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Best Female Songwriters: 20 Great Artists You Need To Know
List & Guides

Best Female Songwriters: 20 Great Artists You Need To Know

Encompassing an array of genres and subject matter in their work, the best female songwriters continue to inspire, regardless of gender.

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“I love words,” Kate Bush once said. “I think they’re fascinating and incredibly wonderful things and part of the joy of my work is that I not only get to work with music but also with words.” The best female songwriters seem to share this enthrallment: the cadence of words, the significance that bubbles just under their surface, the way they can be whispered or screamed. Words matter.

But songs are not stories (or, at least, not only stories). These words breathe to music’s heartbeat, whether that’s to a pithy, economical pop song or a lengthy mediation. Many of the best female songwriters work in collaboration with others; Valerie Simpson, for example, created music while husband Nickolas Ashford wrote lyrics. “You had to find something that would match that thought,” she said in 2020. When Ashford died, in 2011, Simpson was forced to rethink her process. “With the passing of Nick, it was a challenge to see if I had a singular identity that would stand,” she said, “if I could write a whole song, not half a song.” She found out that she could. She said, “It tickles me that I didn’t endeavour to do it before.”

Writing approaches vary considerably. “My only rule for writing is, it has to be fast,” Charli XCX has said. “I don’t like to spend a lot of time on anything. I think the faster a song is written, the better it will be. All the best songs are written in half an hour. You can’t dwell on things.” Other songwriters can find ideas laying dormant for decades. Thirty-five years passed between the release of Vashti Bunyan’s first and second albums. “There was a lot to come up with,” she said in 2010, of her inspirations later in life. “There were all of those years, and the children, and the life, the life that I had had in between.”

k.d. lang memorably described the relationship between writer and song as an “umbilical cord”. Whether the best female songwriters write for themselves or others, in all cases their lifeblood is in these tracks, reflecting on every aspect of our labyrinthine lives.

Best Female Songwriters: 20 Great Artists You Need To Know

20: Lesley Duncan (1943-2010)

Although she flew under the commercial radar, Lesley Duncan created five albums during the 70s, each one of such songwriting excellence that she inspired countless others, more than earning her place among the best female songwriters of all time. Her most celebrated composition, Love Song, was made famous by Elton John (and was also demoed by David Bowie). She collaborated with Kate Bush and Phil Lynott in 1979, on a re-recording of a Duncan song from 1971, Sing Children Sing. A reserved, unshowy person who didn’t enjoy public attention, Duncan sadly passed away in 2010; but she has never been forgotten by fans or her songwriting peers.

Must hear: Earth Mother (1972)

19: Carolyn Franklin (1944-1988)

The youngest child of the Reverend CL Franklin and Barbara Franklin, Carolyn Franklin was a powerful singer – just like her sisters Erma and Aretha. While the records she released under her own name didn’t sell well, Carolyn had an enormous impact on the career of Aretha Franklin by virtue of her sublime songwriting and arranging talent. Along with Aretha and Erma, she reworked Respect from Otis Redding’s original, turning it into the powerhouse Aretha version. Carolyn also composed for (and with) Aretha; notable songs include ‘Ain’t No Way’, ‘Baby, Baby, Baby’ (on the I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You album) and the magical Angel, from 1973’s Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky). “Carolyn had written soaring melodies before,” Aretha said, “but none soared higher than Angel. The song had wings.”

Must hear: Angel (Aretha Franklin) (1973)

18: Madonna (1958- present)

Because she is such a multi-faceted artist, Madonna’s songwriting chops are often overlooked. From her self-titled debut album – on which she was the sole composer of five of that record’s songs – onwards, the “Queen Of Pop” has always been a songwriter (often in collaboration with others) as well as a performer. Some of Madonna’s best songs are directly inspired by her life, whether that’s Catholicism, her parents, or her younger self ripping through the New York City clubs. She has also written songs that others have recorded, including Gary Barlow and Nick Kamen. “Songwriting is a really intimate experience,” Madonna said in 2015, at the time of her Rebel Heart album. “Coming up with words and ideas and phrasing and melodies and ideas, it’s like you have to be not afraid to make a fool of yourself.”

