Michael Jackson, the songwriter (part 1)

What makes a great song? Rhythm? Melody? Structure? Musicians? Hi-tech engineering? According to Michael Jackson, a great song created itself. Rhythms, melodies and lyrics simply came to him, like ripe fruit waiting to be picked. Nevertheless, Jackson’s personal songwriting skills and techniques were how he made his jam. Here’s a glimpse of how he did it.

Michael Jackson songwriter
Michael Jackson recording in Westlake Studios, 1988 (photo: video still from ‘Bad 25’)

The anatomy of how it works

Many have tried, and even more have failed. Songwriting is a craft and sometimes a gift. For Michael Jackson it was both. From the moment his father Joe discovered that his five-year old son could sing, Jackson’s life was about music. He soon worked his butt off, sharpening his craft as a young singer and eventually also as a songwriter.

Jackson’s wish to become a songwriter emerged during his teenage years at Motown Records. “I used to say to myself, ‘I want to write more’” Jackson told Ebony Magazine in 2007. “I used to watch Gamble and Huff, and Hal Davis and The Corporation [ed. producers and songwriters] write all those hits for the Jackson 5 and I really wanted to study the anatomy.”

Singing songs after the accompanying music scores were already created, upset Jackson who wanted to learn the craft from A to Z. Luckily, Motown legends such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye gave him a chance to do so. “Stevie Wonder used to literally let me sit like a fly on the wall. I got to see Songs in the Key of Life get made, some of the most golden things. (…) So when you really can see the science, the anatomy and the structure of how it all works, it’s just so wonderful.”

Young Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder
Young Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder in the studio, 1974 (photo: Todd Gray)

Growing pains

Stevie Wonder soon noticed that Jackson had potential as a songwriter. “He (Michael) would always come into the studio curious about how I worked and what I did. ‘How do you do that? Why do you do that?’ I think he understood clearly from seeing various people do the music scene that it definitely took work. He must have been around 9 or 10 then, and I definitely felt that he would be someone. You hear the voice, and all he could do is grow. And that’s what he did”, he recalls on his website.

Growing, however, came with growing pains. In the eyes of Motown, the Jackson 5 were singers and dancers rather than songwriters. There was little room for musical development, let alone independence. For this reason, the brothers eventually decided to break away and sign with Epic Records that offered greater creative freedom. Within a year after signing, Jackson’s first song written by himself, ‘Blues Away’ appeared on the album The Jacksons (1976).

It didn’t stop here. While performing with his brothers, Jackson steadily sharpened his songwriting skills on multiple Epic albums, resulting in classics such as ‘This Place Hotel’, ‘Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)’ and ‘Can You Feel It’. When Jackson eventually went solo as an adult, he was ready to write his own timeless pop classics.

Letting nature take its course

Yet for someone so focused on developing his craft, Jackson’s perception of creating music remained remarkably humble. Music, according to Jackson, was nothing he could claim or pinpoint as ‘his’ work of art. Music, after all, pervaded the universe. In Jackson’s philosophy, a song could never be invented, because it created itself and simply came into being. All Jackson had to do, was to focus, listen to the moment, and discover what was already there.

“I don’t force it, I let nature take its course,” Jackson explained to Vibe Magazine in March 2002. “I don’t sit at the piano and think: I’m going to write the greatest song of all time. It doesn’t happen. It has to be given to you. I believe it’s already up there before you are born, and then it drops right into your lap. It’s the most spiritual thing in the world. When it comes, it comes with all the accompaniments, the strings, the bass, the drums, the lyrics, and you’re just the medium through which it comes, the channel.”

Not all songs, however, were wired to Jackson’s antennae as complete compositions. Sometimes, they would arrive as fragments in the form of a melody line or bass riff. If this was the case, Jackson would take time to gestate the fragment or idea. “There are those songs that, you know, you kind of incubate. You know, you plant the seed, let the subconscious take its course, and within time you hope something comes, and most the time it does”, Jackson said in an online audio chat with GetMusic.com in October 2001.

Michael Jackson working with Greg Phillinganes
Michael Jackson working on a song with keyboardist Greg Phillinganes (photo credit: unknown)

Songwriting process

Complete songs or fragments, Jackson still had to put in the work. Whenever he ‘heard’ a song – through a dream, image, experience, or by being inspired through an existing song – he would hurry to record the idea on a small portable tape recorder. Next, he would often continue in the studio: elaborating on the melody, creating a counter melody, working on syncopation, choosing instruments, writing lyrics, and recording.

Matt Forger, one of Jackson long-serving recording engineers, thinks that Jackson worked without a fixed plan: “The process for Michael never followed a pattern or formula. Each song was its own special case of exploring an idea, a melody, a groove, a story to tell, or an emotion to communicate. Sometimes he worked alone and allowed ‘the song to write itself,’ as he often explained, while other times it was a collaborative effort.” (preface to Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind)

Jackson himself, however, did see music writing as a process with roughly defined phases. “Well the process that I go through is: songs just kind of come, they create themselves (…) I could be walking along, you know, on a road, or I could be sitting on a bench at Disneyland eating peanuts, and there it is. It’s in my head,” he recalled during a court deposition in Mexico, 1993.

“I go to a tape recorder and I put the sounds down. Orally with my mouth, making sounds of how I want the bass or the strings or the drums or each part to go, the way I hear it. Because the key is to get exactly what you’re hearing in your head on that tape.”

One clear example of this stage in his songwriting process is the ‘Beat It’ demo. It has Jackson singing the main melody against a rhythm track that he has created by beatboxing the percussion parts. The melody is then followed by Jackson singing the chorus harmonies.

Extracting the song

At other times, Jackson would require the assistance of producers and studio musicians to help ‘extract’ the song he had in mind. The composition could either be fully or partly ready in his head, but still needed to become a reality in the recording studio. To do so, Jackson would sing his ideas to musicians, while collaboratively searching for chords and creating the sounds that he had in mind.

Rob Hoffman, who worked with Jackson as a studio engineer, recalled working like this on the HIStory album (1995): “One morning MJ came in with a new song he had written overnight. We called in a guitar player, and Michael sang every note of every chord to him. ‘Here’s the first chord: first note, second note, third note. Here’s the second chord: first note, second note, third note’, etc., etc.” he shared on the Gearslutz forum in June 2009.

“We then witnessed him giving the most heartfelt and profound vocal performance, live in the control room through an SM 57 [ed. a type of microphone]. He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part.”

© Annemarie Latour

Here you can read the second part of this blog post:
Michael Jackson, the songwriter (part 2)


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