Finding The Right Words

It occurs to me (and now might be a great time to let you know that I do have an official motto (borrowed from Calvin and Hobbes): “Dave – Gradually he catches on!”) that all this talk and exploration of melodies might be a moot point if you have nothing to say. Meaning no lyrics to match your musical ideas. Some words to sing along with your melody might be very nice indeed.

Before we go any further, let me advise you of a few things: First off, if you haven’t done so, you might want to read some of A-J Charron’s articles on the Songwriter’s Page concerning this subject (not to mention those of mine!), as well as look over some of the latest threads over on the Guitar Forums (or even create a few new ones yourself). I know that a lot of people may not agree with me, but I have always found that the more ideas and angles I manage to get a handle on, the more I am able to think about and the more I think about things, the more (and better) I tend to write.

If you think about why you listen to a songwriter, often to the point of getting all his/her/their work (or even simply listen to the same CD or even the same song over and over and over again), it is because you identify with this artist. You have a bond with this person who wrote these lyrics. You can’t wait to hear what the artist comes up with next.

Believe it or not, the same thing applies to you. There will be people who will want to hear about anything you have to say, simply owing to their interest in listening to your unique spin on things.

So let’s get out there and write! Right? Well, maybe some questions first, like…

Why? (Finding Your Reason)

One of my friends tells me that writing is often like breathing. It’s part of what keeps you alive. When she’s not writing she’s thinking
about what she’d be writing if she was.

I’ve often felt this. I write songs for many reasons but perhaps I could also argue that I write because I don’t know how to live without writing. Lyric writing, like writing melodies, is a marvelous craft. You want to match the tonal quality of the music and you need to have words precise enough to convey what you want to say in a relatively small amount of time. It’s like taking all of the words in whichever language you use and squeezing them through a filter until just the pure essence of your ideas and emotions remains.

Think about songs you love – more often than not something moves you because the words are something that you have often, if not always, thought or felt but could not find the way to express. No pun intended, but it strikes a chord deep inside of you. It’s as if someone managed to put your own emotions into words.

There is certainly no shortage of things to feel strongly about. And you’re ahead of the game if you’ve already said to yourself “this is probably why there are so many love songs in the world.” Indeed.

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, too – I find that writing music often helps me to put a lot of things in my life into perspective. Traumatic things become easier to deal with, sadness becomes beauty. The world becomes a place of wonder again.

So think about it? Why do you want to write a song? Usually when you can come up with an answer to this question, you will in all likelihood also answer…

What? (Finding Your Line)

Just where do these lyrical ideas come from anyway and how is it that some people can put them together effortlessly while others (myself included) have to literally wrestle onto the page?

Putting money, fame and fortune (with all the trappings, clothes cars (more guitars!!!) and that ever important “Behind the Music” appearance) aside for a moment, the “why” to writing is usually the simple fact that something has struck you as being important enough to write about. It can be a feeling, an emotion or reaction (or even the absence of an emotion or reaction) brought on by a specific incident or situation. Love, as we’ve noted, is always right up there at the top of most lists. Go figure, huh?

But all sorts of things can move you. Personally speaking, I am always taking and making note of things that occur to me in the normal course of day to day life. A simple everyday observation might become the basis of a song. Remember everything starts with just a line or even a word.

Okay, now you’re saying, “Dave, I get this – but it doesn’t help. There are, as you’ve pointed out (in that wonderful way you have with words) already tons of love songs. For that matter, there are already more song lyrics dealing with every conceivable topic that one could pick. I want mine to be different. Where do I start?”

Well I’ve got some news for you – you’re right about this. The only thing that is going to make your song “different” is going to be the
fact that you wrote it, that these lyrics represent your particular take on things concerning life, love and the pursuit of whatever it is you enjoy chasing.

Example: when I moved to Chicago (shortly after that meteor strike that wiped out the dinosaurs), my new roommate, himself a native, gave me a rundown on the local climate, “We have three seasons – July, August and Winter.” I thought that this was a great joke, that is until a few months later when I found out it wasn’t a joke. One evening in the middle of October a cold front moved in and sat down and didn’t leave for months. And as I was walking back to my place that night I thought, yes indeed, winter comes early here. And that thought was immediately followed by another – “that would make a great line for a song!” So when I got back to my (warm) room, I wrote it down and then promptly forgot about it until the following October!

But the point is that, whether I knew it or not, I had planted a seed that would (years later, actually) grow into a song. Lyrics often grow out of stray lines plucked from out of the mundane as well as the extraordinary. A very important thing to remember, though, is that not each and every line has to be a work of art – we’ll come back to this in a moment.

