songwriters ponder the art of lyric writing
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.
do you write lyrics?
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
you wait for “the muse” or follow a disciplined writing schedule,
or somewhere in between?
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.
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
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
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.
comes first, the lyrics or the music?
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.
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
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.
you worry about clichés? How do you avoid them?
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?
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.
you ever worry that you’re repeating yourself?
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.
Yes, but again, I write pop songs, so that’s bound to happen.
I repeat myself all the time. It’s sometimes called “style.”
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
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.
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
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
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
is it like to write lyrics—fun? Painful? Cathartic? Etc.
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.
are three: Joe Henry, Gene Ween, Elvis Costello. Ask me again
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.
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.
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
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.”
know there ain’t no devil, that’s just God when he’s drunk”
(Tom Waits). –E.H.
lyric of your own?
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
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
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.
or maybe “ahhhhh.” –S.A.
else you’d like to say about writing lyrics?
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.