I wrote in what I considered to be the purest form possible. I simply wrote what I felt, disregarding the "oppressive shackles of structure", opting to be the quintessential artist, secure only within rules and fences of my own creation. How dare this man destroy the fragile confidence I had built up for myself. I admit it. I was angry, but the fact that he didn't stop there has changed my entire life, and my outlook as a writer. "Ben...you are not a very good songwriter, but you could be if you work at it."
I have set aside that ego-shattering day in my memory as the first time I began to take steps toward becoming a viable songwriter. Ironically, the road to success began with a lesson in humility. My friend Ken, a tremendous musician and writer, began to mentor me from that point on. We made a study of pop music, dissecting songs and lyrics for the principles behind them that make them so easily digestible. He also pointed me toward some books on the subject, and we worked through a lot of my older material, discovering why some things had worked and why the majority would never be radio friendly.
I began to discover the unlikely truth about songcraft. Songs don't often spring from a magical well, nor are they supplied by an all-knowing muse. Though talent and natural ability are assets, creativity and workmanship are the most important elements of song. Songwriting ability is not something you are born with. It is a craft that sweetens with age and practice.
Reaching the masses...
The "Holy Grail" of songwriting is accessibility. I believe this to be true in every type of consumer driven music. Accessibility is what makes the difference between a bland, impenetrable, instantly forgettable song, and the totally singable, instantly memorable and concise material that is pumped out of radio stations of all formats and genres worldwide. I've written dozens of the first kind, and a precious few of the second.
Like I said before, the road to success, or in our case accessibility, begins with a hard lesson in humility. Before we will ever improve as writers, we need to open our notebooks of material to constructive criticism both from fellow musicians and from our worst critics: ourselves. I know that it's hard to lay aside those deep personal connections to your songs and look objectively at your work, but there is a certain degree of ruthlessness needed to craft a song to its full potential.
I am not going to pretend that I don't still struggle with this. I just keep reminding myself that criticism is not a personal attack. We can never improve as writers if our weaknesses are not identified, and dealt with. Here are a few points for consideration.
Your songs will undoubtedly be about something. Whether that "something" is the pain of losing a friend or the joy of finding a dollar on the sidewalk, you will probably have some sort of topic. If you don't have one, we have a problem. The hard part is knowing what to write about, and how much area to try to cover.
First of all, when you choose a topic, select something that you personally care about. If you don't care about it, it is unlikely that anyone else will. Pretty simple advice, but often-neglected wisdom.
Secondly, choose a topic that your audience will be able to relate to. Usually this means writing about believable situations. I may be able to write a touching ballad about the suffering I experience while working in an underwater pharmaceutical lab studying the effects of peanut butter on the coral reef system, but it will never be accessible because no one cares. Then I could write a simple song about being rejected by the one I love, and because so many people have experienced this in their lives, their emotions would likely be stirred. Your audience needs to believe that you understand them through your common experiences. If you don't have anything in common with your audience, they won't stick around very long.
This ties in closely with the third content guideline: choosing situations that relay common emotions. While this is very similar to the previous paragraph, the distinction needs to be made. Don't stop at including common scenarios. Write your emotions in a realistic and honest response to the situations you choose. The audience can spot a fake. If your song is about becoming a father/mother for the first time, and the only emotion you convey is unaffected confidence, your audience will not believe you. A situation like parenthood demands that you write about fear, excitement, joy, nervousness, and wonder. All of these are (at least what I anticipate to be) genuine responses to this event, and will be held in common with a significant portion of your audience.
Steven Page of the Barenaked Ladies is a master of writing common situations and emotions. Barenaked Ladies’ incredible debut album Gordon captured the angst and confusion of my high school years perfectly. He writes, "I go to school. I write exams. If I pass, if I fail, if I drop out does anyone give a d*mn? And if they do, they'll soon forget, 'cuz it won't take much for me to show my life ain't over yet."(Hairshirt, Steven Page, 1992?) He took what I was feeling and articulated it better than I ever could have. It validated my feelings, and in response I began to feel that Steven and I shared some common ground. I have remained an attentive fan ever since.
