What can I say about John Prine that hasn’t been said? He was like a grandpa to me—and every other songwriter. His songs were magical and his character was impeccable. He’ll be sorely missed, but never forgotten.
Below is an entertaining and enlightening 90-minute interview Prine did with CBS promoting his final masterpiece, The Tree of Forgiveness. There are loads of gems on the songwriting process, like this one on the initial spark that inspires him to write (around 19:10):
INTERVIEWER: The reason I was interested in the broken radio [Ed: John’s song “Broken Radio” was inspired in part by a Zenith radio his dad used to listen to the local country stations on when John was growing up] is—sometimes when I hear you describe your songs, you’ll grab one of those beautiful specific images. It feels like sometimes the image is the thing around which the pearl of the song is built. Is that the way it goes?
JOHN PRINE: It is, yeah. Because it takes something like one strong image to pull the rest of it out—from there on in, it’s more of a craft. But you gotta have that one burning coal to keep looking at, or keep coming up in the song. That’s what draws the other stuff out.
A burning coal! What a perfect way to describe an image compelling enough to inspire a song. He was the best—and this interview is a masterclass. Take a look below.
We’ve all had this experience: You’re in a conversation. As the other person is talking, you have a thought you want to share. But when it’s your turn to talk, suddenly you can’t remember it. “Hang on a second,” you say. “It’ll come to me.” Then you think and think and think and think and… nothing comes. So you stop thinking about it. And what happens next? It pops back into your mind, almost instantly — leaping from the sub-conscious to the conscious in a flash. It feels amazing, doesn’t it?
What does this mean for songwriters?
You can use this very same magical mental process of think — think — think — pause — aha! to improve your songwriting. I’ve found that it’s particularly useful in generating song titles. It looks something like this:
First, the thinking: Let’s say you’re recalling a memory in vivid detail. Or telling a story that’s deeply personal. Maybe describing a feeling you’ve never felt before. Whatever it is, you’re applying lots of brainpower to some particular line of thought, and your mental motor is gaining steam with each successive connection. Still, it hasn’t all fallen together yet into one cohesive, succinct idea. Then when you take your mind off that subject — pausing sometimes even for just a split second — that’s when your sub-conscious serves up word, phrase, or synthesizing concept that encapsulates the whole song, aka your aha!, aka your title.
First thought, best thought
You may have heard the saying: “First thought, best thought.” That’s what I’m getting at here. To be clear, your “first thought” is not the very first idea that comes to your mind as you start thinking about a song lyric or title or topic. Instead, the “first thought” is the first fresh thought that arrives only after you’ve spend time thinking. In other words, it can only come after the pause in the think-think-think-pause-aha! process. Here’s a video that does a good job of explaining this concept from the Buddhist point of view:
How songwriter Guy Clark uses this technique
This process is something you can do both by yourself and in dialogue with others. It’s a skill you can practice to become a better songwriter. And when it comes to great songwriters, Guy Clark is one of the best. Listen to the story songwriter Ashley Monroe tells about her first co-write with Guy — and see how he instinctively engages her in the think — think — think — pause — aha! process, and how the two of them, along with John Randall, end up writing one hell of a song.
What this really all boils down to is understanding how your mind works. And more specifically, understanding how it generates creative ideas. The best part is that skill of harnessing and directing these innerworkings is something that can be learned and developed. It’s not just for the Guy Clarks and Ashley Monroes and Leonardo DaVincis and Salvador Dalis and Thom Yorkes and Jay-Zs and Frida Kahlos and Walt Whitmans of the world. It’s for you too. Thanks for reading, and happy writing!
The best lyrics say something meaningful in a memorable way. That’s the balance we’re all trying to strike in our writing. But often when we succeed in getting one half of the equation, we lack the other:
Problem #1: Your lyrics sound poetic but say nothing
Problem #2: Your lyrics say something but lack poetry
So how do you remedy these two issues?
One really effective way to do this is through a kind of Socratic dialogue, where you ask a series of questions that produces memorable, meaningful lyrics in a natural way. You can do this yourself, or you can do it with a co-writer.
In this video I talk through the process using an example from one of my songwriting students. Underneath the video I’ve transcribed (and summarized) the writing process so you can follow along with the video, or read through it separately to better understand how this all works.
THE ORIGINAL LYRICS:
Please believe me
This wasn’t easy
I need my freedom
Want you to free me
SOME ISSUES I FLAGGED (ALL EXPLAINED IN THE VID)
The first pair of lines is great:
Please believe me
This wasn’t easy
They tell the truth in a simple, vulnerable, endearing way (that rhymes, of course). I see a few reasons why the second two lines are not as strong as the first two:
1) The second two lines don’t expand on the thought generated in first two (the theme of difficulty)
2) The second pair of lines doesn’t give the listener any new takeaway (the verses are all about her needing freedom, in so many words)
3) We’re repeating freedom and free me which is a bit awkward
4) In the story, the point isn’t really that she wanted him to free her — it was that she left him in pursuit of her own freedom
ENTERING THE RE-WRITING PROCESS
Now let’s get the second pair of lyrics working as hard as the first. As is so often the case, the answer is hiding in the question. Or the solution is hiding in the problem, if you like.
