Lyrics are incredibly important to the feel and final version of a song. Often they can make or break it. Good lyrics can define an era or a whole musical style; just look at old school blues “My baby left me” everyone knows that one, which just goes to show how crucial lyrics can be. In folk music the lyrics are usually first and foremost in the songs, the instruments are used as backing for what the artist has to say. This is why if you were to listen to them without the lyrics they would just be basic chords. The lyrics hold it all together.
If the lyrics are out of place or just downright bad it can ruin the effect entirely. Just listen to this track by Colin Meloy, the lead singer for The Decemberists:
Terrible. But at least he knows it and can poke fun at himself for it. Below are a few tips that I find helpful when writing lyrics.
Get Yourself A Writing Book
There’s nothing more useful than having a writing book where you can jot down all the ideas, themes and lines that come into your head throughout the day. Personally I have a small moleskin travel size book where I write down anything and everything that I need to remember as well as random thoughts, musings, quotes and, of course, song lyrics. I also have a larger writing book at home dedicated purely to song lyrics where I can bring all my ideas together in one place.
Having scrappy bits of paper lying around everywhere with scribbled lines all over them makes it difficult to see any continuing themes that could inspire more ideas for you to work on. If you have all your writing in one place you can get a better overview of your developing writing style.
Remember that not all your lyrics will be world-changing
A lot of the time what you write down will be rubbish. This says nothing about you as a writer, it’s just how being creative works. The secret is to persevere with it until that brilliant idea comes along and the more you practice and just write, the more easily you will be able to create quality lyrics to express what you’re thinking. Sometimes 95% of what you write on one day will be pap but there may be one line or phrase that suddenly jumps out at you and sparks a whole new better idea. You might come back to it later and realise that it was better than you thought and just needs some trimming or elaboration.
The best mindset to have is to just write and not think too much about it or pass any judgments on it until it’s finished. When I write I often start with a random line and the theme and meaning behind the whole thing gradually shapes itself as I go on with it. Don’t be too hard on yourself and find your own way of developing your ‘writing voice’.
Avoid clichés especially rhyming ones
Rhymes can work really well but it can be difficult to avoid making them sound awkward or forced. Try not to go for the obvious rhymes like fair, hair, care, they sound lazy and ill thought out. Take your time and work around the obvious words until a more natural line has developed. If needs be leave it and move on to the next part of the song, or leave it altogether and come back to it later. If you try and rush through it will sound sloppy. But having said that, don’t totally discount an obvious rhyme as sometimes a craftily placed one can be really effective.
Don’t worry about how your lyrics will be perceived or even if anyone understands them
This is an important point and one that can really hold you back if you let it. Never think “I have to write a song about this because it’s popular” or “No-one will get what I’m singing about because it’s too abstract.” If you over think your lyrics in this way you’ll kill your inspiration and miss out on what might have been a really good idea. Some of the best lyrics are ones that people can interpret in their own way, because everyone’s different right? So it really doesn’t matter if anyone ‘gets it’ as long as you’re comfortable with what you’re singing. Anything is fair game as a theme and you can make your lyrics as funny or as serious as you like, as long as you’re being true and honest to your inner voice. Which leads me to my final point…
It can take a long time to develop your own style and to start writing lyrics that you’re really happy with. Don’t be discouraged if you’re not happy with anything you’re writing at first; if you keep at it eventually your voice will come through.