Writing lyrics

March 12, 2009 at 2:13 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

Hi everybody!

I’ve hunkered down the last few days to write songs.

The first day was an abysmal failure, I don’t think I got anything done.

Then last night I made serious progress.  I pulled out all my old music notebooks with sketches and old songs in them to see if there was anything I had forgotten about.  There was!  There were a couple really neat “ideas” jotted down, and a few complete or almost complete songs.

Actually, to step back further, there was one of my songs I recently rediscovered when I came across an old potential track/setlist.  You know how the subway sometimes has poems where the ads go?  Like, as PSA?  For our enlightenment?  Once several years ago there was a poem I thought was really pretty and sad, so I made a note of it, went home and looked the words up, and set it to music.  The poem is A Broken Appointment by Thomas Hardy, and I set it very simply, like a Spanish guitar folksong.  Only one real surprise chord in it.  I can even play it nicely- I am moderately capable of plucking the guitar strings to arpeggiate, which produces the right effect.  So I saw that song on my old list and I was like, “Ohhhhh!!!  Yeah!  I remember that one!” I pulled out my guitar and to my surprise I remembered every word and chord with but little mental searching, which is odd considering I hadn’t even remembered the song existed.

So I pulled out my notebooks and made some rediscoveries.  There were some old songs that, how can I say, didn’t seem to apply to my life anymore musically.  Like maybe a bit too poppy and hooky, or on the other side a bit to dark and twisted.  I have tended towards both extremes, and at the same time- even now it’s the same.  Compare something shadowy and dissonant like “Pull Me Up” with “Monica’s Getting her Tits Done“- Monica passes the badass test because the lyrics are so quirky.  There are others that aren’t recorded.  But the rift was wider back then.

One song I had totally forgotten about was this piece intended for piano and voice.  It’s simple, the chords change slowly at times, and I played it (back when I played piano sometimes) with just repeated triplet chords, gently.  It’s just a song that builds, pretty much AABA(1).  The A’s are very gentle, and the B and part of the last A build strongly.  It’s actually a pretty cool piece.  I would like to use it for something, except it sounds stupid on guitar.  It needs a piano.  I tried playing the triplets with the side of my thumb, and striking higher or lower strings for variation (as I would play different chord inversions on the piano), but it really wanted for the bass line… Yeah I know it’s just me and my guitar, it would sound different with a band.  Anyways.  The lyrics.  Hm.  It’s one of those things where I feel like, the lyrics are so inane… even at the time when I wrote it (these are my notebooks from France and a little from Queens) I kept trying to alter them to be less cheesy/nonsensical, but kept coming back to the originals because they flowed so nicely.

That’s some of what separates lyrics from poetry.  In poetry you want more creative word choices- in lyrics, unusual turns of a phrase can interfere with the flow of the line.  In most kinds of writing, rule number one is to avoid cliches.  In lyrics, you want to use cliches and common phrases because quite simply they are easier for the ear to catch.  If you want anyone to understand what you’re saying, you can’t say “The twilight of deception is upon the Earth,” you have to say “No more lies.”  (To quote my own line in Toyshop, which I feel a little embarassed about because it’s such a cliche and so out of place, but you have to admit you can understand it and it flows nicely.)  To work with the same example: the former, while bulky, is more lyrical than rephrasing it as “Deception’s twilight falls on Earth’s face.”  Where is the rhythm?  And look at those awkward consonant clusters!!!  It might be a more original sentence, but it’s not singable and certainly not intelligible.  As trite as it may sound, “The ____ of _____ is _____ the ______” has a nice, easy, iambic flow to it that is easily set, sung, and heard.

Um, my point was, saying things like “Don’t you come my way” and “Oh my lover” (the latter a recurring phrase from the current song in question, the former another line from Toyshop) may sound very amateurish when examined under the harsh light of speech, but are very convenient for songwriting.

Am I trying to justify my own bad lyric writing?  Maybe?  I don’t know, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for years.  I suppose the ideal compromise is to use cliches within the context of awesome stealth rhymes.  But who has the time? :) No srsly I’m sure I can think of an example on my part if I think of it… yeah: “Monica’s getting her tits done, she’ll be the hottest piece in Boston.”  Does Boston rhyme with “tits done”?  Maybe- but either way, you totally didn’t expect it to until I said it!  Also, “piece” is kind of a surprise word but doesn’t interrupt the flow of the line, and is easy to understand, especially since it gets its own quarter note.

That’s my other trick, that I often use in prose writing- use a cliche but change one word in it to something more innovative.  It could have easily been “hottest chick in Boston” which is sooo lame, but change it to “hottest piece in Boston” and you’ve got yourself a song.

So, backtracking, the lyrics to the song in question are very cliched (though sometimes in unusual formations), but they just flow so nicely I have yet to find anything I like as much.  So maybe they stay?  Doesn’t matter, I won’t be recording it, or maybe not playing it live since I don’t play piano anymore like at all.  But I would like to find a use for it… I’d tell you what it is but I really don’t have a good title for it!

Anyways, last night I more or less wrote a whole new song (I think it needs a last verse or something), which seems pretty cool, but would need a lot of production if I record it ’cause it’s a potentially complicated song (like Midnight Bride or the one really cool song that’s been in the works for years that you haven’t heard yet because we never finished the arrangement, which I really really wanted to do but I don’t think Ross can do it now but it’s like my favorite), so we’ll see… And I finally, finally FINALLY after all these years worked out the “Having sex with you is like pulling teeth” song that I have hummed to so many people in passing.  I finished the first verse last night (you don’t even understand how long it took me to write one verse) and then today on the subway to my class I finished the second verse and part of the bridge (I liked it without the bridge but it was BARELY two minutes and I have too many short songs already) and on the way back from class I finished the rest of the bridge and the last verse.

Yeah, so I write a lot of short songs, huh?  Maybe not- Toyshop has somehow made it to 3.5 minutes (only with a guitar solo though), and Midnight Bride and Pull Me Up are both pretty long- but only because they have long, repetitive, build-up endings!  I guess you’ll have to hear some of my stuff that’s not recorded yet.  But I tend to be like, “There, I said what I had to say- why do I have to write another verse???”  Really I’m just lazy about lyric writing.  I like it, well I love it when I get a good couple lines, which I often do in the end, but it’s such a process- because like this entire post implies, I feel embarassed when the words come out limp.

So good progress in the end.  Hope to have something to play for you, eventually!

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