written by Autumn Marie Buysse
Jonathan Gamble is one of those rare writers who equally understands the craft and the emotion that go into next level songwriting, so for the last installation of OMG! I’m A Songwriter’s pure writer series, I’ll be sharing Jonathan’s opinions on songwriting and what he’s learned from many a Nashville writing room.
To give some background on Jonathan, he grew up in a rural town in Alabama and began writing and recording songs for fun when he was 14, using a little Zoom recorder that came with Cubase Lite. While everyone at his high school was “mudding, riding four wheelers, and wearing boots,” Jonathan was absorbed in pop music, as well as rock bands like Linkin Park and Mayday Parade. After graduating high school, he majored in marketing at Jacksonville State, a university 30 minutes from where he grew up. At the time, he thought he’d end up being a worship leader, since it never occurred to him that he could be a professional songwriter. He started releasing his own music in college and during his sophomore year, Dream Records, an L.A. record label, heard his third album and set up a call with him. While this EDM opportunity fell through because of the unsurprising lack of EDM infrastructure in rural Alabama, it was what showed him the music industry was a real, viable option. Later in college he started co-writing with an artist he met through SoundCloud who introduced him to his friend who worked in A&R at Capitol Music Group. Jonathan sent a portfolio to his co-writer’s contact and drove to Nashville to take a meeting at CMG, and then moved here six months later. Currently, Jonathan’s 24 years old and doing about five sessions a week in pop, Christian and country, and producing with Cubase til this day. Some of his recent major label cuts include “Chasing Quiet” by Elizabeth Grace and “Already Done” by Joel Vaughn, which both charted on Billboard and went to Christian radio. Some of his independent cuts include “lose my cell phone” by danny G, and “Moving Target” by Bella Raye, which he features on.
Jonathan’s a top 40 oriented writer who’s drawn to emotional, piano driven pop that resolves on a meaningful lyrical hook. He’s inspired by artists like Anne-Marie, Ed Sheeran, Julia Michaels, Lauv, and Lewis Capaldi, and songs like “Speechless” and “Tequila” by Dan + Shay, and “When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars. While he’s a big Maroon 5 fan and appreciates the lane of songs like “Girls Like You,” he gravitates towards writing songs that are a little more timeless.
STRUCTURE Since Jonathan’s greatest self-described songwriting strength is structure, it’s only fitting to start with it. “I think of everything as a pattern,” Jonathan said, “including the lyric and the melody.” For example, 1-2-4 structures are incredibly popular in pop music right now. 1-2-4 structured choruses are four line choruses where the first, second, and fourth lines have almost identical melodies and most likely rhyme, while the third line of the chorus deviates melodically and introduces a new rhyme. In bookended 1-2-4 choruses, the first and fourth lines sometimes feature the exact same lyrical hook. This kind of structure provides a lot of repetition to help make the song catchy, but the third line deviation keeps it interesting so the listener doesn’t get bored. To get an idea of what these kinds of choruses sound like, three of Jonathan’s favorite songs with 1-2-4 structures are “Holy” by Justin Bieber ft. Chance the Rapper, “This City” by Sam Fischer and “I Like Me Better” by Lauv.
Jonathan noted that right now, a lot of pop songs are starting out with the chorus. With songs that don’t, you should try to hit the chorus by the 50-second mark, and keep in mind that “radio loves three minute songs right now.” If you’re starting the song out with the chorus, the second half of your second verse has to musically deviate, otherwise you’ll have repeated the same sections verbatim twice. After the second chorus (or third chorus if you started with the chorus), right now the trend in pop is to use the pre-chorus as the bridge. While Jonathan admits that “repetition is nice,” you need to “figure out what the song needs.” If you’re skipping writing a bridge, reprising the pre-chorus “needs to make sense, don’t be lazy.”
You should be melodically contrasting the sections of your song by alternating between staccato and legato, or wordy and non-wordy, sections. “If you have a very wordy, Julia Michaels, syncopated one-note melody verse, you better have a legato pre-chorus or chorus, or else nobody’s going to remember the parts of your song.” You can also make your song sections more distinct by making sure your melodies start on different beats in the measure. If you have the opposite issue and need to make your song catchier, you could try using the same cadence to start your verse and chorus melodies.
Growing up, Jonathan thought music theory was just a set of rules that limited creativity, but now he realizes that “music theory is happening whether you’re aware of it or not, so if you’re aware of it, then you can control it.” Jonathan argues that while you don’t have to be classically trained to be a great writer, “if you understand music theory, you’re gonna write better songs.” Understanding music theory also helps you avoid rookie mistakes, such as “if you’re playing a chord, the longest note you hold over that chord should be a note in that chord.”
