Sunday, January 10, 2010

Songwriting Part 1: Write What You Know About

Though few people even know who I am, I (along with my lyricist friend, William Hoover) have been writing songs for the last 30 years. Some songs have been terrible, and some (I think) are exceptionally good. I've noticed over the years that the good ones are the recent ones, and they get better and better with time. As a result I like to think I've overcome some mistakes and learned a thing or two that I can pass on. If I haven't, then I'm about to expose my ignorance... which is a good thing, in that I'll learn from comments and feedback where I fall short. So in an effort to understand my own process better, I'm going to explain what I think are the important elements of songwriting.

Before we get started in earnest I'm going to digress for just a minute on the subject of art. My dictionary has several definitions of art, none of which are correct! There's little wonder that so many people are confused by the term and misuse it... they can't even look up the right answer! Here's a really simple definition of art, which always works:
"Art" is the deliberate communication of one or more emotions from the artist to the beholder.
There are three ramifications of this definition. The first is that how you communicate it is unimportant. This is why song, dance, poetry, literature, and drama are all forms of art. With any other definition you're left to wonder what holds these together: now you know.

The second is that it is the beholder, not the artist, who determines if a thing is "art". Many of the things we've been taught to think of as art, aren't. These include song, dance, poetry, literature, and drama if the emotion isn't there. It doesn't matter how much of your heart and soul you pour into something... what matters is how much gets back out. Art is cruel to the aspiring artist. If you're not imparting emotion, then it doesn't matter how brilliantly you have done your work, you are a craftsman, not an artist. This isn't a slight against craftwork: a brilliant craftsman is still brilliant! But it's axiomatic that "Art" and "Craft" are not nearly the same thing. If you look around I think you'll agree that some pretty poor craftsmen have turned out some wonderful art.

The third ramification is that this definition is open to future expansion. Almost anything can be art, and many things we don't think of as art, are. For instance under this definition, true lovemaking -- as opposed to sex -- is art. And I think that's how it should be. When we speak of a piece of art being "attractive" or "seductive" it is precisely because art is an extension of this primal ability of humans to personally interact on an emotional level.

So I'm going to proceed from the assumption that you're wanting to write songs as an artform and not as a craft. Jingle writers ply their craft; Songwriters pursue their art, even though they both do what is superficially the same thing. OK? Moving on...

I think that lyrics are the life-blood of any song. That might sound strange coming from someone who rarely writes his own lyrics, but it shouldn't. I get way more lyrics than I can use, so I have to pick and choose from among them, and have a good bit of experience editing and adapting the words I do use. In addition, I do indeed write complete songs on occasion.

One of the things that I've noticed about other advice I've read on the subject is that it almost invariably focuses on the wrong aspects of the task. There is a tendency to focus on mechanical rules to fit words to your music, and I think that's just a bit backwards. While everyone is different, in my case no song begins without a message, and that means the lyrics. You should have a clear understanding of what it is you're trying to communicate to the audience before you even begin on a tune. In my view, the music is there to focus and direct the emotions of the listener to the message carried by the words (in ironic form you might highlight that message by contradicting it).

Now, the one very most important thing about writing lyrics is not rhyme, or meter, or structure. In fact, any and all of those things can be dispensed with entirely and you can still have a great song. No, the most important thing is simply knowing what you're writing about.

That's true of any sort of literary endeavor. It's the first thing they tell you in creative writing classes, right after "Please, sit down." And it's 100% immutably, undeniably true. You have to know what you're writing about. This is especially true about lyrics, because they're intended to communicate emotion. If you don't have that emotion, you really can't impart it. What you produce will not be art.

For instance, when William Hoover and I started writing songs back in high school, we wrote songs about hookers and drugs and other gritty stuff. What did I know about hookers and drugs? Not a damned thing! And it shows in the work. Those early songs about "important" social issues are terrible in comparison to what we've written lately. We tried really hard to be hip, and I don't think it worked out well, largely because I'm not hip. People would rather hear a heartfelt and honest song about the hackysack you LOVE to play with than some political topic that your head says is "important" but your heart cares nothing about.

There are ways around this "immutable" rule. For instance, we wrote a song called "Like Norman" that is apparently about a man who's on Death Row, sung from the point of view of the next man scheduled to die. Now, we've never been on Death Row; we've never worked there; never knew anybody who was. But when played properly the song can really give a chill to the listener when you get to the last verse. Why does it work?

It works because we're not writing about Norman. Neither is it about the man doing the singing. Norman is a metaphor for life. When Norman dies it's representative of your father, or mother, or a close friend of your own, dying. It's in moments like those that we realize our own mortality. The light dawns within us that we -- all of us -- are on Death Row, waiting our turn. Like Norman, we begin to see the Angels coming. On a conscious level, the listener may not even know he's making that connection. Still, the topic finds its "hook" in his subconscious and pulls out the intended emotion. It's your job to make the listener emote, but no law demands that he has to know why.

Use metaphor and parable and allegory. But you cannot forget that your metaphor must be representative of something you know and care about. Besides, metaphor is great because you can get deep, deep messages in seemingly innocuous things. And while somebody might be turned off to the deep message when presented plainly and boldly, they'll listen over and over again to the metaphor and find themselves moved by the underlying message.

So that's the first rule, and it's really the only one you can't break. Everything else is pretty much at your discretion, though some guidelines are stronger than others. In future essays I'll address them, and I'll do that by examining some actual songs. In the meantime, here's some homework... take a good introspective look at yourself. Ask yourself what you care about. What moves you? Motivates you? What's your obsession? That's what you need to be communicating in your music.

This is continued in Songwriting Part 2: Write What You Like.

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