David Myhr’s Soundshine is Hooks and Harmony’s 2012 Album of the Year, and with good reason: it’s a quintessential pop album containing a panoply of perfectly composed songs. It’s full of memorable hooks, soaring melodies and chord progressions that would make Paul McCartney envious.
Myhr, who hails from Sweden, has an impressive resume of pop music songwriting. He was one-half of the songwriting duo behind the power pop band the Merrymakers, and he also contributed music for the Japanese band Puffy AmiYumi. He knows how to write a melody, and he’s teaching a new generation of aspiring songwriters as well. Over the holidays, Myhr was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his album and about his songwriting process.
Soundshine is a very positive album. Did writing in a major key come by accident?
Before I begin I want to take the opportunity to say that I am extremely humbly thankful and also proud of having Soundshine named Album of the Year. A true honor! Thank you so much!
One of the reasons that the songs are positive songs in major keys is that the majority of them originally weren’t written in an album context but rather in “let’s try to write a strong up-tempo single with a sing-a-long-chorus for Japanese artists” mode. Also, it was done over a period of almost eight years when the Merrymakers had gotten stuck in our creative collaboration. When it was time for recording an album I picked the strongest songs that I had lying around, so it became almost like a “greatest hits” from a decade of writing. It’s an attempt to make an “all killers – no fillers” album.
I have noted that happy songs, funnily enough, sometimes seem to scare people away, and I think that’s a shame. I love a lot of happy songs, although they often get even better if the lyrics aren’t all happy-go-lucky as well.
I’m fascinated by a quote you gave J-Pop World in which you said, “One day I might aim for a Ph.D. with the goal of finding the magic behind a great melody so I can spend the rest of my life going to conventions and telling people what the trick is.” Yet you seem to have figured something out. Now that you’ve been doing this for a while, do you have any wisdom to impart?
The strongest melodies in my opinion have a lot of repetition in them – either melodic, harmonic or rhythmical repetition. But it has to be done in a smart way so it doesn’t get boring. That’s why there always has to be some kind of “magic moment” as well: an unexpected jump in the melody or an unexpected chord that makes you go “wooohhh”.
Also we have the obvious stuff: There has to be a dynamic in the song, a lot of words and syllables in the verse, long nice vocals to sing on in the chorus, etc. Of course, it’s recommended that the chorus melody is in a little higher register as well. Lastly, there has to be a pay-off at the end of the chorus with the obvious hook. It’s all pretty easy when you think about it, isn’t it?
What I personally find really difficult is to find words to put to the notes… so every lyricist with a pop feel are more than welcome to contact me for future co-writing adventures!
Why is pop music more popular in Japan and Sweden? Are you just happier than we are?
I don’t know if it’s more popular in Sweden than anywhere else. But it’s definitely very popular to MAKE pop music, and Sweden is a leading music export nation. However, the competition within Sweden is horrible and there’s only room for very few artists at a time in the media. And power pop isn’t exactly in the center of attention this year either, so all this means I’m a quite obscure artist in my home country, I’m afraid. Therefore I am very thankful for the Internet which allows me to reach out to music lovers in other countries who may find listening pleasure in what I do.
Japan has been a great market for many genres through the years. I remember in the 90’s there was a separate section for Swedish music in the record stores. I think that has changed now though and that the market for international artists has shrunk a lot.
But I think what both markets have in common is that there is a demand for a certain melancholy in the melodies. Although it’s true that my album in general is “happier” than, say, a Coldplay album, I do try to find just that little stroke of sadness here and there. For instance, in the opening track “Never Mine” there’s not a lot of happiness. “I was always yours but you were never mine” is a quite sad phrase, isn’t it? Ha ha, I feel like I’m defending myself from the accusation of being too happy.
Your Soundcloud mashup of all the choruses on Soundshine shows how this album is full of hooks. Why are choruses important, and how do you write a good one?
A song without a strong chorus is a pretty boring song. There’s nothing to look forward to. Nothing to sing along to. Nothing to make you get that “larger than life” feeling that makes your day brighter.
