Category Archives: Lyrics

What Makes A Great Song Lyric?

Bubbles from The Wire.

The Wire is the greatest TV show ever to have been aired. It’s brilliantly dark, socially conscious crime fiction that’s truer to life than most journalism. But what I love most about it is not the incredible characters, the plotlines, or its moral compass: it’s the dialogue.

It fizzles and crackles with electric wit, full of bizarre and charming colloquialisms, intrigue and awareness flowing out of every syllable. Comparisons with other TV shows fall flat: I’d put it alongside Shakespeare.

Like many great playwrights, the writers hang their dialogue onto themes and messages which run throughout the show. Sometimes it can be accidental: one character, while talking about something completely different, sums up the entire premise of the final series in its very first scene: “The bigger the lie, the more they believe.” – Bunk Moreland.

More often it is carefully measured, but equally apt: after spending a day with a detective in mid-town suburbia, a homeless man called Bubbles sums up the divide between rich and poor America in one line: “Thin line ‘tween heaven and here.” – Bubbles. Beautiful.

But how does this apply to your songwriting? The Wire’s dialogue maintains one crucial rule which all songwriters would do well to pay attention to: never does poetry compromise the reality of the show. At no point does Bunk Moreland speak in Iambic Pentameter. At no point does Bubbles wander lonely as a cloud. Every character speaks as they normally would, and the metaphors appear either through deliberately placed accidents or through the perfectly timed use of their colloquialisms.

The most common problem with amateur songwriters is that they feel they have to be a Romantic poet in order to reach a deeper truth. Unfortunately, they aren’t. You need an incredible grasp of the English language, a sensibility which allows you to see the exquisite beauty in daffodils, plenty of patience and plenty more opiates.

But you already have an incredible vault of words and wisdom to dig in to: your language, the way you explain the world, the accrued phrases that help you make sense of life. The Wire is successful because the lines stay true to its characters: if your lyrics stay true to your character, you won’t need the opiates.

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What Should You Write Songs About?

Bertolt Brecht. Fingernails not pictured.

It is said that the great director Bertolt Brecht used to apply dirt to the undersides of his fingernails each morning so that he could more deeply empathise with the ‘Great Unwashed’.

What a faker. Despite coming from a deeply middle-class background, he began erasing the circumstances of his birth and embracing a fictional ‘peasant of the theatre’ persona. He wanted to make theatre for the working class, and it wouldn’t do too well for his audience to think he was a posho. Essentially, he disregarded his whole identity in order to make art tailored to a certain demographic.

Luckily, he happened to be a genius, so it pretty much worked out for him. Go figure. So what works for the rest of us non-genii? I mean, we can still write about what we want, right?

Technically, you’re absolutely free to write about any subject you please. This ain’t no Stalinist regime. You’re free to write that 8-minute stream of consciousness about mackerel livers if you fancy it; go ahead and pen a rhyming version of the Magna Carta; sure, write lengthy death metal songs about unspeakable subjects (No joke, I once went on after a band called ‘Vomit Enema’. Their first song was entitled ‘Hilarious Abortion’.)

But lyrics based in truth will always beat lyrics based in fantasy. Lyrics from your own life carry a supreme authenticity, a momentous weight of personal significance: you can extract so many original ideas from your own life because you understand yourself better than anyone. You aren’t just gazing superficially at some other random subject, you’re communicating what is important to you.

This is a crucial part of finding your unique voice as an artist. I’ve heard the same old platitude thrown around for a long time – ‘You’ve got to find the thing about yourself that makes you unique’ – but I didn’t understand the wisdom of it until very recently. The things that make you unique are so ingrained in you that you take them for granted.

It’s like seeing your sibling every day and not noticing them grow taller. You come back ten years later and say ‘Woah, this is you?’ Finding your unique voice is a process of rediscovery: writing authentically, then working out what shape you’ve grown into over the years. It’s a long process, but it’s utterly, utterly worth it. Having someone really connect with a song that came bubbling up from your soulwell, that’s what it’s all about, right?

Thing is, if the audience see dirt under the fingernails of your songs, they’ll sniff it right out. But if you give them your hands as they are – your guilty, dirty, ragged old hands – they’ll fall at your feet.

