“All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen… A musical accident no more no less.” – Tom Petty, on the similarities between the choruses of “Won’t Back Down” and Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”
I’m not like one of my students, who at age 17 has written about 500 songs, and every single one she’s played for me has been pretty damn good.
I wrote my very first song at age 34. And I still find songwriting to be hard. Frustratingly hard. But I’ve found that one of my favorite ways to write songs is to write while emotionally inspired by other songs.
And that has resulted in some similarities that might be more than just a musical accident.
But first, here’s my position on the Tom Petty / Sam Smith settlement: I don’t think Sam Smith stole from Tom Petty at all. I agree with Tom Petty. These things can just happen.
Here are three songs we “stole.”
“Two and Two” vs. “Young Blood”
My friend Justin, who has an uncanny knack for knowing what kind of music is going to connect with me, sent me “Young Blood” from The Naked & Famous. I listened to it for literally a week straight on repeat. Couldn’t get enough of the feeling. I just wanted to write a song that made me feel the same way. So I wrote “Two and Two”.
Although “Two and Two” is undeniably a different song than “Young Blood”, I’m now slightly uncomfortable with the similarity of the 5-note instrumental motif, and with the extreme similarity of the rhythmic phrasing in the verses. But the verse melody and chord progression ended up different enough that I don’t think I’d be subject to a copyright infringement lawsuit. Add the differences in tempo, groove, key, song structure, and production, and it does end up feeling like a different song.
Given that I listened to “Young Blood” for literally hours on end at the same time that I wrote “Two and Two”, I’m surprised it didn’t end up more sounding even more similar.
“Back to the Shadows” vs. “Take Me to Church”
I first heard Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” on Columbia’s “Buzzbands” Spotify playlist. Like with “Young Blood”, I listened to it on repeat for days.
It hooked into a part of me that I didn’t know existed. I’m not sure how I wrote about wanting to return to a codependent, destructive relationship when most my adult relationships have been pretty healthy.
But then again… in the deep corners of my mind, there are secrets, there are skeletons, there once was that kind of dependent, worshipful insanity. I’ve been through it, even if it’s been a while. And “Take Me to Church” took me there.
“Back to the Shadows” and “Take Me to Church” share strictly nothing in legal songwriting terms: not chord progression or melody, and certainly not phrasing, arrangement, or groove. “Shadows” is simply inspired by Church’s emotions. It put me in a dark, Gothic, subservient, obsessed state of mind, and from that place I found my own voice about it.
Sometimes I see songs as colors. Both of these are a spatter of dark, intense shadows and flat, lifeless greys.
“Barcelona” vs. “Hemiplegia”
A song inspired by Haerts’ “Hemiplegia” could not have ended up feeling more different.
“Barcelona” is about the need to go somewhere else – somewhere foreign, where no one knows you – to reinvent yourself. (Here’s a blog post about Barcelona.) That emotional feeling seems to match “Hemiplegia.”
I produced a rough demo of “Barcelona” and brought the synth-heavy recording to the band. But as we don’t (yet) have a synth player – and we DO have a monster bass player (Tyler William) – the song took on a completely different feel. It turned into a purely happy pop song.
The only places you’ll hear the influence of “Hemiplegia” on “Barcelona” is the move to the technically-out-of-key dominant 7 at the beginning of the chorus, and in one or two consecutive notes in the verse melody which I might not naturally have come up with. However, my voice teacher Tyler Hall did pick up on the similarity… do you?
Other Songs We’ve Stolen
Using another song for inspiration can be taken too far. A song we did early on was basically the same as “Apologize” from OneRepublic, just in a different key. It had the same verse melody and phrasing in the verses as “Apologize,” only different lyrics. I tried modifying the melody and phrasing, but I couldn’t push it around enough to make it feel like a different song.
The bottom line was that I would have been embarrassed if Ryan Tedder ever heard us play it. So for better or worse, I shelved the song. (Disclaimer to Ryan, if you read this: I didn’t write it.)
And recently, we played a new song, “Famous,” in which I make fun of myself and all the other wannabe rockstars who are taking this whole thing a little too seriously. Lyrics here if you’re curious.
The chords and groove for “Famous” came directly from some boy-band hit I’ve forgotten by now, and the lyrics ended up sounding a whole lot like Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” But being a pretty standard 4-chord rock song, I don’t think anyone could claim copyright infringement on this one! (We don’t have a recording, sorry.)