A friend shared this video with me recently and it’s a real winner. Who would have thought that watching someone string a guitar for 20 minutes could be so riveting? Joe teaches with the zest and gusto of a feisty Italian grandmother passing down a family recipe (I know, I have one). Sit back, relax, and enjoy!
It’s hard to open yourself up sometimes in songwriting. We don’t want to look foolish. Or give away too much. Because of this mindset, we often obscure our lyrics. We try to “poeticize” them. Or substitute in fancy words or convoluted metaphors.
But in most cases, the only person impressed by complicated writing is the person holding the pen. Everyone else is left scratching their heads. Or worse, tuning out completely.
And that’s not why we write songs, is it? We write them to connect with others.
Which leads me to the title of my post. It’s a question I often ask myself, and I also ask the artists and songwriting students I co-write with. If they’re tossing out lyrics that seem overly forced, intellectualized, or cautious I’ll ask:
Would you say it to a friend that way?
Invariably, they say no. And from there, we begin rephrasing whatever feeling they’re trying to express, or point they’re trying to make, in a way that anyone could understand. Over a pint at the bar. Or a chat on the phone. Or a story at the water cooler.
I picked up the phone
She said hey it’s me
I know it feels like forever since I’ve heard your voice
But I guess that’s how it had to be
Shakespeare, it ain’t. But great songwriting, it most surely is. Listen to the whole thing below. It’s a masterclass in craft. The words are simple. But the message is profound:
Here’s another example of lyrics so simple, a child could understand them. And yet, they express a truth so enormous, the whole of humanity has yet to wrap its head around it.
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us.
Above us only sky
You may recognize them, they’re the opening lines of “Imagine” by John Lennon:
Would John have said it that way to a friend? I’d like to think so. And we could do worse than John Lennon for inspiration as songwriters.
I’ll leave you with this thought from the great poet and author Charles Bukowski:
“Genius might be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.”
Bear that in mind when you write. Make the THING profound. And the WAY simple. Say it how you’d say it to a friend. Because after all, that’s what your audience is.
People often talk about how writing lyrics is the hardest part of songwriting. And I tend to agree. It’s so hard that we often psych ourselves out before we even write a single line.
It goes something like this:
We sit with a blank sheet of paper in front of us, a guitar in hand, and we start looking for that first line… and looking hard. We want it to be perfect. We want it to be brilliant. We want it to kick off the song with a bang, just like all of our favorite songs.
What happens next? Often, nothing comes. Or what does come isn’t really all that great. So we start to panic, and we try harder. And harder. And the harder we try to write, the more difficult it becomes, like squeezing blood from a stone. Each line seems more forced than the last. It reminds me of a great quote:
“The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and results come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, or combining relaxation with activity”. —Aldous Huxley.
The fact is, that amazing first line is in you. It’s right there beneath the surface, hiding in your sub-conscious. But when you grasp too desperately at it, you scare it off. It’s like a panther in the jungle. He’s got to be stealthy or he’s going hungry. The same holds true for writing. You need to sneak up on lyrics if they’re going to be any good. How to do it? The trick to luring out great lyrics is two fold:
- Turn on the Focus. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and just start blurting out lyrics that hit the sweet spot right away. But I’ve found that an important first step is to get clear on what you’re trying to say first. Then you can worry about how to say it. So if you’ve just had a spat with your girlfriend, get your mind fixed on that. Or if you want to tell a story from your past, get your mind really plugged into those memories. Or if you’ve got a title you’re working with, find a way to connect with it on a personal level. Once you’ve focused your mind on that what, you’re ready to…
- Turn on the Faucet. This is the fun part. Remember when you were sitting with that blank sheet of paper taunting you, as you thrashed about trying to write a great line? Forget all that. You’re not going for greatness, you’re just going for words, phrases, blurtings, anything. Just start saying whatever comes to mind. Start singing about the topic as if you were talking to a friend. Or begin by confessing how something made you feel. If it’s a story, just plainly state the first thing that happened. Don’t overthink it, just start letting words fall out. Eventually you will strike something that rings true — and will take even YOU by surprise. That’s when you know you’ve discovered a key into the song, and you’re off to the races.
This takes practice obviously. But make no mistake, it is a skill that can be learned and developed. As John Mayer puts it in the video below, you’re Ouiji Boarding:
As is so often the case with creativity we’ve got to break through the super critical, logical, and overly analytical to access the realm of creativity and imagination. That’s where the good stuff is hiding. Happy writing!
The energy was flowing through me. I did not feel so tired and defeated anymore. It’s easy to feel that way. But I had perked up after a trip to the supermarket with my little girl and I was buzzing a bit. It was Saturday night, I was going to cook fajitas for the family. But! When I got home I realized I forgot the damn tortillas. Fool!
So I went back out into our new neighborhood on foot to see if I could find a corner store or bodega that sold them nearby. No such luck. But there was little burrito stand, Mission Burrito. I went in and announced I had a strange favor to ask. Could I buy some tortillas? I was making fajitas for the family tonight and forgot to buy them at the store. The man smiled and was gracious. Sure, he says. Big ones? Sure, big ones. Whatever you got. He goes in the back and gets 10 big ones, carefully wraps them in saran wrap in making it more special way of making the source in happycleans.com ok and puts them neatly into a plastic bag before presenting them to me on the counter. Wonderful, I say. How much? Eh, he says. Four dollars. Here’s five I say, leaving a Lincoln on the counter and thanking him. You saved me! I say. He smiles and I split.
