I don't have the words.

March 31, 2014 9:32 AM

I'm really, really struggling with writing lyrics. I agonize over them and avoid putting pen to paper, which results in incomplete song ideas. Any words of wisdom?

I know the solution is to just "write write write", but I simply don't enjoy the process, it's a chore, an afterthought. I can easily spend hours working on the music side, I love it, coming up with new song ideas, new tweaks, new guitar lines, intros and hooks.

Recently I've been listening to my instrumental songs during my morning runs and while driving around, singing gibberish to work out future lyrics that never get written. The ideas and themes and some fragments of phrases are there, but not the full words.

As an example, here Is a perfect example of a work in progress. The verse I scrapped together is:

He knew it was coming, got a six pack of beer
She was done with him now dragged him out by his hear
She knew all the time he only told her what she wanted to hear

So he lit up a smoke in his usual chair
Made a deal with the angel and the devil in his ear
The little things you tell yourself at the start of the year

Where do I go
In the rain and the cold
Please let me home

Ugh. Insipid nonsense. I'm so mortified with that effort that I just avoid the whole process. Am I overthinking this? This is ridiculous but the movie "Music and Lyrics" had a line from Drew Barrymore's character that said essentially "the music makes you like a song, the lyrics make you fall in love with it" which has haunted me. Noel Gallagher said most of Oasis' lyrics were written in 5 minutes and they seemed to do just fine, but Jeff Buckleys "lover you should have come over" has some words I can't come close to achieving, am I giving myself an unreasonable standard?

I'm a songwriter by hobby, so at the end of the day I am the only that will really be listening to these things, but like a cake you bake for yourself you still want some stranger to enjoy the taste, right? I'm proud of my songs, but embarrassed of the lyrics. Help?
posted by BlerpityBloop (8 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

If songwriting is your hobby, something you do for fun, but you don't enjoy writing lyrics, then I'd say don't write lyrics. This decision might lead down one of the following paths:

1) You team up with a lyricist. You focus on making great melodies, and your songwriting partner hangs words onto your hooks.

2) You start creating music that is designed to never have lyrics. I've been writing a lot of instrumental music lately, and I find that it requires more effort in terms of making sure there is something musically interesting going on through the song. With lyrics, you can make decent songs with just plain guitar strums and little melodic interest. Taking away words/vocals has helped me develop my musicality a bit, I think. Which then helps when I return to writing songs with lyrics again, as I still want the music underneath to be interesting on its own, and my standards for that have maybe been raised a bit. At least, this is my theory/hope.

If you don't like either of these paths, and really want to become a good lyricist through painful practice... I have some random bits of advice:

1) Soak up curious language you see in the wild. I walked past a store presumably owned by immigrants years ago, and on the door was a sign that read "Sorry we are close." I wrote a whole song around that. Start with one good line, build a song from it. I made this song out of phrases I copied on a first aid poster, adding in just a few words to turn it into a kind of love song.

2) If you speak a second language, notice idioms or ways that ideas get expressed that differ from how you'd say the same thing in English. Then take the clunky direct translation and stop judging it -- see it as poetic instead. Transpose other thoughts based on the same construction you've just observed. The point here is to find oddities in how things are said, cracks in the perfect surface of language that isn't thought about. Poetry and a lot of art often comes from truly seeing. You have to live life in a way that constantly resets your presumptions about every single thing -- REALLY look at the glass of water, REALLY feel the snow on your skin, REALLY notice the collision of your foot and the asphalt, etc. How would an alien describe these things, someone for whom these things are new?

3) You don't need a ton of words. Write a short lyric where you like every line, and build music around it, maybe repeat lines a lot, whatever you gotta do. Here is a song I wrote years ago, it has a really short lyric (written in the thread). The whole thing came out of having a cold, and trying to describe how it made me feel all fuzzy or blurred or out of focus, like a "lost at sea boat." Once I had used that line, I tried to continue with a sort of nautical theme, and allowed the metaphors to go where they may, crafting something aesthetically pleasing without worrying too much about it making perfect sense.

