Column: [Can't Make A Living] – Words Conundrum
I’m taking a break from my “ode to minimalism” in recording to write something a little more universally appealing.
Not to yank my own chain, but I’m a pretty decent guitar player and I have a great band backing me up too. My voice isn’t “great” – like Jeff Buckley – but I can carry a tune over a loud rock mix.
Regardless of these talents – in all my years as a musician and frontman – on those rare occasions when I’ve actually gotten some attention from the opposite sex after a show, the ladies in question have NEVER mentioned any of those things. There is never a mention of “blistering guitar solos” or awesome harmonies – No – they always break the ice with “I really like your songs” or to be more direct, “I love those lyrics.”
Yes, lyrics are vital. You can have great grooves and moves and all it takes to spoil the vibe is sub-par or (god forbid) stupid lyrics. I don’t claim to be a great lyricist either. In fact, I feel I just squeeze by into the realm of acceptability. For me, completing the lyrics for a song is the most difficult aspect of songwriting. It just doesn’t come naturally for me at all (most of the time, anyway).
Over the years, however, I’ve picked up a few tricks that have helped me get out of many a lyrical rut and I’d like to share them with you.
Tip 1: Always Follow Your Inspiration
If you are ever lucky enough to get that “instant spark” of a song – you know the one that comes to you suddenly, in the shower or while washing the dishes, complete with melody and chord structure and a few choice words all at once – use those choice words! Unless they sound really stupid, that is – but maybe even then! This is your subconscious trying to tell you something and you should embrace it.
Tip 2: Keep It Real
Unless you are a major in philosophy and are truly struggling with existential/ontological problems because your dissertation is due next week, I humbly suggest you keep your lyrics about real tangible stuff and write about day-to-day experiences in your life. This doesn’t mean that you should write “overly pedestrian” songs, just try to write about what’s actually happening (or has happened) in your life. You will find that with a little embellishment, the ink will flow much faster when you write about something you actually care about and have experienced yourself. I once saw a sign in Toronto’s Kensington Market that summed this up perfectly: “Honesty is the best poetry”.
Tip 3: Learn The Conventions
In today’s modern music it’s open season when it comes to lyrical content and structure. However, I believe that if you are going to break the rules you should learn what they are first. That way you are “toying with convention” rather than just feeling around in the dark – and you can add extra layers of meaning to your lyrics by breaking with convention in witty ways. If you want to learn the rules before you break them, I suggest a great book: Songwriting: A Complete Guide to the Craft by Stephen Citron.
Tip 4: The Banned Words List
You know them. Those stupidly common or awkward words that YOU personally keep returning to time and time again, or perhaps those overtly pretentious $10 words that your friends/fans have no clue about. If you know the guilty culprits, write them down in the back of your notebook – these are your banned words! I usually make my list of banned words just before I know I’m about to have a bit of a spark period or even during those annoying periods of writer’s block. Now, when you sit down to flesh out or edit a song, make sure to remove or substitute those pesky banned words. If you find that a banned word is the only way to get your point across, then (and only then) should you use it. Sometimes negation is the best lyrical medicine.
Remember, rules are there to be broken (or toyed with) and all is fair in love and poetry.