“The thunderbolt strikes the head, the pen scribbles furiously, and that’s the song,” Mark Ronson on how Amy Winehouse wrote the lyrics to Back to Black (https://tinyurl.com/ybdpumjj).
Sometimes words just flow out of you like water from a tap, other times you can’t even get a drip – so to speak. Here are 10 suggestions for getting started when the tap has run dry. Read through these suggestions and you will never need to phone a plumber again (to continue my tap and water analogy).
1. Take an academic approach to lyric writing
Once you have an idea for a new song, write down absolutely everything you can think related to that idea. Commit to researching your topic fully. Research it on the internet, browse your local bookstore and visit your local library. Mention the topic to your friend and have a chat about it. The more you become immersed in the topic the more ideas will pop into your head. Memorable phrases will show up uninvited, ideas for verses and choruses will suddenly occur to you.
2 Don’t write poetry, write lyrics.
Lyrics are not meant to be read from a page; they are not poems; lyrics are meant to be sung – so remember to sing as you write.
Singing lyrics as you write them stimulates the creative parts of your brain that keeps you moving along. While you are refining one line, your subconscious is sorting out the next one, or the next verse or finding a chorus or hook.
I think of words like stones in my mouth – each has a shape; some I choke on – some feel great – some suggest a rhythm – some I trip over – some I write down.
3. Do anything other than sit down to write
Songwriter and lyricist Kate Jackson write lyrics while on the train. I can relate to that. I wrote the first line of a country song called, ‘Beneath these Scottish skies’ on the train from Anniesland to Glasgow Central.
Chiara Berardellis writes lyrics while riding her bike and Carla J Easton finds song ideas while out walking in the park.
4. Get boxed in
Think of the words of each verse as being in a set of boxes; each box is the length of the word. Together they create a pattern – like visual morse code. When you remove the words for your first word you are just left with the boxes. Fit the words for each subsequent verse into those boxes, i.e. the words that are the same size and lines that have the same overall pattern.
5. Get emotional
Write about the emotional stuff in your life; harness that anger; turn that heartbreak into a song; that sadness into a lyric. Adele has made a fortune from heartbreak as has Fleetwood Mac (with their record-breaking, Rumours album). I’ve written plenty of songs as a result of my anger about how people are being treated at home and abroad. My song, ‘The Season is changing – but the wind cant’ blow you home’ is about the refugee crisis in Europe.
6. Show don’t tell
My wife Pat is a writer. Over the years she has gone to a lot of writing classes as she continues to hone her craft. One of the principles I often hear her talk about is that writers should, ‘show not tell’. This phrased has been mentioned so often in my household that it has actually ended up in one of my lyrics: In the second verse to a song called ‘I’m Just an informer’ there is a line; “But who’s the joker in this box, does he scare you when he knocks that’s the man I know, he cannot tell, he can only show. “
So when you are struggling with a lyric – thing about how you can express the emotion of the characters in your song by their actions (i.e. not by telling the listener that they are sad or joyful).
How do you show and not tell?
Here is a very good article by Jason Blume explaining the idea at length. https://tinyurl.com/yb2o8ysy
7. Collaborate with someone
I co-wrote a song with the Poet, Paul John McCafferty. He was at our home just for a social visit but started talking about a poem he had started to write – a poem that he thought would make a good song. So we sat done, I turned on the record function of my phone and we wrote it there and then. You can hear my phone recording at https://www.reverbnation.com/jimbyrne/song/22683801-memory-iphone-demo-words-by-paul
8. Read a book
I often find that an idea or words from the books I’ve read end up in my lyrics. This doesn’t happen consciously – things just get lodged in the back of my mind and re-appear – uninvited – in a later lyric. I read quite a lot of books about Scottish painters; I find their stories and passions inspirational. It doesn’t matter if you are reading fiction or non-fiction. The basic ideas are that if you are putting ideas and content into our brain that feeds your ability to get lyrics and songs out of your brain.
9. Play other peoples songs
Both Keith Richard and Bob Dylan have spoken about how many of their songs come to them while playing other people’s songs.
“I sit and happily play buddy holly or Otis Reading and then somewhere with a bit of luck you realise that something you thought you played wrong was actually the start of a whole different song…” Keith Richards Under The Influence (Netflix)
10. Look around the room; what do you see?
I wrote a song called, ’15 Metre Cable’. It is a song about how some older people are happy to shape the world according to their own selfish needs, ignoring the needs of young people.
“And this 15-metre cable, is it long enough for you, just to power up the singers of the California crew’.
The idea for the song came from the 15-metre extension cable I noticed sitting on the floor of our bedroom. Anything can be a catalyst for a song – just look around you.