4) If you have something to say, ANYTHING... a feeling, some anger at your partner, a longing for something, a political rant, a celebration of something beautiful... ANYTHING... try to simply write a brief letter or "article" expressing your point(s) in a completely straight-forward way, without any attempt at rhyme or poetry or creativity whatsoever. Just write it down like it's a court document. The magic thing is, you have now done more than 50% of the work, in some sense, because you have at least expressed what you want to say. Before you wrote it down, you thought you knew it all in your head, but you didn't. Writing it down made it real, made it crystallized. Your idea got clearer. Now all it lacks is art. So now parse what you wrote and try to translate each thing into a different kind of language that lends itself better to your song.

5) You don't need rhyme, at least not consistent rhyme. Check out this song by Mark Eitzel, Wild Sea. The video lyrics don't work well, but you can read them here.

6) Come up with one construction, and create amazing variations of it. Example: Who By Fire, Leonard Cohen. Notice how Cohen, in this and many of his masterpieces, doesn't tell you everything. This song builds and builds its poetry in part by adding variations on the theme but also in part by leaving out any continuation or "explanation" beyond the setup. Poetry is what you put down but also what you leave out. Ask artful questions more so than give artful answers.

Well, this got long... I could blather on forever about songwriting! Hope it's at least a tiny bit useful or interesting. BTW, I like how your song sounds -- very nice! I think many songs with worse lyrics have won Grammy awards. I suspect though (and feel free to tell me I'm way wrong) that you wrote the lyrics in a quest to write a song. Like, okay, I'm sitting down to write lyrics now to fit this song... that totally works for some folks, but I think it can easily take you down the road of trying to fit some imagined stereotype of what lyrics look and sound like. When you do that, it's not going to be enjoyable, because then it really is like a chore. I think you're better off writing down little ideas here and there as you go through life, and then try to build on those ideas to form more complete lyrics later, maybe at the same time as you are gradually piecing together a song musically.

BTW, I did not include links to my songs because I think they're shining examples you should strive for -- just giving examples from my own adventures as a fellow songwriter...
posted by edlundart at 10:52 PM on March 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

Every idea above seconded, especially the first two. I would also add:

- Have fun trying to find the minimum amount of words required to get the image in your mind to spark in the listener's - even if the end result doesn't make sense. For example if you've got an image of a person waiting around a house nervously for someone to arrive you could just write something like, 'pace by anxious windows'. (or something much better).

- If the sentence you want to say is the wrong number of syllables, or if the right words detract from the mood, then just then invent new words. Shakespeare practically invented the English language as we know it doing this. (and it's fun).

I also used to beat myself up way too much about lyrics, to the point that I stopped writing music for a long while. I always cared too much about the lyrics having to mean something. But then I took the stance that if I wasn't enjoying something then what I was doing was incorrect, and just started singing and writing down random words instead. But that turned out to be the trick to getting on the right path. It taught me how to keep ideas flowing and routes open. And now I love writing lyrics.

I hope the same comes for you. You can do it. Anyone can!
posted by groklock at 3:46 PM on April 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

I always do music first and I find lyrics really hard to write.
My flow is almost always stumbling on a chord progression first, and then thinking of a melody idea, usually with a harmony that goes with it. Then, so I don't forget the idea, I'll quickly record what I have, singing the melody in a sort of spontaneous nonsense gibberish non-language that fits the phrasing I want, like you said above.
I think lots and lots of songwriters do the made-up language singing thing, but I recently read David Byrne's How Music Works and for his lyric-writing method, he takes that same idea one (brilliant) step further. He records his on-the-fly nonsense vocalizations as usual, whatever pops into his head, and then he listens to the recording as if he is someone trying to figure out what the singer is singing, and writes that down. Like he's trying to transcribe the lyrics of a song instead of trying to write it. Then those are his lyrics. It just blew me away when I read this; how simple and genius this is, just this subtle shift in perspective becomes a new approach. I've been trying to use this method recently, with varying success.
It may not be your thing if you want literal, narrative story-type songs that make "sense" but if you're open to to new types of stuff it might be worth a shot. It's actually pretty tricky to do but I think it's really promising.
posted by chococat at 9:34 PM on April 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

In Keith Richard's autobiography he calls the process he & Mick go through for fitting vocal sounds onto songs "vowel movements" which is great.

Great idea from Mr. Byrne, thanks chococat. I also remember Bruce Springsteen talking about writing "Blinded By the Light" with a rhyming dictionary on one knee and thinking, ". . . You can do that?!?" That's sometimes an approach for me - take the line you like and plug the key word into rhymezone.com for variants.

