During my more gloomy moments I sometimes wonder if anyone actually listens to my lyrics, and whether the enormous amount of work I put into them may in fact go unheeded. — Nick Cave
In my experience working with bands, lyrics seem to stand out by exception—issues with word choice, phrasing or similar—and not because I’ve been very good at the craft. The music fans I know tend to intuit “good” lyrics. A diverse audience may debate the subjective elements that make certain words set to music particularly noteworthy but originality, nuance and insight are generally helpful criteria.
Equally, we know what we don’t like: obviousness, didacticism, grammatical errors or similar. The challenge, it seems, is to craft a poetic statement that is complimentary to the composition and objectively interesting of its own accord. These two interdependent aspirations are, at times, in conflict and trade-offs need to be made to serve the song.
Often, that’s not the same thing as satisfying the contributing writer’s preferences.
My conversion rate of notebook entries to recorded lyrics is low. This isn’t a quantitative metric I worry about as my hypothesis is that a high volume of content is required for modest editorial output. So, it’s qualitative. I have, however, experimented with techniques to enhance throughput. This has been about finding pathways to inspiration as much as honing the discipline writing.
I’ve agonised over the pursuit of something with real value. When it comes to your words and the sound of them from your own voice, the scrutiny—real or imagined—is excruciating. How humbling, validating and perhaps unsettling it is then to read this insight from one of the masters:
I don’t know why, but there’s a certain element of panic in writing lyrics that I’m not sure I enjoy. — Mike Patton
How do you be vulnerable but not indulgent? How do you broach the conceptual without inauthenticity? There are just some subjects, treatments and voices that few can navigate in ways that move us. It’s easy to come across as poser.
Naturally, you aspire to do good work, so you shoot for the lofty mantle reserved for your heroes. I’ve had to remind myself that those artists earnt that capability through their bold experimentation, credible research and disciplined approach over many years. Also, it’s easy to overlay additional meaning and context upon our favourite musicians’ works. That’s something that cannot be expected of your immediate audience as a new band. People, if they are listening and reading, are going to have to go on the journey with you—and you’ll have to prove that your work is worthy of more than a casual investment.
On reflection, the first instinct I had was the most contrived: to manufacture something provocative or profound. With this mindset, I failed convincingly to create anything of value. So, I sought meaning through meaninglessness.
I don’t like to make it too obvious, because if it is too obvious, it gets really stale. You shouldn’t be in people’s faces 100% all the time. We don’t mean to be really cryptic or mysterious, but I just think that lyrics that are different and weird and spacey paint a nice picture. It’s just the way I like art. — Kurt Cobain
For me, it was about finding an approach that was creatively rigorous but detached from the result, rather than designing for an expected outcome. The products of these experiments have been far more interesting than what I could have conceived in a linear process. This abstract proposition was exemplified by David Bowie’s evolution of approach. As Ben Greenman observes:
At some point, he began to look more rigorously into the idea of meaninglessness, and to write songs that were willful participants in their own fragmentation… his songs should be about nothing, which in turn allows them to be about everything.
The cut-up technique and "Verbasizer" will be familiar tools to followers of Bowie. My experience with similar creative devices has been that you have to iterate on your own methodology. Without being prescriptive, you need to run a few test and adjust the variables in your system as the emergent quality of the output becomes apparent.
My current writing system
Constraints inspire creativity. A sense of freedom within the framework allows for individual expression in a productive mechanism. Iterating around the outside of the cut-up example, I struck upon a design system that was enormously helpful to me.
In sharing this, I hope you that you arrive at your own process, either by some small insight to add to your toolkit or outright rejection of it all. In any case, if you're curious or just stuck, here's an experiment to try.