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Song Writer’s Block: Help Is At Hand!

Why Writers Block is a myth.

I have never had writer’s block. I try, and I try, and I try, but I just keep writing. I’ve got writer’s block block.

Sure, I’ve had periods of slacking off, but that was just down to laziness, business, or boredom. In the back of my mind I knew that if push came to shove I could crank out a verse or two.

Sure, I’ve had trouble in the writing process. I’ve been clawing up the walls trying to think of rhymes, I’ve been going for long walks trying to coagulate my themes, I’ve been busting my gut every now and then to complicate my chord progressions. It’s never an entirely easy process.

And sure, there have been times when I’ve been absolutely clueless and left my bedroom in a huff, swearing to cast down the pen and all who wield it, and I’ve sat down and played XBOX all night instead.

Any of these things sound familiar? Thought so. I’ve got all the symptoms of writer’s block, I’ve just never diagnosed myself, right? Wrong.

When most people think of writer’s block they imagine that their stream of creativity has been somehow cut off at the source, and they need huge action to pry open the dam. But that’s not it: you’ve been looking at the stream, not the reservoir.

Each one of us has an immense wellspring of raw songwriting material with which to create stuff. Where, I hear you ask? Your whole life. Every friend, every story, every moment, every emotion, every setting, every character, every accidental metaphor, every bureaucratic injustice, every human fallacy, every bit of cloud, every dust mote, every cat, dog, or amoeba: it’s all there to write about. You’ve got no excuse to be blocked up.

But if you were to say: “but, but, but… my writer’s block comes from not being able to think of good rhymes, good metaphors, or good melodies.” Don’t worry. Start with bad rhymes, bad metaphors, and bad melodies, and work up from there. Allow yourself to be bad for a while. No-one expects you to be a teenage prodigy: But keep writing.

But if you were to say: “but, but, but… I can’t even express how my writer’s block stops me.” My advice is to get off your hind parts and roll away your stone. I stopped writing through pure, unadulterated laziness. Just a moment of self-control and you’ll power through the supposed block.

So, what is writer’s block? It’s one of three things: the excuse your brain gives you when you want to play XBOX; it’s the inability to create, through lack of practice, good song structures; and it’s the inability to see the world that inspires you.

And if you still think you’ve got writer’s block: get out and live. If inspiration comes from life, then make that life huge.

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Do Lyrics Matter In A Song?: Chuck Berry Vs B.B. King

The First Great Rock Lyricist: Dont Chuck Berry.

“The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away
You know you done me wrong baby
And you’ll be sorry someday”

The Thrill Is Gone – B.B. King

Reading B.B. King’s lyrics without accompaniment is a bit like peeing in a fridge: cold, unsatisfying, and not really what it’s meant for. Slapping his lyrics up on here does the great man a real disservice, but let’s take them as they are for a moment. They’re fairly pedestrian, without much depth or particular interest.

“Way down in Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
He never ever learned to read and write so well
But he could play a guitar just like ringing a bell

Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry

Compare his with Mr Berry’s. Chuck’s lyrics absolutely leap off the page. They’re so rich: full of character, energy, imagery, and humour. Mr Berry’s lyrics were so good they defined a whole genre. Not only that, but they lasted: I’ve heard that Johnny B. Goode has been appeared on more albums than any other song in history.

Before the King-ites come howling out of their Blues Dens, I’m not saying that Chuck beats B.B. I’m saying they’re equally good: Blues lyrics are more a vehicle for the music. They highlight the emotions in broad strokes, which is fine, but they struggle with detail.

What Chuck does differently is specificity. He narrows his focus, bringing in literary elements such as character, plot, and setting. He can tackle any subject – from political to romantic – and take it any way he wants – from humorous to sentimental.

The contrast between the two is huge: It’s the difference between seeing the world out of focus and seeing it in 20:20. Being able to accurately portray the world is the greatest and most important facility of the artist, and sometimes broad strokes is not enough.

So yes, lyrics do matter in a song. Unless, of course, you’re King of the Blues.

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How To Start Writing A Song: Unpacking The Creative Impulse

Why Songbooks Are Evil...

