Writing Lyrics

I should have written this back in September when it was fresh, but here we go; a deep dive into how I wrote one song.

Below, on the left, is the original sheet for what has become “March Four Hundred and First” from my upcoming Fight Songs.

Working title “mTap Reverb” (“March Four Hundred And First”) rough song sheets

This song started by accident, as they often do. I was playing guitar through my Eventide TimeFactor delay on the multi-tap algorithm, and came up with some parts I liked and vocal melodies with scratch (i.e. to be replaced later) lyrics to go with the guitar parts. I recorded a rough instrumental demo of the guitar parts and wrote out the vocal ideas on this sheet.

On the sheet you see the working title “mTap Reverb” from the guitar effect, the three song sections (“F#,” “Turn” and “End”) that correspond to those parts of the instrumental demo, and the melodic ideas and scratch lyrics for each section. My notation includes the note names and how the melody moves up or down, which is enough for me to remember or reconstruct when I finish the song.

The basic melodic ideas for all three sections of the song made it through to the final version that’s coming on Fight Songs, along with some words from the scratch lyrics (“January, February” and “I don’t want to…”), the vowel sounds for the “End” part, and the idea of being in a car.

At some point I grouped this song with others for Fight Songs; you can see that note at the top of the sheet.

This would have been no later than May 2015. Feels like it was a couple years earlier. I really need to start date-stamping my song sheets!

Music nearly always comes first for me. About half the time I also get some melodic ideas and scratch lyrics like I did here. Maybe once in ten or twenty the melody and most of the real lyrics will pop out spontaneously at the same time as the music, which is awesome. Those are some of my favorites, when it’s all from the same moment.

More often, I’ll have some music I like with no vocals at all, or a vocal melody and some nonsense syllables or scratch lyrics (like how the Beatles’ “Yesterday” famously started with Paul McCartney’s throwaway line “Scrambled eggs…”). The ones where it’s only music, and no melody or throwaway lines from the same day as writing the music, those are the hardest.

My songs often live in this demo-and-scratch-sheet state for years, or decades. I usually don’t finish songs until I have a batch that work together that I’m going to record as an album or EP.

To get from scratch lyrics and nonsense vowels to finished lyrics, the key for me is to find the first line. The first line is not necessarily the opening line of the song; it’s the first keep-able line, which might be at any point in the song. My first line reflects a short story, or just a scenario, setup, or image in my imagination that guides the rest of the lyrics. I freely mix personal experiences and total fiction.

In August I sat down with a set of Fight Songs instrumental mixes on my iPod and a manila folder full of song sheets like mTap’s to write lyrics. To write I put headphones on, I put the instrumental recording of one song on repeat, I get out the old song sheet(s) and a blank pad, and start trying to write real lyrics.

For mTap, in the photo you see the first attempt at real lyrics on the right, the small sheet. I made some further revisions, not pictured.

Sometimes the throwaways make it into the real song, either as they are or in revised form. Often the basic vowel sounds of the real lyrics match the throwaways. And usually I’ll scratch stuff out, or write out different options and circle/star the final pick, as you see.

In these moments I’m singing along to the demo with the headphones on, testing out how different lyrics feel. Sometimes I’m coming up with stuff by free association, sometimes it’s more thoughtful and planned. I like my lyrics to roll off the tongue smoothly, so I’ll choose that over “poetry” or whatever any day. The headspace is a weird combination of concentration and daydreaming. There are two phases to the process; getting to the first line and story, and building it all out based on that.

In the image you can see that the idea of being in the car from the throwaway “F#” section made it into the finished song, though the words themselves didn’t. “January, February” literally made it. And the vowel sounds, though not the words, made it from the “End” section.

“Autumn Walker” is one of my favorite songs, by Jets To Brazil. mTap’s musical feel is kind of jazzy and old-school, so naming the months kind of worked (?) in a great American songbook sort of way, but isn’t something I’d normally do. You can interpret “Love” how you like, I usually mean it in a sort of British affectionate-nickname-for-a-person sense. So between the idea of being in the car and “January, February” (<– the “first line”!) I connected it to a story about getting out of the house just to go for a drive during the pandemic. But hopefully it’s open to other interpretations too.

“A day’s just a day” was inspired by something Til Willis said on the “Small Guarantees” episode of The Long Play Listening Party, “Today’s a day, not two.”

‘Autumn Walker’ played in the car
Driving for the change of heart
January, February

Like four hundred days in a row
April and May, grinding away
I don’t want to hurt any more
Dreams returning, worse than before
Love, where are you?

A day’s just a day
A day’s just a day