I hear comments a lot about people having difficulty writing lyrics and I always have a piece of advice on hand so I thought I’d compile a list, mostly it’s advice I’ve heard or read so I’ll give credit.
The first great piece of advice I read was Don’t Fact-check The Soul – Rosanne Cash. Great songs feel true, like they’ve come directly from the singer’s heart. we all love the little details and personal touches in great songs. We don’t love awkward, forced rhymes, or overtly literal biographies. It’s art not a news report. It’s the emotional truth that matters, a song isn’t any less powerful if September fits perfectly but you and your ex broke up in July. Actually beautiful music will make the point much stronger.
Show, Don’t Tell This comes from writing fiction. You don’t say a character is sad you show them doing something lets the audience empathize. Yes there are great songs which very literally explain how they feel (I Feel So – Boxcar Racer) but mostly great songs are lyrically a series of images (Street Spirit – Radio Head) or are narratives that don’t tell you how to feel explicitly but let you get there thru the emotional arc of the song. So my advice is: Start with an emotion then describe the images and start your lyrics there.
Headlines. I love opening lyrics, they maybe the most important part of the song. In journalism we learned that you get as much information into the headline, then the opening sentence, because you need to get thru to the audience. So somewhere in your song, opening lines and chorus are the usual suspects, have a headline. A clear, definitive statement to anchor the audience.
Solos and Modulations. These are musical things but overall important lyrical techniques too. I’ll put a solo in a song if I want to communicate passage of time in song. Check out Grace Lutheran By Greystone Gardens The last chorus “Long, long after I moved away from home…” just wouldn’t feel that long immediately after lyrics about being a teenager. but putting the solo in there lets the audience reset and not feel odd coming back into the story at a later point. Modulations or breakdowns or middle eights, or whatever you want to call a bit of song that feels different than the others, they’re an opportunity to change perspective. Love, Ire, & Song By Frank Turner is a great example, the big change in emotion in the middle of the song, from grudging acceptance to resilient, can only be shown by an equally powerful change in the music.
Now this leads to a tricky bit that I always focus on. Tell A Story, Even If You’re Not Telling A Story. If you’re not writing narrative folks songs you still need a beginning middle and end. Shit songs take one point and drive it home over 2 verses, a breakdown, and 3 chorus’. That’s unnecessary, those people have nothing to say, they just sell background music. The great song should take the listener on a journey even if it’s a journey that takes years to understand. There are published books about Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is about, not to mention endless internet discussions, because the story is veiled and vague it’s there. Going the other direction works too, look at all the Dylan songs that seems like stories – they have characters, scenes, – but he’s not taking you through a specific emotional progression, his stories float around the world giving us little vignettes. So along with Imagery, think about perspective. Even when I’m singing in the first person about events from my own life I still find works best to think of the singer as a character. It stops me from wanting to change the song when my perspective on the event has changed.
And you and I, and talked of poetry.I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.– Adam’s Curse by William Butler Yeats