Lyric writing is tough. Sometimes. On the “Days From Evil” album, I rewrote the lyrics to the song “Hallowed Ground” three times. *RE*wrote. Which means I wrote that God-Damned song four times, living with it through several rough recording sessions and living with the results for days, sometimes weeks before scrapping them in disgust.
In almost every case, I could tell as soon as I wrote the lyrics down that they weren’t right.
Yes, I actually write lyrics down. On paper. My preferred method is graph paper and a fine-tipped, black Sharpie pen, but often I end up writing on the back of some old German homework or a Chinese Take-Out menu; whatever is within arm’s reach when the lyrics start to flow. Junk mail addressed to “Occupant” also works well.
Inevitably, there are mistakes, or corrections, or improvements, or overhauls. Words get shuffled, replaced and rearranged. I try not to line out lyrics into illegibility at any point, just a couple quick lines through them, because several times I’ve gone back to lyrics I crossed out. I’ve only recently begun to have the laptop nearby to type lyrics as I write, but I still never delete lyrics that get replaced (even after the song is done) I move the words to the bottom of the page under an [Unused Lyrics] header.
There’s something about a lyric sheet that has all the corrections on it. I would love to have the lyric sheet that Fish used when writing “A Gentleman’s Excuse Me” or Roger Waters “Comfortably Numb”. Cut-n-Pasting on a computer is so sterile, and results in a perfectly antiseptic version of the song, all set to paste onto the internet, or the liner notes. But it’s missing the *process*. The crossed out words are the trail the author took to get where the song is now. I haven’t yet been able to part with any lyrics sheets even if they were later replaced with something else, even if they outright sucked. Looking through them is like looking through old pictures.
Sometimes Melody comes first. It helps to think of the lyrics as a guitar or keyboard solo. Hum random melodies or random lyrics (called ‘Scat’) over the top of the music, and see what lays well. Copying the melody from existing guitar rhythm will always work. It’s also almost always Lame-O, so start there if you like, but try to move away from the guitar rhythm as quickly as you can. If there are any existing solo parts, try to sing in variations of the solo. I’ve had really good luck making melodies out of the Drum line, a trick I discovered while listening to Rage Against the Machine. Punch your vocals with the kick drum, scat to the repetition of the snare. If you have trouble thinking up scat words to say, just grab a book, or open a newspaper and grab a phrase and repeat it different ways. I recommend Not using phrases that you recall from other songs, “Every Day is a Winding Road” or “Everybody Must Get Stoned” for instance; it is easier to use phrases that aren’t already locked to a melody in your head.
Sometimes Words come first. Listen to the rhythm and wonder what the song is about, as if the song were already written and your job is to guess what the lyrics are. Start with the mood and speed, that should be easy. Then think of the music as the soundtrack for a piece of video. What words describe the scene? What words can be used to describe what’s happening? I always like to start out with a theme for the song in mind before I start doing scat lyrics, ususally the band will come up a temporary name for the song so we have a way to reference it, and I will use that as a springboard for lyrics.
Rarely do people write lyrics for a song before a rhythm is set down, but it is possible. As an experiment, I came up with a melody line and wrote an entire songs worth of lyrics for even going into the studio. Then I picked up the bass and wrote a bassline to go with the melody. It turned out really well. The song is called “Push Me”, and sounds awfully “Pop” for Jagged Spiral, mostly because of the heavy vocal hook. Don’t forget that if you ever need a source of lyrics, you can always go back to your old unused lyrics from other songs! (That’s why you shouldn’t throw them away!) If you are poetic, or tend to write stories or poetry, there is another valuable source for lyrics.
If you are foolish enough to attempt a Concept Album, then the work of deciding the story/theme of the album will help you greatly by giving some direction to the song before you write a single lyric. In the case of “Days From Evil” the album concept developed after 3 or 4 of the songs were finished. As the other songs developed, we would consider where they would best fit in the overall concept. Some of the songs were difficult to fit in, and it took an artistic handgun license to coerce them into position. For instance, the song “Monsters” sounds like it is told from the perspective of a child. So it only made sense to have it at the start of the album, but unfortunately, it’s not a very powerful start. It was moved to the second track, and considered a ‘flashback to the hero’s youth’.
For those brave few souls who have read this far, I give to you my best kept secret: Burn a CD or load your MP3 player with a version of the song and take it in the car with you. I do my very best lyric writing in the car, while on the way to or from work. Yes, I am the fool you see screaming at the top of my lungs on the way up 169N. Even better, if you have a long distance to drive, just loop the song over and over. If you get stuck or frustrated, turn the music off, or sing along with other songs, and come back to it later. Planting the seed of the song with unwritten lyrics into your subconscious may have some interesting results. I have pulled the car over to write lyrics on a napkin because a sudden lyric jumped into my head that was completely unrelated to the morning DJ talk…
Oh yes, always carry something to write with, so you are ready when lyrics happen. I’ve actually used my cell phone to call and leave a message at home of the scat vocals before they slipped away.
Persistence is the key. Even if you think you have something, keep singing it, and be critical and honest with yourself. Get a second opinion from someone who is going to be honest and objective with you.
Two last things to think about when writing lyrics:
- Don’t be afraid to let lyrics stay that you aren’t happy with. I’ve dropped some random words into a song line and kept them there “till I think of something better” and actually grew to like them.
- Don’t be afraid to let go of lyrics that you like, or worked Really Hard on. Yes, it was a difficult road to the second rewrite of “Hallowed Ground” but it just knew that it still wasn’t right, even though everyone said the lyrics were ‘just fine’. It was almost painful to completely scrap months of hard lyric work and start over a third time, but in the end (on the DAY before we went into the studio to record the lyrics) I rewrote the song, thinking that we could use the new lyrics if the band liked them better. In the end, we all agreed the new vocals made the song much better.