Feeling stuck on a song? Worried about blank page fever? Writer’s block? Then try a little exercise. Take out all your lyrics and give them a hard look. Spot any trends? Are you still writing about that one big break-up? Are you still fuming about that same two-faced liar? Are you still copying Smokey Robinson or Motown? Does the same sense of social injustice drive all your lyrics, except this time it’s driving you into the wall?
Chances are you’re stuck in a rut. You’re bored by your own writing. Your songwriting habits are sending you – and most likely your listeners – to sleep. Time for a little lateral thinking.
Is writers block really just boredom?
Habits can be handy. They are comfortable, as they enable you to function on low energy. You’ve learnt a few skills and apply them almost automatically to pad out your songs. Trouble is, they can lead you to write emotional clones, songs that have an almost identical point of view. Isn’t that a little, um, boring?
But the good thing about habits is that they are there to be broken – and quite easily. I remember talking with the singer of a great band called Venus, who was preparing to record a new album. The first thing that struck me when we spread out all the lyrics is that all the songs were first-person. “I this/I that/I feel/I say/I want/I don’t…” That one letter “I” led to another one, “Z” as in “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…” Each individual song was OK. But as a block? Snore.
I introduced him gently to the concept of the “you” song. As an exercise, I suggested he completely abandon “I” and re-write a few of the songs from a new viewpoint. It’s not as if he had never heard a song about “you”. It’s just that he had been sitting inside his comfort zone, the habit of “I”. It happens to us all.
Channel that lyrical emotion
Breaking out of this sort of thing is actually quite easy. Three examples (come up with more of your own):
- You only write love songs? Fine: your exercise is never to do so using the word “love”. So you look deeper: what actual emotions are involved? Devotion, hope, despair – even possessiveness. Then describe their effect.
- Are you a fey, introspective sort of writer? Then take a long trip on a crowded bus and look at life from the point of view of the driver. The idea is not necessarily to describe a day in the life of a bus driver. It’s to get you out of the rut called your comfort zone.
- Find new co-writers that will drag you in a new direction. Co-writing is a good idea anyway.
Songs are emotional conduits; they channel stuff. But people have to recognise the emotions involved. If your songs only “work” when you sing them, you’re relying on interpretation. So they might only have surface attraction, and it’s unlikely anyone else will ever record them. When’s the last time someone recorded “Be Bop a Lula”?
My Scotty Trick
One idea that I particularly enjoy is what I call the Scotty Trick, beaming someone else into the song. I remember writing for the Dutch singer Sylvia Samson. I was stuck. She has a great voice and I was basically churning out another weepy ballad. Oh yes, “woe is me/now you’re gone/zzzzzz”. I happened to watch a documentary about No Doubt and really enjoyed Gwen Stefani’s attitude. It struck me that she’d never sing the self-indulgent tosh that I was writing for Sylvia.
If it’s not good enough for Gwen, why should I foist it on someone else? So in my head, I edited out the glissando strings and minor chords and actually imagined Stefani on stage singing the melody, including her punchy hand gestures and attitude.
The result became “I’m not Looking”. It’s still a slow song, but one about self-affirmation: “I’m not looking for someone / That will change my life […] When I know that someone is me”.
It turns out, it really struck a chord with Sylvia. She would probably have sung the weepy version very well. But now we both had something we could hang real emotions onto. I had reached beyond my comfort zone of writing girlie love songs. Yay! And guess what: “girlies” have recognisable emotions too, and you give your song more when you give them the right words. I’m being facetious, of course, but it’s dispiriting the cynicism that I sometimes find in songwriting teams (I’ll get back to this subject).
Wake up your lyrics
So dig out your lyrics. Scan them for recurring themes and structures. Hopefully, your next song will step away from them. “But that’s not me,” you might be tempted to say, “I have my style.” Perhaps, but it could also be that you have yet to reach the full potential of your writing. There are perhaps parts of your writing that you haven’t yet uncovered.
So break the habit and wake up your lyrics. The listeners might pick up their ears as well!
Shameless plug: Michael Leahy puts words in other people’s mouths. Buying just one track of their music will thrill both them and me! I’d also really love to get a discussion going, so feel free to comment. What’s your technique for breaking the habit? Don’t forget you can sign up to follow lyric news on A-Lyric on Twitter or Song Lyrics RSS