Kayt, On Writing Lyrics
I have lots of words lying around. For years, friends and family have given me notebooks for Christmas and birthdays because I always have some kind of writing potential nearby. Tiny pocket notebooks, journals, binders of blank loose leaf all serve their purpose. In addition to these, my receipts, waitressing pads, school books, and the odd napkin all contain bits of verse, to be hoarded and contemplated later. Every few years, I have to reign them in, collect them and rebundle them. I’ve even had to vacuum them.
Words started to become a force in my daily life when I was thirteen years old. I wrote about everything. Nowadays, I’m much more articulate. The destination of my verses is clearer, and I can allow myself to take hold of moments in life, using the undertones of my subjects to lay them down, both upon the page and deeply into music.
Poetry can be free verse, but lyrics have to be based upon a structure of some sort. The cool thing about lyrics is that the structure doesn’t have to be anything known to man. One can make it up as one goes. I like to try noticing a natural rhythm for the first few words, letting it become a set of suggested rules for the rest of the piece. Of course music is more flexible than perfection, so it’s acceptable to write lines that seem too long or too short, waiting for their expression within the music to direct their proper delivery.
This is not to say that the words always come first! I’m aware of many writing styles, of my own and of others that I know, so many of which begin with the music. Some folks even like to hum melodic lines, later writing fill-in-the-blank lyrics for those tunes. For me, fitting words to melodies is like trying to reverse-engineer some kind of product that’s already been made, because the songs don’t begin with meaning. I’m always disappointed when I hear a popular song on the radio, only to discover upon proper listening, that the lyrics are somewhat disconnected. I suspect that tunes that seem to have unnatural lyrics are similarly forced. Ultimately, I find it necessary to begin either with words or music that inspire meaning for me.
Obviously, words have inherent meanings, but music? Sounds have resonant qualities that touch people internally. It is a visceral awareness of where meaning may be derived from, how a chord, or a series of chords or rhythms, affects my senses. Like sights and scents, music can trigger memories and feelings. It’s been my experience that meanings may be fleeting, so it’s important to notate them quickly and well enough that they can be rediscovered at a later time.
Sometimes, a creative “moment” can last for days or weeks while a song emerges and works upon itself in me. Slow-emerging songs can be exhausting, making demands of me that I resist, keeping me awake, distracting me from other tasks and taking on lives of their own. If this sounds crazy, notice how often we fall in love with a certain popular song for a few days or weeks after first noticing them. The sympathetic resonance I experience with my new songs is similar to this process, except that the songs are coming from my own creative energy, and not the radio.
Around 2005, songs started coming to me with ever-increasing frequency. My challenge was to capture them. Once I figured out how to transcribe my lyrical thoughts, I began to believe that I had a responsibility to do so, as they flowed through my headspace. Song writing, and particularly lyric development, isn’t hard to do, but it is an urgent matter when the spirit is moved to do the work. I experience distraction in many ways, including waking up from a dead sleep, and the need to suddenly remove myself from goings-on to jot notes. Luckily it’s often possible, but sadly not always. Many songs have been lost, passed through me and left before I could catch them like dreams in a dream catcher. I just can’t sit upon the web at all times!
The greatest joy of writing lyrics is the deep understanding that my story is always the same as someone else’s. My tales are not unique! Songs are never entirely autobiography because they’re rarely intended to express more than a few simple ideas really well. For this reason, it feels acceptable to write about personal subjects that are intended for public presentation. Music is shared, translating ideas and emotions that become personal to the listener. It’s never a good idea to be too literal when choosing words or metaphors because of the natural personalization that happens in the experience of the listener. It’s given me great pleasure to hear about the many ways certain songs of mine have been interpreted.
I feel strongly that I will continue to learn about song writing. There is too much to be known in a single lifetime, so humbly and patiently, I’m happy to enjoy the craft, as life goes on, with my little pieces of it.
On Writing – Joel Merzetti Answers Kayt’s Essay
In response to Kayt’s writing about lyrics, Joel had a whole lot more questions! Here is the resulting Q and A.
The Song Story – Where Songs Come From
by Kayt is the full version, and is available in the Store. In addition to this writing and the brief Song Story that you received with your Poets and Explorers membership package, the full work includes interviews and observations of other artists, as well as a comprehensive discussion about the changing music industry’s expectation of songs and songwriters.
On Writing – Interview With Songwriter Loren Hicks
On Writing – Interview With Songwriter Jennifer Noble
For The Lyrical Ones Out There:
Great article about writing lyrics:
Free online song writing courses:
Awesome video series about writing songs from Berkley Music Professor Pat Pattison: (11 parts)
Unbelievable song writing blog by Gary Ewer: