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Words, Words, Words

Local songwriters ponder the art of lyric writing

Following are answers from eight Capital Region musicians to an e-mail survey on the nature of writing lyrics. The participants: Sara Ayers, Brian Bassett, John Brodeur, Stephen Gaylord, Erin Harkes, Meg Hutchinson, Gaven Richard, Bryan Thomas.

Where do you write lyrics?

Everywhere—in the car, while dreaming, walking, at work . . . wait, ignore that last one. –John Brodeur

Wherever it strikes me. Sometimes I leave messages for myself on my phone because I can’t get to a pen in time. –Erin Harkes

Dog walks in the woods, which are a daily event, seem to be a great place. I also keep a journal and often find that as I read back through a series of entries I begin to see a thread of a song, some theme that seems to tie the images together. I rarely sit down to “write lyrics” before I have something in mind. –Meg Hutchinson

I never sit down and write lyrics. I usually have two or three songs in various stages of construction limping around the perimeter of my consciousness. I mumble lines to myself while I run errands or while I’m sitting at the dinner table. Nothing gets put on paper until it’s basically completed and I have to show it to someone. –Gaven Richard

Usually in front of a microphone, at the last possible moment, but if it’s something rhythmic, sometimes when I’m running or walking around. –Sara Ayers

On small pieces of paper. Or in notebooks. Or on the backs of receipts, especially highway toll receipts. There is definitely something about being on the highway by yourself that leads me to write lyrics in the car, which can be dangerous and distracting. One time, I didn’t have any receipts in the car so I tried to scribble something out on a big color road map. It was really hard to read. –Brian Bassett

Anytime I’m alone and have nothing better to do. The best lyrics are written while driving, but walking is fine, swimming works too. Sober is best. What seems really profound fucked-up often sounds really dumb when you wake up. –Stephen Gaylord

Do you wait for “the muse” or follow a disciplined writing schedule, or somewhere in between?

I have very little discipline in the areas of my life that are important, so to impose that on songwriting would be comical. If the muse doesn’t show up I try to bait her by singing selections from the Carpenters’ Greatest Hits. –S.G.

Sometimes there’s a challenge—my brother needs a song for a short film, for instance—and I like the idea of pulling together something I never would have written otherwise. But I can’t force it on my own. So 99 percent of the time, I just have to wait for it to hit me. Every song feels like it’s going to be the very last. –Bryan Thomas

I wish I could follow a schedule. It’s there when it’s there. –J.B.

I guess I used to wait for “the muse” and still do to some degree. I vary my method with every song and it’s never the same. –B.B.

It’s usually never a convenient time, usually after I say something out loud that strikes me as funny or profound, and try to write it down coherently enough so I can work on it later. –E.H.

As far as the actual writing and completion of songs, this happens in waves. I tend to have three “on” months and three “off” months. I’ll write a whole family of songs and raise them together. Then nothing will happen for months at a time. Fall and Winter are my favorite times to write. I think the dark seasons force us into ourselves in a way that always turns up good material for me. –M.H.

I’m actually really dreading my muse’s next visit because I have such a backlog of songs I have to finish that I’m sure she’ll be disappointed in me. But honestly, she only ever gives up the first few lines and then leaves the rest for me to figure out. –G.R.

I only write lyrics when I have to. –S.A.

Which comes first, the lyrics or the music?

Sometimes it’s lyrics first, sometimes it’s music first, sometimes it’s just taking some music and some lyrics and slapping them together. Often it’s the song title, oddly enough. –B.B.

First, I’ll make a mistake on guitar. If the mistake sounds interesting enough, I’ll chant a melody on top of it, something I could hum or whistle on its own and it would still make sense as a melody. Then I’ll free-associate some nonsense words. From the nonsense comes the lyrics. I wish I was kidding. –B.T.

Music. I’m always aware of the music first, and then focus on lyrics. When I’m listening to music, I might hear something two or three times before I’m aware of what the lyrics are about. –S.A.

For me, music and lyrics have to develop simultaneously and symbiotically or neither will work. –G.R.

Most often, both come at once. I’ll get a phrase stuck in my head, grab a guitar, and try to jump off of that. Otherwise, it’s different every time. –J.B.

I’ve found that growing the lyrics and melody together allows them to mesh a lot more naturally than they did when i used to treat them separately. –M.H.

