Shelly Peiken on writing from the heart

Shelly Peiken. Photo: Dia Morgan
Shelly Peiken. Photo: Dia Morgan

Shelly Peiken: “In my opinion, if it has to be one or the other, truth trumps rhyme.” Photo: Dia Morgan

The multi-platinum Grammy-nominated songwriter offers up 10 key phrases to help you tap into a deeper level of songwriting creativity

Back in the beginning of my career when I hadn’t yet had any songs recorded and released commercially, I had the opportunity to pitch material to budding pop star Leslie Wunderman (AKA Taylor Dayne). I was privy ­to some of the tracks she’d planned on recording because I was friendly with her producer. The sound was 1980s synth-pop — a genre in which I did not excel. But I wanted ‘on’ that record. So…

I set up a co-write with a collaborator. Our plan was to come up with something that mimicked that electronic up-tempo vibe. I can’t say we were divinely inspired, but we were more than competent at our craft and we got the job done.

When pitching a song, I normally included a second song on the cassette tape or CD (which really makes me appreciate the convenience of a SoundCloud link), with the idea that if I struck out with the first, I’d still have another chance to get lucky. In this case, that second song was Carry Your Heart, a sombre ballad about an unrequited college love I had never fully gotten over. I sent the two songs to Taylor.

My producer-friend called the next day to say Taylor was lukewarm on that first tune but, “What was up with the other one?” That’s the one she connected with. That’s the one she wanted to cut.

I learned a valuable lesson that day: the heart is the best place from which to write, although I’d forget it repeatedly over the years simply because writing what you think “they” want to hear is a hard habit to break.

In hindsight, I notice a trend. Out of the 3,000 or so songs I’ve penned in my lifetime, the handful that have resonated most profoundly (Almost Doesn’t Count, What A Girl Wants, Human on The Inside, Bitch) are the ones that were inspired by real life as opposed to situations I made up in my head in order to get on a record.

This is not to say there aren’t songs I’ve written with a fun-loving spirit that haven’t done well (i.e. Hook Me Up recorded by the Veronicas was No 1 in Australia). And, I might add, there are plenty of songs I’ve written from the depth of my soul that went unnoticed. In that case, I’d posit that a hit must be a special song that’s also in the right place at the right time.

All that said, if the heart is the place where you find your best material, here are some key words that might help you gain access.

1. The Moment

Whether you’re euphoric because he/she/they asked you out or devastated that he/she/they didn’t, document it immediately. There’s no better time to capture emotion than when you’re actually feeling it. It’s never as fresh the next day.

2. Vulnerability

That’s what “heart” is all about. What hurts the most? You might not want to visit that pain, but you have to! Sorry, you have no choice.

3. Detail

Roll up your sleeves and get dirty. Even if it’s unpleasant. Pleasant songs are boring. It’s the messy minutia, not the clichés, that add color and texture and authenticity.

4. Trends

Algorithms are the new A&R. Pay attention to them. They matter. But don’t be their slave. Pay more attention to the…

5. Truth

John Lennon said, “Tell the truth and make it rhyme.” This is ideal. But in my opinion, if it has to be one or the other, truth trumps rhyme. Rhyming just to rhyme sounds forced. Curiously, when we spew the naked truth, often it will rhyme anyway. How convenient!

6. Personal

Keep it that way. It doesn’t matter how someone else would write it. Let them write it their way. Give your song your own unique spin. No one can do that as well as you.

7. Care

Write about what you care about. Do I really have to explain this?

8. Get Real

Shine a light on the stuff that makes life messy not on what makes life seem perfect. Social media has flooded us with a false representation of the human condition. Let ‘em know it’s B.S. Listeners won’t feel so alone.

9. Mood

Call me crazy but listening to another song-from-the-heart while you’re writing your own can draw you inward to that four-quadrant organ you’re trying to access. Don’t rip the song that’s playing…just let it pull you in the right direction.

Last but definitely not least…

10. Forget

Forget the rules. Forget about who is gonna love it, who is gonna hate it, who’s gonna cut it, what award it’s gonna win. It’s the times when you don’t have a plan…when you’re writing because you need to and it just feels right — when the words and melody are being channeled through you…like they have a mind of their own…that’s when know they’re coming from the right place.

Good Luck!

Shelly Peiken is a multi-platinum songwriter who has penned tracks for stars including Brandy, Britney Spears, The Pretenders and Keith Urban. Shelly’s album 2.0 etc…, featuring never-heard-before originals and reinterpretations of songs like Bitch and What A Girl Wants, is out now. Find out more at

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