As I mentioned, A-J has writing some very interesting pieces on lyrics. This would be an appropriate place to mention his column À la Bowie in which he discusses the old “pull a rabbit out of a hat” routine. A lot of people like this style of writing. It kind of goes without saying that if someone tells you he or she is a songwriter, then that person has a warehouse of lines waiting to be fitted with a melody.

Speaking of which, you can also kind of come up with lines in reverse. As I’ve said on many other occasions, I’m one of those people who, as a rule, tends to sum up with the music first and the words second. Not always, but usually. So then I start strumming my chords or playing my riff while singing something (almost anything really) off the top of my head. And occasionally I will come up with something that really and truly fits the mood and feel of this song-in-progress. That is as long as I remember to write it down!

Once I have a line, or at least an idea of what I want to write about, I usually find I am ready to move onto the next question:

Who? (Finding Your Voice)

It strikes me as hilarious that people who would consider it extremely gauche to assume an actor wasn’t acting (Anthony Hopkins, to my knowledge, rarely eats people) have absolutely no problem with giving writers each and every trait associated with their creations. Think of the sheer idiocy behind the backlash concerning Randy Newman’s “Short People” (remembering that, in all probability, these were the same people who’d sing “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” at the top of their lungs…).

But this does point out that the “who,” the narrator/singer of your song is just as important as the “what” that the song is about. Sometimes even more so. I don’t know how many of you might remember this but in the early eighties a Soviet fighter shot down a South Korean passenger jet. I became obsessed with writing about this but was faced with one very big obstacle. And please feel free to laugh about how petty this is – I really didn’t want our band’s lead singer introducing my song as “This is our statement on the recent tragedy of the Korean people” or some such similar grandstanding statement. So I had to come up with some way of writing about it without even remotely referring to the incident itself.

So I had to ask myself, “Who is singing this song? Who would be the most effective narrator?” and eventually settled on what proved, for me, to be the best possibly choice: a family member or loved one who was simply waiting to meet someone from that ill-fated flight:

When You Come Home
– Hodge

I bought you flowers
Put them on the kitchen table
Thought you’d like some flowers when you come home
It’s been two hundred and sixty nine days without your smile
I’m going to tell you I miss you when you come home

Sitting at the airport
Dying to see your face again
It’s like waiting for the end of everything
Sitting at the airport
Dying to hear your voice again
It’s like waiting for the end of everything

I’ve been reading the papers
They’re having some war somewhere
And riots somewhere else
I never seem to care when you come home
I’ve been talking to strangers
You never know who’s following you
Or who you might bang into when you come home

Sitting at the airport
Dying to see your face again
It’s like waiting for the end of everything
Sitting at the airport
Dying to hear your voice again
It’s like waiting for the end of everything

I made you dinner
Now it’s cold
I’m going to tell you I love you when you come home

Sitting at the airport
Dying to see your face again
It’s like waiting for the end of everything
Sitting at the airport
Dying to hear your voice again
It’s like waiting for the end of everything

As you can see, choosing the appropriate narrator (and this does include yourself, by the way) can make your life as a songwriter a little easier. While I have never been in this situation myself, I have been left waiting for people who never showed up and I could draw on this experience and the emotions that came with it in order to write about this particular incident. And this is the real key to songwriting – do what you can to make it real. Even if you choose to write about something that is completely foreign to you, do so from a point that you can understand. As long as you have a handle on your narrator, why he/she is singing this song, the sorts of words and phrases that he or she might be likely to use, you bring the truth of emotions to your song. Remember that you don’t always have to write about a situation that you have personally experienced, but you should have a real empathy with the emotions (or even the lack of emotions) involved.

How? (Finding Your Song’s Path)

Not only do songwriters ply their craft in various ways, you will note that often those ways will vary from song to song. I just showed you a song lyric I wrote from an idea coupled with an ideal narrator. But what about if you just have a single line and no idea of how to proceed?

Let’s go back to that earlier line, “winter comes early here.” As I mentioned, this haunted me for years before I managed to come up with something that worked within the frame of a song. And, truth be told, I used it for that very tired “boy meets girl boy loses girl” story line that was old way before the invention of musical instruments.

But again, truth be told, what hasn’t been done eighteen million times already? The object is, as we’ve noted, to put your particular spin on things out there for the world to hear. What I’ve tried to do here is to give you a step by step thought process in order to try to (a) take some of the mystery (and hopefully fear) out of the whole process and (b) give you a few pointers in the “little things” you can do to help develop your own lyrical style.

In thinking about the line “winter comes early here,” I realized that, besides (obviously) referring to the weather, that this phrase could apply to relationships and hearts as well and this is what sent me off on writing the typical story. I had my line. I decided to use a thinly veiled version of myself as a narrator. Now all I had to do is fill in the rest.