“What exactly wasn’t easy,” I asked?
She said, “Well I’ve never been the type to let go very easily.” Ah, okay. Letting go is what is not easy. Can we turn that into a lyric? Which became:
To let it go
And let it be
Well done. Now we’ve got the accuracy we need, and a bit of poetry too. The two “let its” sound nice following one after the other. And we’ve got both meaningful and memorable. Still, it seemed like we could do better. It’s back to the foundational idea, which we probed further:
Please believe me
This wasn’t easy
“It wasn’t easy, but you still did it anyway,” I pointed out. “Why?”
“I need my freedom!” she repeated. Sometimes you just don’t know another way to express what you’re trying to say. When that happens, it can help to just open up your brain and think out loud, which she did: “I don’t know, it’s like a feeling racing through me.”
We can certainly work with that. A big part of being a good songwriter is being a good listener. That means listening for ideas, meaning, and insights, often fluttering by in little unassuming phrases like “racing through me.” It’s a great bit of visceral imagery, so we added it in:
I need my freedom
Racing through me
“Okay, we’re getting hot on the tail of something good here,” I said. “But it’s not really the ‘freedom’ that’s racing through you as yet, is it? Because we’re talking about how it wasn’t easy to take the leap. You’re still on the precipice. What more can we tell the listener about that moment?” She came back with:
I can’t name this feeling
Racing through me
A great step forward. Now we’re addressing the confusion, or perhaps the doubt, that attends every big life decision or change. But let’s push on. “Is the heart of the issue that you can’t name the feeling?” I asked. Then we had the ah-ha… It wasn’t easy to face the feeling! Now we’ve got it:
Please believe me
It wasn’t easy
To face this feeling
Racing through me
In the end, what wasn’t easy was for her to face the feeling that she was ready to move on from her relationship. And we said as much in a really artful way.
So there you have it folks. Meaningful and memorable and true and poignant and simple and universal and everything you want a great lyric to be. Hope this little transcription-of-sorts helps with the video.
Enjoy chipping away at this wonderful craft we call songwriting, and if you’d ever like to book a co-writing sesh or a songwriting lesson with me, here’s where you can do it (and even grab a free trial if you like). Cheers!
I love it when a song just levels me with sheer craft. Like… it’s so good, it makes me mad. But it also makes me smile. And I can’t decide whether I want to pick up a guitar or throw in the towel once and for all. Yes, when that happens you know you’ve stumbled across a winner. And HARDY’s “Signed, Sober You” is one such tune:
There are a million things to love about this tune but let me just share a few thoughts on why it’s such a fine piece of songwriting.
1. We’re in the scene from line one
Third shot down, I’m in trouble
I love this opening line. “Third shot down, I’m in trouble”. Bang! Right away, we’re thrust into a bar scene with our hero. You don’t need to be watching the video to see the flickering neon beer signs, sense the pool table off in the corner, and practically feel the chunky wooden bar underneath your forearms. From the first six words we’re sucked into the world of this character. It’s instant drama—and we want to know what happens next.
2. A healthy dose of suspense
Stumble through the front door, gone as it gets
Flip the kitchen light on, there it it
On the fridge, just my luck
“Read this if you’re drunk”
Something is unfolding. We know that much. But what exactly is this all about? The details are coming slow and steady but we still don’t quite have the full picture. Even as the note on the fridge appears, we don’t know who it’s from. And if you’re like me, you might assume it’s from the lover who recently left him. But like me, you’d be wrong.
3. An original idea, expressed simply
Don’t think about it, mister
Don’t even touch your phone
I know you think you miss her
But I promise you, you don’t
There’s healing in the lonely
Sit back, kick off your boots
And you’ll thank me in the morning
Like you always do
Signed, sober you
Arrgggghhhhhhh!! So. So. So. Good. Now we finally understand what this song is all about. I love the plain-speak, “Don’t think about it mister, don’t even touch your phone.” It’s a great example of how you to don’t need big words to convey big ideas. As Mark Twain put it, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”
4. Playing with language
There’s healing in the lonely
I particularly love this line in the chorus. What an original expression. He transforms the word “lonely” from an adjective into a noun—if not a proper noun: The Lonely, capital L, right? A lesser writer might have said, “There’s healing in feeling lonely,” or “There’s healing in the lonely times.” But as writers we’re free to bend, twist, push, and break the language. Whatever it takes to get the message across.
5. Making every word count
P.S., there’s pizza in the freezer, Dumb and Dumber on the TV
It’s so stupid, that’s what you’d be
To go diggin’ through her Instagram
If you’re thinkin’ ’bout that, read this again
Pizza, freezer, Dumb and Dumber, TV—the details continue to paint the picture. We’re back at our hero’s apartment. Look at how Hardy uses the word “diggin’”. He could have said “lookin’” or “checkin’ out.” But he found a far more visceral word, far more active and emotionally charged. It perfectly reflects the desperation of the narrator.
