Four strategies for improving your lyrics
Nashville songwriting coach Mark Cawley gives us an extract from his book ‘Song Journey’, offering some helpful advice for lyricists
1. TALK YOUR LYRICS
Now’s a good time to remember that lyrics are only half of the song. Doesn’t matter if it reads like Shakespeare or if it sings even better than it reads. Talk it out loud. Don’t sing it, don’t read it in your head, talk it out loud. Section by section, verse by verse, chorus by…you get the point. Say the words aloud. Say them until you feel like they would really come out of your mouth. Just like conversation. Write like you talk.
One of the most common tools I use in coaching lyricists is to ask them to put the lyric aside and just tell me what it’s about. I take notes and, I swear, every time there are lines that are spoken, they are ten times better than the written ones. Put those in the lyric. That simple.
2. SAY IT WITHOUT SAYING IT
Another good technique is to find a way to say or write a word without actually using the word. Takes practice and imagination, but you can master it. The sun could be a bright, burning ball, the moon a faint, midnight lover. Don’t settle for what your eye sees to describe something. Let your mind wander.
I preach the idea of making lists to every writer I coach. One writer I was working with reached a point in the lyric process that talked about a woman’s hair. He stopped, grabbed a thesaurus (I know it’s old-school, but one of those, along with Clement Wood’s The Complete Rhyming Dictionary and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, should be required reading for a songwriter), and started to make a list of women’s hair colours. He spent a fair amount of time before returning to the lyric, and now, instead of red, he pulled words such as fire, auburn, and flame into the lyric. Great stuff.
Also, it’s a good idea to sprinkle your lyric with words in the family of the main word of your title. For example, if you’re writing a lyric with the word broken in your title, you are going to be looking for words that relate to ‘broken’. Shattered, cracked, even Humpty Dumpty… get as imaginative as possible here.
3. KNOW YOUR ROLE
I write lyrics as well as music and have been called into writing situations where I have to be responsible for one or the other. One of the first things I try to figure out is the role of the lyric, if that’s my job. The best way I ever heard this explained was, “Is your song meant to move the butt or the brain?” Big difference. If your song is for an introspective singer-songwriter, you’re going to pay extra attention to the words. If you’re Daft Punk, be a slave to the rhythm. It’s all good.
You’ve heard the phrase, “Three chords and the truth.” The idea is, if you’re writing a lyric-driven song, you’re good keeping the music part dead simple. Keep the focus on the story. The opposite is also true. If your melody is killer, and you complicate it with a ton of words, it’s only going to make your song a hot mess. Serve the song and you can’t go wrong.
4. LOOK FOR INSPIRATION EVERYWHERE
One of my favourite writing tools came courtesy of my wife, Kathy. I’m always looking for unique names and places, and one day she suggested scanning the obituary section of our local newspaper. It’s one of my go-tos when I’m searching for a unique name for a character in a lyric, and it’s very useful if you look for someone who lived a long life. More often than not, their name will be a name you don’t hear very often today. One of my clients even wrote a song based on this exercise called ‘my life in ink’, using names, places, and details she found in the obituary section of her local paper.
Another technique I borrowed from the business world is called ‘mind mapping’. Take a large whiteboard or a big Post-it note, write your title in the middle, and circle it. I would suggest placing this board or note somewhere other than where you usually write. Maybe the kitchen or hallway. Someplace you walk by often. When you do, just glance at the word in the middle and if it suggests something, add it to the board with an arrow pointing toward the title you’ve circled. It’s one more way to get your subconscious involved. Once you’ve filled all the space around your title, take the board or note into the place you write and see what you have.