This article was published in the Spring ’98 edition of “Tickled By Thunder” – a periodical for new and budding writers of all types…
When I begin writing a song, the music always comes first for me and the lyrics often end up being a great struggle. For some reason I can make swift musical adjustments, but lyrically I can be left wringing my writing hand in despair. For instance I have a song that’s completely finished and has been for at least two months, but no lyrics. I’ve made a few attempts, but for the most part, if it doesn’t come quickly for me then I know I’m in for a very long battle and I usually end up procrastinating. I’ve written other complete songs since! Does that make sense?
There are some basics I will go through once I sit down seriously with that piece of music. First I’ll bring out any recent snippets of ideas, either written down or still in my head, that may make an appropriate topic. It’s good practise to keep a journal or notebook with ideas, lines or words you like for future reference. I may not even decide the topic, but instead just make up some lyrical nonsense and draw something out of that. When you’re adding lyrics to music, the music dictates to some degree the mood of the song. However, I once heard Joni Mitchell in an interview talk about the “pathos” she often likes to create in her songs. “Happy” music and dark words, or vice-versa, can create a beautiful piece.
More often than not, a phrase will come to me and the song will sort of reveal itself as I go. When an idea begins to form, I’ll move in that direction. However, if I choose a topic first, I will very often begin writing in the first person with my own feelings about it. It may be in the form of lyrical lines, or I might just write down words or phrases that I associate with it. This won’t necessarily end up in the finished product, but what it does is put an emotional energy into the idea, and other ideas will branch off from there. A thesauras comes in very handy at this point. How many other words are there for “love” or “hate”? I’ll even flip the pages of the thesauras with my eyes closed and point to a random word! Try it sometime. Use the word in a way you may never have used it before. Try a few of them, and see what you come up with.
A song, when the lyrics are well-crafted, will have a flow to it that consists of either a series of thoughts, ideas, or a period of time, in some sort of sequence. If there is a chorus, it should in some way sum up the entire song, really bring the whole idea home. A bridge? Some songwriters argue about the necessity of it, but if I feel the whole thing needs a little change of pace, a bridge can do that. It can be completely instrumental, or the lyrics should reflect some fresh viewpoint that takes the listener out of context for just a moment.
The purpose of my lyric writing has always been to say something common in an uncommon way. Before I “fine tune” the song, I try to get a general sense of whether or not I’ve made a statement, or created a mood or emotion. Sometimes if I feel that I’m not saying anything new, I may trash the whole thing and start fresh. There’s nothing wrong with starting over! If you just don’t feel enthused about what you’re writing, it’s not worth flogging a dead chorus. Man! Did I say that? Some sculptors say that they look at the material they’re about to work with and visualize the finished piece already there. Their task is simply to remove the unwanted material. This is similar to the songcrafting process.
At the point of crafting it, I will look for the rough spots. I may have written some disposable lines just to fill in somewhere and I’m now going to refine those parts. I’ll sing it out and find the parts that I trip over. The following are five common problems with lyrics, not in any particular order. Go through yours the next time and see if any of these apply to your songs:
1. Forgettable title – if your intention is for people to remember the name of your song, then be sure to title it with a word or phrase from the song that you use more than once. That’s why most people will use something from the chorus, if there is one, because the chorus is repeated. If you’re really stuck on a title, but it isn’t repeated, is there a way at the end of the song you can use it in a repetitive fashion? I ran into this problem with a song called “Motor Scooter”. In it, I had what is called a progressive chorus, meaning that the chorus changed lyrics everytime I sang it. I didn’t use the words “motor scooter” again until the last line of the last chorus. How did I solve it? In the production, I had the background vocals repeating it between the lines of the chorus…and when I sing it in public, I very often get the audience to sing those background vocals! Then they NEVER forget!
2. Repetitive ideas – don’t say the same thing over and over. Don’t repeat an idea. Don’t tell us something you’ve already said. Don’t…
3.Improper use of a word or words – Look that word up, even if you think you know, but you’re not completely sure. Coming across as intelligent and insightful is one thing, but using big words to impress people is entirely another!
4.Emphasizing the wrong syllable of a word – EM-pha-size, not em-PHA-size.
5. Suddenly introducing new characters or topics – the song’s ideas are flowing along nicely and all of a sudden there’s a new person in the picture with no introduction…it’s confusing to listen to. Don’t change direction too much with a song unless it’s crucial.
The struggle is almost over…well, not quite. Now you have to memorize the song! Is this a part of writing it? You bet it is! If I have trouble memorizing a certain part of the song, it’s usually because it isn’t working. The words before don’t lead nicely into the forgotten part, or the line is so uninteresting or difficult, that it isn’t worth remembering! After you memorize it, is the thrill still there? If I generally enjoy singing a song often, it’s a keeper. The true test, however, is taking it in front of an audience. Even if you’re not a performer, bringing your tape to a demo critique, or just playing it for people will be a real eye-opener. Was it just you, or is this a GREAT song? Having a critique of the song by either other songwriters or even industry-types” is worth the sweat too. If two or more people point out the same thing, good or bad, it’s a point to consider.
Mary Chapin-Carpenter said once in an interview that she has trouble “letting go” of a song. She’s tempted to keep tweaking here and there, refining and changing it endlessly. Sometimes I get lazy and don’t do enough refining, and sometimes I have the same temptation to keep picking at it. When is a song finished? Only you can answer that. For me, it’s when the struggle feels like it’s finally over!