David Myhr did a wonderful interview with Per Gessle about songwriting. The interview appeared on Studio.se in Swedish.
In the intro, David mentions that after ABBA, Roxette is Scandinavia’s biggest music export ever with their 75 million albums sold. Per Gessle’s success as a songwriter is monumental. He is one of only eighteen songwriters who as a sole songwriter had more than two No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 list.
The guys met in Stockholm, in Per’s office on Strandvägen and talked about songwriting. Per thinks it’s always fun. Songwriting is an inexhaustible, hugely complex subject. At the same time, it’s also quite private in a way.
David says it has struck him that for all the incredible success, Per has often emphasized his musical limitations.
I’ve always hid a little behind the fact that I was always the worst in the band, musically. Göran and I were always the worst in Gyllene! Because I wanted to write, I learned early on that I always have to work with people who are much, much better than I am. Even in Roxette, I handpicked everyone around me. And everyone was on a completely different musical level than I am. But… they can’t write my songs. I have used the fact that I can’t do many things to find other stuff.
David adds that Per believes that people who become too sophisticated and too good, easily lose the melodies, because they are looking for something else.
PG says a couple of his idols, e.g. Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell, are good examples of people who have overcomplicated their music. He thinks that knowing a little doesn’t have to be a disadvantage when it comes to songwriting. For those old songs that he wrote, “Billy” and “När alla vännerna gått hem”, from 1977-78, he didn’t know what keys and such things were. There he copied his role models without reinventing the wheel.
David says he has noticed that there is sometimes a superstition among some younger songwriters that they should invent something entirely their own, while everyone is in some form of tradition. That even The Beatles listened to Elvis, Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry.
Everyone listens to everyone, sort of. You hear Woodie Guthrie when you listen to Bob Dylan… Of course you want to be unique and be yourself. But I wanted to belong to pop, the whole romanticism surrounding the pop world. Long hair on guys. The album covers. To enter another world in the headphones and listen to Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side Of The Moon”. There was an amazing romanticism about pop that wasn’t there in anything else.
Per talks nostalgically about his older brother, Bengt, who made Per as a six-seven-eight-year-old grow up with The Beatles, The Hollies, The Kinks, Lovin’ Spoonful, The Yardbirds and The Spencer Davis Group. To then find his own stuff like The Monkees. He also got into the singer/songwriter genre early on.
I was very much a loner when I was growing up and lived a lot in this parallel universe called pop music. For myself. So I could kind of never see myself as a musician or an artist or singing or playing in front of people. It was absolutely not important. However, I was into writing and expressing myself very early on. I wrote lyrics long before I wrote music. I think it came from my mother. She always wrote her own fairy tales for us when we were small and illustrated them. Just for us.
David tells that Per got a Spanish guitar from his mother in 1976 and started playing Leonard Cohen songs fingerstyle. Then he also developed his understanding of both text and chords.
Per tried to translate Bowie’s “Cygnet Committee”. The long, really weird song on “Space Oddity”. And “Memory Of A Free Festival”. He loved that record, but he still doesn’t understand those lyrics. He bought a sheet music and learned the songs because the chords were written in it. He learned C, G7 and so on. But he also remembers his sister sitting and playing “Für Elise” on the piano. PG somehow never connected that (Per hums “Für Elise”) it’s an A minor! He realized it only many years later. Per learned to play the piano from some old lady in Halmstad and thought it was the most boring thing he had ever done in his entire life. Because she never connected that music to what PG was interested in. Had she told Per, “Look at this! Beethoven. A minor, E major, and so on. It’s exactly the same key as “House Of The Rising Sun”, it would have been a little easier. But Per gave up on that. He wasn’t interested in it. He thinks what saved him and made him really take a step forward was when he got to know Mats in Gyllene Tider. But it was also when the punk era came. The new wave. Then it was okay to be lousy and that appealed to Per enormously.
Per about song lyrics
Per talks about inspiration to understand what a song text can look like.