Must hear: Mer Girl (1998)

17: Cynthia Weil (1940-2023)

Together with her husband, Barry Mann (and sometimes with Phil Spector, too), Cynthia Weil was responsible for some of the greatest pop-soul records of the 60s. She was part of the Brill Building stable of songwriters, and her hits from this period include He’s Sure The Boy I Love (The Crystals), You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ (The Righteous Brothers) and On Broadway (The Drifters). “We didn’t think that much about what we were doing,” Weil said in 2018, of those glorious hitmaking years. “We just did it naturally.” Weil also had a real knack of moving with the times; at the end of the decade Mann and Weil wrote for Mama Cass Elliot (notably Make Your Own Kind Of Music) and, in the 80s, they composed Don’t Know Much, the enormous hit for Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville.

Must hear: On Broadway (The Drifters) (1963)

16: Judee Sill (1944-1979)

Judee Sill was among the first artists signed to David Geffen’s Asylum label. She brought classical complexity into the 70s singer-songwriter canon (she was influenced by Bach), and her hymnal, spiritual songs remain unique today. The delicacy of Sill’s work stands in stark contrast to the hard times she lived through, with abuse, violence and crime dominating her youth, and drug addiction a constant part of her adulthood. Yet her fire was unquenchable, and stories of her brusque monologues punctuating live performances are legendary. In one, delivered in 1971, she stood up for fellow songwriter Joni Mitchell. An audience member had shouted out a request for Sill to play Both Sides, Now, by Judy Collins. “First of all, Judy Collins didn’t write that song, get that straight,” Sill said. “Second, if you want to hear her sing it, what are you doing here?”

Must hear: Jesus Was A Cross Maker (1971)

15: Taylor Swift (1989- present)

The 2023 Eras Tour and accompanying film was a showcase for the sheer diversity of Taylor Swift’s songwriting and just how much her songs mean to millions of people. From country beginnings, through pop superstardom, to experiments with folk, rock and electronica, Swift has written songs in multiple genres and has taken her fans with her every time. Comfortably asserting her place among the best female songwriters, she has joked that her songwriting method is “dorky”, because she categorises songs as “quill lyrics”, “fountain pen lyrics” and “glitter gel pen lyrics”. “I came up with these categories based on what writing tool I imagine having in my hand when I scribbled it down – figuratively,” she said in 2022. “I don’t actually have a quill. Anymore. I broke it once when I was mad.”

Must hear: You’re On Your Own, Kid (2022)

14: Vashti Bunyan (1945- present)

No one harnesses the power of quiet like Vashti Bunyan. Starting out in the mid-60s, working with Andrew Loog Oldham (whose stable of artists included Marianne Faithfull and The Rolling Stones), Bunyan says she “got in big trouble for saying on a radio show that I thought I wrote better songs than Mick Jagger”. The album she released in 1970 – Just Another Diamond Day – found her subject matter move from love to the magnificence of nature. Travelling to the Hebrides in a horse and cart, Bunyan documented the journey in her songwriting, creating glistening tiny details of incredible clarity. The album was virtually unknown until it was reissued in the 2000s, at which point it was hailed as an influence on a new generation of artists including Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart. Bunyan has released two further wonderful albums, Lookaftering (2005) and Heartleap (2014), and this later work also finds depth in the smallest gestures.

Must hear: Where I Like To Stand (1970)

13: Valerie Simpson (1946- present)

Valerie Simpson, in partnership with her husband, Nickolas Ashford, was key to the Motown sound. The couple’s work was particularly taken up by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, who interpreted Ashford and Simpson themes – devotion, the enormity of love, and the positivity of relationships – in a timeless fashion. The Ashford and Simpson grandeur particularly stretched out in the 70s, as they worked with Diana Ross on her first solo album, transforming Ain’t No Mountain High Enough from the Gaye-Terrell pop song into an epic mediation on fidelity.

