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TBers who write lyrics: What's your process? Do you like what you write?

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by Blackbird, Apr 6, 2006.


  1. Blackbird

    Blackbird Moderator Supporting Member

    Mar 18, 2000
    California
    I've been writing lyrics since I joined my first band, and while my friends liked my stuff, I was never completely happy with it. I always wish/thought I could do better.

    Since my lyric writing always felt transitional compared to my guitar playing, I have ended up accumulating a lot of music over the years with no words. There are so many tunes now that it feels a little ridiculous to write more music with so many unfinished songs, so I put the lyric writing cap on again and compared to writing chord progressions, it feels like work to me.

    So, the question for the lyricists out there is: How do you write? how do you pick what to write about? how hung up are you on writing good lyrics? Any topics come up frequently?

    My early lyrics were mostly political or introspective. The political ones I shared, but not the instrospective ones. Also, my lyrics used to be pretty long ( 3 or 4 different verses) not to mention the chorus, which would not repeat either.

    Since I've started writing in earnest again, I've decided to try to allow ideas take shape and revise over a period of time instead of rattling the whole thing out in a day, which was my method in the past. Also, I'm trying to write simpler, less involved lyrics. I have to remind myself nothing's etched in stone and I need to give myself permission to write stuff that might sound silly or stupid.

    I'd also appreciate it if you critiqued this bit I wrote today. It's not complete by a longshot, but it works with one of my songs. Blast it at will. Suggestions are welcome and feel free to share your lyrics.

    Yes, the grammar ain't always the best, but it's artistic licence. ;)

    Smile again

    She don't want to hear me say
    How pretty she look
    She don't care to hear me read
    A sonnet from a book

    She ain't keen on gasoline
    She ain't keen on a car
    Not even the songs I sing
    To her on my guitar

    Chorus...ish:

    All she care is that I'm there
    To share the day, ease the pain
    Till the dark clouds go away
    And she can smile again

    And the way she makes me feel
    Is almost too good to be real
    You could say it's divine
    And I'm glad she's mine.


    For the record, I hate the last verse. I did not put any work into it. Basically, I was thinking of "Good day sunshine" because of the cloud theme and that sort of derailed me. No big deal. The beginning is derivative of Sting's "She's too good for me", although my melody's completely different. Also, I feel I'm taking it in a different direction. Starting can be hard for me.

    One of the things I have to work on is teaching myself to write without waiting for "inspiration". That can take forever and I feel you don't get better if you don't have a writing habit, so I'm hoping this will improve with time.

    Thanks for your ideas.
     
  2. Trevorus

    Trevorus

    Oct 18, 2002
    Urbana, IL
    I have a big problem feeling dumb about the stuff I write. I don't have any real subject matter. The things I do in my life and the things I care about, nobody else wants to hear. So, I don't really ever get started writing. I get a line or two, and it just dies. I know some songs are really about three or four sentences sometimes, but I want my writing to be more involved than that. I don't want to fill the rest with musical jumble(and frankly, I'm not that good). One person I look up to is Billy Corgan. I like the way he writes. I just can't fathom the depth of the music combined with the lyrics. It's as if my mind is too simplistic for that. It really bothers me, and I get frustrated. I end up giving up and nollding aimlessly. I promised myself that this was the year I would make headway on making my life what I want it to be. And that involves getting a productive band started. But this severe writers block in the lyrics department is a big discouragement. I'd also like to know what people do to bring it out.
     
  3. Benjamin Strange

    Benjamin Strange Commercial User

    Dec 25, 2002
    New Orleans, LA
    Owner / Tech: Strange Guitarworks
    For me the best plan is to not have a plan. I don't try to force meaning on to my lyrics beforehand; I just write them and see what comes out. After they are written, then I go back and try to make some sense of them. If I find some sort of common thread through it, I try to tailor the parts that don't quite fit into something that does.

    Having some idea of what you want to do can sometimes pidgeon hole your brain into doing something it didn't want to do in the first place.

