Each song is a custom-made world unto itself. Of course, like in any popular art form, there are genres that most songs fit into in some way. But each song, if it works, comes into its own individual existence. Just like people. And, like people, some are more fully realized than others.
When we’re writing, we don’t know what the end result will be; whether we’ll attain our goal of fully bringing a song’s lyric idea, its deeper reality, to life.
But without fully committing to the process we’re almost guaranteed to fail.
What do I mean by that commitment? I think that it’s a commitment to the world of the song, whatever it might be.
Speaking of lyrics now, if it’s an angry song… let it be truly pissed off. If it’s a love song… let it commit to the helpless vulnerability or joyful freedom, of being in love. Even if it’s about ambivalence, or doubt… commit to fully expressing the poles the singer is suspended between, and what that feels like.
Here are two specific suggestions I have to help this lyric-writing process along.
1) Take the time to find an emotional way into the character or situation in the song. If it’s about something close to you, that may not be difficult. But if it’s about something far from your own experience it might be a challenge.
For example, I’ve written a couple of songs about being locked up in jail or prison. Fortunately that’s not an experience I’ve had. But it scares the hell out of me (a useful feeling here) and I can also relate strongly to feelings of being stuck, trapped.
I’m in no way saying these things are the same as being in prison. But they are a way of writing about it, getting inside it, with more emotional authenticity. It’s a way for me to commit to the subject by making it feel personal even when, in the specifics of the situation (not the feelings), it isn’t.
It’s also a way of writing from my feelings while avoiding the inevitable tedium of constant autobiography. If we’re only writing autobiography, it’s bound to get boring soon enough – no one’s that interesting.
But, in another sense, it’s all autobiography… If we can tap into the personal feelings, we can write about all different kinds of people, places, and things.
2) Details. Detail brings a song, a situation, a character, to life. In ‘Steppin’ Out’, Joe Jackson wrote –
Can dress in pink and blue
Just like a child
And in a yellow taxi turn to me
He could’ve written something like:
Can dress in something new
Just like a child
And in a speeding taxi turn to me
That sings reasonably well. But… in his version the dress is pink and blue, the taxi is yellow. I SEE them. And that seeing evokes feelings in me – thoughts, memories, ideas.
Any time we can get the listener to imaginatively use their senses – to see, feel, touch, smell, hear what we’re singing about – it brings them into the world we’re trying to create. But not as observers. As participants.
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