Hey it's good enough for Bruce, right?
posted by petebest at 6:07 AM on April 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Am I overthinking this?

Maybe, maybe not . . . . . .

If you're feeling disgruntled that your lyrics read horribly when separated from the music, just plunked down on a piece of paper, well, IMNotSoHO, there're an awful lot (most? almost all?) of pop & rock tunes, even classics, where the lyrics are really nothing special - especially if you're just considering them separated from the song & melody. I think it's a fairly common idea that lyrics can and should exist as poetry independent of the music, and I think that idea is pretty much pernicious nonsense. Maybe a small handful of people (Dylan? Thom Yorke? Tom Waits? Leonard Cohen?) have managed to accomplish this some of the time, but really it's not a realistic goal for most songwriters, and that's OK. So maybe you are trying for unrealistic standards.

Using your own example, I look at your lyrics on the screen above and . . . . . well, honestly, I don't have much of an opinion one way or the other. But hearing those lyrics in the context of the song, I think, "Oh, hey, that's pretty clever-in-a-good-way; he's using more syllables per measure than I was expecting from the written lyrics or even from hearing the instrumental intro of the tune."

It's been forever-and-a-day since I really did any of my own writing, but I almost never worked on lyrics without a guitar in hand, or at least within easy reach, because I always wanted to check whether lines worked in the melody, especially given what came before & after the line I wanted to check. (I also wrote with the expectation that I was going to have to sing & play simultaneously, so lines that seemed nifty on paper got ditched if they made my fingers go wonky. That consideration might be something to use as an approach to writing lyrics.)

"the music makes you like a song, the lyrics make you fall in love with it"

Same thing, again - I'm not really sure that's intended to mean the lyrics standing alone, or that your lyrics need to be so good that the listener won't actually care that much about the music.

Further thoughts: Try experimenting with different styles of lyrics. I usually felt I got better results when trying to evoke a series of mental images, or a mood, or capture an emotion in a fairly general way. Which meant a lot of my lyrics were fairly abstract and/or not entirely comprehensible. My songs that wound up being more "standard" storytelling or boy meets girl/boy loses girl songs never seemed to quite click for me as well as the others, and whenever I tried to write in a kind of U2 semi-social/political issues mode, I pretty much always had to just scrap the words and start over.

So tying in with some of the ideas above re: nonsense sounds, go ahead and let the process kind of take you where it will and see where it leads. Maybe the style of lyrics you're trying to write isn't really in your wheelhouse.

Another thing I used to do occasionally was approach writing lyrics like I was writing more standard prose, with a merciless process of editing and rewriting. I'd go ahead and finish the song, even when I was pretty darn sure large parts of the lyrics were crap. But once I had a complete song I could look at the thing as a whole and think, "What am I aiming for, here? Where do I want to go with this tune?" Then I could start scrapping the lines that struck me as cliches, and the lines that seemed to take the tune in an odd direction, and stuff like that. Psychologically it was more like I was fixing something that almost worked, rather than just staring at a blank piece of paper going, "Uuuummmmm . . . . . . " So the problems with the words seemed less insurmountable.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:42 AM on April 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sometimes, I get frustrated with that side of things, so what I do is repeat one line throughout the song. It definitely worked for Discharge and Sepultura. There's less surface area to screw up, and it can help build your lyrical confidence, and you branch out from there.

It may help to think of lyrics as more liturgical or chantlike (even if you make completely non-religious music), rather than little poems set to music. Before the '60s, there were plenty of songs that had two or three verses that were exactly the same, and no one had a problem with it, and I think even today, it could work.
posted by ignignokt at 3:05 PM on April 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I did the songwriting Coursera and I found it very helpful, in terms of lyric-writing: https://www.coursera.org/course/songwriting

It's free and worth auditing/taking.
posted by puckupdate at 1:59 PM on April 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Coming in late--but write poetry first. Don't worry about lyrics.

Also write while you play the music and record everything. So strum your chords or play them as they may be and then just sing words over them.

Also, I'd focus on near rhyme. Rhyme the second to last syllable in each word or get close but never actually rhyme the last syllable of each line.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:18 AM on July 13, 2014

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