Sometimes, the hardest part of the songwriting process is getting started. Once I’ve got an idea, I can hash out lyrics and music fairly easily. Getting past songwriter’s block usually involves coming up with a title and a hook to the song (Thank you, Nashville). More often than not, I’ll get blocked by wanting to come up with a metaphor for expressing an idea or emotion, but can’t land on the right one.
I’m a much stronger musician and composer than a lyricist. I can come up with grooves, interesting chord progressions and beats, and never attach a lyric to any of them. But I like to consider the “whole song,” so I opt to do the hard part first: some or most of the lyrics, then the music. I’ll be writing about getting past songwriter’s block in lyrical terms.
Where do my song ideas come from?
I’ve always espoused the notion that you can write a song about anything; I once wrote a song about a car accident taken from the point of the view of the brake pads of the car. It’s the development of a song that counts, drawing from your own life experiences and emotions to truly make the idea yours.
Inspiration comes from within. Ideally, we are constantly experiencing new things, seeing new things, and reading about new things. The trick to being “inspired” is to be mindful of these experiences, and finding the nuggets to turn them into songs.
Often, it’s helpful to write down in concrete terms what the idea is about. For example, I had a visceral reaction following the horrific bus attack in India in 2012, where a young woman was raped and killed, and her male friend was also violently assaulted on a bus in New Delhi. I jotted down some notes to keep me focused:
“This song is about the senselessness of the bus attack in New Dehli, and the irony of the violent reactions of the masses in India calling for capital punishment.”
Later on, I read news articles about the incident, and was moved by a quote from the deceased victim’s father who asked the media, “Don’t call her a rape victim. Please call her a brave daughter.
“This song is also about the ripple effect of victimization and the grief her family, friends and community experienced. It’s also about the fact that this young woman and her friend did nothing wrong, and their bravery shows the way forward in India.”
The idea became the song Brave Daughters.
Another time, I heard a few delightful holiday-themed songs from a few singer-songwriter friends. Like most holiday songs, they sang about peace, love, and happiness, and it occurred to me that there were no songs about holiday shopping (that I know of). I decided to correct this imbalance, and wrote a song called Holiday Shopping Spree. I talked about the reasons why during an interview with ThatChannel.com.
Starting to develop the song
Inspiration is rarely enough to create a compelling song. Sometimes I’ll have a title, and a melodic hook to go along with it. Turning your specific idea into a short phrase (or a single word) that best captures the idea can become your central hook.
For example, I wrote a song called One Great Mistake, about the precarious nature of humanity and how a single misstep or accident can derail your life. I discussed the process behind it on an episode of Song Talk Radio.
When I suddenly lost my job in 2014, I wanted to write a song about the experience. I thought the title Unceremoniously best expressed the feeling of being let go in such a brutal and callous way.
In both songs, I attached a simple melody for each title. When you sing the melody, it’s important to spotlight the important words or syllables with longer and/or higher notes. Often, this will be your chorus hook. You can think of the hook or chorus as your “thesis” and the verses as your “supporting arguments.”
Intersection of ideas
Sometimes, I need a metaphor to drive the idea. I’ve heard that art is sometimes created by the intersection of two or more ideas / objects / words in surprising or interesting ways. Spinning the idea with a metaphor or other angle can shed new light or instill beauty on a subject. In many songs, one side of the metaphor is a relationship, whether it is between lovers, family, or the self. For example, Message in a Bottle by The Police is the perfect metaphor for loneliness or isolation, and a desperate desire to connect with others. It doesn’t matter what the “message” is, the universal appeal is that we all yearn for a personal connection.
In my own song, Depend on Me, I expressed the relationship between the brakes of a car and the car’s driver. The “I” was the brakes, and the “you” was the driver. The central idea was that “You can depend on me.”
Thus, a song that sounds like a rather tense and dominant/submissive relationship (not in a sexual way) could be between two people or seen as the relationship between person and machine. The ability of a song to be interpreted in more than one way is the best thing about writing abstract lyrics.
For example, I wanted to write a song about how experiences from our past strongly influences who we become. This notion was inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book Outliers. The trouble was finding a metaphor that encompassed the idea. The word “echoes” occurred to me in the middle of a sleepless night, and I had to get out of bed and make some notes on my phone before I could get back to sleep. (Aside: this is important to realize. Rather than be consumed with the thought and the worry that you won’t remember it in the morning, you may as well take a few minutes to jot something down; your mind will settle and you’ll sleep better, having solved the worry.) Finishing the rest of the song the next day was easier, having found the “gateway” into the narrative. I made minor refinements to the lyric in the coming weeks.
Here’s a live performance of Echoes by my band Beige Shelter, with yours truly on drums (download the lyrics and chords here):
One of the difficulties in writing is the fear of expressing one’s deepest feelings. Although it varies from song to song, it always involves a certain degree of vulnerability. It’s always a challenge to find the right words to express your inner feelings, let alone making them rhyme and bop to a meter. When I’m writing something deep and painful, I soften the blow by using a metaphor, or spinning it as a story with a character other than myself. Echoes was inspired, in part, by my experiences of bullying and divorce, but I don’t think that’s self-evident in the lyrics.
Even if I’m writing about something more conceptual, like the idea known as Panspermia—the notion that life on Earth began as some other-worldly deposit— I have to dig a little deeper. In this case, the song is really anchored in the notion that we’re all unified as one, not just as a human species, but as the stuff of the universe. So even here, my own perspective made the song more “me.”
As I’m writing this post, I’m in the midst of writing a new song. The idea has been simmering in my mind and my heart for a few years; a place of deep emotional pain.
For a long time, I struggled to find a good way in. When I finally did find the anchor and the hook of the song, I discovered I was also including some social commentary.
Again, rather than showing my emotions bare, I’m allowing the song to evolve into something slightly more detached. Perhaps I’m too afraid to, or unable to, find the right poetry to express isolation, loneliness, and being cast aside. I guess I need a different angle to soften the blow, and get past my writer’s block.
I’d love to hear about your own writer’s block experiences – please comment below.