The pair were also incredibly intuitive about knowing how and why their song suited a particular artist – even before that artist themselves did. This was famously true of their song I’m Every Woman, which Chaka Khan claimed she felt insecure about singing for many, many years until, as she put it: “I grew into the song.” Simpson composes on the piano and said, in 2020, that the piano is “just a part of my being. It’s a part of who I am. It’s just connected to my body. I seldom can walk past a piano, ever. I have to sit down and play something because I never know what might arrive at that moment.”

Must hear: I’m Every Woman (Chaka Khan) (1978)

12: Memphis Minnie (1897-1973)

Not only one of the best female guitarists, Memphis Minnie had bona fide songwriting chops, too, creating songs that were to become blues standards. Although her songs and performances were popular in the first half of the 20th century, her legacy really made itself known in the later 60s and 70s, when progressive groups covered the songs she wrote. When The Levee Breaks, a reflection on the Great Mississippi Flood, proved particularly resonant; not only did Led Zeppelin adapt it in 1971, for “Led Zeppelin IV”, but their recording (particularly its opening drum break) has been widely sampled by hip-hop artists. Minnie’s earliest songs are now nearly 100 years old and their reach seems only to increase – along with her status as one of the best female songwriters in history.

Must hear: When The Levee Breaks (1929)

11: Patti Smith (1946- present)

A poet and memoirist as well as a songwriter and performer, Patti Smith can write disturbing monologues (such as Land, on 1975’s Horses), fierce rock missives (Ask The Angels, on 1976’s Radio Ethiopia) or delicate, solemn works, such as the late-period Peaceable Kingdom, on 2007’s Trampin’. She prefigured punk but was never completely part of it; one genre could not contain her then, and it does not contain her now. As one of the best female songwriters of all time, Smith’s mastery of numerous writing disciplines is clear, but so is the unending freshness of her words, whether in song or on the page. “I just keep doing my work, try to take care of myself. I feel blessed to have the imagination I have but don’t think it makes me more important than anyone,” she said in 2023. “I am who I am, with all my flaws – and I’m grateful.”

Must hear: Redondo Beach (1975)

10: Carole King (1942- present)

In 1959, Carole King wrote a song called Queen Of The Beach. In it, she boasts of her body in a manner that sounds far from a stereotypical singer-songwriter: “When they see me comin’ they gather round quick – the fellas even tell me I make Brigitte look sick!” These early songs, written mostly with her then husband, Gerry Goffin, and recorded by early-60s girl groups, capture the ebullience and confusion of young womanhood – whether outshining all the other girls in a bikini or wondering if now’s the right time to go all the way with a boyfriend (Will You Love Me Tomorrow).

In the 70s, King split with Goffin and her songwriting turned introspective; with 1971’s Tapestry she created a blueprint for post-hippie reflection, while also fashioning one of the best breakup albums of all time. “There’s a lot of hard work involved in songwriting,” King has said. “The inspiration part is where it comes through you, but once it comes through you, the shaping of it, the craft of it, is something that I pride myself in knowing how to do.”

Must hear: It’s Too Late (1971)

9: Stevie Nicks (1948- present)

Fleetwood Mac would not be the same band without Dreams, without Rhiannon, without Gypsy – and all were Stevie Nicks compositions. Through all her work with the group, and across eight solo albums, the Nicks hallmark is clear: to combine real pop antennae and heightened drama, without sacrificing any lyrical complexity.

One of the best songwriters of any era, Nicks has always been open about how extensively she draws from her own life, using it (whether obscured or unvarnished) to explore her lyrical themes. “It just starts with a little inspiration with me,” she said in 2008. “Whether it’s something that happens to me, or… a man walks by me and smiles at me in a certain way, that makes me go, ‘What a beautiful smile that was.’ Then I go, and I write, ‘The smile was the only thing I saw…’” Nicks’ genius is in making these very personal sentiments universal, drawing all into her kaleidoscopic world.