How do we decide how much to write about? Listen to the radio. Very rarely is there a song played that is over 4 or 4.5 minutes, and the average is down around 3 to 3.5 minutes. Why is this? It's because my generation has the shortest collective attention span in the history of humankind. We get bored easily. Now consider how much room is available within the 3 to 4 minute limit for your message. There is no room for a doctoral thesis.
I feel like an elementary school English teacher. "Children, narrow your focus!" Don't try to write a song about bears unless you want it to be very general. Choose a specific bear, or better yet, a specific bear incident. Learn to be concise. Your theme/message should be limited enough that the main point(s) can be summed up in your chorus/hook. This makes your writing more accessible by allowing your listeners to remember your songs by topic alone.
Too much...too little...
Creative lyric writing will set your music apart as unique. This is the place where your personality and taste will come into play most. Consequently, I will only offer two suggestions regarding creativity, and allow you your artistic freedom.
First, balance your use of detail and your use of obscurity. Each has its strengths, and each has its weaknesses. Leaning too far to one extreme or the other will weaken your song. Here's what I mean.
The advantage of writing in high detail is that you paint a very real picture for your audience. Use of specific colours, sounds, textures, names, times of day, and cities (among other details) increase the chance that your audience will interpret the song as you do. You can direct their attention to what you deem important. Control is the real issue here. Use detail to point out either the focus of your song, or simply to add realism to the situations you write about.
The weakness of high detail songwriting is that it reduces the potential of the song for audience identification. More detail means that less is left to the imagination. When the imagination is used, your listeners will place themselves within your song and identify with it. Accessibility means making music that people can relate to. I hope you will forgive me for using myself as an example of this.
When I wrote "Strong Man" at the emotional peak of the Sweetsalt album, I was writing about the fact that my grandfather was dying of cancer. I didn't want to write so specifically that only cancer victims' families, or those who had lost a grandparent could identify, so I chose the details carefully. I wanted this song to be a lament for anyone who had lost a respected loved one. I tried to simply set the stage with my feelings, and let the song take over from there.
"Never thought I'd be this cold again. December found me near. January's waiting. But you're not waiting here...Have you ever seen a strong man fall to his knees?"
I gave enough detail that the song was believable (i.e. time of year, physical temperature), but not so much that I would exclude anyone from saying "Hey, that's me!"
The advantage of writing in a very obscure, low detail form is that it leaves a lot of room for the audience to interpret the song. One of the best examples I can think of for good use of obscurity is U2's Bono. He writes, "See the stone set in your eyes. See the thorn twist in your side. I wait for you." (With or Without You, Joshua Tree, 1989) He is so deliciously obscure that almost any interpretation fits, yet he is specific enough that the audience knows he is singing about something real. This creates a challenge for the audience to interpret the song in the way the author intended it.
The disadvantage of writing in a non-descript fashion is that your audience may begin to doubt the reality of any situations you describe. Details provide evidence that you were there. Keep this in mind, even if your story is about fictional characters.
The second aspect of creativity that I will briefly touch upon is the area of vocabulary choice. Songwriting is the art of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary by re-drawing reality with your pen. Be descriptive. Choose your words carefully. This is a craft; don't be afraid to use tools to help you. A thesaurus and a dictionary can be your best friends, and no, it's not cheating.
Don't get caught simply describing what is going on in your song. The real beauty of this craft is wrought in allusion, and metaphor. I like to work at figuring out what the author of a song means. I find it rewarding when I piece the clues together into the whole picture. Good word choice is a big part of this. Archaic words are not something to shy away from. Neither are words that allude to common myths or stories. Often these kinds of words add further depth to the lyrics you write. Be creative. Write like you have the world waiting for your words with baited breath.