6. Zooming in, zooming out
Yeah, well remember last time that you hit her up
You heard some other guy, how much does that suck?
That set you back a month, yeah, trust me, old friend
You don’t wanna go down that road again
In movie-making, an actor’s performance will feel very different when it’s shot close and tight, versus far and wide. We have the same perspective tools available to us in writing. Thus far, we’ve been zoomed in on the details of a single night. Here in the bridge Hardy zooms out to give us the bird’s eye view to help us better understand what’s at stake for our character.
7. A twist at the end
Don’t think about it, mister
Don’t even touch your phone
I know you wanna kiss her
But I promise you, you don’t
It’s always a nice stroke of craft to give the listener a little something extra at the end of a song. Hardy swaps “miss” for “kiss” here, just to put a cherry on top.
I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. Well done compadre!
It never fails to fascinate me how one word can unlock an entire song.
I was in the gym the other day and “Speechless” by Dan + Shay was playing. It was the first time I’d heard it, and it was instantly memorable. With that one word they did what so many of us songwriters are trying to do—find a way to express something universal in a fresh way. “Speechless” is just another love song. But it’s love as seen through a very particular lens. That lens is the concept, and the concept is the word.
Not only does the song revolve around one specific word, but that word revolves around one specific moment. No one is speechless for any length of time. It happens in a split second that leaves you slack-jawed. Drawing on a specific emotionally-charged moment like that gives your writing clarity and vigor. Without that focus, you often end up in the land of platitudes and generalities.
Or take another single-word-titled love song, “Crazy” by Willie Nelson. One word, one concept. And not a terribly unusual word either. Both “Speechless” and “Crazy” are ordinary, everyday words. But in a good writer’s hands they take on extraordinary meaning.
Sometimes my songwriting students get hung up, thinking they can’t use words that have already been used. Get over that. Gnarls Barkley did when he wrote his own version of a song called “Crazy”. I’m sure there were plenty of naysayers telling him he should steer clear of that word. But once it was released, none of us seemed to mind as we all belted it out for about a year straight—while along the way it topped the Billboard charts, won a Grammy, and eventually ended up on Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Songs of all Time list.
Then there’s the question of how you sing that one word. Think about how Mick Jagger sings the word “Satisfaction.” Sat-is-fac-tion. It comes out of his mouth all choppy, both frustrated and orgasmic at once. The fractured delivery adds to the meaning.
Going back to the two versions of “Crazy,” the same holds true. Willie just about sighs that word, doesn’t he? You can almost hear him shrugging, shaking his head, as the melody lilts from high to low, low to high. Gnarls did the exact opposite. His “Crazy” was exasperated, bursting with energy, top of his range, a total unleashing of pent-up energy.
Same word, different feeling.
There are nearly 200,000 words in the English dictionary. Open it up, pick one, and turn it into a song. Or, the next time a particular word catches your ear in conversation, jot it down and see where you can take it. If all else fails, you can simply write your own version of “Crazy”.
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.
When Paul McCartney was writing “Hey Jude,” he played it in half-finished form for John Lennon. When he got to the line, “The movement you need is on your shoulder,” he leaned over to John and mouthed, “I’ll change that bit.”
“You won’t, you know,” said John. John felt those were some of the best lyrics in the song.
As writers, singers, creative people, so often we’re quick to point out what’s wrong with our own work.
We see with painful clarity where it fails, why it fails, and how short it falls of our standards.
It’s true, that if we want to get good, we have to push ourselves. That process involves a lot of study, practice, and honest reflection. We have to learn to see where we’re weak, and work to improve those areas. It’s part of the challenge, and the joy, of developing your craft.
But sometimes, what we need is the opposite.
Rather than learning to see what’s wrong with our work, we need to learn to see what’s right about it.
That’s what John saw that Paul didn’t.
The line stayed in the song. “Hey Jude” was released in 1968 and went on to become one of the most famous songs of all time. It broke numerous chart records, sold millions of copies, and was The Beatles’ longest running number one single in the United States.
By all means, learn to develop yourself. But learn to trust yourself too.
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.
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!
Cos either it starts with a riff, or better yet, it starts with something you hear in your head.
And then you’re singing it. You’re singing it to yourself and you hear it and it’s taking shape and it’s sort of like a little miracle forming right before you’re very eyes.
You get used to this, you start to get better at the dance. There it is, forming right in front of you and you are seducing it with your powers.
And slowly but surely you bring it to its knees and lay it down on the bed and have your way with it.
That’s when you pick up the guitar.
Don’t be a fool and try to start ham-fisting that guitar.
No, keep listening to the song and FIND it on the guitar. FIND the key.
It’s kind of funny that it’s called a key, because it really is one. FIND the key. Unlock the song.
Then the glorious click of the latch and Pandora’s box is opened and the colors flood out and the soak you in truisms. The song says the thing it wants to say, the thing you wanted to say but couldn’t.
Now it’s here for you to summon whenever you fancy it.