Mr. G says:
Take, for example, “Famous Blue Raincoat” by Leonard Cohen. It’s a letter. It even ends with “sincerely L Cohen” in the text itself. And it’s fascinating that a letter becomes a song text, but it’s not really that strange. If you write a short and concise message to someone, you can repeat the most important thing in the message and it becomes a chorus. It’s not far-fetched. So I mostly think that I hadn’t really found or understood this thing about form, and that it becomes easier if you stay within a form. If you look at, for example, “Billy”, the verses are of different lengths. They kind of stop when MP took over with the guitar and started cranking with his solo.
Song titles as a starting point
David thinks Per is a master of titles and he imagines a song idea often starts with the title. PG says it can start with the title. Titles are important. The title is like the face of the song, what makes one curious. He tells he has an archive of titles or more stanzas than titles that trigger his curiosity.
David says a common songwriting tip is “write down ideas from TV shows or book titles”. He is curious how it works for Per.
I do exactly as you say. I have learned – not only because of age – but also for other reasons, that if you come up with something that you think is interesting, you have to write it down or record it. My phone is jam-packed with messages, tunes and stuff. It could be a title or a stanza or something like that. Or a rhythm. You hear something. It could even be that I’m inside a store where they play music in the room. And then I think “damn this sounds good”. But why don’t they do this instead? And then I can record myself humming it. Although changed, in my way. And then time passes. So when I come home and listen to it after three days, I don’t understand anything. I learned that you have to count in first so you understand later where the one is. It can be very exciting. Because there will be something that triggers something in me. Then something else is created from it and it becomes a third thing in the end.
David understands that Per doesn’t like to work as hard on songwriting as many people say you should. Like Benny Andersson who goes to his grand piano every day and sits there week after week.
No, I don’t get that. I love to write but I do it as little as possible. Because it must be fun! The most difficult thing for me is if, for example, you write a song in English. And then I realize that it would have been great if it was in Swedish. And then I have to start over. Because I almost always write music and lyrics in symbiosis – roughly at the same time – which means that melodies and consonants and vowels and everything kind of fit together. So when I need to translate, I get so locked into how it really was from the beginning. It takes an immense amount of time and very rarely turns out well. So I try to avoid it, actually.
David says it’s kind of an editor’s job to sit down and sift through all the hundreds of voice memos. He is curious about how Per is doing that. PG explains that as soon as he records an idea, he transfers it to the computer where he has a folder called “workshop”. Beneath that, there is a folder called iPhone and there are hundreds of recordings. Text fragments are in another folder.
When Per is in town or sitting in a taxi, then it’s his iPhone that applies:
If you hear a strange person at Bromma airport singing in the toilet, it’s probably me. I usually call this part of the process “antennas out” and it goes on 24/7.
David says he has read that Per thought Gyllene Tider sounded the way he wanted at first around “Kung av sand” and “Juni, juli, augusti”. According to David, there is kind of a late Tom Petty vibe to that thing that the guys got together with Michael Ilbert.
It was something I had felt all along. It’s hard to talk about Gyllene, because we finished so early. Lasse Lindbom, who produced us at the time, also didn’t understand what we wanted to aim at. When I tried to explain something, I couldn’t. But Ilbert understood it immediately.
David wants to know if Per works on a project-by-project basis, so that he didn’t happen to write a GT song in the middle of the Roxette circus.
When I wrote Roxette songs, I wrote almost all the songs for Marie. Then there were songs that she didn’t want to sing for one reason or another. It could be that she thought it was a little too pop. But it was difficult to put a finger on where that line was. “The Big L” and “How Do You Do!” it gets a little bubblegum. But it kind of depended on what mood she was in. She loved it when I came up with this “Queen Of Rain” and the bigger songs. And when I tried to do something a bit R’n’B like “Soul Deep” or “Cry”, then she got to stretch that style a bit.
David is curious how Per works with demos.
I often do several demo versions of the songs. It also goes in waves. Sometimes I just do acoustic demos. But if I’m going to involve other people, I often do it on synths. Maybe just a little loop or something, so that’s easy to change key then. So I don’t do five hours of work organically and then have to redo everything. I’m trying to find as much of the identity as possible for the song to go to the production level as soon as possible.
