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.