"Harlan Howard used to say to me, 'You can write; you just ain't
got nothing' to say. Get divorced and married a few times.' And I did,
and then more things than that happened. Now I wish I didn't have as
much to say. But since I do, I'll write down everything I can. ... You just get up in the morning and ask yourself
if you have something to say."
"The result of [songs written by committee] is we won't get
the Kris Kristoffersons, the deep thoughts of anybody. You'll get
the surface thoughts we think are the most marketable."
"If I came to a stopping point where I thought, 'I can make this
good, but somebody else's insight might make it magic,' I call people
"It was Rick's [Rubin] idea to have the 'Brooklyn' verse repeat.
It already was a story, but having that made it a folk song. Instead
of this rambling march of verses, Rick understands that music needs
hooks. You need that repeated chorus, that everyone can sing along to."
"If I hear a song and I choose
not to put it down, that's me neglecting to accept that song. I think
there's a very spiritual and godly-type ting that happens, and it
happens to way more people than we know. It's just that very few of
us choose to engage it."
"I get stuck sometimes, and I have a hard time getting unstuck.
It means time for something different. If I have been playing guitar
for the last three weeks, then I try writing on the piano. If I've been
writing in the key of E for the last four days, then it's time to bust
out some chord books and learn something. Or, beauty of beauty, I try
a new tuning! There's nothing that inspires me like a brand-new tuning.
For some reason, I find notes in a new tuning that I wouldn't have heard
in the 'same old, same old' tuning."
"I write some crappy songs. ... but every once in a while I
get just the right words put together for the right moment, and it
feels like magic. There is no explaining the magic. It floats in and
then just like that, it floats out. There's no amount of money that
will buy magic. I've watched myself try to coax it, but it is only
when I relax and totally allow magic to envelop me that it has ever
"Solitude. It is way underrated in our world of writing. We stay
busy. We act busy. We thrive on busy. The truth is there is a lot of
beauty that lives in the solitude. Quiet is not the enemy. Quiet is
necessary for brains to not self-destruct."
"[Songwriting is] a mystery. I can't control it. When they come
along, like unmistakably, a stampede of horses, I try to corral 'em
and not let 'em get away. Sometimes it becomes obsessive to the point
where you say, 'Okay! I'm gonna pass. I don't need to write
this song. I'm doing something else right now.' you know? 'I'm gonna
finish this thing here. I'm not gonna get waylaid by yet another song.'
But mostly it's like they come in and I wrestle 'em down."
"Even when there's not a joke or a hook, the first line has to be good and snap 'em to attention. Songs ain't novels. You don't have 30 pages to slowly wrap somebody in. They're more like short stories or poems. If the first line hasn't grabbed them, you won't get to the second line. Once you've developed an audience, you may have some luxury and trust, so you don't have to knock 'em over the head with line one."
"...lyrics that 'show' more than 'tell.' I like to describe what
the listener is seeing and let them make up the middle rather than
"...my biggest lesson ... was to try and create narrators that
were believable... [so] the listener becomes really invested in the
story or the song."
"I write crappy songs all the time. I just don't finish them."
"Read a lot."
"Read all Hank Williams lyrics."
"The only way you develop a language is by using it a lot."
"When you are stuck, think to yourself, 'What is the emotion I want people to feel?'"
"Winnow away the stuff around the concept to get to the emotion."
"Learn to write simply."
"Hard rhymes help people remember your song."
"Hard rhymes are important. ... Hard rhymes are a tool, not a rule. ... I'm not going to sacrifice what I mean to say on the altar of hard rhymes."
"...nobody works harder than the songwriter. On some level,
it's a 24/7 job. Sometimes the writer is simply being alone and quiet
so the mind can wander. Other times she is entering thoughts into
some kind of recorder whether it's her own voice mail or a pocket
digital recorder for use later in the construction of the song. Or...
maybe scribbling on any piece of paper that's available even a napkin
so as not to lose the thought that was just gifted."