Don't be afraid of writing about ordinary situations. Your creativity is what adds the fresh perspective to an age-old situation. Here's a quick story. Sweetsalt played a show in Minot, ND about a month ago, and in the process of getting lost on our way back home, we decided to play a creative writing game. We would choose things that were happening around us and make them into song lyrics. Here's what we came up with:
"I can't feel the things behind me, and what's ahead is so unseen. My senses focus on the negative. I'm not where I want to be." These lyrics sound pretty decent except for the fact that we were writing about Jared's butt falling asleep while he drove through a misty rainstorm in a car with two stinky boys. That's all those lines are about! Write creatively about the ordinary things. Your writing is what makes them interesting.
Hooking for fun & profit
Hooks. What is a hook and why is it in my song? When I talk about hooking a song I may sound like I'm beating a dead horse, but trust me, it's not dead. It just looks tired from pulling in millions in royalties for the Backstreet Boys’ writers. Simply put, a lyrical hook is a phrase or word (usually repetitive) that identifies the topic of the song and is easily remembered. This is the most important element of accessibility that there is.
I have met many people who call me a "sellout" because I choose to hook my music. I beg to differ. I am not selling out; I am making my music saleable. Don't let anyone tell you that there is some superior artistic merit in writing impenetrably. Commercial music must be memorable, and easy to follow. If it is not, your audience will take their ears and go home.
Creating a good hook is usually harder than writing the rest of the song. Don't be surprised if you go through many drafts of your chorus/refrain before you are finally satisfied. Work at it. I know that it takes some of the magic out of writing, but the lyrics you create will be much better the more you refine them. Just remember that a good hook is a concise hook. Don't try to write about too much. Make a bite sized hook, and it will be easily swallowed over and over again.
How often should the hook be repeated? There is such a thing as "over-hooking" a song, but the incidence is rare. Don't worry about overdoing it until your per-song hook count is well over thirty. Think about it this way: If no one knows who you are, and they hear your song for the first time, how much are you giving them to hold onto? More hook repetition translates into a more memorable song.
I like to consider Sweetsalt’s current single "Saffron Girl" to be a well hooked song. It took me about two months of writing to refine it to where it stands today. Between the lead and background vocals the words "Saffron Girl" are repeated twenty-two times. I just counted. Listen to it. Does it strike you as overly repetitious? I hope not, because it is not hooked as deeply as many other current radio hits. Hooking a song isn't forcing the audience to like you. It is allowing the audience to like you by making your music accessible.
The final component of accessible songwriting that I will discuss is that of unity. A song without unity is a song that makes no sense. Choose a perspective to write from. The most common perspectives are first and third person, but I'm sure second person works as well. Once you have chosen your perspective and your speaker, either stick to it or leave definite roadsigns about where you are going. If I write a song about someone named Jimmy, and describe all of his actions (including his unfortunate bedwetting problem) from the third person, I cannot have Jimmy himself singing a chorus about what it feels like to be damp every night. The audience has to be informed that the speaker has changed from third person to first for that to work.
Amanda Marshall's latest single includes one such transition of perspective. She is describing her parents wedding and she wants the chorus to be sung by the preacher performing the ceremony. She uses this simple, but effective tool: "and then he spoke, chorus: You can't change your stubborn mind..." She just indicated a change in perspective. It's not my favourite example in the world, but it works.
Unity is just simple coherence (not to be confused with lack of depth). Make sure that your song makes sense. I'm blushing a bit because I have broken this rule many times, but the fact is that no one will understand your song if you don't make it possible to understand.
"Ben... you are not a good songwriter." This time the words are my own. I know it's true, but I’m getting better. That's what it's all about: getting better. Making every song better than the last. My writing changed so much through the course of writing the last Sweetsalt album that sometimes I cringe at how immature and inaccessible some of the songs are. I suppose criticism has its place. All I can do is learn from what I've done, and press on to the next song. I will keep writing. It's one of the greatest joys in my life.
I hope that what I've written will help you to think about accessibility in a new way. Thanks for reading.
Benjamin Reynolds is currently working as a singer/songwriter in Nashville, Tennesse. (2009)