Must hear: Edge Of Seventeen (1981)

8: Laura Nyro (1947-1997)

There’s a very telling moment that can be heard on Go Find The Moon: The Audition Tape, a recording of an 18-year-old Laura Nyro in 1966. She’s asked, “Do you do any songs, other than those you’ve written?” “No,” Nyro softly replies. An incredulous music business executive asks her again: “You don’t know any pop songs?” “Of course I know there are other songs,” Nyro says, and thinks, “What do I know? I must know something!”

Even as a teenager, Laura Nyro was single- and serious-minded about her craft. This resulted in a unique sound, one that drew from contemporary singer-songwriters but was also heavily influenced by soul music; it meant that her work was covered by some of the greatest soul singers of all time, including Thelma Houston, The Staple Singers, and The Supremes. Nyro’s songs were also popular with rock artists, in particular Three Dog Night and the UK progressive band Affinity. “I think about writing, and I smile,” she said in 1993, at the time of her final album, Walk The Dog And Light The Light.

Must hear: Eli’s Comin’ (1968)

7: Carly Simon (1943- present)

“This wasn’t someone talking at women,” Jac Holzman, of Elektra Records, said of Carly Simon. “It was someone talking to women.” Simon’s work, particularly her first three albums, issued on Elektra, arrived at a seismic time for female identity: where women were questioning traditional routes, without fully knowing what the future held without these constraints. Simon’s songwriting shared in this confusion, while simultaneously pointing to a freer way ahead; her albums were enormously popular as a result, and from her self-titled debut album onwards, Simon leapt upon the new creative liberty offered by an open climate in the arts.

“It was the auteur approach,” she said in 2021. “It was like a Bergman movie or a Truffaut film. Those directors were doing it their own way and putting in flashes of their own lives. It was the same for us.” And, of course, Carly Simon is the absolute mistress of suspense; her cagey approach to the inspirations for You’re So Vain, a song which appeared, ironically, on an album titled No Secrets, has kept the world guessing for decades.

Must hear: His Friends Are More Than Fond Of Robin (1972)

6: Missy Elliott (1971- present)

The best Missy Elliott songs encompass R&B, ballads, club-based pop and, of course, her formidable raps. Elliott was the first female rapper (and the third rapper ever) to be inducted into the Songwriting Hall Of Fame. In her acceptance speech, she said, “I want to say one thing to the writers, to the upcoming writers: ‘Do not give up.’ We all go through writer’s block. Sometimes you just have to walk away from a record and come back to it. But don’t give up because I’m standing here.”

One of the best female rappers in history, Missy Elliott is known for her colourful, often surrealistic imagery which illustrates deeper truths of identity, relationships and success. And this was the case right from when she was a child: in 2021, Elliott laughed as she remembered how a lil’ Missy would write about “ants and stuff”. Before she was a performer herself, Elliott wrote for others, and has continued to do so in a parallel career to her own; her songs have been recorded by Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child and Mariah Carey.

Must hear: Wake Up (featuring Jay-Z) (2003)

5: Dolly Parton (1946- present)

While Dolly Parton might be famous for her powerful female presence, if you listen carefully to her songs, they are often genderless and ambiguous. She has explained that this stems from the early years of honing her craft in country music. “I love to write songs for men,” Parton explained in her 2020 book, Songteller: My Life In Lyrics. “And it’s a good thing I do because back then, there weren’t that many women in the country-music business to write songs for. Especially ones who weren’t writing their own songs, like Loretta Lynn was. I didn’t have a lot of space to write songs for women so I purposefully tried to write songs that men could record. Or songs that could go either way.”

One of the best female songwriters in any genre, Parton is incredibly flexible during the creative process. Starved of time (and without her guitar) to write the title track for 9 To 5, the 1980 movie she was starring in, she began composing it by strumming on her fingernails. “It sounded like a typewriter,” she said. “And I played my nails, on the real record, just for fun!”