“It’s important to be aware of the series of notes that go nicely together,” Jonathan notes. Using scale degrees, he referenced how a 5 to 3 interval always feels tight and poppy, how walking down from a 1 to a 7 always feels like a ballad, and how a 6 going up to the 1 always feels suspenseful. “You need to be able to hear a melody and say what the numbers in the scale are, because you’ll start noticing patterns you can use in your songwriting.” By being aware of the scale degrees in melodies and the feelings they evoke, you can better match melodies to lyrical sentiment.
LYRICS When it comes to lyrics, Jonathan brought up a concept called rhythmic prosody, which is essentially making sure your melody and lyric work in tandem to properly emphasize the correct syllables in words and phrases. To give an example of a mistake in rhythmic prosody, or a “prosody foul,” in Katy Perry’s 2013 single “Unconditionally,” she emphasizes the fourth syllable of the title, instead of the third syllable as you would in everyday conversation. While some songs get away with it, Jonathan notes that when he hears an artist place emphasis on the wrong syllable in a word, it’s the first thing that makes his “amateur flag go up.”
Jonathan commends rappers for their attention to syllabic emphasis. “In rap verse, you treat your topline like a snare drum, and you’re just emphasizing different sixteenth notes in order to create the cadence. If your lyric doesn’t have the emphasis on those words when you’re beating on your leg to the cadence of your vocal— if you’re hitting the hardest on a syllable of a word that’s not the emphasis of that word— then your lyric is clunky 99% of the time . . . there’s definitely times you can break that rule, but 90% of your song should be on those emphasized notes, especially on held out notes.”
RHYMING Some artists are afraid to have their songs sound too rhymey, and to that, Jonathan says “you don’t want your songs to be too predictably rhymey.” Internal rhymes are words within a line that rhyme with each other, that are independent from the external rhyme. Jonathan cited “Mind is a Prison” by Alec Benjamin as a great example of a song that expertly uses internal rhymes, with lines like “I don't live in California, I'll inform ya, that's not where I reside/I'm just a tenant, paying rent inside this body and I.” Jonathan reminds writers not to waste their internal rhymes by placing them on weak syllables, “have your internal rhymes on the emphatic syllables to make it feel like it’s pocketed.”
Rhyme is what people usually use to make songs feel lyrical, and it’s what differentiates song lyrics from prose, but Jonathan encourages writers to “use other tools in your tool kit, use alliteration, use internal rhyme, use those kinds of things, don’t just use your external rhymes as a crutch.”
WRITING SONGS THAT STAND OUT I asked Jonathan what the biggest thing he’s learned since moving to Nashville is, to which he replied that “everyone in Nashville, whether they’re pursuing music as a career or not, can write a good song there’s nothing wrong with. I’ve learned to stop writing defensively, and what I mean by that is writing so that no one can poke holes in my song. I’ve started writing offensively, trying to accomplish something or create a moment for the listener, even if it means I have to break a rule or two to do it sometimes.”
To a songwriter, there’s few things more refreshing than a great producer, but incredible production has been known to cover up subpar songwriting. “There’s so many people who think a song is great because it has a really loud bass line, a really hard hitting kick and super auto tuned vocals, [great production on a bad song] makes you feel good about yourself because the song sounds really high end, but sometimes that’s because the producer was really good, not because the song was.”
In no particular order, I’ve compiled some of Jonathan’s best quotes on how to write songs that are not only able to stand alone, but stand out:
“Take risks, take chances, do things that are different.”
“If you wanna write something memorable, you can’t write something there’s nothing wrong with, because no one cares about the songwriting rules.”
That being said, “don’t break rules just to break them, you have to be aware of the rules so that you can break them well.”
“The emotion is what people are going to remember, it’s like that Maya Angelou quote, people aren’t going to remember your lyrics, they’re going to remember how they felt.”
“Listen to the things that make a song great and commercially viable, the things that’ll make people want to add it to their playlist, not just because they know you, but because they like the song.”
“Don’t be too predictable, but be predictable enough that the listener can connect . . . Be listener-first— what’s going to be interesting and fun to listen to?”
“You have to write somebody’s favorite song, and in order to write somebody’s favorite song, somebody has to hate your song, so take risks and let somebody hate your song.”
“If you try and be somebody else, you’re just going to be the second best version of that forever.”