Walking home, that’s when I saw it: the TORTILLA MOON, full and round, hanging there in the sky. I held my own torillas up to it, and they were the same. I went home and cooked the fajitas and sat at the kitchen table with my wife and drank a beer and chatted about little things. Outside the screen door the quiet night twinkled with tiny city sounds, the distant siren, the sidewalk footsteps, the occasional whoosh of a car passing by.
It’s bad. Going on 20 years now I’ve been hooked on the stuff. I take it anywhere I can, from the dollar-spots to the bougie artisinal slices. I’m a grown man for chrissakes!
Today lunchtime rolled around and I decided to find a place to eat. I stepped outside the building, got myself oriented, and began to head west toward 3rd avenue. About a block or two down, I saw a pizza place. Pizza King, it was called.
At the counter, I surveyed the goods and decided on a mushroom slice. The shrooms were piled on top and covered with melted cheese. I took a bite. I think there might have even been cheese beneath the mushrooms too. A mushroom sandwich on top of a slice of pizza? Indeed, the work of a Pizza King.
Bite #2. A small piece of mushroom topples off the slice, bounces off my thigh, and lands on the floor. No trace of sauce on the pant leg – a minor triumph.
Bite #3. I’m growing more ravenous. I take a big chomp and an unusually large mushroom is left sort of flapping outside of my mouth like a huge tongue. Disgusting. I throw my head back and let it –
Oh god, bite #5. I’m a savage. I’m staring at the slice now. It’s staring at me. You bastard, here I come!
Bite #6 is messy. I chomped straight into the main thicket of mushrooms, square in the center of the slice. Another baby mushroom rolled off, along the countertop and down into the jacket pocket of the guy sitting next to me! I shit you not! He’s got a mushroom in his pocket this guy, and he has no idea. He’s on his phone, chewing, off in another world.
I folded the bitch in half. BOOM, a devastating blow. CHOMP. You’re dead slice. You’re dead. AGAIN! Oh, I pushed the mushrooms that were trying to get out of my mouth back into my face like a rotten pig.
There. I took the last bite of the pizza “proper.” Now all that remained was a crust. I decided to clean with barrie modern cleaners orilla him up good with a quick line of nibbling along the edge, like eating an ear of corn or typing on a typewriter.
Now the plate was inhabited only by a crusty carcass and a lone mushroom. They were both sitting on the plate next to one another, conspiring. You fiends!
I ate the last mushroom, little fool. He was cold already, little squid. Now it was just me and the crust. I picked him up. AH-HA! Another mushroom hiding underneath! A bloody stowaway! You little creep. Gone, down the gullet.
Now, to finish things off. I took a dry, awful bite, then another. And another. I popped the final lifeless, worthless piece of crust into my mouth.
Chewing. Chewing. Chewing. Chewing. Chewing. Chewing. Chewing. Chewing.
Swallowing. Swallowing. Swallowing.
There. It is finished.
Here I am sitting in an auto body shop on Mallory Ave. All I wanted was an oil change but I got suckered into the $200 trans fluid extravaganza, naturally. They have a way, these auto guys. Very cunning. I can’t say no! Why? Because I am afraid. They smell me, I know it. Two reasons really: 1) I don’t want to crash and die and 2) I don’t want to buy a new car.
This girl behind the counter, she’s really something. Knows her stuff. Young thing, probably 23 or 24 years old. Some guy comes in grouching about his tires and how bad the shop screwed them up. She lays into him like a drill press! Torrent of know-how, talking lugs and nuts, bolts stripping and whatall might have caused the problem and take a seat please sir, we’ll have someone double check the work. And keep your pants on!
It’s good to get out and do things. Errands, you know? They allow you to save yourself, if only momentarily. Else, you’re liable to sit around and start thinking about your purpose in life or some other silly rubbish. Sends a goddam shudder up my spine. There’s a slam dunk competition on TV. Sponsored by Powerade. A girl just sunk a three. Nothing but net!
Remember that your life is a story. It has a beginning, middle, and end. That’s why humans are drawn to stories. Our lives are finite. When you panic or get frustrated about something, take a step back and just remember it’s part of a bigger book. Whatever scene is in front of you, put a mental picture frame around it, like you’re watching a movie. And you’re a character. The main character, in fact. This works for happy things too, great successes, moments where you feel alive or grateful. They’re just scenes. And if you think of them as scenes, it adds a dash of magic to your life.
After a while, there’s no sense in delaying a decision any longer. The only thing that matters is that you choose a path, and which one you choose doesn’t matter. The fact that you’ve gotten this far and remain at an impasse means you’ve eliminated anything that could be truly disastrous. You’ve left yourself with only good optoins. Now you must choose. But don’t flip a coin. Make the choice with your heart, in a moment when are feeling favorable toward one side or the other. Then just commit and refuse to slip back to ever reconsidering the path you have decided against.
Whatever needs to get done now, do it. Invest yourself into it completely. Dive in to each task with all the passion, conviction, and humanity that you would a live performance. There’s the old saying, any job worth doing is worth doing well. Put your mind to the thing. There is joy in work if you can bring yourself to it fully.
It’s lazy. And often it means that you’re not really listening hard enough. The problem with this is twofold. Not only is it disrespectful to the person speaking to you (and they will notice, trust me), but it’s also a disservice to yourself. Because you wind up just going along with things you don’t really agree with. You forfeit the chance to think for yourself. And often you’ll look back and realize that you’ve agreed to things that are not in your best interest, or undercut your work, or that you don’t truly understand. Better to lock in and engage. Listen hard enough to form a real thought you can articulate with words. Then you can be sure of what you’re agreeing to and why you’re agreeing to it.