Key changes are an effective tool
The guys start talking about key changes or modulations as they are called. There is a variation David has noted in several songs that he tends to refer to as the “Per Gessle trick”. The verse in G and the chorus in A. Then back. He thinks it’s damn effective. “Jo-Anna Says”, “Kung av sand”, “June Afternoon” are just a few examples of Gessle songs where the choruses go a whole key above the verses.
It is almost never sought. Or… I don’t think much. Everything is about efficiency in a song. If the melody is cool but ends up wrong, then there are different paths. If there are different singers – for example a boy and a girl – then you can use different octaves. Then it is solved by just the speed. But otherwise, if you want to keep the melodies as they are, you might need a modulation to make it “kick”.
It’s damn neat and that’s lovely. But people skip it! No one dares to change the key. It is such a simple trick that is only in your favor. Because once you’ve learned the song, you can’t hear the song without it. The melody gets better. It becomes a hook just from the speed!
David is curious whether it was usually Per’s experiments that led to these modulations or it was something that Clarence threw in as a hint sometimes.
It certainly has happened. But usually they were written that way. There are so many songs that there were no rules! Clarence has probably done a lot of that too. But the songs for Marie that I demo sang on, when I wrote them, I might not have thought that I would sing the lead. Because I sang everything back then. If it was her song, her verse, her chorus and I’m going to sing it, then I have a problem that I have to solve. Both Clarence and Christoffer Lundquist have always been damn nice to help out. Magnus Börjeson too, for that matter.
David asks Per if he is talking in terms of tonic, dominant and subdominant parallel, but Per doesn’t really know what David means by that. Now David sounds like Clarence and Christoffer when they talk. When they sit and analyze something Per has done, they can sit and talk among themselves. PG sits next to them and doesn’t understand anything.
I’ve gotten old enough that I’ve learned what I like. That’s also why I’ve always surrounded myself with like-minded people. But when you are in it for a long time, you have to leave your little house sometimes and test yourself and do things. It was probably a little bit of that too, which I think made us have such a relatively long, great career anyway. Because Marie knew her jazz, she knew her blues and Clarence knew his prog rock and Jonas knew his stuff, Jeff Beck tricks. And I knew a little of everything, but not very much.
The beginning of a song
David asks Per to take us into a typical scenario when a song is created.
I usually never start writing a song with a title. First comes a musical idea that you think “this is damn hooky” or “this feels great”. Or “I would like to write something in six-eighths”. I’d like to have a certain feel, trying to play around with chords and stuff. And then comes something vague. When you have found a little temperature in what you are doing, you can start looking in your small archive if you want. Or maybe you already have it. While you sit and look for these chords, you might start singing something. Which might be exciting or trigger your imagination in some way. What takes time – much, much longer – is writing lyrics. Because when you get to writing the lyrics, you have quite a lot of music already written. Because otherwise you won’t get to the text anyway. The only time I’ve written music for a finished text is when that text has had another music that I didn’t think was good enough. Then the text remains.
David wants to know more about the process: „You have felt the mood of the musical idea and you may be browsing through your notes for phrases or alternatively start singing along to something. And then you enthusiastically finish writing the melody. Then comes the tough work of finishing the text?”
But it can also be the case that the melody is ready, but it changes because I get into a text flow that requires a different melody. Everything works in symbiosis with each other. So it’s not set in stone. It is never set in stone. I also think that you should take that into account when it comes to songwriting, that songs are never ready. When you then play them with another band or with other people, they sound completely different. They are a creature in a way. After all, it can happen that you record a song, and then when you sit and listen to it during the mixing, you think “damn how long this is… we’ll cut out half the verse”. And then you get a completely different text.
David is curious about how Per finishes the lyrics.
