst this may be really uncomfortable in reality, this conversation will help you learn how to be able to communicate what you want for your songs and this is a skill that develops over time, over different projects working with different people.
We hope that you find people you love to work with, that believe in your work, and respect you, and that you continue to surround yourself with them. Ultimately, these are the relationships that will support and sustain our careers.
Need some help on your songwriting path?
Helen is a songwriting mentor in our Beginner Songwriting Courses. Find out more here.
Timestamps for podcast audio:
4:00 – Helen shares how the carthartic process of writing her album “Canvas” allowed her to heal and transcend her past.
9:05 – Helen’s early music and songwriting experience is discussed here – guitar lessons, journal writing and even writing musicals!
15:45 – Helen shares how she learnt to develop and craft her own songs at a young age from listening to and analysing the songs of her idol Missy Higgins.
21:49 – And how many years later, how she worked with Missy Higgins and how Missy unofficially chose a song on the “Canvas” album.
26:55 – Helen talks about how she picked her songs for her album.
32:33 – We discuss choosing songs that please others versus being able to please yourself for your musical projects.
35:13 – Helen shares how she recorded remotely between Perth and Nashville and how unique this process was.
50:27 – As singer-songwriters, we discuss how we can empower ourselves in the recording studio.
1:01:45 – Helen talks about writing the song “Canvas” in the Club and how the story revealed itself to her after being prompted by the word, Lessons.
1:09:36 – Helen performs “Canvas” live at IHSC HQ.
About Helen Shanahan:
Perth-based songwriter and artist, Helen Shanahan started her career winning the Telstra Road to Discovery national songwriting competition, and being signed to Mushroom Music Publishing. Soon after she released her debut album, which won WAM Song of the Year. Helen has support artists like Missy Higgins, Tim Minchin and Passenger, and has recently released her sophomore album.
Song Credit: “Canvas” – Written by H. Shanahan (Mushroom Music). Performed live by Helen Shanahan at I Heart Songwriting Club Headquarters.
Episode Show Notes:
Get your creativity, confidence, and songwriting output flowing. Join The Club and receive the support and structure to write 10 songs in 10 weeks and get feedback from a private peer community. This is THE essential writing practice that has changed the careers and lives of 1000s of songwriters worldwide.
Just getting started on your songwriting journey and need more hands-on support? Establish a firm foundation and develop your musical and lyric skills with our Beginner Songwriting Courses. They are the perfect place to begin and cover everything you need to know to write your first songs. You’ll receive lessons from Francesca directly!
Don’t struggle to write your next album – write an album a year with ease! Watch our Free Songwriting Masterclass.
Want more for your songwriting but don’t know where to go from here? Take the I Heart Songwriting Club Quiz to discover your next steps and inspire your way to writing better songs.
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Podcast theme song: “Put One Foot In Front Of The Other One” music and lyrics by Francesca de Valence
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