"Then there's the the music part...working on melody, harmonies,
chord progressions and patterns, etc. To be sure, it's an understatement
to say that the making up or writing of a song is a process!"
"People are supposed to like it, that's why you're doing it. It's supposed to be fun. It's not brain surgery, it's heart surgery."
"So much of what I do is personal experience. There's a bit
of poetic license, but it's always something that happened to me—or
somebody I know. It just makes a better song if there's some ring
of truth to it." — Guy Clark
"I love detail...I like metaphors, I like describing stuff in
weird ways and I like the way words sound. I mean, I like songs—it's
not brain surgery. It's having fun and trying to express whatever
it is on your mind. Sometimes you don't have anything on your mind,
but the song comes out OK." — Guy Clark
"When you are going to sleep, your mind relaxes
and those lyrics or ideas come into your mind. You'd better write
"I was intently listening to the lines in the movie, and the woman
in the movie said something, 'How do I look?' The guy replies, 'You
look like you could make the world go away.' I grabbed my date's hand
and she asked,'Where are you going, the movie ain't over.' and I said,
'The hell in ain't' (sic) come on let's go'! (sic) .... So I drug her
out and we got in the car and I started to write the song and got my
guitar out as soon as we got to my apartment. I thought I had a good
one. I told my publisher ... the next day.... He told me to play the
song for him. He looked at me and said he thought it is the worst song
that I had ever written. I told him, 'Everyone wants to make the world
go away and get it off their shoulders.'
"I knew I was right and he was wrong. He told me I had proved him
wrong before and I was determined to do it again. ... I got it cut in
a week by a girl named Timi Yero [a minor pop hit] and then by
Ray Price [a No. 1 song]."
"...study, learn the basics, then search for what it is that will make your work - your work."
"There are rules that govern creativity. It's cosmic. Some you follow, others you break. And there is the potential for not only good writing, but for your writing to do some good. It's the choosing which defines who we are."
"These days I keep a journal, so I'm constantly sketching down
my thoughts, or lines that come to me...ideas for songs. And then
when I have a moment to myself, I'll sit down with my guitar and open
my journal, and start kind of massaging things together, and see if
a song takes shape. Or sometimes, I'll just be hanging out with my
guitar and come up with a chord progression or a lick, and that'll
sort of sit around for a while waiting to marry itself to some words.
So it's sort of haphazard and it's like...junk culture. I go around
finding shiny objects and I glue them together."
— Ani DiFranco
"I noticed with older songs that I perform that I'm coming from
a different place with them now...it mutates the vibe and even the meaning
of the same words when you have a different spirit, if the person singing
is different. I like that, to be able to sing an emotionally wrought
song from a more centered place, or to sing an eager, youthful song
from a more experienced place. It kind of colors the songs differently,
and it keeps them fresh."
"These days, I find I'm applying a little more patience to my
process. If I look back on my work, I can see those songs I bailed on
could have been better, that had those great two verses and then I kind
of coasted from there. These days, if a song is giving me trouble, I
put it aside and pick it up later, and keep doing that, for a year if
I have to, until it takes shape."
some magic in songwriting as it filters through your heart and your
mind and your body. If you work on those things, what comes out of
your fingers isn't just craft, but it's your heart and soul and everything.
The only way to do that is to live a real life, to be conscious of
all things—spiritual, nature, fellow human beings, compassionate
things, all that. When you combine all that and it comes out your
fingers, you're writing songs. I can always tell how hard a person's
lived by the way they write songs."
"You need to work at the craft [of songwriting], but not only
the craft. When I see people working both on themselves and the craft,
and they combine those things...I just go, 'That's just fabulous.'"