Must hear: The Bridge (1968)

4: Ellie Greenwich (1940-2009)

Ellie Greenwich, just like Cynthia Weil and Carole King elsewhere in this list of the best female songwriters, was half of a creative married couple writing songs in the 60s for girl groups and young women. Her achievements with her then husband, Jeff Barry, include the bad-girl gum-popping of The Shangri-Las’ Leader Of The Pack; the transcendent Be My Baby, by The Ronettes; and the seasonal masterpiece Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), as sung by Darlene Love.

When public affection for this style of songwriting passed and critical acclaim moved to artists who wrote their own songs, Ellie Greenwich took it hard. “It was a very devastating time for me with the British Invasion coming in, Jeff’s and my divorce,” she admitted. “I had a hard time for many years trying to adapt to this stuff.” A way in which she tried to express herself was to create her own singer-songwriter album with a difference. Let It Be Written, Let It Be Sung (1973) remains a fascinating record, comprised of hits she’d previously written mainly for young women, all now tonally altered by Greenwich’s melancholy for times past.

Must hear: What Good Is I Love You (1973)

3: Nina Simone (1933-2003)

“I think that the artists who don’t get involved in preaching messages probably are happier,” Nina Simone once said. “But you see, I have to live with Nina, and that is very difficult.” Simone expressed the trauma, injustice and contradictions of being Black in North America like no one else. As a songwriter, arranger, vocalist and pianist she gave herself completely to her songs and constructed works of enormous emotional and intellectual heft. She rejected the term “jazz” and preferred to call her music “Black classical”, reflecting her extensive formal knowledge. Simone also called her songs “a political weapon” and said, “[They] helped me for 30 years defend the rights of American Blacks and third-world people all over the world, to defend them with protest songs. To move the audience to make them conscious of what has been done to my people around the world.”

Must hear: Four Women (1966)

2: Kate Bush (1958- present)

From her very first hit, Wuthering Heights, it was abundantly clear that Kate Bush was a songwriter to be reckoned with. Inspired by seeing the BBC adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel of the same name, Bush took a scrap of the narrative – the moment where the ghost of Cathy taps on the window – and created a singular vision of pop excellence.

Ever since, the best Kate Bush songs have seldom been straightforward in their content, something that dates back to her very early experiments. “I started trying to put words to the piano, and found it incredibly difficult,” Bush said in 1985. “I couldn’t understand how people did it, [so I] got some books from the library to see if I could make those words fit my music. It was absolutely useless, so I had to try to make my own words to fit.” While Bush’s subjects have ranged from nuclear war to domestic chores, she has often found a conceptual thread to tie lyrical motifs into a greater whole, such as the Ninth Wave suite, on the Hounds Of Love album, or Aerial’s A Sea Of Honey and A Sky Of Honey sides. Her influence among the best female songwriters is impossible to overstate, and only grows with every year.

Must hear: Sat In Your Lap (1981)

1: Joni Mitchell (1943- present)

There’s a famous quote from Joni Mitchell’s friend David Crosby, said with all affection: “Joni Mitchell is about as modest as Mussolini.” In 1979, when she was asked about this quote in an interview, she laughed. “I like to work myself up to a state of enthusiasm about anything I do, otherwise, what’s the point?” Mitchell said. “I’m not talking about arrogance, but I believe in real enthusiasm. That’s probably where Crosby’s quote comes from.”

Topping this list of the best female songwriters, Mitchell has a very high inner critic, one that ruthlessly edited out cliché and weak spots in her songwriting, ensuring only the finest songs were committed to her albums. This makes her work rate, of mostly an album a year during the late 60s and into the 70s, all the more astonishing. Her words take on different hues to the listener depending on mood, time of life, state of mind or even the weather; her ability to create a clear-eyed picture set against an ambiguous backdrop of feelings is unparalleled. Even so, Mitchell rejects most labels, including that of singer-songwriter. “Art songs, which [is the term] I liked best. Some people get nervous about that word. Art. They think it’s a pretentious word from the giddyap. To me, words are only symbols, and the word ‘art’ has never lost its vitality.”

Must hear: The Last Time I Saw Richard (1971)

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