    Here's a perfect example of a song that I had no idea what it was about until it was finished:

    Ontonogy Recapitulates Phylogeny

    Burn her away
    The life that has become
    Tear her away
    To destroy the memory

    Translucent skin
    Dark orbs becoming eyes
    Voiceless and helpless nothing
    Born into a plastic bag

    First born rising
    Second falling in vain

    Testify 6000 years below the ground
    Enslaved; this golden ring pulling down

    A worthless thing
    Not but dogs & sheep & pigs
    What it's become
    Is not what it once was

    There's nothing there
    Not until the first breath
    Justification makes
    Genius of us all

    First born rising
    Second falling in vain

    Testify 6000 years below the ground
    Enslaved; this golden ring pulling down

    The touch of blame
    Has eluded us for years and years
    Forgotten law casting light on falling faces
    Vengence unseen scars inflicted
    Cursed vagrant undying
    Wandering all the earth

    Science is Cain
    Sacrifice self-serving
    Unfeeling analyzer
    Categorizing everything
     
  4. ahaTFJ

    ahaTFJ Guest

    Apr 2, 2006
    Chicago

    +1, same here...
     
  5. Blackbird

    Blackbird Moderator Supporting Member

    Mar 18, 2000
    California
    I've done that too. I've come up with some bizarre stuff (guess who influenced me...again):

    Times are a'changin'
    Technology's a-ragin'
    Dolly Parton's gettin' younger
    But her skeleton's a-agin'

    Hectic, schmectic
    Forgive me if I'm skeptic
    Planes haven't been the same
    Since Dylan went electric

    Try to stay cool
    Life's a hard school
    There ain't a living lifeguard who'll save you...
    From your gene pool.

    ..and that's a couple verses and a chorus. I should work on it. Just letting go and being nonjudgemental helps.
     
  6. As far as I can tell in my (short) lyric writing career, you're almost never 100% satisfied with what you write. I don't write all that much, but when I do, I know that no matter how unsure I am with the lyrics, it's up to my band to be honest and tell me what needs work, what's good, and all of that.
    Hope that makes sense...?
    -Alex
     
  7. Against Will

    Against Will Supporting Member

    Dec 10, 2003
    Big Sound Central
    I used to write lyrics, nowadays, though, not so much. When/if I am lended vocal duties I usually improv them. I'm interested in songs that are a series of slogans of sorts, and most of the lyrics I improv take on this character. Phrases existing in themselves with no relation to those around it. The Minutemen and Dillinger Four are inspirations for me in this sense, though they are have somewhat more coherent messages than what I've come up with off the top of me head. I've found improving the lyrics to be an enjoyable way of doing it because it lets them sit in the song well, instead of trying to fit 3 syllables into the last beat (which always irritates me.)

    When I did write lyrics it would usually begin with me getting a line in my head, then I'd write it down and keep writing until I felt I couldn't go any farther. Sometimes I'd get 3 or four verses plus bridge and chorus, other times I'd just have one or two lines. I used to always carry a pen and paper around with me to be prepared for these sparks of inspiration. I couldn't sit down with a pen and take a message and then try to translate it into lyrics. It just isn't how I poerate, though everyone's writing habits are different, my was more jerky and impressionistic. I didn't read my lyrics after I wrote them because I didn't think they were any good. However, a few years after I first wrote them, I found them while cleaning out my desk at home. Reading them over again, I found that they weren't all that bad, and some were even good. I guess that's another thing, don't get too down on stuff you write. Leave it and come back to it later and decide then, after having some time away, whether it's any good or not.
     
  8. Eli M.

    Eli M. Life's like a movie, write your own ending

    Jul 24, 2004
    New York, NY
    Here are some of my thoughts on my experience with songwriting:

    I'm naturally more of a composer than a lyricist, so lyrics don't always come that easily to me and I have to work on them more. I have rarely (maybe never) written a song completely lyrics-first.

    I have lots of music without lyrics, so when I get a new lyric idea, it's time to decide which music I should use. Sometimes I write a hook or even a whole verse or chorus and then realize, "no, this story/lyric/concept would be better served by using this other music I had."

    I have music that has gone through multiple sets of lyrics unsuccessfully. If that is the case, it's usually because the music is so good (or at least I think it is) that I become fixated on making it into a song. When that happens, I either stop trying altogether or put it away for a long time.

    I find it difficult to write political lyrics that are good. I have only written one successful political song and that's enough for me. I think it's a successful song because it works on both general and specific levels (it may still be effective even when the current political situation changes).

