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Are You Talking to Me? Using Conversation in Lyrics

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Whenever songwriters use ordinary conversation in lyrics, the song quickly becomes very direct and very personal. It’s a profoundly effective technique, despite its simplicity. Conversational lyric allows a songwriter to speak one-on-one to the listener, who almost takes on the role of a close confidante, rather than a cog in the wheel of a mass audience.

And it creates a powerful emotional connection. Just ask Adele.

“Hello, it’s me
I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet
To go over everything
They say that time’s supposed to heal ya
But I ain’t done much healing”

Right from the get go, “Hello” basically snatches entire snippets of everyday conversation, delivering a crystal clear meaning. The lyrics create an intimate moment, inviting us to eavesdrop — and boy, do we lean in! But like many aspects of songwriting, while writing in conversational lyric may sound simple, that doesn’t mean it’s a piece of cake to execute.

Conversational lyrics raise two almost contradictory issues for a songwriter.

First, we need to believe in the authenticity of the lyric. And we need to sell it. Is the tone right for the character? Have we provided enough “real life” detail to be deeply involved in the experience of the song, as if we were really there?

And second, simultaneously, the lyric needs to be something more than just a transcribed conversation. It still has to contain a universally identifiable message, one that listeners can be moved by — personal, but not too specific to the songwriter’s life alone. It has to be a story told via language that sounds like conversation, but is also artistically done (perhaps making use of allusion, fragmentation, abstraction, etc.).

There’s also another fishhook to be aware of here, cast a bit deeper down there in the murk of technique. By using everyday conversation in lyrics, to some extent, songwriters have to let go of some of the other lyrical tools available to them — because most lyrical writing does not reflect how we tend to speak. When selling the conversational angle, tread lightly with other lyrical styles, since they’ll distract from the authenticity of that tone and the impact of your message.

It seems that using either one strategy or the other makes a song really successful. Just ask Radiohead.

“I want you to notice
When I’m not around
You’re so f*^#in’ special
I wish I was special”

The illusion that Thom Yorke is singing just to me, confiding in me his admission that he feels like a “creep” is heightened by his ability to perform that anxiety vocally, which is a testament to his skill. It sells that authenticity of tone, and draws me in as a listener. We feel like he is just like us, and this is evident in Adele’s work as well.

Aretha Franklin also brings us into the intimate sphere of her close relations when she sings about respect. Here, she not only commands it; she describes pretty openly that it’s a give-and-take process. Oh yeah, and she spells it, too.

“I ain’t gonna do you wrong while you’re gone
Ain’t gonna do you wrong cause I don’t wanna
All I’m askin’
Is for a little respect when you come home (just a little bit)”

Luckily, there are other tools in the songwriting kit to bring into play. And here we’re helped by the way we process speech as opposed to songs in our brains. Speech tends to be left-brain dominant, while it’s largely the right brain that processes song. Why should that matter? Well, it means we “forgive” the differences in song when they deviate from pure speech rules.

So, as songwriters, we can repeat lines way more than we might cope with in everyday speech (nagging aside)! This brain forgiveness is why we can integrate an abundance of rhyme, something we’d never get away with in casual conversation, and deliberately arrange the words into balanced and unbalanced lines to subtly sustain and release emotional tension. We get to choose the line lengths and we get to choose the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, whereas normal speech is usually heterometric. And we can, of course, warp words to fit our melodies and vocal performances.

Conversational lyric is personal — it reaches out and connects with the listener, sometimes instantly. Conversational lyric is also very comfortable to sing; if you can say it, you can sing it. But it’s still a song lyric. There’s always a balance to be struck between the idea of involving conversation and incorporating songcraft technique, between the everyday and the unusual, between speech and art.

And when a song hits that balance, it usually stands above the rest. We’re left powerless to the emotional effects of the music and storyline coming together. Just ask Gloria Gaynor.

“I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face
I should have changed that stupid lock, I should have made you leave your key
If I’d known for just one second you’d be back to bother me
Go on now, go, walk out the door
Just turn around now
‘Cause you’re not welcome anymore
Weren’t you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye
Do you think I’d crumble
Did you think I’d lay down and die?”

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Charlotte Yates
Charlotte Yates

Charlotte Yates is a New Zealand singer-songwriter and songwriting coach. She released her seventh album Then the Stars Start Singing and is tutoring at the Songwriters Clinic in October of this year and February next year.