It’s mid-January 2021, and professional songwriter and singer/artist Lowell, is busy wrangling an unruly track that’s been eluding her. “I’ve been trying to crack [this song] for about three years,” she says. “I’m confident it’s a hit, and so far, that’s about all I know. I’ve written and re-written it about 30 times over different chords, different beats, different approaches to the concept. I’m banging my head against the wall, but sticking with it because it’ll make me rich someday. I’ll let you know in 2030,” she jokes.
It’s this puzzle-like experience, inherent in the songwriting process, that drives the Toronto-and-L.A. based musician. At three years old, she began playing the piano; at 14, following the unexpected death of a close friend, Lowell turned to songwriting during the grieving process. “I learned very quickly that songwriting could be a tool for me to cope with my emotions, and all the loneliness I felt as a teenager,” she says.
Now, barely out of her teenage years, she’s collaborated with the likes of Demi Lovato, Charlie Puth, and bülow – with whom she, and five others, co-wrote “This is Not a Love Song,” a SOCAN Pop Music Award winner in 2019. And her own pull-no-punches singles, “Lemonade” and “God is A Fascist,” are also making an impact (after a CBC Music hit with “The Bells” in 2014). Lowell says both were written during a particularly trying time.
“I was definitely at a breaking point when I wrote those songs,” she explains. “I’d been travelling back and forth between L.A. and Toronto, bi-weekly, for about a year, and I really felt like I was writing and writing and writing, but it wasn’t paying off. I just wanted to go home, but I knew I was so close, and I just had to stay one, two, three more months and I’d get somewhere.
“There are a couple of lyrics in there that say it all: Don’t know why I still make music/Why I gave you up to pursue it/Still the same shit still hollow/Still saving up for that condo. I don’t really consider myself to have made it by any means, but I’m happy to report I’m not still saving up for that condo.”
Today the writing process itself is what drives her. From setting to instruments, Lowell treats each song according to its own requirements.
“My process isn’t super-regimented,” she says. “I’ve written so many songs in so many different ways. I’m constantly looking everywhere for inspiration – movies, books, fights with my partner, or my friends – or my friends’ fights with their partners and their friends. By the time I land on something good, I always forget how I got there, so I just keep trying new things.
“I do, of course, have some amazing voice memos of me waking up in the night with a dream song idea. They often end with me fading out and then snoring,” she amusingly explains. “As for instruments or places [to write] in my house, I actually try to avoid hanging out with one instrument for too long. For me, inspiration is all about change, so I try to move around to different rooms in the home, go for a walk, pick up a new synth. My best songs seem to come from my subconscious, so I try not to get too routine in my routine.”
Ultimately, Lowell says collaboration has been crucial to her growth. “Collaborating is such an important tool to have if you want to be a songwriter,” she says. “I’m not saying you have to write with people all the time – in fact, being an independent writer is also useful at times – but I don’t know a lot of successful writers who don’t co-write. The fact is, you’re writing for the masses. How are you going to do that from one singular perspective?”
Five Tricks of the Trade
- “‘If the bones are good the rest don’t matter,’ so start with the hook. Love to [the late] busbee for that one.”
- “Don’t stare at the page too long. Your subconscious is really useful when writing, so once you have a title or a concept, try just hopping on the mic and seeing what comes out.”
- “I spend a lot of time studying and analyzing hits. I find it really helpful to see what works and what doesn’t work, in a broad sense. There’s not an exact science, but there are definitely tools you can learn that will help guide you and improve the ‘hittiness’ of your hooks when you’re stuck.”
- “I think this one is really important: Try not to get too down! I’m one of the most self-deprecating, self-hating people I know, but I know I’m not alone. When everyone is always posting their achievements online – ‘Hey I wrote a smash today,’ or whatever – it’s easy to just really hate yourself. The truth is I probably write, like, one good song a month, maybe. It’s OK to suck sometimes, it doesn’t mean you suck.”
- “Great ideas do get squashed in bigger rooms. I try not to put a song idea to bed before I’ve auditioned it to a few other team members.”