    I can't write about personal experiences as they're happening; it makes me want to stay accurate and too close to the facts. I also can't write about when I'm sad or depressed - I'd rather talk about my problems, and then later write about something people might actually want to hear. Songwriting isn't a form of therapy for me, I don't think that would be a healthy thing.

    Inspiration: I recognize phrases or ideas as being material for a song. It doesn't have to be anything major; I was talking to a friend about songwriters who wrote songs based on novels or stories and she said "I would like to write songs based on books." That line became "I would like to write a song about the phenomenon of your choice" in my song "The Cliff Divers of Acapulco".

    The idea for "Cliff Divers" came from a physics problem I saw in high school - "if the cliff divers of Acapulco dive at a certain angle from a certain altitude..." I took it for the first verse. If I see a quirky phrase or idea, I remember it. I've even written a song based on one of Major Metal's threads in Off Topic (do a search for "have you ever been to Argentina" and then listen to "Argentina" on my MySpace page).

    Be careful of reading an interview with a songwriter before ever hearing his or her work. I made the mistake of becoming interested in Randy Newman after reading an in-depth interview with him. I was at a certain point in my life where I wasn't comfortable writing about myself or writing abstract songs, so I found his ideas compelling. His songs are often about characters, and he avoids writing about himself (or so he would have you believe). I started writing in that style, but as I heard more and more of his songs, I realized I didn't like them. I liked his ideas, but they didn't produce good songs! As I listened to other songwriters, I gained an appreciation for the unclear and abstract.

    I can trace my "not wanting to write abstract songs" phase back to a very specific incident. Early in high school, I played a song for someone and they asked me if it was about drugs or if I was high when I wrote it. It got me scared that people were going to judge me or assume things about me based on what I wrote, and it took me years to get over that.

    Also, be careful of people who want to steer you in a certain direction. A locally well-known songwriter heard a few of my songs and told me, "I'd like to hear about you more. How do you feel? What makes you angry? What makes you happy?" I tried writing a song using this advice, and it was the worst song I've ever written. If this guy had been paying attention, he may have recognized that I had been writing about myself by way of writing about other people. Because that's one way to write an interesting song.

    For example, Paul Simon wrote "You Can Call Me Al" about a character, but he has said that it was somewhat about himself and his journey toward making the Graceland album. But he also made it universal enough that it can be condensed down to the story of "an unhappy person who gets happy" (as a friend of mine put it) and interpreted in many ways. This was, in fact, the very song of Paul Simon's that I didn't like at first because it was too abstract and vague.

    That's all for now, maybe I can write more later on.
     
  9. Blackbird

    Blackbird Moderator Supporting Member

    Mar 18, 2000
    California
    Great post, Eli.

    I too have gone through different sets of lyrics for the same song and I think it's a more common occurrence than you think. The most obvious example is John Lennon's tune "Child of nature", which he recorded as a demo during the White album sessions, but ended up releasing during his solo career as the tune "Jealous Guy".

    Like you, I'm very attatched to the music I write, so it irks me to see it falling short of its potential because I don't care for the words that go with it.

    One trick is to approach lyric writing like any other creative expository writing, where you have a central idea for your song before you start writing, then freewrite a "placeholder" lyric so you have something to build on. In order for this to work, a songwriter would have to work out the vocal melody before the lyric, so that they'd have a better idea of the length of the stanzas.

    As far as not liking what you write, I feel you completely, but You can't let that discourage you. In creative projects, bad work is better than no work, and you can always hide or burn the evidence of a bad lyric, if not improve it. It's one of those feel the fear but do it anyway things.

    I'm reading a book on artistic creativity and spirituality called Every Soul Tells a Story. Here's a quote I wrote down revisit frequently:
    What you want to say is in there. You just have to dig at it a little. If everyone could do it, it would be nothing special.
     
  10. Tired_Thumb

    Tired_Thumb Guest

    I've become far more engaged in lyrics since I've started the ol' Unblack/Doom one-man project. Hard to describe my lyrics, other than they suck, but here's some:

    Walk through the forest
    Black as sin your path
    as though your darkened soul reflects its pride

    The woes of the sage
    you thought some masquerade
    like a self ruled conscience mauled by one's obide

    As you stumble into a small cove,
    you look upon a tall cove,
    and a figure reveals itself from high

    The heart knows what it brings forth
    but the brain's still stuck on "where's north?"
    yet the figure hastes to speak unto your life...