IN THE WRITING ROOM Before even entering a write, Jonathan advises pure writers to “write with people who you think are really, really good” for the simple reason that you’ll probably write better with them. While connections and commercial viability are important to consider, “everybody’s talking to somebody, it seems like” so Jonathan tries to fill his schedule with artists he believes in, not just ones he thinks are already on a trajectory for commercial success.
In the writing room, Jonathan believes the role of a pure writer is to “ask the right questions to get the artist to talk about something” and then to start “guiding instead of putting up hard walls.” Jonathan’s favorite question to ask in writes is, “so you’re on stage about to play this song we’re about to write, what’s the story you tell to set it up?” Then listen to the artist and “take something they say and say it better, and then make that the song . . . don’t just come in and write your song, and impose it on the artist . . . your job is to help the artist say what they’re wanting to saywell.”
Jonathan tries to be “the encourager for the artist, to get them to be the loudest version of themselves” realizing that “if they try to round off their sharp edges, it’s probably the edges that their label was interested in.” While Jonathan always tries to keep songs commercial and radio-friendly, he realizes that “if an artist isn’t different, they’re not going to matter, and labels are only interested in artists who matter.”
In the writing room, the artist is essentially the A&R and functions as the curator of their own sound— they’re the ones saying “yes” and “no” to ideas. Jonathan doesn’t mind writing with artists who aren’t great writers on their own, but regardless of an artist’s songwriting ability, he wants an artist to know what they want. Jonathan admits he has bad ideas like everyone else does, so he wants to write with artists who push him, and don’t just say yes to everything. Consequently, great writers are able to trash what an artist doesn’t love, keep what they do, and
add more until the artist loves it all. That’s why the best writers Jonathan knows are the ones who think quickly, and pivot quickly when artists say “no.”
Often, pure writers and artists disagree on ideas, so every pure writer needs to figure out their own limitations on being a lawyer for their ideas. Sometimes you should take the stand, and sometimes you should hold your tongue in order to fight for the next idea. For Jonathan, when an artist turns down an idea he believes in, he tells the artist what he’s trying to accomplish with his idea and then tries to collaboratively find another way to achieve it that’s more to the artist’s liking.
THE MUSIC BUSINESS The reality is that songwriting is both a craft and a career, so “you have to be memorably incredible at what you do, and pleasant enough that people would hang out with you even if you were bad.” Having social skills and being a good person can take you pretty far, especially in an industry like the music industry where everything is based on networking. For example, if a writer leaves a session not loving the artist, it’s unlikely they’ll provide that artist with their best connections. “Kindness is probably the biggest thing, and if you’re not kind now, I can’t imagine what success will do to you.”
I asked Jonathan for his opinion on what makes an artist a great artist, since pure writers have a unique vantage point. “A&R’s are not in the room writing with these artists, so they don’t really know what it’s like to work with them on that level.” The two biggest characteristics of great artists that Jonathan’s noticed is that they’re 1) memorable, and 2) so kind and selfless that everyone wants them to be successful. “You have to be talented, that’s a given in this industry, but you can’t just be talented, you have to be memorably talented . . . if runs are your thing, you have to do runs unlike everybody else, if singing high is your thing, you have to be able to sing so high that people want to share it on Tik Tok.”
Artists frequently have difficulty balancing between musical consistency and redundance. One thing Jonathan’s favorite artists have in common is that “they all know their lanes, but not all their songs sound the same.” Lots of artists struggle with staying confined to a specific musical lane, while pure writers have “the pleasure and the luxury of being different people every day.” Over time, many artists move out of their lanes and start changing their sound. Jonathan acknowledges that’s just part of artistry, but he prefers when artists evolve naturally. For example, “if you started off very subdued because you didn’t have a lot of confidence, and your production was very minimalist because you weren’t confident enough to strut around a stage, and your Instagram reflected that because it was just a post every now and then of you being shy, but then you evolve and become more confident because you grow a following, and you start writing these big songs because you want to be able to strut around a stage, then it wouldn’t make sense for you to gain that confidence in your personal life and for everyone to see that, and then have your music still be that shy little puppy dog music.”
I’m going to include one more quote from Jonathan that I hope inspires you— when I asked Jonathan what his dream world would look like, he said, “I’m already in a version of my dream world, because I’m getting to do what I love every day.”
Jonathan has a ton of big cuts in pop, Christian and country on the horizon, so it would behoove you to follow him on Instagram at @_jonathangamble_ to stay up-to-date with those releases.