The lyrics come with the melody in your head. You sing them to yourself over and over and add lines as you go. Then you sit with a guitar and strum through the chords until it comes close to matching what you’re singing. Then you look and see if the chords are exactly the same as another song you’ve written since there are only a limited number of permutations using the 10 chords you’ve learned. At this point you can either scrap the whole thing or change the melody. I usually just scrap the whole thing. –S.G.

Do you worry about clichés? How do you avoid them?

I write pop songs, so clichés are my friends. I use them all the time, but usually in a sarcastic or ironic fashion. In pop music, there are entire chord progressions that are clichés (i.e. the pop-punk I-V-vi-IV), so why worry about rhyming “maybe” and “baby” for the four-millionth time? –J.B.

I’ll do anything to avoid a cliché, whether it’s a lyric on the micro level or a sentiment on the macro level. Universality, however, is the first casualty. And I’ve got the (lack of) album sales to prove it. –B.T.

I don’t avoid them. Sure, they’re clichés, but that means people will recognize them, right? And if it’s done honestly, then a cliché can be a good thing. –B.B.

Clichés, oh dread! The biggest problem I have with a song is when someone is grabbing a metaphor or analogy they’ve already heard because it sounds safe, familiar, already accepted. What is the point of writing a song or a poem if you’re not attempting to share your particular experience of the world? –M.H.

Sometimes if I write a particularly dense verse, I’ll tack on a chorus that sounds like it’s lifted from an Air Supply song just to give people a break. I don’t think every single moment you listen to a song should feel like work. But when I sing the stock chorus live I make sure to roll my eyes and use lots of air quotes. –G.R.

I like to try and turn a phrase, take something that might be cliched and switch it around a little bit. I like to play on words, but if something is trite or cliched in the finish product, it usually comes out of the song. –E.H.

Are clichés French? I avoid anything French any way I can. –S.G.

Do you ever worry that you’re repeating yourself?

All the time. –E.H.

Sometimes, more so with the music itself than the lyrics. The English language is vast and specific, so I don’t think I’ll ever run out of words. Or things to say. Ask anyone who knows me. I babble. I don’t know when to shut up! It seems like it’s a little easier to repeat yourself musically. –B.B.

The best way to combat this is to realize no one is going to sign you anyway. You are old and have nothing to lose. So when you write your four songs every two months realize that three of them are the exact same song, throw them on the scrap heap and strip them for parts. Take the one song you write every couple months and be happy with that. –S.G.

Repeating yourself is essential. Writing different versions of the same song over and over is (A) the only way you’ll ever get close to saying what you really mean, and (B) the only way you’ll ever get the public to recognize and appreciate your work. –G.R.

I know I repeat myself. If a couple songs grow up together they often share too much with each other and one of them has to go in order for the other one to be completed. My favorite writers seem to develop a set of symbols and characters that they always come back to. There is repetition in this, but it seems to add depth to the songs instead of seeming redundant. –M.H.

Yes, but again, I write pop songs, so that’s bound to happen. –J.B.

I repeat myself all the time. It’s sometimes called “style.” –S.A.

Are you more Randy Newman (narratives from the perspective of other people) or Joni Mitchell (first person/confessional), early Michael Stipe (words as sounds, not stories) or something else entirely?

I try not to limit myself, but it’s always easiest to write in the first person. I think a lot of my songs have more of a conversational feel to them, which makes it the easiest way to actually say something. And it seems more familiar. –B.B.

I guess I come from more of the Joni school. But Joni knows that it’s not enough just to feel it, because it’s so easy to fall into the trap of bringing just one more navel-gazing-woe-is-me song into the world. So I try to go so deep inside myself that I come out the other end. So to speak. Then I can write from a safe distance, so that it sounds more like a Newman-school song—or at least it feels that way to me while I’m singing it. Sprinkle some Newmanesque dark, bitter, old-school irony and humor, a dash of Stipean/Dylanesque word-painting for further subterfuge, and a splash of Princely nobody-else-would-say-or-do-that, and ya got yourself a Bryan Thomas song. –B.T.