    I lost the last part of those lyrics, but that ends up being a song called "messenger". I tend to do quite a bit of tossing lyrics, and sometimes I feel it's just best to let the music speak, which gets interesting when you're only armed with a bass for your music. Then again, see my profile.
     
  11. Eli M.

    Eli M. Life's like a movie, write your own ending

    Jul 24, 2004
    New York, NY
    In terms of not liking what I write, or writing bad songs... When I started writing songs, I would feel bad if I wrote another bad one, or if one didn't turn out the way I wanted it to. But now that I have written a substantial number of good songs, it's not so bad if I write something crappy that I can't use. In the beginning, one bad song would have been a higher percentage of my total song output than it is now. Now it's not a big deal.

    You are correct, bad work is better than no work, because bad work can be turned into good work.

    Here's a breakdown of my lyric writing style over the years. The ages are approximate:
    12-16 years old: novelty songs inspired by the style of Tom Lehrer, often with toilet humor.
    16-18: Billy Joel and Ben Folds influenced my lyrics quite a bit. There was also a bit of Kelly Joe Phelps in there too, as I was starting to get good at the guitar. This is also the point where I consciously worked on my singing style.
    18-19: Randy Newman "no abstract lyrics" phase. After this phase, I completely stopped writing songs at the piano and began using the guitar.
    19-21 (present): here's where I got into Paul Simon. I wouldn't say I emulate him like I tried to emulate Randy Newman, but I gained an appreciation for the abstract.
     
  12. phxlbrmpf

    phxlbrmpf

    Dec 27, 2002
    Germany
    Personally, I think writing lyrics for rock music is extremely tough, because you have to keep them reasonably simple without being too simple. My productivity isn't too high, but usually I have the feeling the lyrics that don't take me more than two days to write tend to be the best.
     
  13. MAJOR METAL

    MAJOR METAL The Beagle Father Supporting Member

    I start with lyrical ideas or sayings and if I can remember them by the point I can write them down their keepers.
     
  14. I've been writing poetry for years, and all of the old stuff I wrote is now becoming lyrics. My theory on writing is this:

    IF YOU HAVE TO SIT AND THINK ABOUT WHAT YOUR GOING TO WRITE, IT ISN'T WORTH WRITING

    Anything that I write, I write on the spur of the moment, just what comes out. Of course I go back and revise, edit, etc, but when I think about it, it becomes too over thought and comes out sounding cheesy and unnatural. The lyrics generally come first in my writing process, just because I have so many already laying around. But I admit to being much more satisfied with my compossions than my lyrics.

    I do however, have a process I use. When lyrics do begin to pop into my head, like the first line or first few lines or whatever, it helps for me to have a preset rythem to put it to, it flows better that way. So I'll write lyrics to old forms of other songs, the same flow, then once its written down, I can go back and never think of it in that same way again, I put my own form to it. And don't worry about grammer and stuff. Its a song, not your theology thesis.

    Here are a couple that I wrote a long while back, both in a short distance from each other (you'll find reoccuring themes...)

    Cought in the middle of nowhere,
    Not just yet where I want to be,
    Should be asleep, but I really don't care,
    Chocking back tablets of dramimine,

    Lights cut the road down the center,
    Just like the lines that divide up my mind,
    Headlights from my car make an absence of dark,
    In the darkness beyond whats to find?

    At least one more hour 'til I see a damn thing,
    And solitude is driving me insane,
    Stuck in a car with music I can't hear,
    So spaced that I forgot my own name...

    -----------------------------------

    Everything that happens starts a new chain reaction,
    Feelings and emotions are no more than distractions,
    You listen for music, but you can't seem to hear,
    And a whisky goes down nice with a beer,

    I can't ever explain why I feel like I do,
    But these lovesick rejections always remind me of you,
    Your lies are but fuel for the fire you feed,
    Until it flickers and it dies in your sleep,

    Silence is heaver so I close my eyes,
    Amongst the whispers and the somber goodbyes,

    Tomorrow comes eairly because you missed your plane,
    Chain reactions going off in your brain,
    Memories are movies, and movies claim,
    That fact and fiction are both the same,

    I can't take more silence so I get up to leave,
    What could this help me achieve?
     
