When you get inspired to write a song that’s not in response to a TAXI Listing or a publisher’s brief, do you structure your lyric in a particular song form from the beginning or do you just let it flow and worry about the structure later?
From the beginning, yes, I think so, and it probably depends on the genre. If it’s an idea that lends itself to a vintage-style Jazz song, I know it’s going to be an AABA form. I don’t tend to use the AAA form, so for everything else it’s typically going to be V(V)CVCBC, and maybe with a pre-chorus. Decisions about starting with the chorus, or having a post-chorus, are usually made with a collaborator further down the road.
Do you hear a melody in your head when putting down the lyrics?
Almost always. Or at the very least I’ll have a rhythm in my head. At the TAXI Rally years ago, I learned about “ghost-writing”; writing your own lyrics to an existing song. I do this all the time. It’s a great way of finding new patterns for rhyme schemes and line lengths, and breaking out of the habit of using the same old section structures such as common meter - “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
“Sometimes the final song bears very little resemblance to the first draft.”
Do you subscribe to the edit, and re-edit school of thought on songwriting, or is your first pass pretty close to where you want to be?
I’m a constant editor, and it seems that so often after a singer has finished recording a song I want to make more changes! Sometimes the final song bears very little resemblance to the first draft. And I actually find it quite comforting when I’m writing to know that if what I’ve got so far isn’t that good, it’s going to be worked and reworked until it’s much better. Though I think the worst thing is when I listen to one of my older songs, and I just cringe at some lines. What on earth was I thinking!
I think that’s universal among all songwriters and composers. Is it hard to craft the rhythmic aspects of a lyric when you’re writing from scratch?
Not really. As I mentioned before, I often “ghost-write” to an existing song, or I have my own melody in my head. And words themselves have their own rhythm; once you’ve written one line you can find words that will repeat that rhythm for the next line, and so on.
How does the lyric writing process differ when you’re writing to one of your collaborator’s tracks vs. starting from scratch?
Well, you have complete freedom when you start from scratch. You can go anywhere. You can write about anything. When you write to a track you first need to determine how the music makes you feel. Is it upbeat and happy, or slow and melancholy? And then you need to map out where the different sections are. I usually start with the chorus and then go from there.
How many hours does it typically take to write a lyric to somebody else’s track?
I couldn’t say. But I find I need more time with a track to really get it into my head, get a feeling for the mood and what I want to say, and get familiar with the different sections. Sometimes I can use a lyric that I’ve already done, but it will need to be completely reworked to fit the track. It’s weird, but if I haven’t written the lyric from scratch for the track, I often think that feels like cheating!
Do you have to study how lyrics are constructed in certain genres before you write something in that genre?
Yes. Absolutely. In addition to listening to the reference songs on repeat, I print out lyrics and review the structure and mark out rhyme schemes. I consider the theme of the lyric, the language used, and the vocabulary. Although I’ve written a few Rap/Hip-Hop songs, I’m not that familiar with the genre, so I always feel I really need to do my homework first before I start writing. (Scott Free, Terrell Burt and I recently had a forward for a fun, Rap/Hip-Hop song for an animated, kid-friendly show, so that was really cool!)
Have you read a lot of books on songwriting or lyric craft in particular, or have you developed the skill in a learn-by-doing situation?
I have a whole bookshelf full of books by Pat Pattison, Jason Blume, John Braheny, Jai Josephs, Ralph Murphy, and Robin Frederick. There are so many great books dealing with rhyme, rhythm, simile, metaphor, the difference between showing and telling, prosody, contrast between sections, hook placement, writing for film & TV, etc.
Do you have any lyricists (or songwriters) who are your heroes?
Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Sting, Amy Winehouse, Adele, Neil Finn, Lin-Manuel Miranda. From time to time I hear a song like “Jesus, Take the Wheel” (Brett James, Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson), “I Hope You Dance” (Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers), or “Rainbow” (Shane McAnally, Natalie Hembie and Kasey Musgraves) - one of those songs that gives me goose bumps, gets me choked up and unable to speak, and makes me think, why am I bothering to do this? Who do I think I am to even try to write a song?
“I’m a bit of a stickler for correct grammar and pronunciation, and I’ve had to learn to let a lot of that go to become more conversational.”
I think all songwriters have those moments when they feel like they’ll never be that good, even the songwriters you just mentioned! Have there been any obstacles you’ve had to overcome, like learning to write lyrics for a certain demographic (ie. young vs. older, etc.), or just generally sounding more contemporary or cutting edge… anything of that sort?
