Self-described “all-American indie rock” band Saint Slumber just released the second EP in its three-part Youth// series, titled, fittingly enough, Youth//2. It comes on the heels of last year’s (you guessed it) Youth//1 and will be followed by next year’s (wait for it) Youth//3. (In the meantime, though, the Pennsylvania/Jersey quartet has a new single, “Fever,” an R&B tune made famous by the likes of Peggy Lee and, of course, Elvis Presley.) We asked Saint Slumber to make us a mix tape, and like the Youth// trilogy, it’s EP length, all the better to allow the listener to thoroughly digest each song. It’s a diverse collection with a common theme: the elements of songwriting.
“To put an interesting spin on the idea of the mix tape, I wanted to make a songwriter’s mix tape for MAGNET,” says frontman Josh Perna. “Here are five songs that encapsulate five different elements of songwriting that have impacted me and helped me hone my personal songwriting voice for Saint Slumber.”
Freelance Whales, “Starring” (Hook)
An amazing example of a band that dropped a masterpiece and was never seen again. Freelance Whales’ Weathervanes was a record that showed me how a full-length record could showcase the strength and consistency of a band’s unique sound. I remember being 17 when I first heard the chorus to “Starring,” and I was blown away: This was my first memory as a songwriter of hearing a chorus and being obsessed with how tight, catchy and minimal an idea could be. Ever since I’ve tried to employ the ideology of “less is more.”
Ben Howard, “I Forget Where We Were” (Story)
Lyrics in 2018 are inarguably marked with a serious trend in hyper-realism. While this can make for honest, visceral performances by vocalists, I need to often remind myself that there is a place for poetry and story in song; the easiest route in writing isn’t always the best. Ben Howard is an unbelievable lyricist, weaving amazingly rich story with a subtlety that might make you miss it the first few times. On “I Forget Where We Were” there is a wash of realism, present-tense storytelling and a scene set with beautiful, descriptive language. “Oh, your mariner’s mouth … the wounded with the wounder’s whip.” For those curious, Ben’s influence on me can’t be overstated.
Stromae “Tous Le Mêmes” (Production)
The moment a song leaves the realm of being sung a cappela and is officially captured, production impacts all music. The unsung, misunderstood lens through which all music is heard, production has as much to say about how your song sounds as the songwriting itself. Having an understanding of how production impacts your songwriting will help you better understand how to frame your own music. Stromae, the French pop star who handles a large portion of his own arrangement and production, does so much scene-setting on “Tous Le Mêmes”; the vintage horn and upright-bass samples are juxtaposed beautifully by the chopped-up vocals and modern synth kick. The end result is such a particular sound, blending old and new, that has nothing to do with the words he’s singing.
SZA “Supermodel” (Honesty)
Simultaneously contradicting and fortifying the point I made with “Story,” lyrics only connect with people when they are communicating an inextricable truth. Whether that truth is told in a complicated and abstract story or in a completely literal statement, people want to hear and feel something real, and the easiest way to do that is to just sing from your gut about real things. On “Supermodel,” SZA sings an almost extemporaneous, stream-of-consciousness song about some real stuff, and it just bowls me over every time. “Why I can’t stay alone just by myself? Wish I was comfortable just with myself … But I need you.”
King Krule, “Easy Easy” (Voice)
The most important lesson I ever learned in songwriting was to embrace my voice. The voice is the only musical thing that you can’t fundamentally change through practice. You can become technically better at singing, but the voice you were born with is the voice you will be singing with. Some people were born with era-shifting, golden pipes, and the rest of us got whatever fate decided to throw at us. But I really believe anybody can sing an amazing song; they just have to find what their sound is meant to be. King Krule has such an iconic, left-of-center voice; it’s unapologetic, it’s raw, and it’s undeniably King Krule. That is what we all should be shooting for, as songwriters.