  15. Blackbird

    Blackbird Moderator Supporting Member

    Mar 18, 2000
    California
    The first theory is great if it works for you, but not everyone wants to write abstract lyrics. Some people want to write lyrics with a theme or write a lyric that tells a story and those sometimes need more than just freewriting.
     
  16. Blackbird

    Blackbird Moderator Supporting Member

    Mar 18, 2000
    California
    The cold wind hit his body
    Like a hammer hits a nail
    So he dragged himself to shelter
    With the gust hitting his tail

    To wonder where he'd find solace
    Was a hindrance to the task
    For when you don't know the answer,
    It's a waste of time to ask.

    He walked the blocks in silence
    Feeling the first drops of rain
    Took a look at the old station
    Where he used to ride the train

    And remembered the old town
    Where he once had a family
    That he forsook so that he could
    Become a bum in NYC.



    Not complete yet, but I think that came off pretty nicely. Proof that practice makes a difference.

    Also, believing that those intangible things that make lyrics work will find their way into your work if you let them helps too.

    Thing is, I wrote that without any connection to any existing song, so now, besides having to finish the lyric, there's the challenge of setting it to music.

    So lyric writing is an activity in its own right, not something that's subordinate to making music. The beauty of it is the unpredictability of the whole thing. Anyway, that's my method for now.

    Skill to develop: knowing when the lyric is done and learning to let go and move on.
     
  17. Hey, looks good! Not that I am anywhere near being a professional or even good at writing lyrics, but you might want to think about lyrics that drift away from the rhyming, four-lines-a-stanza kind of thing. In my opinion, true lyrical mastery is not only writing beautiful words, but making them also flow through the music in seamless ways that may or may not be predictable.
    Hope that makes sense, and keep writing!
    -Alex
     
  18. txbasschik

    txbasschik

    Nov 11, 2005
    Leander, Texas
    I have a heck of a time finishing my songs.

    I don't write real often, but when I do, it is usually the result of me either getting a line stuck in my head, and feeling compelled to flesh the whole thing out, or me needing to process some emotions.

    The latter don't get played...too personal. I have a few of them, and I think I will let them sit until it doesn't *hurt* to finish them.

    The former would get played if I could write music worth a damn. I get the tune in my head with the lyrics, but if I try to work out a bass line w/o first letting the guitars have at it, the bass line ends up too busy, too melodic. So, I sing the song into a tape recorder, and hand the tapes to the guitar players so they can work out the chords, since I don't play guitar. Then, I can work out a bass line that serves the song.

    I have to watch myself, too, for getting too...smarmy? Goofy? La-la-la? I was exposed to too many bad ballads at a young age. LOL!

    I always think what I write is completly dorky, so I let friends correct me. For instance, I recently laid down a vocal track for a new song that had sat for months. I could not figure out a good bridge, and without one, the song just petered out and died. It came off as too repetitive and boring.

    I'd scratched out several attempts. But when my friend looked at them, she said, "Hey, why scratch that? Its good! Here, take these lines, put them with these, and try it."

    It worked beautifully. Sometimes, it really helps to have someone who can judge the song with fresh eyes.

    Cherie :)
     
  19. FunkSlap89

    FunkSlap89

    Apr 26, 2005
    Albany, NY
    I write a part, play it over and over again, then hum a good melody to it, then come up with some cool lyrics. Not very hard. If i'm having trouble ryming or whatnot, i go to a ryming dictionary online.
     
  20. flatwounds

    flatwounds

    Apr 22, 2003
    Sydney, Oz
    I'm loving this song at the moment Blackbird - Don't know about anyone else, but I'm picking up a Subterranean(?) Homesick Blues vibe...and I like it. :hyper:
    "Since Dylan went electric" is rolling off my tongue like "the vandals stole the handles"

    I also dig your NYC Bum song, but have a question about the line, "For when you don't know the answer,
    It's a waste of time to ask"
    Shouldn't the line be "For when you know the answer, it's a waste of time to ask"?.........or..........
    "For when you don't know the answer, you better hurry up and ask"?
    I know that these don't really fit with what you are trying to say, but if you don't know the answer, why would it be a waste of time to ask?

    Maybe consider rhyming words ending in ask (task) with those ending with ast eg "For if you don't know the answer, you ain't gonna last"...
    maybe not.

    Either way - I'm impressed.
     

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