A few important things to note here – first (and this is something that my English teachers in high school would tell me over and over and over again), when writing something, it is much more effective to “show” something rather than to “tell” it. The more you simply report the facts and allow your listener to draw his/her own conclusions, the more that listener becomes an active participant in the song. Now, as you’ll see, you can make all kinds of editorial slants in your reporting of the story. After all, an unbiased narrator is as rare as an uncompromising politician, no? Trust the intelligence of your audience. More times than not, they may point out things to you that you may not have realized.

Second, you should never, never ever write with the expectation that each and every line is going to be a thing of art. You are going for an overall feeling. Songs, by their nature (hell, anything really), are meant to be taken as whole complete things. Yes, you will invariably have a favorite line or two, but it is the entire sensation that should stay with you. But again, just to be a complete pain, let me tell you that by carefully choosing words, even your “throwaway” lines will contribute immensely to the finished product.

Finally, stay true to the narration. I know we’ve covered this but it does bear repeating. The easiest way to reach out beyond yourself and your experiences is to get so far inside of what you do know that you can explain it as easily as breathing.

Winter Comes So Early Here
– Hodge

I was singing for my supper in a local café
Prolonging my existence one more night
She came in seeking shelter from the early April rain
Sat down at the table on my right
And somehow we got around to talking
And we laughed “˜till we were pretty close to tears
Talking “˜bout the weather and the things that might have been
How winter comes so early here

Chapter one – boy meets girl. One of my friends who loves this song was kind enough to point out to me that anyone capable of writing that second line so casually would probably doom any relationship. Note the repetition of the weather themes early on and the general tone of sadness. Even laughter has “tears.”

Well I got myself a job down at the bar where she was working
Some nights we’d end up at her place and some at mine
And I wrote some silly songs of love and other long lost causes
They were so dumb but I was young and I didn’t mind
And I’d tell her, “Hey lady, I’m in love with you.”
And she’d laugh and say, “Aren’t you a dear?
Do you think that this will make our summer longer?
No, winter comes so early here.”

Chapter two – boy loves girl. Even though it is a fun relationship, the fact that the narrator lumps love in with “other long lost causes”
pretty much gives you an idea of where this is headed. Personally, I find actual conversations much more enlightening and entertaining than merely saying “I loved her and she loved me.” To each his own.

Though I could brush away her tears I couldn’t begin to touch her sadness
Anymore than I could understand my own
In the end the strain just drained the little hope we’d left between us
And I found her pencilled message by the phone
Said “It’s a shame we didn’t meet each other years ago
Before we learned of all the hurt and hate and fear
As it is our hearts found autumn way too fast
And winter comes so early here.”

Chapter three – boy loses girl. My early songs are very wordy. This is why I’d always try to find someway to slip in an internal rhyme or alliteration whenever possible. “Pencilled message” is precisely the way that this narrator would write something the rest of us would call a “note.”

Now I look out of my window but I only see my face
And through that face I view this world we share
The windy city streets still wear their sullen old facades
Of twisted concrete, shattered glass and wooden stairs
And I watch in wonder as my mind
Makes moments of the memories of years
All that I remember is I never saw her leave
And winter comes so early here.

Epilogue – picking up the pieces. This is actually the image that got me (finally) writing the song. Looking out a window in December and seeing my reflection and the rest of the city and thinking how often I forget that I’m always looking “through” myself in order to see the rest of the world. And just to show you that I pepper everything with puns, “stares” can replace “stairs” in order to complete the “city with a face” image.

So, why’d she leave? Was it him? Was it her? I don’t think that this even matters to our narrator. It was something as inevitable as the passing of the seasons.

When (Finding Your Time)

The hardest thing for most people to realize is that, sometimes, writing takes time. Patience, whether regarding your writing or your playing, will always be your greatest ally.

But having said that, I will tell you that you have to write, write, write in order to become a songwriter. Practice is important here as well. I try to take time out every week to do nothing but write out ideas. Sometimes things work. Most times they don’t. But you never know.

If you ever get bored, give yourself this challenge – write a love song. A happy, joyous love song. And do it without using the word “love”
even once. This is nowhere near as easy as you might think. Speaking for me, it has to be exceptional for me to be happy with something like this. That is why I found myself utterly delighted one morning last August when I was able to come up with the following chorus:

Welcome Home
– Hodge

It’s hard not to believe in heaven
When I’m watching you sleep
When your eyes can drive away the deepest darkness that I know
It’s easy to believe in angels
When that’s the company you keep
When everything is singing “Welcome home
Welcome home”

And even though, as of this writing, I have scrapped more verses than I can count, I know that the rest of the words for this are somewhere inside of me. I’ll find them yet.

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see covered in future columns. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next week…