When I was a kid I wanted to be a writer, a storyteller. There was fairly good reason to believe that I had some aptitude for this. I started early, in grade school, and I did a lot of writing. Mostly stories and some very free verse poetry. Heck, I even got a piece published in the Los Alamos High School literary magazine.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a traveler. One of my favorite books was called “Around the World in 1,000 pictures.” I was glued to any travelogue that aired on the T.V. That to be a writer entails travel to learn about the world, in order to write about it, was simply marvelous kismet.
Well, there is the plan we have for ourselves and the plan the cosmos has for us, and sometimes they coincide and when they don’t. You can figure out which plan actually goes into effect. Although, sometimes the cosmos sort of agrees and figures out a way that its plan goes forth and still gives you a way to work your plan.
I haven’t written the great American novel. I haven’t written much prose fiction of any sort, though I’ve still written some very free verse every now and then. Note from the cosmos: “You get to write music and lyric.”
Sometime in the late 80s, I was at a workshop hosted by West LA Music (now defunct). Mostly it was about various technologies in music creation, such as notation editors, sequencers, that sort of thing. During the introductory meet-and-greet, I asked a young woman sitting next to me what she was interested in learning. “Oh, I want to be a song writer,” she said. “What kind of songs would you like to write?” I asked. “I want to write about love,” she replied.
Yeah, everyone that age does. I wrote some of that stuff back in the early 70s. As I look back on them now, I find the music was quite good. The lyric was very young. Happily, there are only maybe a dozen of these. Happily, I got to do some traveling. And I learned something really cool.
There is a whole lot more to life and the world than the “Broken Heart Blues.”
So, here’s my first advice to the would-be lyricist. Write a lot of really bad songs about how you can’t get laid and get it out of your system. If you also wrote the music,keep the music. It’s probably a lot better than the lyric and you can always use that music later.
Here’s a second bit of advice. Once you get over yourself, look around you. Travel and don’t fly. Take the train, take a cross country bus, even drive (hitchhiking is no longer a recommended option, more’s the pity). Get off the freeway and hit the blue highways. Meet people. Walk the land they walk. Learn something about the life they live. Have breakfast with a family that owns a working farm. Do odd jobs ─ truly odd jobs like cleaning brick.
Hang out in museums. Read history. Imagine being there, living it.
Observe and listen and remember.
Everything that goes into your little brain becomes grist for the creative mill. It might not happen right away. In 1972, traveling by bus from Denver to Santa Fe, listening to the change of pitch of engine, transmission, and the wheels on the highway, I began to hear a melody which later, somewhere around 1988 or so, became a song, “Move It On Down The Road.”
Learn to walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins. Imagine being and write about it. That is where a lot of “work” songs come from. But don’t stop there. Imagine being a historical character and write about it. (I have one about an old mountain man looking back on his days, but, what the heck, you could just as well write of being a Roman Legionnaire if the mood strikes you.)
Write about places. There are a lot of songs that are place driven. “Penny Lane” by the Beatles is a good example. But when you do write about a place, write about the place itself. I have one, “The Lone Spanish Chapel,” which describes the Chapel, the setting, and the people who have been there. You could write about an abandoned farmhouse or even a warehouse if you want.
Write about events, large and/or small. Remember, the knowledge, experiences, and perceptions of today become the memories of tomorrow and the songs and music of the day after that.
Here’s a third bit of advice. Listen to everything. Classical, folk, blues, jazz and rock are only the beginning. There is a whole world of music out there in every country and every culture. Listen to all of it. My daughter recently was in Morocco and she bought me a CD of Mohamed Rouicha playing the oud. I first heard one of these when I was gigging with Carlos Lomas.
Don’t be afraid of listening to something new and different. Too many people are saying, “I only listen to ______ (fill in the blank with Nine Inch Nails or Bach, whatever) and they lose so much enrichment to their lives because of their limited imagination. If you have a chance to get a recording from an “unknown artist” by all means snag it. Commercial pop is written and recorded for the purpose of making money. Everything else is written, and sometimes recorded, for the sake of having written it. (Though getting a few shekels for it is always a plus.)
A fourth bit of advice: learn music. Learn the language and methods of usage. Read and learn about writing music. Then find your own voice.
Here’s a fifth tip. Artists work with canvas and paint, sculptors work with stone and metal and wood. You work with notes and staff paper. It’s the same thing. Beethoven got the idea for the “Moonlight Sonata” while watching a moonrise over a pond. Even music without lyric can be descriptive. Don’t just throw notes on paper. Write about something. It doesn’t matter what that something is.
Here’s my sixth bit of advice, and this comes from Beethoven. After the premiere of his Third Symphony a critic asked Ludwig, “Who are you writing for?” He had a wonderful response, “I am writing for a generation not yet born.” You are writing for the people who will want to hear it. Since that will never include the “I only listen to” crowd, so to hell with them. And if someone says, “well, it’s different,” you say, “thank you,” and mean it.
A seventh bit of advice: I have a general guide to what makes a good lyric song. How well does the lyric read without the music and how well does the music play without the lyric? It is helpful to fit the music to the lyric, e.g. if the lyric is about an American slave c. 1850, then Russian music (á la Tchaikovsky) probably won’t work. Or, if the music is samba based, then your subject is probably not Eskimo fishing techniques.
Finally, write. If you don’t have staff paper handy then draw five lines on anything handy and write. I have envelopes, placemat paper from diners, even a cocktail napkin or two. Write. If you can’t think of anything, then get out of the house. Take a walk. Have staff paper and a pencil with you. Observe. Listen. Then write.
When I was a kid, never in my dizziest daydreams did I imagine myself as a musician. I wanted to be a writer. Turns out, I get to do both.
Now, to figure out that traveling bit, because 400,000 plus miles of asphalt just isn’t enough to scratch that itch.