Songwriting Saturday: What’s The Story?


As I mentioned in a previous post, I believe that all songs should tell a story. One of the easiest ways to tell a beginner from a more seasoned songwriter is by looking at how much attention they’ve paid to maintaining continuity of narrative. Beginners will often spend an entire song describing scenery, rather than setting the scene as a foundation upon which to build their central story.

Fellow songwriters: don’t fall into this trap! While it can be a good way of getting into songwriting and discovering your creative voice, I encourage you to not get stuck in that stage of your creative development. If you’re not already incorporating the art of storytelling into your songs, then aim to start today!

So what do I mean by storytelling? Well, I don’t mean that all songs must be written in a past-tense, third person, once-upon-a-time kind of style. What I mean is that each song should have a central theme or message, and that everything in your song should help support and convey that message.

The kinds of songs that don’t tell a story are those that spend an entire three-and-a-half minutes (or more) talking about how the sun is shining and the sky is so blue and the sand is warm, etc. Descriptive language and scene-setting should enhance your story, not replace it. So go ahead and talk about the sky, but not to the exclusion of a central story. Imagine reading a book that was all description and no plot! You probably wouldn’t even make it through the first chapter before getting bored and giving up.

Great examples of storytelling songs:

1. YesterdayThe Beatles
2. Make BelieveJJ Heller
3. Devils and DustBruce Springsteen
4. DirtThe Collection
5. Driving with the Brakes OnDel Amitri (in fact, just about every song by Del Amitri)
6. Fountain of SorrowJackson Browne
7. A Case of YouJoni Mitchell
8. Ain’t My HomeMarc Scibilia
9. The Lighthouse’s TaleNickel Creek
10. Let That Be EnoughSwitchfoot

Each of these songs is written in such a way as to grab your attention from the very first line and hold it for the remainder of the song. Their subject is clear, and every adjective and descriptive phrase is used as a tool to drive the central story or message home.

Start listening to story-telling songs like the ones listed above, and take note of the ways in which the writers weave together a complete and cohesive narrative, all the space of a few short minutes. Next time you write a song, be clear on the story you’re trying to tell, and let everything else support that.

Do you think story-telling is an important aspect of songwriting? Is this something you’ve struggled with or would like to learn more about? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!


Photo courtesy of The Bees on Flickr

Inspiring Artist of the Week: JJ Heller


I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been told I need to write “happier” or more upbeat and commercially viable songs if I hope to be a success. I decided early on in my career that I wasn’t going to compromise my art in the hope of becoming a mainstream success – I want my songs to mean something, even if that means that they have less mass appeal. Imagine my joy when I first discovered an artist who is doing the exact same thing, and making a great success of it. That artist is JJ Heller.

I’m a firm believer that songs should tell a story. Sadly, the mainstream music industry doesn’t seem to agree with me. JJ Heller is one of a few contemporary artists I’ve discovered who understands (and has mastered) the art of story-telling through song. Listening to her music is like reading lots of little books – each story is detailed and complete, despite being an average of just three-to-four minutes long!

Credit must also go to her husband, Dave Heller, who co-writes the songs and plays guitar, as well as singing backing vocals.

An addition to their story-telling, another thing I love about the way the Hellers write is that they have an aptitude for crafting great melodies. A lot of current music is monotonous in comparison with the melodic songs of the past. JJ and Dave do not neglect this important aspect of songwriting, and seem to have a clear understanding of the concept that a great melody will enhance and support the central story of a song.

To date, JJ has released six studio albums and one EP. Her latest record, Loved was released last week, and has already been making a huge impact on its listeners (myself included). Produced by Cason Cooley and Ben Shive, the sound is quite a radical departure from her past records. This was a very brave move, and it really paid off. I love it when artists continually grow and take risks, rather than just sticking with what they know works. Loved is less “stripped” than previous albums – heavier on the drums, bass, keys and effects. Production-wise, it’s reminiscent of Sarah McLachlan‘s Afterglow album, but with a unique identity of its own. The production is tasteful and a wonderful enhancement to the songs, which are so good that they stand up all on their own, even when all the extras are stripped away (as is proven by the acoustic bonus tracks on the deluxe version of the record).

This post would not be complete if I didn’t mentioned JJ’s voice. The first time I heard her sing was in 2008, when my husband, Cuan played me her album, Only Love Remains. In this age of X-Factor and American Idol, where “power” and volume seem to be the only things that impress, it was so refreshing to hear someone singing straight from the heart. JJ’s delivery is honest, unpretentious and, quite simply, beautiful. She doesn’t give in to the temptation to use her vocal ability un-tastefully, for the sake of being “flashy”. She sings in the way which best services each song, delivering each story with beautiful sincerity. Tonally, there is something about her voice that brings a lump to my throat whenever I hear it. I would even go so far as to say that JJ’s is my favourite of all the female voices I’ve heard.

Watching JJ Heller’s career soar has given me hope – hope that there really are plenty of people out there who like music that deals with real issues, that isn’t superficial or shallow. Hope that it really is possible to be a successful independent artist, without the backing of a major label. I encourage you all to support JJ, so that she and Dave can continue doing what they do so beautifully. Now, more than ever, we need to be celebrating and investing in the artists who are creating something authentic and heartfelt.