Maybe 70 percent “Randy Newman” and 30 percent “Joni Mitchell” . . . (God that sounds awful.) I suspect most of Joni Mitchell’s better songs have a little Randy Newman in them or they wouldn’t be as compelling. These days it seems like songwriters who are described as confessional mostly write about breaking up with their girlfriend. Let me tell you, unless your ex-girlfriend was a fighter pilot or she once dropped acid in a courtroom while sitting on the jury during a capital murder trial, I don’t need to hear about her. When it comes time to write a song, it’s important to keep your feelings locked away deep, deep inside yourself where no one can see them. –G.R.

More Joni Mitchell. Very influenced by writers like Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin. I do have this sense that when you reach a certain age you become better able to write from someone else’s viewpoint. I’m only 27, so I’m hoping that’s about to happen. I’ve been struggling with how to write about the war. –M.H.

Michael Stipe-ish. I view lyrics as just one more sound timbre to use. The meaning of the lyrics is not all that important, although I try to use something that won’t distract from the music. –S.A.

I would have to say Joni Mitchell. I try to write some observation pieces, but it usually resolves back to my own experiences. I don’t know, is that narcissism? –E.H.

Joni. All the way. –J.B.

“Short People,” “Big Yellow Taxi” or some marble-mouthed guy who didn’t enunciate until he started to suck? That’s like the holy trinity. I’m all three of those. –S.G.

Topical or timeless?

Timeless. Topical songs too often forget to be good songs. –J.B.

I don’t like some current songs because they reference pop culture or current technology. No one 100 years from now is going to want to listen to a song about e-mails or text messaging. I guess the closest thing to topical lyrics for me is heartache and heartbreak, but that topic is timeless. –E.H.

I touch on topical issues of the day - the nonsense coming out of the White House lately, for instance - by visiting the larger, historical context of American hypocrisies, which, if done right, should be not only timeless but also apolitical. And inclusive of my own human failings, too. —B.T.

Topical songs are hard to write without sounding preaching and ego-ridden. The only successful one I can think of off the top of my head is Peter Gabriel’s “Biko,” which is pretty timeless anyway simply because of the music. –S.A.

I’m not intentionally striving for either timelessness or topicality, but “timeless,” in this context, seems like it might be a synonym of “vague,” and I do like to include in my songs a fair amount of specific references to the minutiae of my past and current upstate New York existence. –G.R.

Topical? Sure, when I’ve got something to say. Timeless? I don’t ever try to think of how timeless my stuff is. I’ll leave that one to posterity. –B.B.

Topless? I feel dumb because I had to look up topical. I see now. It’s important to include references to real things people interact with like beer and cigarette brands. Then they can really identify with you when they’re lighting up or drinking down. –S.G.

Are lyrics poetry?

No. If you want to write poetry, music is a distraction. –S.A.

I don’t pretend that my lyric writing can really compare to the art and craft of pure poetry. There are other songwriters and rappers out there making what I consider to be poetry, but I don’t think I’m coming at it that way. Still, if I do it right, the lyrics should at least be able to stand on their own. The music, too. –B.T.

Absolutely. –E.H.

Sometimes, often without realizing it. The ones that are intended to be poetry usually are not.—J.B.

Lyrics and poems are completely different creatures. Lyrics can be poetic. Good poems have to find music in their language, but they are very different. With lyrics you have the luxury of music to cover the gaps where language fails you. With poems you have to complete this dimension with language alone. –M.H.

Not all lyrics are poetry. Great lyrics can be poetry, but it’s neither required or always desired. Elvis Costello, Jeff Buckley—they wrote poetic lyrics. Someone like Springsteen or Tom Waits write great stories, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it poetry. –B.B.

Lyrics are written to be sung aloud over music, and there are quite a few compromises that have to be made to get them to work in that way with regard to meter and phrasing and a slew of other considerations. On the plus side, you can imbue your words with more meaning than they actually have on their own with your magical vocal stylings. It is almost always a big mistake for bands to include a lyric sheet with their records, as most lyrics really don’t stand up to being read apart from the music, and it ruins the fun of trying to decrypt garbled phrases through repeated listens. –G.R.

What is it like to write lyrics—fun? Painful? Cathartic? Etc.

When it’s going well I’m oblivious to everything except for the work. I feel tapped into something vital. When it’s going well there is a great deal of electricity. When it’s going poorly there is just as strong a sense of impossibility, of being left in the dark, of definite failure. –M.H.

Depends on the situation. Obviously, writing a love song is going to feel a lot better than writing a breakup song. The biggest pain (in the ass) can come from laboring over one line for days on end. –J.B.

