Jul. 13th, 2017
Write the Right Lyrics, Tips from the Industry’s Greatest
Performing is the easiest part of what I do, and songwriting is the hardest.
– Neil Diamond
Songwriting is hard. It takes drive to consistently tap into your mental well and come up with lyrics–meaningful, fun or otherwise–people want to hear. Nothing can kill a phenomenal beat or halt the recording process like sub-par lyrics—or worse, writer’s block. Consider these words of wisdom from some of music’s most successful acts to get you through.
1. Write and Write Often
No matter the genre in which you work, writing lyrics is a good thing and should be practiced.
First of all, let’s disabuse everyone of the notion that the greats never wrote their lyrics down. Rappers who refuse to write lyrics down before recording love to claim that Biggie and Jay-Z never wrote their lyrics. This is false.
Notorious B.I.G. came from a culture of battle-rapping on the street and was more than capable of translating those skills in the studio. He could likely free-style over any beat. The reason many believe he never wrote anything before recording is due to practices he developed during the recording of Ready to Die (where the Brooklyn MC formulated rhymes in his head before stepping up to the mic). But early in his career, as many young artist do, Big kept a book of rhymes he’d written.
Even later on, collaborators vouched that Biggie was a writer.
In an interview with Complex magazine, Method Man said, “Contrary to what everybody thinks, Big sat there and wrote his verse on paper. I sat down and I wrote my shit on paper. The reason I know this is because he told me, ‘I need you to say this line right here.’ I was like, ‘What line, Big?’ He was like, ‘I’ve got more Glocks and tecs than you / I make it hot, niggas won’t even stand next to you.’ I was like, ‘I got you.’”
I write all the time. Like I write down thoughts that I think would be interesting or things that are kind of just concerning me at the time. Sometimes I write them on a napkin, sometimes I type them in my phone. And when it comes time to do music, I go through and see what thoughts work for this song.
Jay-Z has also admitted to writing lyrics down when he needed to. While he’s widely known to mumble a few lines to himself before stepping into the booth, he confessed that hasn’t always worked. In an interview with MTV News, he noted one time in particular for his song “Can I Live.”
“I just wanted to get it down quick, I didn’t want to keep going over it. It was like [the album’s] mastering time, so I just sat down in the booth and wrote that [verse].”
The image of Jay purposefully not writing lyrics before recording has “inspired a generation of bad writers” the rapper said. Still, he encourages aspiring artists, including his nephew, to write:
“Why I tell him to write every day is because it’s like anything else: [You have to] practice,” he said. “Basketball players play basketball their whole life, they practice every day. It only makes sense. You can only get better. The repetition. The more you do it, the better you do.”
2. Push Through Writer’s Block
Early in my songwriting career, when I was learning a lot about writing songs, I’d force myself to sit down until I came up with something.
– Luke Bryan
A lot of artists quit in the middle—or before they even get started—because they feel they’ve run out of ideas. Those individuals are looking at their music career the wrong way. If you want music to be your profession, you have to treat it like one and show up every day. Even when you don’t feel like it.
Goo Goo Dolls frontman, John Rzeznik, stressed the point of working through rough spots in songwriting when he said, “The one thing somebody told me which helped me a lot was, ‘The A material definitely lies beneath the B material.’ You have to let yourself go, and accumulate a lot of crap, and then sift through it to get to the good stuff. You can’t rush it.”
Bryan Adams (nominated for 15 Grammy’s and one of the best-selling artists of all time) tells artists that “a songwriter writes songs all the time, whereas just writing a song can be done by anyone, anytime.”
By writing even when you don’t want to, you’ll train yourself to be able to perform or create no matter your mood (something incredibly helpful when you’re facing a deadline). Simultaneously, you’ll be practicing writing and getting better at it.
As John Mayer said, “Just write it. ‘The rule is: write bad songs, but write ’em.’ If you start writing bad songs, you start writing better songs, and then you start getting really good.”
3. Keep Notes
“I’ve got so many notes and little things that I write down every day. Some of those lines are really important, and I’ll just take one and move on from there. Sometimes, there’s more than just a line, and sometimes there’s nothing. There’s a song title, and you just go. That’s the beauty of it.”
