This is how lots of my ideas start: I find a phrase or fragment of a melody which feels good enough to repeat over and over.

Even if this starter phrase will only occur once in the final song, it has to be able to bear thousands of repetitions and still feel good. This is because — at least for the way I make music — the process of recording and producing music involves dealing with hundreds or thousands of tiny details, layers of sound, that will eventually amount to a full song. But while I’m making it, the final arrangement of the layers is not yet clear, which means I will make one small-but-meaningful change at a time to a given section, and then listen a few times, with and without this small change. Then I decide whether the change makes the song better or worse, or more accurately, whether it feels how I want it to feel. This process is then repeated until the song is finished. So that initial idea needs to be strong.

In the case of NERVOUS, this starter idea was the combined lyric and melody of the first half of the chorus:

“You make me so nervous

Slipping on your surface,

It’s like I’m tryna call

But I never get through”

I’m always wary of making analogies in lyrics, mostly because of a tweet I saw years ago that said something like “OK poets, we get it… things are like other things”. Still, making previously unseen or unfelt connections between objects is one of the great pleasures of writing. Plus, in this case, I felt the lyric was both fresh to my ears and clean on the page: usually a strong starting point for a good pop lyric.

Then I had to figure out what the music should be doing.

By this point, I already had the basic chord progression, but in the original demo, the chorus included a huge brassy synth-stab on each chord change. This is a dangerous kind of sound to have in a demo, because it feels big and bombastic, but ultimately is a bit too close, vibe-wise, to something that would be an official world cup song. Maybe one day I’ll write an official world cup song, but in a song about trying and failing to connect with someone who maybe isn’t really open to connection, it seemed a bit out of place.

In the end, I did actually use the sound for the very last chorus, albeit significantly quieter than it ever was in the demo. This is also one of my favourite things about producing music: the same sound can have a very different emotional impact depending on how loudly you put it in the mix. Make it too loud and it will feel overbearing, make it arguably too-quiet, and it can feel like the song is bursting to get out of itself.

The main plucked guitar chords, that you can now hear throughout the song, took days of trial and error. The chord progression itself wasn’t the issue, it was the way I was voicing the chords on the guitar — i.e., exactly which notes of the chord I was playing in which order, and on which strings (as the gauge of the strings really changes the perceived timbre of the notes). I wanted something that felt simple, but not something I had heard before, which — given how much music I listen to — is often a challenge. I tried jazz voicings, folk voicings, bossa nova voicings, r&b voicings, whatever I could think of.

In the end, the solution was to tune my guitar to a nice open D tuning, and put a capo on the 7th fret. From there I found some nice chord shapes that outlined the chords perfectly. Those days of hitting my head against the wall, trying to find the right guitar part were also worthwhile for another reason: if I hadn’t ended up in that open tuning, on that 7th fret, I’d never have come up with the guitar solo towards the end of the song, which was a one-take wonder, entirely made possible by the combination of capo & open tuning that made it almost impossible to play a wrong note.

So I had some chords, and half a chorus. That’s how it started.

Final song here: NERVOUS