It’s a great way to stave off boredom. It also allows you to say the things you would have said to actual people if you had a sharper mind and bigger balls. –S.G.

Agonizing. Like trying to complete a 40-year-old crossword puzzle that you found in your basement. You don’t quite get the cultural references, and someone has smeared black shoe polish over all the “down” clues. Also there is an evil surgeon with a bone-saw standing in the corner reminding you that if you don’t finish the puzzle by midnight, he will remove your temporal lobe and you’ll spend the rest of your days stumbling aimlessly through a gray, noncreative netherworld. –G.R.

All-time favorite lyricist?

Here are three: Joe Henry, Gene Ween, Elvis Costello. Ask me again tomorrow. –J.B.

Brendan Pendergast from the Wait. Otherwise, I never would have started writing lyrics myself. And Billy Joel. And Eddie Vedder. And Ben Folds. And I guess Michael Stipe. And Jakob Dylan. And Springsteen. And Ryan Adams. And . . . –B.B.

Toss-up between Tom Waits and Richard Thompson. –E.H.

One of my big heroes is Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys. Politics aside, I find him remarkable for having created a vast dystopian universe as richly detailed and densely populated as Lord of the Rings or Remembrance of Things Past. –G.R.

Somewhere between Joni and Bob and Greg Brown and Patty Griffin and David Gray and Rufus Wainwright and 10 other artists is my favorite writer. –M.H.

All-time favorite lyric?

“I met this guy/And he looked like he might have been a hat check clerk at an ice rink/Which, in fact, he turned out to be/And I said, ‘Oh, boy . . . right again’” (Laurie Anderson, “Let X=X”). –S.A.

I often think of Joni’s line from “Case of You” that goes, “Just before our love got lost you said/I am as constant as a Northern star and I said/Constant in the darkness where’s that at/If you want me I’ll be in the bar.” –M.H.

Try this: “I guess I should have known by the way she parked the car sideways that it wouldn’t last” (from “Little Red Corvette” by Prince). Ask me again tomorrow. –J.B.

This week it’s “I’ve entered the game of pricks with knives in the back of me/Can’t call you or on you no more when they’re attacking me/I’ll climb up on the house, weep to water the trees, and when you come calling me down I put on my disease.” –S.G.

“You know there ain’t no devil, that’s just God when he’s drunk” (Tom Waits). –E.H.

Favorite lyric of your own?

This is hard because I’m a big fan of myself: “Raised on Genesees and upstate ditchweed, sleeping underneath the sumac trees/And where the Mississippi’s long and the Ohio may be muddy, well the Hudson sucks the shit right from the Bronx up thru to Northcreek.” –S.G.

The title track from my recent album “The Crossing” has a line I often think about: “I’ve found quiet in this room/Down by where the trains run/I’ve learned to hear the rumble long before it comes/And the things I’m working on are invisible to everyone/Something ‘bout an empty hip or the angle of the sun.” –M.H.

“I guess I’ll never be the woman you want me to be/But I bet you go out and find someone just like me.” –E.H.

“Ooooh,” or maybe “ahhhhh.” –S.A.

Anything else you’d like to say about writing lyrics?

There’s no better drug in the world, especially when it finally becomes a song. –E.H.

Our lives are basically boring, and we don’t have much to say we haven’t said already. The easiest way to keep things somewhat interesting is to steal ideas from books. Don’t steal from other songs because they’ll catch you. –S.G.

Worst Lyricist Ever? Scott Weiland! (Stone Temple Pilots). The dawn of the Clinton administration saw a drastic lapse in lyric-writing standards after Nevermind helped usher in the “Age of Nonsense,” so most of the Top 20 worst lyricists ever come from the ’90s. But, while runner-up Chris Cornell’s (Soundgarden) lyrics sound like they were written 10 minutes before the recording session, Weiland’s sound like they were ad-libbed with the tape rolling! Lazy. Lazy. Lazy. –G.R.

Lyric writing strikes me as the most egotistical part of composition. To paraphrase Brian Eno, if you think of a piece of music like a landscape, you’re free to think what you want about it; it’s about you, the listener. But as soon a figure appears in that landscape, that figure becomes the center of attention and directs your thoughts. No longer is the music about the listener, but about the composer. –S.A.

Moon, june, spoon. –J.B.


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