Songwriting basics and tips 1: Where do you get your ideas from?

Songwriting Where do you get your ideas from?
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Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist

I thought I’d start off my blogging on this site with a few wee articles about something I’ve been doing for decades, and am pretty sure I know a thing or two about: songwriting.

I hope my observations are useful to any budding writers out there!

Songwriting ideas pt 1:
subject matter –

Most of the time, these days, I’m writing in the traditional Scots idiom. This has its advantages and its disadvantages. In my previous incarnations as a Rock and as an Americana singer, I could write about

Personal experiences,
Political issues,
and just going to the dancing.

As a folkie, the first two are still fair game. However, “Sha na na na shoebox” and “Baby, you’re for me”  type stuff doesn’t really fit into the idiom.

On the other hand, when searching for ideas for folk-type songs, I can now write about Songwriting Storyteller

and Fairy Tales.



This gives me a distinct advantage, as a bit of browsing through my personal library of such items (which is now pretty large) will, more often than not, produce a story that I can probably turn into some kind of ditty. And that’s the hardest part dealt with: finding a theme.


Inspiration is often the product of someone challenging me to write a song about a particular subject – that’s actually easier than it sounds as you’ve no doubt noticed that a subject that hasn’t been done to death is a rare bird indeed.

Songwriting ideasExample: Once, at the bar in the Star Folk Club, Glasgow, someone overheard a conversation between myself and harmonica virtuoso Fraser Speirs (former Paolo Nutini sideman, amongst many other gigs he’s had).


We had been talking about how I’d ended up working at a college that occupied the very site of the locomotive works in Springburn where my Grandfather and uncles had worked before WWII.

Our listener leaned over and said “That would make a good song, would it not?” and The World Came to Springburn (Track 1 of my album Land and Sea) was born. You can hear it on the Shop page of this website.


Songwriting ideas pt 2:
Content –

a) Try to remember to note down interesting phrases you hear or read in aSongwriting Commonplace Book “commonplace book” (a good idea for writers of all sorts, e.g. it helps playwrights and novelists keep their dialogue sounding interesting but natural). My smartphone is dead handy for doing that. Often I hear someone say something that would make a good hook line for a song or the basis of a chorus.


b) Sometimes, what you’re reading can throw up useful phrases and ideas to put in your song.  Here’s a great example that happened to me:

Songwriting ideas
I spotted a Facebook post on an Orkney discussion group that asked if anyone remembered the stories they got at school about Bessie Millie, the Stromness Witch, who “selt winds tae sailors”.

That sounded like an idea I could use, so I Googled “Bessie Millie” and the first site that came up said “she sold luck-charms to whalers.” And as easily as that, there were the opening lines that went on to make up my chorus:

She selt winds tae sailors
An luck-charms tae whalers

I then found two stories about her.

As a young witch, she’d cursed the crew of a revenue boat that was chasing Orcadian smugglers. The crew refused to sail until Captain Phillips set fire to her curtains, and said he’d burn down her whole cottage if she didn’t lift the curse. They came to an agreement, and she even sold him a wind! That became Verse 1.

When she was over 100 years old, Sir Walter Scott visited her while touring the islands (by this time, she was more of a tourist attraction than a scary witch). She told the author the story of John Gow, a pirate she’d known when she was very young. Walter Scott used this as the basis of his novel The Pirate. I used it as the basis of Verse 2, and Bess Millie is also on Land and Sea.


c) If you have a subject in mind, scour the Internet to see whatSongwriting ideas famous (out of copyright!) authors have said about it. I’ve found stuff I can use in Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Christopher Marlowe, and even the Bible – quotes I have even used in Rock songs.

Here’s the chorus I wrote for an old song of mine called Mara (from way back in 2005 when I was still a victim of cultural imperialism, winkeryou can listen to it below).
I adapted it from the central idea of Andrew Marvell’s poem To His Coy Mistress (if you’re into poetry, check it out, it’s a good one).

Had we but world enough,
We could both strut our stuff
Till the cows come home.
And the making of love
We could come to it easy and slow.
If we had time, I would write you a symphony,
Carve out a palace from stone.
But, Mara, that way,
A body could end up alone.

That’s all for today, folks!

Mara © 2005 Bob Leslie
(Lead guitar – Alec Mack, Bass – Chris Glen, Drums – Ted McKenna,
Backing Vcls – Bernadette Collier)


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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter



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