I have a hard time staying focused so I try to write a text in maybe an afternoon. Or… it’s different depending on how complicated the text is. Some texts are very strong for one’s self and sometimes I feel that I have something on my mind that I want to get down. I’m 90% there, but something is missing. And I don’t know what it is. Then it must take time and at least one night must have passed. And then maybe for breakfast… and then I might not even remember how the song goes. I haven’t worn it out. But then I just read the text straight up and down. That’s how I feel: “Damn it! It’s damn good. ” or “That’s clumsy. That’s not good!” And then I go to my office or to the studio and then I sit down again. I red-mark what I need to redo. So I’m constantly trying to trick myself into being focused somehow. Because I don’t get better from kneading. The song doesn’t get better from knowing it better. On the contrary. I trust 100 percent in my gut feeling, in my spontaneity.
I notice that when I work in the studio with other people as well. What I’m good at is capturing their spontaneity. Because they are not good at it themselves. Because they don’t know what they are doing. Most of them are very good singers and musicians, they just play damn well all the time. But they have a very hard time understanding when they are extremely good. But it suits me just fine. It’s a subjective thing. I remember Marie saying that she always thought she sang best when I was in the studio directing her. Because she didn’t hear it herself. She always sang well, but that stuff that was exceptionally good, she couldn’t pick them herself. And so it is for sure with my stuff. I cannot judge the quality. It means a lot to me. But if it is commercial…? I’m the worst in the world at picking singles. What is a hit? How to write a hit? I have no idea! I’m interested in pop music and it’s in the nature of pop music to be catchy. But I’m not too fond of modern pop music, because I don’t think it’s particularly catchy.
About choosing not to move forward with a song
David asks Per if he is good at killing his darlings.
I usually “kill my darlings” earlier than that. It’s very rare that I go so far as to record it, even as an acoustic demo. The reason I do an acoustic demo is because, for example, Clarence or Christoffer say: “We don’t want your bloody demos! Record the songs acoustically and we’ll do the rest. So we’re open-minded”.
David is curious whether Per ever speaks on the subject or gives any type of workshops, teaching songwriting.
No, I talk about so many other things all the time. When I release stuff, I don’t really need to talk about it anymore. Then I don’t want to talk too much about being creative. Because it takes away a bit of the mystery, the creativity. I think it’s my thing.
To David’s surprise that he could come and talk to Per about songwriting PG reacts:
I think it’s fun to talk. It’s a little different these days too. Because I do so very little. When I sit in Nyhetsmorgon and talk or do TikTok stuff, I just talk about the new songs and talk about how they came about and I try to remember. Nonsense. But what we’re talking about now is fun!
What makes a good melody
David asks Per what a good melody is.
I’m always looking for something that gets me hooked. It’s a kind of rush when you hit it right. I remember sitting in that room writing (points to the office) “The Loneliest Girl In The World” as it came to be called. I was just sitting there plinking and then I started singing this (humming) and thought “how cool is that”. I just felt – like all of me – cool chorus! And then it was like putting together a puzzle. How do I maximize the chorus? And then I wrote the verses that didn’t get in the way of the chorus. And “what’s it going to be called?”. Then this idea “the loneliest girl in the world” came up. And then I thought maybe it’s too depressing. But, no, because sometimes it’s really exciting if you have something dark in a text, although the music maybe is bright. And vice versa. A good example is “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, which everyone thinks is such a super pop song. But there is a hell of a lot of “doom” in that text. There are lots of such examples and I’m not particularly afraid of such things, but it is mostly that it should feel good to sing and that you should be able to write a story around it in some way. And how do you write a story? It’s fact and fiction. You pick things up. For some texts you write maybe three stanzas when you feel a certain way. And those texts might be very powerful for yourself. And you live with them. And then, all of a sudden, when you write something that goes at the same temperature musically, maybe those stanzas fit very well. And then you develop them. It may start with something that is sad. Or something that you think is unfair. Something you think is questionable in your life.
Especially during the Roxette era, I almost always did a so-called “middle-eight”, a bridge. And they were usually super hooky. I’ve always thought that a bridge should always be so good it could be a chorus. Like a B chorus sort of thing. “Listen To Your Heart”, for example, has a very good bridge.
David says „where the key goes up a notch! Nice modulation!” PG says you notice that at a concert. Everyone loves to sing that bridge. There are plenty of such examples. David asks Per if he no longer tries to do such bridges.