"For me, a song doesn't really take flight until it has a lyric
on it. ...Without a lyric that I'm happy with, it could be the greatest
song ever melodically or arrangement-wise, but it doesn't have any
"I want to write songs with complete sentences. I almost have this
obsession with short-changing words. I would never be so pretentious
to say that my lyrics are poetry. ... Poems are poems. Song lyrics are
"During our first few records, I would just kind of wait until
I felt like writing. I got some pretty good songs that way, but I firmly
believe that being a writer or artist in any capacity, you have to flex
that muscle. You have to kind of go to work every day and do what you
do. ... It is a job...and it's a difficult job. ... You have to go through crippling
self-doubt, and once in a while, that perfect song comes and it is like
the best day of your life. And then the next day it starts all over
"...more times than not, it's a failed endeavor. You will fail
more times than you succeed. But I think you need those failed endeavors.
"Country music clearly has a way with words, telling stories
that play like mini movies in the back of your mind. Unlike much modern
pop, the words come first."
"Songs ... are only simple on the outside, typically verse, chorus,
verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Add a hook, which can be musical ...
or lyrical.... But songs live or die on their ability to hit some deeper
chord. Then they work, they're a lot more than pick-ups and whiskey;
they're about the meaning of life."
"Like poems, the best country songs are short and powerful.
When you've got so few words to deliver the emotional punch, each
word must be laden with meaning."
"... stories ... are everywhere. It's just a matter
of listening for them."
"Be careful asking questions in a song. You can't answer them. It's confusing to the listener to switch characters."
"Don't change the timing to get the rhyme."
"Someone once told me, 'Don't build a bridge over a puddle.'"
"A lot of songs you write are just for exercise - just pencil sharpeners."
"I don't think I ever saw Hank [Williams] with anybody, say, 'Let's go
write a song.' One Sunday morning we left Nashville to go to Birmingham
to do a matinee and a night, and he said, 'Hand me that tablet up
there.' And he wrote down, 'Hey, good lookin', what you got cookin''
and before we got to Birmingham it was finished."
"My favorite song [Hank Williams] ever wrote was 'Cold Cold
Heart.' If you think about it, the lyric to 'Cold Cold Heart,' see how
many two syllable words are in that song. Very, very few. ... Verses
and the choruses have very few two syllable words. 'I tried so hard
my dear to show that you're my everything.' One three-syllable word."
"The melodies were melodies that anybody could sing or hum
or whistle. And the words were just about that simple. I think the
stories Hank [Williams] told in his song fit so many people. Nearly everybody
in the audience acted as if Hank were singin' to them alone."
"Songwriters that work in particular genres get strong
in some areas and neglect others. It’s kind of funny how
we tend to regard 'our' genre as being the one that is
'legitimate.' We tend to ignore or disrespect other
genres. And yet there are no pure song genres in our
culture. We are an eclectic culture. Our music is filled
with cross—fertilization. Rock music, for example, bears
hefty influences from jazz, country, gospel, pop,
classical, you name it. Meanwhile, pop, rock, gospel,
modern and contemporary classical, etc., all bear
influences from music that came before, as well as music
that came later."
"In Nashville, there is a historic tendency to work
the lyric to death while settling for music that
works. In pop or rock, it can be the other way
"I think it's hard as hell to write a song that moves real people,
but it's worth trying. If we can't do that, the least we can do is
try to write a song that moves us, and let fate take care of the rest."
"Songwriting is a craft. Writing good songs on a a consistent
basis doesn't happen spontaneously. In fact, most of our best songwriters
learned to write good songs by writing a lot of not so good ones. Education
matters in songwriting.... [It] lays the foundation on which to
"I really just try to
write something that makes sense for me, that seems
true. For me, songs are sort of sacred ground, because
it’s a place where you can actually tell the truth.
You don’t have to be diplomatic. I think the point of
a song is to just say something that’s true, or that
expresses an idea that reflects something that’s true,
whether it’s a truth about human nature or about the
way people bullshit one another. A song doesn’t have
to be serious to be true… but to me, that’s what a
song is. And if I can get that right for me, then it’s
"Writing songs is like a mystery. The most difficult
thing to do is have a good idea. If you have a decent
idea, the songs are the easy part. Actually having
something to say is the hard part. If you get an idea
for a song, then it pulls you along. There are just some
ideas that you get that are really hard to edit out;
it’s hard to stop thinking about some bad ideas. So you
just finish it and you end up putting it on a record."
