One Man Production Machine Part 3 – How to Write Lyrics
Welcome to the third part of the One Man Production Machine series by Ed Elefterion. If you missed the previous installments, check them out below:
When I have words in front of me, things come quicker, and I don’t struggle as much. When the melody comes first – and yes, it happens this way often – I feel like I inch forward, forcing words to fit…it’s brutally slow for me. But with words already written, I start singing, and they (almost automatically) shape themselves into melodies. Sure, I hone everything, but for me, …the lyrics give birth to melodies and everything flows from there.
Since I Gave Up Hope (I Feel Much Better) was actually a sign I saw hanging in someone’s kitchen. As soon as I read it, I knew it was a great line, and for me…a great line is what it’s all about. This one was funny and sad and had a sort of call/response structure, and it took shape as a simple little melody very quickly in my head. I recorded it on my iPhone, so I didn’t stress about forgetting it. (I can’t count the hours of sleep I’ve lost to the fear of forgetting a musical idea…iPhone to the rescue!)
An Idea Takes Shape
The text immediately suggested a scene to me: a man lost a woman when he was very young, and ever since, he’s been waiting for her to see the light – but the whole time he’s telling himself “I’m over her and I’m happier this way.”
Is It Universal Enough?
I always ask:
Is my idea something universal enough for others to connect to or does it just speak to me?
This is a crucial question when writing a song intended for other people to hear.
If the answer is “no” then stop and refine the idea so that the answer is “yes”.
Get Specific, Get Universal
I always find that I need to get more specific with my idea to make it more universal. It’s a paradox, yes, but listen to your favorite songs and notice the use of language. Even seemingly silly “Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da” language is precise in how it provokes the imagination of the listener. And that is what it’s all about:
Inviting the imagination of the listener to fill in the gaps…with private details of their own.
I felt my idea was universal enough for strangers to connect to so now…I needed to work up some lyrics.
Stream of Consciousness
I sat down and started writing whatever came into my head. Notice the first line: “What can I say?” That’s me thinking “What am I going to write?”
The rest of the song came from stream of consciousness writing on some images that popped in my head after reading that sign in the kitchen, “Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel Much Better”.
- A reporter asking questions about a famous woman – he’s digging around in her past, and he finds this old man with a story,
- A drunken woman climbing the stairs and sprawled on a sofa,
- A tub of ice cubes to sober her up,
- A man with a box of souvenirs from an old affair,
- A cheap bouquet of flowers from the corner market.
Next is a process that I don’t know exactly how to describe.
Distilling The Stream
Now I’ve got a lot of text on the page. I could organize it by subject or refine it into a narrative or edit the hell out of it. But I’ve tried all of those in the past. I’ve had success but…man, it’s a huge job. And time is…well, I don’t have to tell you.
My weapon of choice these days is to…and this sounds ridiculous as I even think about typing it but, it’s the truth…I sing through it. Yeah. I start at the top and – I sing it aloud. Why? I’m searching for something that feels right and sticks.
Notice: I’m drifting from writing words to writing melody. I’m going to talk about melody in depth next week, but I wanted to point out how these two phases of songwriting merge at this point in my process.
It gets a little supernatural. I’ll find myself cutting words on the fly, finding nice mini-hooks and repeating them (and trying them out on nearby text), sounding just plain wrong on so many passages but then stumbling on something right and honing it. Basically: I work myself into a world that’s very specific to these particular words at this particular time. By the way, my iPhone recorder is always in front of me and I always end up using it.
We all know: a verse is much less than it seems like it ought to be. It’s only maybe eight lines – that might even be two verses depending on how you break down the rhythm. And a chorus? Heck, a chorus can be 1 line of text. Just like it is for Since I Gave Up Hope (I Feel Much Better).
Before long, I’ve got something. I take the text that works, put it into a verse like so:
What can I say? / No, I can’t complain, / Who’d listen anyway?
The Lady is gone / And gone is how she stays.
I quit the game. / Without her it’s not the same.
Since I gave up hope I feel much better.
Now that I finally had some lyrics I liked, it was time to focus on the musical idea I’d come up with for the verse.
Goal: nail down the melody.
Why the verse and not the chorus? For this song, the chorus was simple and (basically) already done.
The Curse of the 2nd Verse
When I get stuck…and I get plenty stuck, plenty of times…and can’t seem to get past the first verse, I’ll copy and paste it into the place on the page where the 2nd verse should go. And that’s what I did next. Just to give myself permission to go forward, I repeated that 1st verse whenever I needed to. I know I’ll replace it with the real 2nd verse later.
The important thing is to keep my momentum going
And use repetition to reinforce what works.
Tips for Writing Lyrics
Here are some ideas that help me when I’m feeling stuck for ideas:
- Celebrate the main character (any person really)
- Focus on the place, time
- Ask yourself: What’s the Idea for this verse and how is it different from the others?
- Describe the feeling
- Ask a Question (or several related questions)
- Simply state the thought or idea, again and again. Each statement will naturally develop into a whole series
- Stream of Consciousness Writing
- Diary or Journal (not necessarily yours – the library is full of them)
- Other Songs (write new lyrics to a favorite song then use those to look for a different melody and you’re on your way)
- Overheard conversations (so much of my material comes from this)
- Things you say in regular conversations (again, a lot of my material comes from this)
For each song on this page, I’ve used one (or more) of these techniques on the source material. People think I’m writing about situations from my own life…I rarely do. Here’s where I got the lyrics for each of those songs.
- Some Other Life – Inspired by the journal of one of Billie Holiday’s piano players.
- These Days – A combination of stream of consciousness writing and a conversation I overheard at a coffee shop.
- She Ain’t No 13 – From a chapter of a book about Billie Holiday.
- The Way You Love Me – Inspired by Billie Holiday’s many abusive relationships.
- What Happened to Us – Lyrics are from Uncle Vanya, a play by Anton Chekov.
- Don’t Hide Your Heart Away – Inspired by Otis Redding. (I was listening to him a lot that week.)
- All Those Old-Timers Are Dead – Lyrics almost entirely from an interview with a pimp who knew Billie Holiday when she was a kid.
- 20,000 Matchsticks – Inspired by an article about a convict who used a few thousand matchsticks to make a frame for Billie Holiday…(it was one of her favorite gifts from a fan).
- I Shouldn’t Be Thinking These Thoughts – I said those very words to my wife over breakfast. We were talking about healthcare in the USA. The rest came from stream of consciousness writing.
I focus on Melody and Chords. I’ll share some tips on what makes a melody successful and ways to help melodies and chords come easier.
If you’re overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Shoot me an email and I’ll help you out with a…
I’ll listen to your demo, we’ll Skype for 15 min and I’ll tell you what I’d do. You can take my ideas (or not) and execute them yourself.
Or, if you want more direct help, we can talk about how much (or how little) you want me to be involved.
We’ll work out a fair price…I’m not in this for the money. I’m an artist, too, and I won’t exploit other artists. But more on this later.
Audio Production, Music Analysis