This is going to be a fairly short post today, as I have limited time. I have a band practice this afternoon, and I’m supposed to be finishing some lyrics right now! Lyrics. Ugh. I love them, but I hate them! They can make or break a song. There’s so much pressure to get them ‘just right’.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve really moved away from writing songs about personal and love relationships. I feel like 3/4 of music is about relationships. I get bored of it being so same-y. Every time I start a song about a relationship, I feel like ‘ehhh, that’s been done before’. But there is a good reason why so many songs are about love. It’s something that touches everyone’s lives, and one of the most important things in the world. Scratch that; THE most important thing in the world. It’s wonderful when it’s going well, and a kick in the fucking nuts (or uterus) when it’s going badly. I feel that so many relationship pop songs these days are just phoned in, though. Feels like you could knock out a simple love or breakup song in 5 minutes flat. Just rhyme some typical words and sprinkle “baby”, “boy” or “girl” in at liberty. There’s a difference between a well-crafted, interesting love-centered pop song like Gotye & Kimbra’s “Somebody I Used to Know” and…say….most Britney Spears songs. You can tell a story and really dig deep to create emotional reactions in your listeners, or you can just…rhyme a bunch of words and throw some references in to your hot body and Mercedes. Lately I’ve been more exploring my relationship with myself in lyrics – eg, I wrote a song called “Thespian”, about the feeling of being an ‘actor’ in this world – that maybe it’s quite hard to be yourself, and we are all living ‘lies’ to some degree, keeping up our ‘personalities’ and fooling people into thinking that’s all we are. Another recent song, “The Sea is Red”, explores my relationship with my family and its sometimes dark history. I am something of a navel gazer, always analyzing myself and working on self-improvement. I sometimes find myself fascinating. Seriously not in a narcissistic “I’m so awesome” way, but just find it interesting to see what has influenced me and what makes me think and feel certain ways. But being a musician, part of the process is about entertaining others. Do people really want to hear songs about this personal stuff? Or is it just shit-boring? The bulk of popular songs are NOT about one’s personal thoughts, but universal themes. I always feel this pull between truly exploring what I’m truly thinking about in lyrics, or writing about some universal thing everyone can relate to. I guess it’s probably important to have a balance of both. I personally find (good) songs about relationships fascinating, but find it difficult to write a ‘good’ one myself!
Anyway, I’m kind of getting off-topic. I wanted to discuss the actual process of lyric-writing itself. How does one start? (If there are any musos reading, please feel free to comment and share your own lyrical process). I would say about 80% of the time that I already have a piece of music/some chords/or a musical vibe before I begin lyric writing. The mood of the music is usually what inspires my lyrics. In that rare 20% of the time, though, I occasionally have a cool turn of phrase or concept come into my mind, and try to turn that into a song. I find that starting with lyrics is when it’s hardest to create a successful song, though, sadly! Wish I could be one of those peeps who turns their poetry into amazing songs, but it’s usually the other way around for me. I am also something of a purist who believes in really writing from experience and not just “making abstract shit up”. But some really awesome musicians (such as David Bowie) apparently swear by the ‘cut-up technique’, which good old Wikipedia describes as:
“..an aleatory literary technique in which a text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text. Most commonly, cut-ups are used to offer a non-linear alternative to traditional reading and writing.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cut-up_technique)
Also, apparently, “From the early 1970s, David Bowie has used cut-ups to create some of his lyrics. This technique influenced Kurt Cobain‘s songwriting. Thom Yorke applied a similar method in Radiohead‘s Kid A (2000) album, writing single lines, putting them into a hat, and drawing them out at random while the band rehearsed the songs.”
Sounds like the cut-up technique has influenced a bunch of amazing artistes! I always found Bowie & Kurt Cobain’s lyrics very evocative, mysterious and interesting. They made me think, imagine and become inspired. So even if they just pulled them out of a hat, I guess they were pretty effective. Maybe there doesn’t have to be as much meaning in lyrics as I think.
Another thing is, can you switch these things up? If I started doing some random hat-pulling, would the rest of my songs that are already done in a different style sound bizarre? Because I know most of Kurt Cobain’s songs have this abstract quality, and so do many, many Bowie songs. Does this mean you can choose only one style to write in?
I do appreciate a certain abstract quality to lyrics – when things are too expository, I feel like I’m writing childishly. (Eg, “Got up in the morning, took a sip of juice” – isn’t there a cooler way to say this? “Shook off the sheets, swallowed bowls of fruit” – lol – not exactly Shakespeare, but you get the idea).
My boyfriend believes that bold lines and statements are the way to go, to catch people’s attention and make them think. I’ve been trying some of this, but my damn ethics sometimes get in the way and make me not want to say anything “too bold”. I am a fence sitter. I couldn’t write a song with a big chorus line like, “Hate is love”. I’m sure it would make a lot of people think, but I just don’t believe it, and wouldn’t want to sing it. Most of my thoughts go something like, “Such and such is like such and such in this situation, but it depends on the observer. Everything is subjective”. Haha. What AWESOME lyrics that would make.
Anyway, I guess there are no hard and fast rules for lyrics. Write something you are happy with, that you feel is possible for other people to enjoy, and that means something to you. I think that’s going to be my motto.
I’ll leave you with a bunch of tips I find useful for when your hand is palming the shit out of your face and you just can’t seem to find the inspiration to finish your lyrics:
– Go for a walk in nature. Nature calms your mind and allows you to chill out and connect with something bigger than you. I need to remember this more often and force myself to get out of the house!
– Try the cut-up method. Even if you don’t want to use the extremely abstract method of putting random words together, certain words or word combos could trigger some cool inspiration you may not have thought of.
– Take a nap. When you are drifting off, keep a voice recorder near you (I use my iPhone’s voice recorder). Record the thoughts going through your head. When we drift off to sleep, our brainwave patterns change and we start thinking more laterally and can come up with some interesting images & concepts. Also keep the recorder handy for when you wake up; I always find I think differently when I’ve just woken up.
– Visit an art gallery, or make yourself an inspiration board full of interesting pictures and patterns. Sometimes the visual can inspire cool thoughts.
– Draw on whatever dilemmas and problems are going on in your life right now. Pain can inspire!
– Give yourself a random assignment, or ask a friend to give you one. Eg: Write a song in 30 minutes about steak. Sure, it’s probably not going to be your best work, but it may get the ball rolling and help you break through that writer’s block.
Okay, hope y’all have an amazing day! Oh, and we have picked an excellent guitarist to join our band. Very exciting.