– James Hetfield, Metallica
Maybe you’re like two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artist, David Crosby, and song ideas come to you as you’re falling asleep. He describes the sensation as “elves [taking] over the workshop.”
Don’t let small moments of inspiration go by without taking note of it. Don’t depend on your memory to write it down later when you’re crafting lyrics.
Songs reflect life experiences. You need to have some if you’re going to give yourself anything to write about. See movies, go to concerts, get lost in Oklahoma. Keep living your life, seek out and let experiences come to you. Jot down inspiration as it comes.
“Songs happen in really weird, strange, quirky ways.”
– Taylor Swift
In the mobile age, you have the ability to record thoughts in your phone through text or voice memos at any time. Or carry around a notepad and pen if that works better for you. But keep track of your ideas and go back to them when you sit down with a melody.
4. Tell YOUR Story
You know why Taylor Swift writes so many love songs? Because she’s been in love–a lot. Taylor’s music resonates with so many fans worldwide because she’s able to authentically convey her own experiences.
“Take me being mad at my parents because they didn’t want me to date this dude when I was 17,” Swift told VH1 News, “and I threw a fit and ran to my room and wrote a song on my bedroom floor called ‘Love Story.’ So that turned into something that I never expected to be our first #1 worldwide hit.”
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has stated he consistently works to make sure his lyrics reflect who he is—even if that image is changing. After a break from songwriting he said, “My voice as a songwriter feels like it needs to speak up or at least work out a little bit to not atrophy… I think I have something to say that feels unique to who I am right now. I enjoy the challenge of moving that kind of brand [Nine Inch Nails] forward, that identity, shaping it to who I am now instead of who I was a few years ago when I last left off.”
“About 50 percent of my lyrics are autobiographical, and about 50 percent is making up stuff, adding to, or out-and-out lying [laughs]— which I like to do quite a bit. It’s the artist’s duty!”
– John Hiatt
But don’t be afraid to interpret events in your songs.
As an artist, it’s your duty to tell stories. Yes, a lot of those will be your stories, but some will be your interpretation of someone else’s experience. Think Bowie’s “Heroes;” a song about two people connecting despite a (literal) wall between them. Neither of the people in “Heroes” is Bowie because it is a story he chose to tell about someone else’s experience (the song is reportedly about his producer).
According to Mayer, “the music itself, once it wraps around you, you’re thinking about you, not me. That’s the role of a songwriter and truth sayer and singer. I narrate your life, not mine. It’s the reason that certain people in their make-up emotionally are drawn to a guitar instead of a roomful of people.”
5. Forget Perfection
This step should almost be “forget perfection… but not really.” You want it to be good, but you also want it to be heard. In order for that to happen you’ll eventually need to be done with the song. The creative process exists to create and mold something into “greatness” before you send it off into the world in the form of a finished product.
How do you know when a song’s finished? Short answer: you don’t. But don’t hold up the entire process of songwriting (and possibly recording) by constantly making changes in the search of perfection.
Kanye West is a classic example of the perfectionist. The rapper reportedly goes through producers during the recording process, was said to have mixed the track “Stronger” over 75 times, and spent “5,000 hours writing” “Power”. But he still manages to find a point where the song or album is finished and releases it.
It’s different for every songwriter but eventually (with practice) you’ll know when your work is done. Adele knows she’s finished and written something really excellent when it moves her.
“In order for me to feel confident with one of my songs it has to really move me,” she said in an interview with The New York Times. “That’s how I know that I’ve written a good song for myself — it’s when I start crying. It’s when I just break out in [expletive] tears in the vocal booth or in the studio, and I’ll need a moment to myself.”
If you still need inspiration to finish those lyrics, we give you John Lennon:
“I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down.Then, “Nowhere Man” came, the words and music, the whole damn thing, as I lay down… Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me. It’s like being possessed. You try to go to sleep, but the song won’t let you. So you have to get up and make it into something, and then you’re allowed to sleep.”