How do you write a good one? Well, it seems like no one has the answer. I’d recommend banging at the piano or the guitar until you have a little bit of luck and stumble upon something that sounds fresh, unique and creates “butterflies” in your stomach. It’s also important to remember that sometimes the simplest melodies are the best. When I teach songwriting I always use Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” as an example. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Three notes in both verse and chorus. That’s it. But it’s good because it flows. It flies! The words seem to marry themselves to the melody. It’s an enormous payoff. Throwing the three notes up an octave does the whole trick for the dynamics of this song. I really love Tom Petty for the simplicity in his songwriting.
So you actually teach songwriting?
I’m a Senior Lecturer in Musical Performance specializing in Music Production and Ensemble at Lulea University of Technology. My students are mainly those who have entered a three-year bachelor’s program in music – or expressed differently, “rock music at university level”.
I usually start my courses by explaining that songwriting in a way is impossible to teach – mainly because of the fact that there’s no real answer to what makes a great song a great song and even less to what the perfect method for creating a good song is. Had I known all the answers, I’d probably be a full-time hit songwriter instead of teacher in the first place. To make it even more difficult, musical tastes vary enormously from person to person.
The main part of the course is spent listening to songs students bring to class. I act as a sounding board and try to come up with the most clever and constructive feedback I’m able to. I also encourage their course mates to come up with their opinions as well to create an interesting creative discussion. Usually what I contribute with in my feedback is the kind of stuff that I talk about in this interview – Stuff like the K.I.S.S. rule – “keep it simple and singable”.
And I almost always encourage more repetition. I mean… if you have a good first verse – why change it in verse two? I also remind them that many times the best choruses just consist of a title that repeats over and over again – for example, “All You Need is Love” and U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.
How is David Myhr, solo artist different from David Myhr, Merrymakers member in terms of your approach to songwriting and recording?
I have to be more decisive now and not lean back and wait for feedback from the other band members. Because I have no other band members! This also means that decisions are made a lot faster than before. The only one I had to discuss with was my wife before ruining our household economy with my album project that became Soundshine. It has cost me a lot, but at the same time it makes makes my life a lot richer. Also, when I get this kind of response such as “Album of the Year” I feel it was really worth it.
What’s more, my wife was already a fan of the Merrymakers before we met. She’s a power-pop lover and sees nothing wrong in writing happy songs so usually the negotiations go quite well.
Another freedom with being on my own is that I can go into and out of working relations in a completely new way. I’m free to call whomever I want at anytime. For instance, I love surrounding myself with creative musicians and a really skilled mixing engineer instead of trying to do everything myself. Unfortunately, I can’t afford a video team for every song and a promotional department so there’s still a lot of work to be done.
But in musical terms I don’t think I have changed much at all since the days with the Merrymakers. I think I am the same kind of songwriter now – maybe a little more aware of trying to keep things simple. It’s the love of melody that drives me, and my taste hasn’t changed much since I was 12 years old. David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” was my favorite song and The Beatles was my favorite band then, and still is today.
Which modern artists inspire you?
I’m mainly inspired by albums that were released between 1965 and 1975 and artists that started off during that period. And if any modern artist inspires me it’s very likely that they also in their turn are inspired by that period in music.
Among my recent discoveries is the Danish artist Tim Christensen, whose albums “Superiour” and “Honeyburst” are brilliant. I also loved the album “Mountain Jack” by Brad Jones and Hans Rotenberry. The first albums from The Feeling and Keane were also really good. Apart from that I listen to a lot of my label mates at the label Lojinx, like Mike Viola, Bleu, Brendan Benson, Farrah, Josh Fix, Pugwash, and Ken Stringfellow. All of them are wonderfully talented artists!
One last desperate question: Any ideas on how you can get Andy Sturmer back in the studio?
That’s a very good question! Unfortunately we lost touch with him after his time in Sweden working with the Merrymakers for Bubblegun. He doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy who wants to be all over the place. I guess he likes hiding away from the world. If I wrote him an e-mail I’m quite sure he wouldn’t respond. He’s not that kind of guy. So my best guess is a shitload of money would do the trick! Let’s start a fundraising campaign!