how to write songs

How tall is your song?

So you’ve written a song. Now, how do you play it?

To me, the answer often comes down to understanding the nature of your song. In other words, its character.

How tall or short is it? What does it like to wear? Is it weepy or joyous? Does it bark at you, or sing you to sleep? Does it sit you on its knee to tell you a story, or seduce you into doing things you’d never dream of doing?

Once we’ve written a song (and often during the writing process) we’re getting to know this song. And certainly once the song is written—the raw structure, the chords, the lyrics—it becomes a matter of presentation. This can include anything from the key you’re in, to the style, to the tempo, to the feel.

If you’re like Bob Dylan, you might choose to vary these elements from night to night — depending on how you’re seeing things. This is artistry. This is seizing the mercury of life and transmuting it into the physical realm in order to marvel at it, share it with others, give us a glimpse of the impossible. To help us better know the unknown. That’s what songwriting is, that’s what performing is, that’s what this whole thing is about.

I remember one student who had written a great song called “Break Something,” about a man who had come unhinged under the mad pressures of life. The concept was fantastic, the lyrics brilliant… but the delivery was lacking something. He was playing it in sort of a folksy strum. It was laid back and placid—whereas the actual content of the song was the complete opposite.

Together we wondered, how could we use style to reveal more of the song’s natural character? Well, if I’m in the land of Folk and I need to add more wildness, I take a step to rock n roll. And if from rock n roll I still want to add even more menace, danger, and out-and-out unpredictability, I go to rockabilly.

And that’s what we did. We reimagined “Break Something” from a back porch strummer into a a hot-rodding, slicked back, swaggering, loose cannon of a rockabilly song.

Off came the 2nd fret capo and we found ourselves not in the bright and sunny strum of D-G-A, but in the open-chorded mayhem of E-A-B. Gone was the laid back tempo and we ratcheted things up to, well, a break-neck pace. Out went the plaintive vocal delivery and in came a growl and a hiss and a bite that infused every line with danger. Do you see what I mean? We’re demonstrating the content of the song in the style in which we execute it.

Every song has a character to it. Discover it—and use every tool in your arsenal to reveal it to your audience.

On Writing Lyrics: Would you say it to a friend that way?

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 heard a song that did this brilliantly recently called “I Found Someone,” sung by Blake Shelton and written by Rhett Atkins and Ben Hayslip. Here are the opening lines:

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.