No, I don’t anymore. Because I tend to keep up with my time. I make the songs shorter and shorter. And then there is almost no room for a bridge. It feels like the time of bridges is over.
David wants to know whether you get better and better the more you write or you get worse and worse.
You don’t get better and you don’t get worse. You become different, develop. I will not say “against your will”. But you develop because time goes by. What we talked about at the beginning, it’s good not to know very much. The hardest thing when you are my age is writing uptempo songs. That’s kind of why I wanted to make the new Gyllene Tider album (“Hux Flux”). I know a little too much, I’m a little too sophisticated and usually choose a different means of expression, other types of instruments and other types of tempos. So that’s why it’s been a challenge and you like that sometimes. You can’t write young music when you’re old, but you can write music based on the music you liked when you were young. Although you do it in a different way.
10 things to learn from Per Gessle
1. Listen a lot and let yourself be inspired
– You have listened so damn much. And then you like a certain style. Or multiple styles. And then you make something of it your own.
2. Save ideas
– If you come up with something that you think is interesting, you have to write it down or record it. My phone is jam-packed with messages, tunes and other stuff. It could be a title or a stanza or something like that. Or a rhythm.
3. Always have your “antennas out”
– It’s 24/7. It can happen now as we sit and talk. You might say something that I think “shit, I could use that for something”. Although you don’t notice that I noticed it.
4. Don’t get lost in technology if you’re not interested
– I’m not technically interested at all. So setting up a mixing desk and start working… it takes too much focus for me, so I lose sight of what I’m actually supposed to be doing.
5. Dare to change keys in the songs
– I’m writing Swedish songs right now and I’m currently working on a song where, after the chorus, I don’t want a theme. So then I did a solo that is exactly the same chord as the chorus. Just lowered. If the chorus goes in G, the solo goes exactly the same way just in F. Which then means that when I go back to the original key, you get a lift. You experience it as a key rise to the chorus. And that’s it! But you haven’t raised as all the choruses are in G. You’re tricking the ear all the time like this.
6. Learn what you like
– I don’t like three-part singing. It’s mostly just that when I listen to it, I don’t like it when it gets too thick. When it comes to vocal parts, I prefer fifth harmony. Perfect! Fifth is always the best. And then you might find a major 7th or a sixth that colors in a special way. I like that!
7. Find and keep your essence
– We created the typical Roxette sound from all these ingredients that we come from. I don’t think people realized this until after time has passed. Today, when I hear a Roxette song on the radio, I can think “damn, that sounds special!”. But I didn’t think so at the time. I just thought it sounded like us. At the same time, when we broke through, EMI wanted us to move to Los Angeles or New York. Or at least London to be closer to the industry. But we said we don’t want to do that because then we lose our whole essence. If we remove Jonas and Pelle and Clarence and all of them, we would have played Richard Marx!
8. Dare to play around!
– You can play around and you shouldn’t lock yourself up. At the same time, you have to respect what makes the song strong. It could be that a melody is very strong. So if you want to change anything, you have to do it wisely and with respect. If you now want to max out your song, which everyone wants to, then you have to know what you’re doing.
9. Pick up the feeling and temperature from other songs
– It’s not like now I’m going to write a song like this and it will be the same. But it is the temperature in the songs that you can take with you. That temperature opens like a door in yourself in some way. If I listen to “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman” and I get into it, I can’t write music like that, but I can write a song with the same feeling, in my own way.
10. Everything leads to the next thing
– My songs are very much me and I live to write songs. That’s what I am. My wife and son and friends will probably sign it. But it also means that everything I do leads to the next thing. Every riff that doesn’t lead to anything allows me to get it out of my system, so I can move on to something else. You learn. It’s a long, long process.
About David Myhr
Besides being a writer, David Myhr is also a songwriter and artist and wants to know more about the phenomenon of songwriting. As a university lecturer, he both teaches and conducts research in the subject. He has discovered that trying to put into words what actually happens in the creative process of writing songs is extremely difficult. But he has just as fully given it to trying to get some of the biggest songwriters to do just that.
For the original article in Swedish and more photos click HERE!