The backlog (ideas bucket)
- The fold-in technique is, “the technique of taking two sheets of linear text (with the same linespacing), folding each sheet in half vertically and combining with the other, then reading across the resulting page,” (Wikipedia)
- I begin by highlighting all the lines that strike me as curious, even if they seem nonsensical
- Once I reach the bottom of the folded pages, I write those same lines down, lightly editing for grammar and clarity but, importantly, without any judgement of merit other than the juxtapositions were interesting somehow
- Then I take a first editorial pass by highlighting the strongest outputted lines, discarding the rest
- I transfer these select strings of words into a prioritised list which might resemble a short poem—I reshape, shuffle and elaborated upon these freely
- At this stage, passages may emerge through the unconscious grouping of elements such that themes begin to emerge perhaps ahead of any clear, literal meaning. An upshot may be that you’re immediate struck with inspiration from a creative prompt and the writing flows from that point. My experience has been that this would be the exception to the rule, however, and the following steps are integral to the mechanism.
- A further sorting is required to create breadth and depth to the lyrical pallet. I transfer each prioritised line to the Backlog list (or ideas bucket) and will continue to add to this by repeating the earlier steps. Doing so can feel mundane but nevertheless it quickly builds a large resource
- Having accumulate tens, even hundreds of lines in a few cycles, I start to curate the material into extracts and groupings. Initially, this is no more involved that reading through the Backlog and transferring the “top picks” into a new list which I call “Processing” or work-in-progress (WIP)
- I keep going through the Backlog until I feel a natural pause (the Processing list might be getting long at this point). I tend to repeat this review process over several sessions and when I’m stuck, I add more content into the Backlog.
- With a list of the most interesting content in Processing, natural groupings may appear and if so, I start rearranging lines per the cut-up technique. I start transferring these into a further new list which may become an embryonic song lyric
- Equally, if I have a compelling line and need to find a pairing, this is a good point from which to scour the Processing list or dive back deeper into the Backlog to find something complimentary
- Repeating the above steps creates something of a flywheel. With each input of new material into the Backlog, you’re able to extend and improve existing lists/lyrics and create new arrangements. Words collide in an asynchronous process that allows everything to get better and more interesting with each cycle.
- At some point, you’ve created multiple lists of lyrics. The degree to which these are clear, rationale and thematic compared to colourful, curious and abstract will depend on the writer and what appeals to them instinctively. In that sense, it’s a wonderful process of engaging your subconscious which acts as both artist and exhibitor.
- However, if a composition requires choruses, you’ll need to introduce some consciously deliberate structure. I’ve done this by tagging lines that have the qualitative appeal of a repeated refrain—the gut-based, “Good line; sounds like a chorus,” test.
- Whether you subscribe to pop or progressive styles, categorisation is useful at the point of aligning words to music. Specifically, matching the metre of a melody becomes a further editorial review to consolidate or elaborate on lines to fit the space and time allowed for the vocals.
Testing and reviewing
- Continuous testing is actually built into every step of the process. It allows for hundreds of minor editorial decision in an agile approach which ultimately speeds up production.
- This is especially powerful in a just-in-time scenario such as recording sessions where songs can evolve in real-time in often unexpected ways that can challenge a writer/vocalist with the need for new or alternative lyrics.
- Even a small change in your end-to-end system (physical or digital, automated apps or kanban boards) can introduce randomness and the refactoring of ideas which can lead to break-throughs
- Generally, the biggest accelerator is the source text which can be almost anything and becomes practically unrecognisable as it is mixed with other materials and extrapolated through the layered editorial processes
- The method is a powerful discovery engine which gets better results the more you suspend "judgement" until much later in the Organising stage to allow yourself to be surprised and challenged by where you arrive
So far, this process pushed our writing toward abstraction through which I have found personal meaning that I didn’t expect at the outset. When writers like Patton get that right, it's beautiful: "It is this mystery which is amusing… A record, for me, must remain an adventure." If the above approach seems highly involved, it is initially. But like most productivity techniques, if you invest the time in the practice, the efficiencies are cumulative. It's a powerful thing to let ideas, vignettes and adjectives pass through your subconscious in this way—and before you know it, you're telling a story that's innate but never obvious.