"I had more verses [to Coal Miner's
Daughter]. Owen Bradley said, 'Loretta, there's already
been one El Paso and we'll never have another
one. Get in that room and start taking some of those
verses off.' Yeah, I took six verses off."
"Write about the truth. If you write about
the truth, somebody's living that. Not just somebody;
there's a lot of people."
"Sometimes they work, and sometimes they
just won't. Sometimes you get hung up on them. When
that happens, you just throw it back, and maybe come
back to it two or three weeks later."
"I admire the ballad form most of all. Stories are irresistible.
I've always had a passion for stories, the endings being of particular
"It's important to have weird songs, but I find
that a little weirdness goes a long way."
"...stories were primarily verbal to begin with. Before there
were cave paintings, stories were told over generations. We tell each
other thousands of stories in the course of everyday life."
"I use three main tools in writing: instinct, hard work and dumb
luck. Dumb luck is missing a train and, while you wait for the next
one, writing a key word, line or verse. When this happens often enough
you begin to believe in Fate."
"I give myself the luxury of time in shaping a song. It's very
common for me to work three months or more on a single song. Plotting
takes time and effort, for there are many false turns. I fill up pages
and pages with my mistakes, thereby eliminating them. Eventually a
trail is broken through this mountain of mistakes. Sometimes it's
as easy as putting eggs in a basket; other times it's like trying
to pound a ton of sand into a diamond."
"Listeners, especially in the country genre, want to know what's going to happen next, a verse, a chorus, a bridge, but they also like to be surprised."
"Economy counts in a song when you only have a short period of time to get across the emotion you want to convey."
"From an inspiration point of view, a song is a moment."
"While writing, are you listening to your intuition
and emotions about a song? Or just fitting lines into
a lyrical and musical equation that yo've heard a
hundred times before? Don't be afraid to mix it up a
little." — David Mead
"Sometimes a great song is defined as much
by what the lyric doesn’t say as what it does. One of
the advantages of writing a song as opposed to writing
literature, painting a portrait or building a house is
the extraordinary context that the music provides for
the lyric. Sometimes good melody and chord structure
allows a lyricist to say very little, leaving the music
to imply the rest of the story. Intriguing plot lines
and amazing imagery are impressive, but feel horribly
out of place if they crowd the emotional content of the
music. The ability to provide just enough information in
the lyric is what separates great lyricists from great
writers." — David Mead
"...everyone has his own particular talent, niche and interests.
Which isn't to say that you shouldn't try new genres or styles or
explore forms other than the ones you're most comfortable with. But
you should be willing to recognize that when writers try to make themselves
into something they aren't or, more important, don't want to be ...
they aren't going to be doing their best work." — Kevin
"Say a thing well and it will be remembered—and so too will
you." — David Baird
share something that a
lot of people have. We
have crazy thoughts. The
only difference is we
write 'em down." — Bill
"Every artist dips his brush in his own soul and paints his
own nature into his pictures." — Henry Ward Beecher
"The way Jacques Brel writes a story, getting into the character,
bringing out all his faults and qualities in the same song.... Not
that I could ever write in such an epic way, but it really is a different
way to go about writing lyrics...and I find that quite inspiring."
— Beirut a.k.a.Zach Condon
is a reader moved to emulation." —Saul Bellow
"I write scripts to serve as skeletons awaiting the flesh and
sinew of images." — Ingmar Bergman
"Funny how song writers can squeeze a novel into a few verses.