I started out writing lyrics that were very poetic, using interesting and even obscure words, trying to be clever with what I had to say. (I once used the word “codicil” in a lyric!!!)
Maybe you should have been a lawyer!
I’m a bit of a stickler for correct grammar and pronunciation, and I’ve had to learn to let a lot of that go to become more conversational. Initially, I thought that meant I was “dumbing down” my writing, but now I realize that it’s one of the things you need to do to sound contemporary.
Do you ever experience a tug-o-war with your collaborators over changes you’d like to hear at certain points in the melody that would give a more impactful moment to the lyric?
From time to time, certainly. The biggest issue I have is where there’s a mismatch of lyric and melody, by not marrying stressed syllables with strong beats, or unstressed syllables with weak beats. This results in changing the normal emphasis of a word, and I think it pulls the listener out of the song. We either change the melody, or we change the lyric. However, I know there are lots of hit songs that do that, and some people consider that it’s an interesting, even contemporary, technique to use.
That’s great information for new songwriters to learn! Thanks for saying that. Have you ever had to deal with writer’s block, and if so, do you have any advice for others on how to work through it?
Writer’s block is really tricky. It’s easy to beat yourself up about it; thinking that you’re just being lazy or lacking in self-discipline, but I suspect there are other issues that come into play. From time to time I’ve felt that I’ve been in a bit of a funk and haven’t had the motivation to write, and I think it’s helpful to give yourself permission to take a break, and to fill up your well of ideas with reading, watching movies or TV, or having different conversations with people.
I like Robin Frederick’s idea of setting a timer, and just doing something for 30 minutes – creating a list of song titles, developing lyric ideas from the titles, etc. The other notion I like is that it’s ok to write something that’s complete crap. And that the more you actually write something, no matter how crappy, the closer you are to writing something that you’ll be happy with.
Have you ever used any songwriting software like MasterWriter?
No. I spend way too much time staring at my laptop as it is, so I’ve made a conscious decision not to get MasterWriter, even though I’ve heard it’s very good. (Having said that, at times I do an online search of words or phrases to see what comes up that could spark ideas for me.) When I start on a song I like to work with pencil and paper. I have terrible handwriting, so I type my first draft up and print it out and then edit on paper. I also like to use a hard copy dictionary (The Complete Rhyming Dictionary edited by Clement Wood) which is useful for generating ideas as well as rhymes.
“There’s a stereotype of creative people being hopeless at business, but I would also recommend reading and learning about the business side of things.”
I sometimes get asked, “I only write lyrics. Don’t record labels want to hear great lyrics?” What advice do you have for people who are just starting out as lyricists, as to what they can do with that talent and desire?
I think it’s worth having a go at writing your own melodies, even if you know they’re not great. Spend time playing around with composing, having fun with it, whether or not you play an instrument, and consider the genre you’re working in. I think it makes you a better writer overall, and it will give you more confidence to contribute musical ideas with a collaborator, rather than having a completely hands off, “I only do lyrics” approach.
The other thing that I’ve felt is important, because of my limited skill set, is to try to be the best lyricist I can be. I recommend working on the craft, read and study as much as you can, get feedback from mentors and other songwriters, post up your lyrics on the Lyric Lovers section of the TAXI Forums. At the TAXI Road Rally (convention) there are always classes on lyrics and the craft of songwriting. Watch TAXI TV. Maybe do an online course. I think Berklee College is still offering Pat Pattison’s free lyric course on coursera.org.
But certainly, the real magic happens when you find others to collaborate with. There’s a stereotype of creative people being hopeless at business, but I would also recommend reading and learning about the business side of things. You don’t have to be a lawyer to understand the basics of copyright, and it’s good to be aware of the various terms in a contract and what they mean – exclusive or non-exclusive, the length of the contract or whether it’s in perpetuity, and if there is a reversion clause what you need to do to take back your song.
Finally, if you could change anything in your music life, what might that be?
Well, I don’t think there’s much point in wishful thinking or regret. I am who I am, with the aptitudes and abilities that I have. My philosophy is that you have to do the best you can with what you’ve got, and to be grateful for what you have. I love what I’m able to do in the music industry, living in New Zealand, with the technology to connect me to other songwriters all around the world.
Well said, and thank you so much for taking the time to share what you know with our readers!
If you missed it, you can read Part 1 on this interview in last month's Transmitter!
Check out some of F-M's music here!