This has been lingering about in my mind-tank for a while and I wanted to solidify some of it by writing it out. So I thought maybe I could write one of those blog posts I say I sometimes write. This could be considered a kind of advice post, but it really would be in the loosest sense of the word. If you’re interested in my take on putting lyrics together, however, then you’ve come to the right place. There’s even subheadings, guys. Subheadings.
So if you’re the sort of person that can’t stand context or long introductory justifications for why a blog post should be allowed to exist then the following jumpy links might be of interest to you.
Subheading 1: Why does this post you’re showing me even exist?
Subheading 2: Please patronise me by pretending you understand poetry.
Subheading 3: Are you finally going to talk about writing lyrics now?
Subheading 4: Can I go now?
So there were a few things that prompted all of this mulch which is about to spew out in the form of a blog post. The first is a series of videos by Jonathan Mann that I was watching back when he was uploading them on a more regular basis where he was offering advice to people about how he writes a song a day. And he’s now been writing a song a day for over 1,200 days, so he’s pretty dedicated and in a good position to be dishing out this advice, I think. The second was a video by Alan Lastufka about how he writes lyrics. He was dealing more with the meaning behind lyrics and the basic use of similies and metaphors and that kind of thing. This post isn’t so much about that, it’s more about the actual process of getting lyrics down on paper.
And the final thing that encouraged me to write this was something I stumbled across this weekend. It was a short radio documentary/interview type of thing that some mates from Uni (known as Adam Davies and Gemma Aldridge) did about me and my silly project. I had forgotten about it but happened to be on Adam’s website and stumbled across it. I was in the early stages of the project and agreed to help him out by writing my song for that day in a radio recording studio. It was a reasonably excruciating experience, but the guys doing the assignment were friends and so I was half-guilted into and half-willing to help them out. I had to write my song anyway at some point that day, and it was a bit of variety to do it in a different setting and to try out writing under a little more pressure than normal.
I was only 52 days into the project at the time. I can’t imagine only being that far in again. And it was interesting to me (it won’t necessarily be interesting to anyone else, mind) to hear the past me who was only 52 days into last year’s project talk about how I go about writing songs. And since I have to accept that songwriting is something I apparently do now, it’s also something I still think about sometimes. It was strange hearing myself talking about things that have started to become a little firmer in my mind as part of my songwriting process, here’s the interview/songwriting session:
And here’s the finished song for that day (it was back when I had the luxury of writing well in advance of myself, so it ended up as Day 76).
In the interview I was asked about how I actually write the songs, and I describe it as “quite a mechanical process” for me, and suggest it’s not that creative. This is pretty weird considering we’re talking about songwriting, but I know what my past-self means. Within the confines of the project there wasn’t time to worry about how creative I was being or how the finished product was going to turn out, it was about churning a song out every day. You could argue that that makes this all a bit irrelevant to the normal kind of songwriting where someone would try and be as creative as possible in putting their song together. You could be right. Incidentally, and while we’re on the subject of confined songwriting challenges, Aidan Jones recently made an EP which he wrote, recorded, and released in one day all as a live BlogTV show and you can go and listen to it and download it here.
The next thing I’ve thought about when getting these lyrics down is this – what’s the difference between trying to write a poem and trying to write some lyrics? Is there one? (I think so) And how would this difference (which I think there is) help me when I’m trying to write lyrics? The difference is slight but I think it comes down to the rhythm. Poetry is often rhythmic, but not necessarily so. Sometimes rhythm is an inherent part of a given poetic form, an example being Shakespeare’s use of the iambic pentameter in his style of sonnets, a strict rhythm consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, with 5 of these per line. Free verse, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily comply to a certain rhythm, and even though rhythmic or rhyming devices can be used in free verse, there’s no set structure, allowing for (evidently) a freer form of verse. And while this kind of poetry might have its place in some music, rhythm is such a big part of music that I think it ends up informing the rhythm of the words that little bit more. The music is an additional presence when writing lyrics, forcing the words a certain way which isn’t there when trying to write poetry. So, lyrics, in my opinion, are, by necessity, more rhythmic than a poem needs to be. I’m just talking about the writing process here as opposed to any finished product. And I could be wrong. I could be talking utter bollocks. Sorry if I am.
When I write a song I tend to start with getting some kind of chord structure or riff. My musical ability means I don’t tend to stray too far from I, IV, V chord structures. So once I’ve decided in which order I’m going to play (most probably) my G, C and D chords, I move onto the lyrics. I don’t think I could manage a blog post as detailed and pretentious as this one about getting a chord structure together just yet. Maybe someday. But once I’ve figured out my riff and I’m getting going on the lyrics, I’m arriving at a ready-made song structure which I need to fit some lyrics into. This means it’ll probably be a little easier than attempting a free verse poem from scratch, and it’ll possibly be a little easier than starting a sonnet from scratch because not only has a rhythm emerged, but there’s also a “mood” and sound from the chords, and this all helps to get started. In short, I think that when you’re writing a song, the phases you go through help to make the next phase a little easier, and a lot easier than trying to write a poem while staring at a blank sheet of paper or a blinking cursor in a word document. In the interview above I talk about doing this weird warbling thing over the chords, and that’s something I still do. I make nonsense sounds that vaguely resemble the language I tend to speak and out of these noises I try and grab some words that resemble actual words that I recognise as being English. But these words are coming out of the fact that this nonsense I’m singing has a certain rhythm anyway and so certain words are going to fit with the rhythm and certain words aren’t. Through a bit of trial and error and forcing out words, it isn’t long before a line has sorted itself out on the page. And so if I were to ever say a twatty thing like “the song wrote itself”, I wouldn’t be talking about some muse arriving to help me out or any divine intervention, I’d be talking about how the structure and natural rhythm of language lends itself to being quite mechanically put together to form some lyrics on a line.
And it’s this rhythm that draws people in as a listener, I think. Some great lyrics have been written by people and can stand up on their own and you could legitimately say “that’s great poetry” about it, but for some great lyrics I think that part of why they’re great is because of how perfectly they fit the mood and rhythm of the song they’re sitting in, and the rhythm of the song is intrinsically part of why they work so well as lyrics. So before we even get into what meanings we might try and glean from the lyrics, sometimes we just inexplicably hear a line from a song and go, “you know what? That’s fucking good.” And part of why we like it is the pleasing rhythm of the line, it fits the music well and concisely manages to say something you connect with at the same time.
So that was a blog post, then, wasn’t it? I don’t want it to seem like I think I know a whole bunch of stuff about writing good lyrics. I don’t. That’s a whole other blog post for a whole other person to write. But I know what works for me when I’m just trying to get some lyrics down on paper, and with the way the project was I was fine with writing some bad lyrics in the hope that I might end up with some good ones next time. I don’t think that’s exclusive to the project, though, I’d like to think I can keep that attitude up even if there’s more distance between the bad and the better as I carry on with a more relaxed songwriting schedule. So, if you’re someone who has never attempted to write a song but would like to and you’ve stuck with this blog post all the way to the end, then maybe thinking about this would help. It might not work for you, and you might figure out a different way. But I really hope I learnt at least a couple of things last year, and I think this was probably the main one. And since I learnt it, why not share it about for other people to do with as they wish? That’s what the internet’s for, after all, but I can’t be sure because ohmygod someone just tweeted the cutest picture of a kitten.