I know lots of people who claim that lyrics don’t matter to them. I’m the opposite. I mean, they don’t have all have to be Bob Dylan, or Dan Bejar, or Nas. They don’t have to be profound. Or poetic. But bad ones can ruin a song for me. They can be silly, they can be gibberish, they just can’t be bad (whatever that means).
Lyrics may be inconsequential to some pop music, but even the stuff that seems like a trifle can bring about something unexpectedly revelatory either as an insight or a hook. Whether or not they matter to you, lyrics will have a place in songs of all stripes (save a revival of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass-inspired easy listening jams). But filling an empty page with words can be just as much an obsession as it is an obligation, and for some artists, it’s often a painful roadblock to putting a song to bed.
So when faced with a creative challenge, employing games – or, to be fancy, chance operations – to generate new ideas always helps me out. The idea is that by getting yourself outside your typical headspace – the one that’s causing your writer’s block – you can stumble upon ideas you might not have come to otherwise. These games don’t often produce finished songs, but that’s not really the point: what you should be looking for are ideas that you can piece together in some new form. Maybe the results will work in their raw, surreal state. Maybe you’ll find a common thread to pull them all together. Maybe you’ll get one line that will boldly inspire an entirely new set of lyrics. That’s the point: the endgame is inspiration.
1. Try exquisite corpse with your co-writer(s)
Exquisite corpse is a technique popularized by the surrealists. The basic premise involves writing a few words or a phrase on a sheet of paper and letting someone else write the next line. The most popular way of utilizing exquisite corpse is by allowing each person to only see the preceding phrase, which adds greater sense of mystery. You can also add additional rules pertaining to the grammar, the sentence structure, or the number of syllables.
Wilco used this method while working on their album, Summerteeth, keeping a typewriter on the back of the tour bus so the band could write lines at their discretion. Singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy fashioned the writings to a particularly chilling effect on the song “She’s a Jar.”
2. Cut it up
Easily the most legendary technique of avant garde writers, cut-ups were popularized by legendary author William S. Burroughs, who would cut up different pages of text together to see what interesting combinations would be made. The words weren’t necessarily random, either – he would sometimes do this with a completed text, thus colliding the story’s past, present, and future in the hopes of finding new meanings in his work. He and his frequent collaborator, the painter and writer Brion Gysin (who introduced the technique to Burroughs), applied cut-ups to audio and visual projects as well.
Burroughs’ writings had long influenced musicians, particularly Lou Reed and David Bowie. The latter would often cut up sheets of lyrics or pages from a diary in order to rearrange them and come up with new lyric ideas.
I’ve used this method in my own bands as well, particularly on a song called “Bent Towards Limbo,” which is sort of a mix between a cut-up and exquisite corpse. The music came together pretty quickly, but the song didn’t have a traditional verse/chorus/verse structure. Not wanting to leave it as an instrumental, my fellow guitarist/singer Janet Simpson and I each made a list of words that came to us over the course of a few minutes. After looking at each other’s lists, we tore the words into strips and starting putting them together and seeing what phrases emerged. We noticed some unifying themes, and from there quickly fashioned complete lyrics. It was a fun and ultimately satisfying process.
3. Start out by writing nonsense words to the music
Oftentimes when working on a song, I’ll try improvise a vocal using nonsense words or just enunciating a melody and seeing what comes out. If things go well, then I’ll come up with at least one phrase or a hook that will stick with me. Even if it doesn’t make immediate sense, I’ll find that I’m stuck with it. The challenge then becomes figuring out a story that goes with those words and writing the rest. It could take minutes, or it could take months. Fortunately, we played enough shows on dodgy, punk-rock PAs that I could try out different approaches without anyone noticing that I was winging it.
In the meantime, I would create sheets of paper that would sort of map the “beats” of the melody, then drop in different lines to fit the meter. After years of doing this, I saw a picture of one of David Byrne‘s (of Talking Heads) lyric sheets and saw that he was doing something similar. I was thrilled – Byrne has long been one of my heroes, so catching a glimpse of his method felt validating to me as a songwriter.
Years later, he elucidated that process in his wonderful book, How Music Works (which I highly recommend). In this passage, he describes the need to change his lyrical approach to match the new rhythm-heavy, trance-like songs on 1980’s Remain in Light:
“The gently ecstatic nature of the tracks meant that angsty personal lyrics like the ones I’d written previously might not be the best match, so I had to find some new lyrical approach. I filled page after page with phrases that matched the melodic lines of the verses and choruses, hoping that some of them might complement the feelings the music generated…. I tried not to censor the potential lyrics I wrote down… I felt I had to adhere to whatever syllables seemed to fit the existing melody best, so I’d listen to the gibberish vocals respectfully and let those be my guide. If I seemed to instinctively gravitate to an aahh on the gibberish vocal mix, I’d try to stick to that sound in the lyrics I was writing. More restrictions, but okay.”
“More restrictions” might sound ominous but, ultimately, giving yourself limitations will help give you focus while you’re trying out different ideas. The trick to making this method work is to write freely and often – you’ll know when the right combination of words and melody hit you. Says Mr. Byrne: “The act of putting words down on paper is certainly part of songwriting, but the proof is in seeing how it feels when it’s sung. If the sound is untrue, the listener can tell.”
4. Step outside of your personal point of view
Lots of songwriters only write about themselves – a topic that can fatigue both the listener and, eventually, the songwriter (especially the more self-aware types). Like most things in life, you’ll learn more about a given topic by examining multiple points of view. But writing music doesn’t just come from intellect. It’s physical, too – someone has to sing this stuff. So rather than just change what needs to be said, think about how it needs to be said.
When he was writing “Once in a Lifetime,” Byrne found inspiration in the cadence of radio preachers. The lyrics themselves don’t have anything to do with religion, per se, but by finding a new voice to inhabit, the song’s lyrics began to take shape.
There are lots of ways to mess around with the methods mentioned to find something that works for you personally – in fact, you’re liable to come up with a few novel concepts of your own. But, like anything else, practice makes perfect. Not everything you write is going to be good, but the more you write – especially without censoring yourself – the more material you’ll have to pull from.
Ian Wise, a Chicago-based musician who also enjoys putting out punk rock seven-inches, had some practical and sage advice on the matter:
“If you already have a decent amount of material to draw from, you always have a starting point. You may have songs you don’t even know about. The worst thing anyone can do is try and expect their lyrics to come out in one clean shot…. People are under the impression that writing shouldn’t be hard work, but you can write as many drafts as you need (and you should). I read an interview with Leonard Cohen once where he was asked if he ever filled up an entire notebook writing one song. He laughed and said he’d filled entire notebooks rewriting the same line over and over. The biggest hurdle is yourself. The other biggest hurdle is your expectations.“
James P. Fahy is a writer, musician (Teen Getaway), radio show host (Blood on the Knobs airs every Tuesday on Substrate Radio), occasional publicist, full-time dad, and music business person who’s worked with the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, Communicating Vessels, Naxos, and Redeye Distribution. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama.