Can you learn how to write lyrics?
Learn how to write lyrics?
The story goes like this: I was reading Friendfeed and came across a link to a site about How to write Lyrics and thought to myself “Well that’s a bit presumptuous isn’t it?” On visiting the site I found advice which seemed to recommend ‘tuning in to the music of the spheres’. Bah humbug said the little critic sitting on my shoulder, so I left a terse drive-by comment and moved on thinking no more of it. Then the original author read it and called me out, so good for him. We’ve had a good chat since during which I realised that I’ve never written down my own story about getting to grips with the songwriting process, so here it is as promised.
My problem with writing lyrics
I picked up a guitar and learned to play when I was about fourteen, mostly devising my own versions of favourite songs by ear. Songs by people like Loudon Wainwright who is possibly the greatest lyric writer of all time, are usually pretty simple in terms of the chord structure and I’d always loved to sing. Very soon I wanted to write my own songs because that’s what any musical artist seemed to need to do in those days, and it’s still the case today, if not more so. I found that the music came pretty easily, just out of experimenting with the sound of new chords and progressions, jamming with myself for hours on end so to speak. The lyrics, on the other hand, were problematic. I kept a notebook with two ends. At one end I wrote down rough drafts and odd verses, full of crossings out and rewrites. Then when I thought I had a finished song together with music I’d copy it to the pristine end and feel pleased with myself for having completed one. The trouble happened within a few days or weeks when I’d try to play the new song again and decide that it’s rubbish. Often the crossings out and rewrites had made it worse, or the original material was based on a really bad concept in the first place. Part of the problem was that I hadn’t fully understood that song lyrics are not poetry, and many of the most sucessful songs look pretty awful if you try just reading them as cold print. And teenagers are always very self conscious, so amongst all of this, just a handful of songs emerged which stood the test of time. “Hold on Below” is one of those from my early teenage period, together with Puddles and The Show Carries On.
The theory of idealism
Because I didn’t understand why sometimes, rarely, I was able to write lyrics that I was happy with, while at most other times nothing good would come out, I began to entertain the theory that the inspiration was coming from somewhere “out there” rather than from within. That fits with a philosophy of idealism which is common enough in our society, and prevalent amongst artists but which I now view as particularly unhelpful. I could go for months and even years at a time without writing a single song, waiting for the right conditions in which the muse would arrive. I even wrote one about that very idea which contained the line “I’m just the man who held the pen that wrote it down” which is very similar to the concept at the How to write Lyrics site where it says “I don’t write music, music writes through me”.
My new approach to songwriting
If you have ever read published authors advising hopeful writers on how to write a novel, the advice usually comes in the form “Sit down at a desk and start writing. Then continue writing every day for at least eight hours until you have written the first draft”. They have to treat it as any other job, otherwise it will never get done. So I decided a few years ago to try the same approach to songwriting. I knew I had a song which I wanted to write, a ballad about a journey I had made. I planned myself a day to write it, and decided that I would spend the day on a river boat cruising up and down the Thames, making good use of the all-day ticket.
I took with me paper and pencils, and maps to remind me of the journey. There was a convenient table on the boat so I installed myself there and got everything out, knowing I had all day to get the song lyrics written. I love being on boats so this had been a great idea, and within a couple of hours I had about eight or nine verses written so I could afford to take an enjoyable lunch break. That song remains unchanged (well, apart from the pronunciation of Ugijar) as “Winter in Andalucia” for which I get requests from time to time, and it’s a nice one to play if I ever feel like quietly fingerpicking and can remember all the lyrics.
Intentionally writing song lyrics
So this was nothing short of a revelation. If I set out deliberately to write a lyric, I could do it!
A few years later, I was badly let down by a companion with whom I’d planned a holiday. I decided to go anyway, as the flight and car were all booked up, but instead of trying to have a holiday by myself I would treat it as work and do lots of writing. I said I would write a CD, which meant writing enough songs so that maybe ten or twelve of them would be worth keeping. Eight would do it at a pinch, and I had a week, so one song a day seemed reasonable.
I started writing the day before, and made good use of the time on the plane. After a day or two on the road I didn’t restrict myself to writing sat at a desk. In fact I often started composing a first verse or so while walking.
Zoom back a few years and during a sparse phase for songwriting there was one song which emerged from out of a camping trip. Filling two large water containers then tramping back downhill, the rhythm of my gait started me off humming and then I shut myself away for half an hour and wrote some lyrics to the new tune. That’s Mondura Dam
So during my deliberate CD writing trip I fell back on the creative walking technique once or twice, and then made sure I memorised the verse or two composed in my head, so I could write them down and elaborate after I got back to the hotel. Incidentally I don’t think I could do that with a companion.
How to Write Twenty Three Lyrics
By the end of that trip I had no less than twenty three new lyrics which I’m still using as base material. Gernika, Cormorants and The Wreckers Prayer all came from then, and there are a few more which may also represent some of my best work. So I’m definitely convinced now on the question of how to write lyrics, that the deliberate method is the best one for me. The same philosophy probably stands for other forms of writing and creativity as well, like this blog post for example, which I planned yesterday and then got out of bed this morning with the deliberate intention of getting it written and published.