Writing lyrics doesn’t come easily to everyone - it certainly doesn’t to me. In fact, I used to leave the songwriting to Naz, up until about four years ago when we recorded the first songs I had written for our debut EP (Broken Heart Blues and In Limbo).
It’s really only in the past year that I’ve dedicated a lot more time to writing and refining my lyrics. I’ve gone to workshops, watched videos, read blogs and although my lyrics still aren’t to the standard I want them to be, I’ve seen a shift in the way I feel about writing and an improvement in my lyrics.
For this blog post, I wanted to take on the three challenges I face as a songwriter, which I think many other songwriters experience, and techniques that have helped me overcome them and might help you.
With the current situation we find ourselves in, many of us have more time on our hands as we practise social distancing, so now seems like a good time to get stuck into songwriting and tackle some of those songwriting challenges you might be facing.
I gave a workshop on this topic as part of the First Timers which is a DIY music community that curates workshops and festivals dedicated to addressing the lack of diversity in DIY music and providing opportunities to aspiring musicians. While this blog post has new songwriters in mind, I think there are a few things more seasoned songwriters might learn.
1. I don’t know what to write about
The options are so endless that it actually makes it more difficult to decide on a topic. You may feel like the topics you choose aren’t interesting or that you tend to go for the same topics, or perhaps that you don’t have enough “life experience” to write about something personal.
It might sound cliché, but the world really is your oyster and you certainly don’t have to restrict yourself to just writing about your own experiences. You can find inspiration all around you as long as you start looking for it.
Here are some places to look for inspiration and ways to tackle writer’s block:
The media is full of stories and ideas that you can take inspiration from including films, TV dramas, documentaries, books, magazines, and other songs.
Here are some examples of artists who have written songs based on books/films:
Ramble On by Led Zeppelin is allegedly based on Lord of the Rings
Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush is obviously based on Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Matilda by Alt J's lyrics are based on the film Leon
I find the news a source of inspiration and many artists have written songs on poignant news stories. We wrote Wake up America (Ban the Gun) about gun crime in the USA using news stories as examples, including the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and the protests that followed.
Here are a handful of other examples of songs based on news stories:
Bob Dylan - The Hurricane
About the imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit, but due to the racist attitudes at the time leading to him being framed as guilty.
Naz & Ella - Freedom
We wrote this song based on a story that we saw trending on Twitter, about a woman who fled from an abusive family and an oppressive regime, and was eventually granted asylum in a country where she could live a safer and freer life.
Catatonia - Road Rage
"Road Rage" was based on the murder of Lee Harvey by his girlfriend Tracie Andrews in 1996, who claimed he was killed in a road rage incident. Though, Cerys Matthews did end up having to apologise to the Lee Harvey’s mother.
Metaphors & phrases
Metaphors can really transform your lyrics. Take a look at the charts and you’ll see songs that are full to the brim with them. Some examples include Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus, Elastic Heart by Sia and Switchblade by LP.
A good phrase can also work as song inspirations. Songs like ‘All You Need is Love’ by The Beatles, ‘Love Is Love’ by Naz & Ella, and Let It Go by Idina Menzel offer phrases and themes that lyrics can be based around. The phrase will usually feature in the chorus and may be repeated many times.
Most singers use personal experiences to write their lyrics. Writing about personal experiences makes getting across feelings and emotion easier, as you are more closely connected to what you’re writing about. It’s also easier to make sensory references and emotions as they are authentic rather than imagined.
What evokes strong emotions?
Think about what evokes strong emotions in you and others. Lyrics are always easy to write when they make you feel strong emotions, which will in turn make your audience feel them, too. What makes you ecstatic? What makes you angry? What makes you feel sad? Automatically, you’ll find these topics much easier to write about. With everything you write, it’s crucial to consider what you want your audience to feel when listening to your song.
Keep a notepad on you at all times
Jot down words, phrases and ideas that come into your head throughout the day. Whether that’s on the tube, at your desk at work, or in the middle of the night waking up from a dream, you never know when you might stumble upon a gem of a lyric or idea!
Think about senses
Drawing on senses (e.g. touch, smell, sound) is a good way to help form a more concrete picture in the listener’s mind. The more senses you can draw on, the stronger your lyrics will be. What does the scene look like, smell like, feel like, and sound like?
Object writing is a useful tool you can use to draw on senses and find descriptors.
If you haven’t tried this technique before, here’s how it works:
Choose any physical object
Set a timer for five minutes
Spend that time writing down anything that comes to your mind that describes the object. Describe the colour, the shape, the feel, the smell, and the sound. You can go further and think about metaphors which represent it.
Don’t go beyond 5 minutes. When the time is up, take a read through what you’ve written down. Go through it with a writing partner. See if there are any words and phrases in there that you like the sound of.
You might feel silly at first doing this or feel like you don’t know what to write, but practising object writing regularly can help to free your mind and improve your songwriting long-term.
