I can come up with chord progressions all day long. But that’s not songwriting.
By definition, a song is something that’s sung. You can’t sing a chord progression. In fact, it’s impossible. I know because I’ve tried.
Back in the days before I got serious about songwriting, I would generate chord progressions, sometimes stringing two or three of them together. I would refer to these as “songs” and then never do anything with them again. I lacked confidence in my ability to create melodies to add to the existing harmonic elements I had generated. And I especially lacked confidence in my ability to create lyrics. So I rested in the comfort of knowing that my “songs” had unlimited potential, giving myself permission to never finish them.
When you don’t finish writing songs, you don’t make yourself vulnerable to people’s reactions to them. No one can tell you your unfinished, unheard songs suck. I was stuck in that place for a while. And so I just played the same four original songs over and over again. I thought maybe someday I’d start going to open mics. Maybe someday I’d finish some more songs. Maybe someday I’d get serious about creating music again. Maybe.
I wanted to be creative. I wanted more than anything to be able to express myself. But I had ruled out music as an avenue for expression. I internalized all the shitty “practical” advice I had heard throughout my life from well-meaning, nonartistic people. I relegated music to the hobby category. It became a dessert I could only enjoy once I had finished eating all my vegetables. I was not happy.
So I decided I would see about being more creative. Finishing songs. Writing melodies and lyrics to go with the chord progressions. Doing the tough work that comes after the initial surge of inspiration.
I just needed to find some structure. I needed to find a way to create a process around songwriting. But that’s always been hard for me.
Two Pies, Two Songs
My friend Erin, who is one of the smartest, most impressive people in the universe, started making and baking pies as a project at the beginning of 2018. Hearing Erin talk about the pie-making process reminded me a lot of the songwriting process. Songs and pies are very similar, as it turns out. Maybe I’ll get into the similarities in an upcoming blog post, but I don’t want to digress too far here.
Erin revealed that her goal was to make two pies each month. That really resonated with me. I realized that I should attach a number and a goal to the songwriting process if I wanted to be successful. I determined that I would attempt to write two songs each month, one for each pie my friend made.
As former Milwaukee Bucks All-Star forward and current commentator Marques Johnson might say, this realization was “revelatorious.” Working with a nebulous, general goal of creating more was not going to produce any results. But working with the goal of writing two songs per month might actually get me somewhere desirable.
One song a week would have been too much; it just takes me longer than that to write satisfactory stuff; I would have ended up with a pile of shitty songs. One song a month would have been too little; I needed to get a lot more songs under my belt if I wanted to start playing shows and becoming known as a songwriter. Two songs every 30 days or so seemed just right.
I ate a slice of delicious pie and got to work. It was easy at first. Chord progressions came together as easily as they had in the past, but with a new sense of urgency. Old ideas were resurrected and given new life. I didn’t waste time. I worked with purpose. I even started getting good at creating melodies and cadences. But then I had to think about writing lyrics. And I am not a lyrics person.
What's That About? What's That About?
I wanted to write meaningful songs. I wanted to write songs that were about something. But it’s really hard to determine what a song is about if it contains no lyrics. Definitely above my pay grade. I needed to find words to sing. And they could not just be any old words. I wanted my songs to matter, and I wanted to be able to feel something real when singing the words.
One of the issues is I generally don’t give a shit about lyrics when listening to music. I really only care if a shitty lyric stands out. I dislike cliches strongly unless they are used cleverly or ironically. I don’t like it when people use easy, “fire-desire” rhymes. Stuff like that. If you are a lyricist and you avoid those things, you are a master writer of songs in my book. I mean, sure, I recognize when someone is particularly masterful at writing lyrics. But I also recognize that a lot of my idols probably tossed off a lot of their lyrics minutes before entering the vocal booth to sing them. Whatever. Just don’t embarrass me; I’ll be paying attention to the drums and dynamics, mostly.
Yeah, I know – this is weird. I am in many respects a word-based individual. I am also a music-based individual. So you might expect that I would combine my bases into a strong interest in lyric writing. NOPE!
I was coming up with chord progressions. I was getting close to finishing songs. But the clock started ticking once I decided to finish two songs each month. I had to figure out how to write lyrics.
So I became a lyrics person.
I Really Don’t Know if My Words Are Any Good
Truly. But I’m happy to have written them. I stand behind them. I feel good about singing them. I feel like they are pretty much free of the shit that makes me wince when I hear lyrics that rub me the wrong way.
I don’t receive a lot of feedback on my lyrics, though. So I really have no idea if I’m connecting. I mean, it’s going to be a struggle because I am not a storyteller. I don’t write about identifiable characters, really. Yeah, I have choruses and refrains, and I use recognizable English-language words. But I’m definitely on the abstract, impressionistic side of things when it comes to my lyrics. I think there’s some wisdom in my songs, and I feel like I’m sharing a lot, actually, and being quite vulnerable. But is it coming across? Could I be more open and vulnerable? I don’t know, but I think I’m always going to try to be more expressive and truthful.
Thanks to the two-songs-per-month goal I established, I wrote quite a few new tunes last year. I’ve played all of them numerous times, and I’m happy to say I don’t feel embarrassed by my lyrics. I can find the passion in them. I feel confident that they go well with the chord progressions, rhythms and melodies I’ve written. They express my deepest feelings and reveal details of my most meaningful experiences. They come from the place where emotion and intellect intersect. Or at least that’s how I feel when I sing them.
But I feel like I can do better. I am a lyrics person now. I have become a bonafide singer/songwriter. There is no excuse to not keep trying to do better. Mostly, I am happy to simply finish writing the lyrics to a song and feel good about them being adequate. But I want to keep striving for the perfect lyrics for each tune. I have not gotten there yet. I may never get there. I don’t know if that’s even the point; the point may be to just keep trying. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s it.
I am always writing down little phrases and chunks of potential lyrics. I have even begun to write songs with the lyrics in mind first. In the old days, I would save them for last, and I would dread the process of writing them. Now they just kind of show up, so that’s cool. Sometimes they wait until I’m done with the music. Sometimes they arrive in my head with their own suggestions for the music. Other times they remain elusive until the 11th hour when I am desperate to just finish the goddamn song.
I am even starting to pay attention to the lyrics other people write. And I am getting my mind blown quite regularly. And when I consider my lyrics in the context of what I think are good lyrics written by others, I don’t feel so bad about what I’ve accomplished.
So yeah. I guess I really am a lyrics person now. Damn.
Wanna See My Words?
While I’m still not quite 100% sure if my lyrics are any good, I am unafraid of sharing them. One of these days I think I’m going to make a place for them on my website. That’ll be cool. But in the meantime, if you’re curious at all about my lyrics, let me know and I’d be happy to share them with you. I might not be willing to tell you what any of my songs are “about,” specifically, but I’ll share the lyrics with you. Just let me know.