A few months ago, I was in need of a notebook for scribbling down ideas. So, instead of scrubbing my way through the newsagent aisle for a wad of recycled crepe, I spent the best part of £20 on a beautiful leather-bound songbook and a wonderful Parker Pen. My reasoning: if you want to do this, you should do it proper.

I know. How very British. Worst thing is that 3 months on, that leather-bound book is virtually untouched, and the Parker is gathering dust in some University corridor. Not only that, but half the notebooks in my room are filled with scrawled song lyrics, and my iPod’s voice memos are full of half-finished melodies. That songbook remains – and this is a man who has an unplayed saxophone under his bed – my silliest purchase.

So, why did I go for the crappy notebook over the Ottoman beauty? Because I was trying to impose filters on my creative impulse. To write something in there, I first had to think: ‘Is it good enough for the book?’ ‘Mustn’t spoil the book!’ And a lot of stuff didn’t make the cut.

There’s a lesson here: I once heard that luck is where preparation meets opportunity, and inspiration is the same. You have to gather your raw materials in any way you can, because it’s out of these materials that you create your songs. It’s like the old lady and the bit of string: ‘Just in case I need it, darling, just in case.’

Once you’ve got a scrapyard of half-ideas, sit on it. David Brooks, in a recent TED Talk, said that the way to decide on how to choose a sofa is to study the sofa of choice, then let it marinate in your mind for a few days. When you go back, go with your gut: your unconscious mind will have figured it out. Songwriting is the same: take this raw material, and hoard it in the backwaters of your mind.

As you continue to write, you’ll start to see combinations emerging between old and new material. That’s your unconscious mind headbutting its way into the creative process. Go with it: It’s the combination of this material that throw up interesting songs.

So, what’s the answer to that foreboding title? Where to start writing a song? Well, just like an athlete is prepared long before he hears the gunshot, you must be constantly preparing yourself to write. Keep a notebook; write down anything that comes to mind. Keep voice memos of your melodies: don’t assume you’ll be able to remember them when you get home. Gather all the string you can, and someday you’ll sew a tapestry.

And, for crying out loud, don’t buy a Parker. Buy a big stack of biros and use them every day you can.

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What Makes A Great Chorus?

The Ting Tings: Jules De Martino and Katie White.

“Clap your hands if you’re working too hard”

The Ting Tings – Hands

If the Ting Tings hadn’t strapped this lyric onto an interminable sub-Kraftwerk wind tunnel and had it voiced by a supermarket counter, it would have been the best chorus ever written.

I can’t resist it. It voices a universal truth of our work-stricken modern life. It speaks to the backbreaking labour of the working class and the high-voltage deskwork of the bankers. It makes you proud to work and proud to rebel. In 9 syllables, ladies and gentlemen.

A good chorus can make or break a song. It’s the song’s gravestone: the verses can have faff around a bit, but the chorus is what they’ll remember. It can pump a song to new levels of commercial appeal: there’s a reason that one-hit wonders plague our charts. They’re all built on strong choruses. Example: £100 to anyone who can remember the lyrics to the second verse of “Who Let The Dogs Out”?

When trying to describe a perfect chorus, people will often grope for the boardroom bonehead’s best buzzword: ‘It’s really catchy.” “Wow, that’s so catchy.” I want to tell you here and now to think of “Catchy” as a myth.

There can be no doubting that some songs are ‘Catchier’ than others, though I feel unclean using that word. Melody contributes, chords contribute, and structure certainly contributes, but I honestly don’t really care too much about a ‘Catchy’ formula: it makes it seem as though you should base your songwriting around whether it’s Catchy or not. Let me tell you: if you bash on the front gate of the Catchy mansion, you won’t get anywhere close.

So let’s try the back way in. I love Hands because it epitomises what I think a good chorus should do. Let’s split this down into two stages.

First: Validation. The first thing a great chorus should do is validate an identity, either of a group or a community. Consider Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA. You’re trying to get the ‘That’s Me!’ moment on the other end of the wireless. I’ve heard it said that art should articulate and make clear what people feel, and the chorus is your moment to shine.

