You finally have the beats, the loops, the licks. The compression is just right. The musicians have all behaved themselves admirably and the backing track is finally kicking it. There’s even a killer topline. So, just the lyrics to go, then. Easy enough, right? Not so fast, muchacho. If you want that pen and paper to make something special happen, you’re going to need some guidance. Every creator has his or her own process, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t adhere to guidelines for inspiration. Here are five thoughts to consider as you try to write better lyrics.
You have something to say, right? It’s burning a hole in you, yes? Well, don’t get verbose about it! Don’t try to cram in as many syllables to explore the pain, the angst, the suffering. Nor the joy or the love, either. What you need is a great idea to hang your hat on. So GET CONTEXTUAL. Cut to the heart of it all, and communicate that message in pithy, memorable soundbites that get your point across. No waffle, no padding. Not even if it sounds pretty! Remember K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid!
Know your audience, know your genre
If you’re going for the pop jugular, you probably won’t want to use words like “coagulate,” “donkey,” or “myriad.” Or “poopdeck.” The thing that connects most readily with an audience (whether you’ve correctly identified yours or not) is AUTHENTICITY. It’s an adage well-known in the writing fraternity that you should ‘write what you know’. So if you’re not from the Bronx, don’t write about what it was like to grow up there! Using your imagination is just fine in any creative process, but what most consumers of music really want is to RELATE, so talk from the heart. Transport them! Talk about what you know to be true. Be yourself. Use your experiences to fuel the scenarios that you are setting to music.
Plan your lyrical journey
There are 101 rules to song-writing and none of them are carved in stone. But it can’t hurt to look at what’s gone before. As a basic rule of thumb, verses are used for narrative exposition (story, story, story), the pre-chorus is used to build tension and the chorus is the realisation, the tension-releaser, the exclamation or even a whopping great question. (Lots of songs have a question as a title). The bridge (or middle 8) is the bit where the song goes on holiday and our trusty narrator has a revelation, or a resolution while abroad, and then comes back home to the chorus for a final whine/celebration/questioning session. It’s very true that songs have a beginning, a middle and an end, but they also have a journey. So don’t cram all of your ideas into the first verse and leave yourself nowhere to go. Keep an ace up your sleeve. Or more than one.
Some people hear music in colour. No, really. Bach is purple and Steely Dan are puce. And in the same way, words have a sound, a flavour, a flourish. You can’t imagine the word ‘plop’ appearing in many pop songs, but you can imagine that “forever,” “together,” and “harmony” might crop up pretty often. So choose the lyrical ingredients for your song with true care, not just dashing off the first couplet that happens to rhyme and scan correctly. Sometimes, the correct placement of an (on the surface of it) ugly word can reap huge artistic and financial rewards. Toni Braxton sang Diane Warren’s “Unbreak My Heart” – this songwriter invented an entirely new lexicon to make her point.
The best songs work when everything works in harmony. The lyrics should complement the music and vice versa. If the backing track is hardcore thrashy trash, the lyric should probably be throwaway, energetic and anarchic, too. Not detailing your fluffy bunny’s recent demise in between the sobs. Unless that’s the exact juxtaposition that you’re going for, of course.
When I said there are 101 rules to songwriting, that was, of course, a fatuous remark. There are, in fact, 1001. And all of them exist to be broken and bent, as songwriting doesn’t (and shouldn’t!) tend to follow rules. But if you’re not sure where to begin, don’t simply want to “feel your way,” and are prepared to put some legwork into it, these are good places to start. Because to write better lyrics, “That’ll do” just won’t do.