Lyrics don't have to make sense
I hate to say it, but some of the best song lyrics don’t make total sense - the creativity in the prose makes them interesting and engaging. Some songs that come to mind include Life on Mars by David Bowie, Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana and Human by The Killers.
2. I can't finish my song
There isn’t one rule for all when it comes to songwriting, but typically songwriters like to follow a structure consisting of verses and a chorus and sometimes a pre-chorus and bridge.
The verse should be used to tell your story. Verses contain more detail, description and words than the chorus. The first verse introduces the song subject, the second and third verses move the story along.
Your chorus contains the central message you want to get across and includes the title of the song. It’s usually simpler and more repetitive than the verse, and it’s the “ear worm”; the part of a song that gets stuck in your head.
The bridge is where you add contrast to your song. You might decide to look at a different perspective lyrically. You can also use the bridge to change what you are doing with the music, for example slowing down, changing the key, changing the chords or the way it is played.
A pre-chorus is an often very short section that comes just before the chorus and is used to build energy leading into the chorus.
“Second verse curse” is a common struggle among songwriters, so much so that it has gained that name. I’ve struggled with it many times. It’s important to ensure that you aren’t just repeating what you’ve already said in verse one in your second verse, but moving the story along. Here’s a useful technique to overcome second verse curse.
Using song maps
A couple of years ago a friend lent me a book called ‘Song Maps’ by Simon Hawkins and it’s really been a huge help for my songwriting. Before, I had fragments of songs everywhere and was really struggling to structure what I was writing.
Using song maps to write your lyrics is a technique to help you map out a basic structure to your song. It helps you decide what it is you want to get across in the verses, chorus, and bridge. What you write can be as brief as you like, so don’t feel you have to go into loads of detail.
We’re going to look at two of the most common song maps, which happen to be my favourite:
The idea is that you build tension in the verses, and ‘respond’ to it in the chorus.
An example of a song which uses this map is Someone Like You by Adele. The verses describe the story of her past lover settling down with someone else. There is an obvious tension with the last line of the verse, “I guess she gave you things I didn’t give to you”. We move into the pre-chorus and the story moves on with her turning up at his house, clearly not quite over the relationship.
The chorus is where we get the response to the tension, where she realises that the relationship is over and although she can’t have him, she can have someone like him. She wishes him the best in the future, offering a bittersweet goodbye.
Another example: Somebody that I used to know
This song map is similar to tension-response. This map is used in anthemic songs with a clear, strong message. The verse is used to describe the problem, and in the chorus you declare what needs to be done about it.
We used it in our song ‘Wake Up America! (Ban The Gun). In the verses we describe stories related to the topic (gun control in the US) and in the chorus we declare what needs to happen as a result - banning guns.
3. My lyrics are cheesy!
This is such a common problem and I feel it so often! Sometimes lyrics ARE going to sound cheesy, particularly when they are emotional, but that’s OK. You can use the instrumentation to give the song an “edgier”, less cheesy feel, or just give in to the cheese.
However, there are some easy ways to reduce cheesiness in your lyrics. A simple one is the way you rhyme in your song, if you choose to rhyme. Take a look at this verse of Life by Des’ree.
Oh I get the shivers
I don’t want to see a ghost
that’s the sight I fear the most
I’d rather have a piece of toast
and watch the evening news
Sounds cheesy, right? Des’ree has gone for lines with exact rhymes. So exact that the lines sound forced. Rhyming is satisfying for our ears, but it’s not necessary. You don’t HAVE to rhyme and many songs don’t. But if you do want to rhyme, consider choosing ‘near’ rhymes rather than exact rhymes.
Here are some examples of near rhymes: high & find, about & now, friend & again - when sung, these lyrics would sound as if they rhyme even though strictly they don’t.
Another way to avoid cheesiness in your lyrics is to avoid overused metaphors that are present in so many songs. See some below:
Blue for sadness
Using drowning for losing control
Using fire for anger
Love is blind
Get creative and think outside the box with your metaphors.
One more tip - Try writing with others
Most songs out there are co-written, which means more than one person has contributed to the lyrics. Writing with others can help produce ideas you may have not thought of; it allows you to see another style of writing and it’s good practise in sharing your writing.
The hardest aspect is judging yourself too harshly. Songwriting is personal and it means showing vulnerability and emotion, something many of us find difficult! I’m not going to lie to you, it will be hard at first. But, like with many things, the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Be descriptive and draw upon senses wherever possible! Try object writing to activate the left side of your brain and practise drawing on senses.
Organise your structure with the use of song maps and draft out ‘writeable ideas’.
Write often! Carry a notepad around with you and jot down inspiration whenever a catchy phrase or idea pops into your head
Remember nothing is permanent and fixed. Lyrics can be altered and changed. Try not to get too attached to your writing!
Try writing with someone else!
Good luck on writing lyrics! If you have any questions, please pop them in the comment box below :)
If you want to know which song lyrics we love and why, check out our blog on 10 song lyrics that caught our attention