There are two routes: either you reach out to as many people as possible on a general level, or you speak to a small group incredibly personally. What makes Hands so incredible is that it speaks to a universal audience on a deeply personal level, but that’s a once-in-a-career moment. I’d advise taking one of the two routes above and hoping that you strike gold.

Second: Catharsis. This is where you can deliver a chorus that can change someone’s life. Once you’ve achieved the ‘That’s Me!’ moment, you’ve got them in the palm of your hand. Now it’s time to smack them out of the park.

This is where it takes a bit of personal tailoring to your audience. More often than not it’s simply enough to give people a voice. Consider Pulp’s Common People, or Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing: the very act of giving voice to those who cannot speak gives the song strength. But you can do so much more: once you engage people on a personal level you can breathe new life into their lives.

Every music listener has songs that light a fire in their hearts, that seems to speak directly to you. Validating an identity, then allowing that identity Catharsis. That’s the big secret.

You have 9 syllables to change someone’s life. Choose carefully.

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Lyrics or Music: Which One First?

How to get the most out of your harvest. (Image Source: Flickr)

In my rather lengthy period of blogging absence I’ve noticed quite a trend amongst the twittersphere. In 140 characters, always the same question, repeated like a broken record. When you feel the sudden bolt of creativity, what should you reach for? Your right hand itches for the pen, but your left longs for the guitar. Which one?

I’ll tell you: Both. When you feel that raw pulp of creativity welling up, you’ve got to start singing what you’re thinking. If you play an instrument, strum some chords together and sing over it. If you release all those inhibitions, you’ll start finding lyrics and melodies that you wouldn’t be able to dream of if you worked through it one by one: working through both at the same time gives a song an incredible unity of elements that you can’t recapture when you separate them.

This is why I devoted an entire post to the Ernest Hemingway quote: “The First Draft Of Everthing is S**t”. The more you just let go, the more you stop censoring your work, the more good stuff you’ll get out of those spurts of creativity. It’s an elegant irony: The more you allow yourself to be s**t, the better you’ll be.

I can understand the appeal of “Lyrics Or Music”: it seems to provide a clear structure: first one, then the other. But separating the elements can do a great deal of harm to your songwriting, so what kind of structure can we place instead?

Think about a wheat harvest. You’ve got two stages of production (I assume: bear with me, readers, I ain’t no farmer). First, the combine harvester goes around and gathers all the wheat it can. No stalk is left untouched. You get a lot of chaff, but you get a fair bit of wheat as well. Let’s call it the harvest stage.

In the second stage, the farmers go around and pick all the wheat out of the chaff. The chaff gets thrown away, and the wheat gets stored. It’s a slow process, but it’s very deliberate and pre-meditated. Let’s call it the refinement stage.

You can apply the same logic to your songwriting. First, harvest. The sun may only shine on your creativity for half an hour a week, but you’ve got to gather all the material you can from that. Write down the chords, record voice memos of the melodies: do whatever you can to remember them, because this is where the best wheat comes from. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll write a lot of s**t, but this where the second part comes in.

Second, refinement. Take the wheat from the chaff. In between the creativity is where all the good work gets done. I mentioned Bruce Springsteen’s Car analogy in a separate post, but I’ll return to it again: If three cars aren’t working, you take all the parts that work and stick them in a new car, then bolt ’em all up and get it on the road.

If you write 3 terrible songs, I bet you that there’s enough good bits to get one song really revving hard. Thing is: songs are far more malleable than cars. Take a chorus from one and turn it into a bridge. Take a strong lyric and slap it onto a strong melody. You’ll have to tweak the lyrics, but the new combinations of verses and chorus’s will throw up delicious new themes and ideas. You really can’t go wrong.

The car analogy goes further: remember that 10-minute stream of consciousness piece you wrote about your ex-girlfriend? (read: beat-up 1970 Austin Maxi) Strip it for parts and move on. Start thinking of your songbook as a junkyard rather than a showroom. Don’t be afraid to go in there with a sledgehammer.

The Lyrics or Music debate really needs silencing. Don’t waste your creativity noodling away on meaningless melodies, or stressing over stale poetry. Dive upon your instrument of choice and play.

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