My Top 5 JJ Heller Songs:
1. Kingdom Come
2. Loved
3. Control
4. What Love Really Means (Love Me)
5. Who You Are

Has JJ’s music inspired you in some way? Let me know in the comments section below!

Purchase Loved and other JJ Heller albums here

Visit JJ’s Official Website

Follow JJ on Twitter

Like JJ on Facebook


Why I Don’t Write “Christian Music”

Mali & Me

My husband, Cuan and I are believers. That is, we believe that Jesus is Lord, that he died to redeem us, and that Bible is the true and inspired Word of God. We are also musicians. You could say that we are “Christian musicians”. This is true, in that we are Christians and we are also musicians. However, a question that we frequently get asked by fellow believers is, “Do you write Christian music?”, or, “Why don’t you play Christian music”, or something to that effect. In this post, I hope to give you a new perspective on how faith and art can interact.

Firstly, let’s define what it means to be “Christian”. According to my understanding, a Christian is someone (i.e. a human being, not an object or an abstract concept) who has accepted Jesus as their Lord and saviour and is now following Him. The word “Christian” literally means “little Christ” – a term coined by the Romans, who noticed that the followers and disciples of Jesus conducted themselves much like He did. Thus, the word “Christian” can only be accurately applied to a person, since a) it is not possible for anything other than a person to accept Jesus as their Lord and be saved into the church of Christ, and b) it is not possible for anything other than a person to behave in a Christ-like manner. As such, the term “Christian Music” is a huge misnomer. Music can be inspired by Christ, or written by Christian people. It can reflect spiritual truths, or even directly quote the Bible. But these things don’t make the music itself “Christian”, since the music itself cannot choose to follow Christ.

I also dislike the assumption that anything other than overt “Worship Music” must, by default, be “secular” (the term “Worship Music” is also a misnomer, since all music is an expression of worship towards something). Secular means, “of the world”. The Bible is very clear that “the world” is at enmity with God. So what happens when one writes a song that is not a “worship song”, but strongly reflects a spiritual truth? How can it be categorised as “secular” or “of the world”, when truth is the very thing God delights in and the world rebels against?

It is true that we should glorify God in our work (in all we do, in fact). But what does this actually mean, on a practical level? Must a Christian carpenter carve Bible verses into all of his products in order to glorify God in his work? Must a Christian architect only design church buildings? What about someone who cleans toilets for a living? Is he spiritually inferior because he’s not a qualified preacher-man? Does his life glorify God less than that of a pastor? The answer, of course, is no – at least, not by default.

Christianity is not a genre – it’s a way of life. Equally, worship is not a genre. It too is a way of life, a condition of the heart. With every decision we make, we can either glorify or deny God, and which one of these we do is usually dependent on the motive or heart behind it. It is possible to stand in a church building and lead worship, without actually worshipping God. Equally, it is possible to do very ordinary things (e.g. wash dishes) in a manner that brings glory to God.

So, back to the original question: why don’t I write Christian music? Firstly, because (as discussed above) there is no such thing. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that the question is, “Why don’t you write music that overtly praises Jesus?” The main answer is that I don’t believe that’s what God wants me to do right now (that’s not to say that I don’t praise Jesus with my heart and with my very life). “Worship Music” is exclusively for Christians, and is not really something that non-believers can participate in. Whilst I know that not everyone will love what I do, or be able to relate to my songs, I don’t want to deliberately exclude anyone. I have no problem with those who do choose to write music exclusively for the purpose of edifying the church, but I don’t believe it’s what God wants me to do at this point in my life. If that changes, you can bet the content of my songs will change too. At present, the desire of my heart is to relate spiritual truths to believers and non-believers alike – to encourage those who already believe, and to bring a message of hope to those who don’t. I honestly feel like I don’t have much to do with most of the songs I write – they’re gifts, over which I am given stewardship. As such, I have no desire to strive to write anything other than what I feel compelled to write.

I hope this makes sense, and clears up some confusion for those who have been wondering why on earth a Christian would write anything other than “Worship Music”. If you have any questions, or have had direct experience with this particular issue, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Peace and love,


Photo courtesy of Warren Fleming

Opening for Just Jinjer at The Lost Plot

Yesterday was an amazing day for Mali & Me, as we had the privilege of opening for one of South Africa’s most well-loved bands, Just Jinjer. The venue – The Lost Plot – overlooks the Knysna Lagoon, and is arguably one of the most beautiful in the Garden Route!

The stage backdrop at The Lost Plot

Tigger kicked the day off with a fantastic set, which included some amazing original songs.

Tigger, getting the party started

We played after Tigger, and had an awesome time entertaining the beautiful crowd, who were more than happy to brave the less-than-perfect weather in order to hear some live music.

Getting ready to play

Once we were done, Just Jinjer took to the stage and rocked the party!

This photo is actually from their soundcheck – we were far too busy enjoying the music to think about taking photos during their set!

Thanks so much to The Lost Plot for hosting such an amazing event, and thanks to the wonderful people of Knysna (and the surrounding areas) for making it so memorable. You guys rock!

The lovely locals, showing their support for live music

See you at the next show! 


Photo’s courtesy of Cuan Korsten.