I suppose that's why poets are the ones who make us feel what we can't
say." — Patrick
"...I had a lot of time to myself, and I would listen to a lot
of music, mostly music that I knew fairly well and had a relationship
with. And I'd think, well, what is it that I've never been able to do
that this person or people are able to do with this song? Why haven't
I been able to do it, and what can they do that I wish I could do? And
then I'd try to do that. I'd start each day getting into the songs,
and I'd think about how I might get closer to this music that I love,
but haven't been able to make before." — Bonnie 'Prince'
"...starting is hard so I really need to give myself permission
to do a bad job. I always give myself leave to write total nonsense
for as long as I need to release the pressure, because it's really hard
to start if you feel like that first sentence you write has to actually
mean something." — Ann Brashares
"More and more creative people find they do their best work when
they're feeling healthy and secure. We know writers who no longer need
to be drunk or in agony in order to shed the numbness of their daily
routine and tap into the full powers of their imagination." — Rob
"While I was writing these songs [Lives in the Balance], I wanted to be careful not
to harangue people. I wanted to talk about these things in a way that
was from the heart, and not put people off, because people are uncomfortable
with political songs and talk because it implies they have to do something,
or should." — Jackson Browne
"Stay out of the way of a good
song." — Glen Campbell
"To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about,
but the music the words make." — Truman Capote
"As I started writing about loss and grief, I was
taking what felt unmanageable and using my songwriting, my sense of
poetry and discipline, to try and make it manageable." —
"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." — attributed to Anton Chekhov
"Man, if anybody knew the path that we've been on, no one in their right mind would ever try to duplicate it. That's something Nashville always tries to do, though. If something is successful, they try to repeat it by telling other people, "Hey, do what that guy did." I just don't think it works that way. The first one who gets there, the one that cuts the path ... it's always the roughest path but I think it's got the most reward at the end." — Eric Church
"...find things for the guitar to do that complement what’s being sung or that help support it. Sometimes it’s playing the melody along with myself, at other times it’s playing more of a moving background part." — Bruce Cockburn
"When your song is
called ‘XYZ’ or whatever, every line has got to make
sense against your title." — Tommy Collins
"I’ve deliberately left certain things vague about the guitar, because I like the primitive aspect of the way I play and think about the guitar. I never think about what key I’m in. I just start to play and hope for the best." — Elvis Costello
"One night, Don Henley called, and I told him, 'I'm washing
dishes and bike shorts.' He said, 'It's in the domestic exercises
of life that one will find the biggest inspiration.' And he was right."
— Sheryl Crow
"Every now and then I'll get seduced by the idea of money, and
I'll take a stab at that...and I fall flat on my ass. I've never written
a lasting song with that mindset. It doesn't work." — Rodney
"I gravitate towards some kind of concept or idea or situation
that I want to write about. Very often I have to write, rewrite and
come at it from an opposite angle...and I end up writing the opposite
song that I thought I was going to write." — Rivers Cuomo
"There has to be
part of your heart on that piece of paper sometimes."
— Dean Dillon
"Obviously, whenever you're
going through something, that's the best time to create, if you're
going through something amazing, or horrible, or nothing at all, you
should be creating. Unfortunately the songwriters of today generally
torture themselves to make sure they're writing good songs and take
it a little too seriously." — Kevin Drew
"I want to examine the writing process and not the finished product,
because the most essential fact about revision is this: You must have
something to revise. The first draft. ... Writing a first draft should
be easy because, in a sense, you can't get it wrong. You are bringing
something completely new and strange into the world, something that
did not exist before. You have nothing to prove in the first draft,
nothing to defend, everything to imagine. And the first draft is yours
alone; no one else sees it. You are not writing for an audience. Not
yet. You write the draft in order to read what you have written and
to determine what you still have to say." — John Dufresne
"...songs are not about 'I feel sad.' They're about, 'Let me tell
you the things that are on the walls and in the room I'm sitting in,'
and between the lines of that is the fact that I'm sad. You
know what I mean? It's the real locations, the real names. Even when
you don't know the people, it's the names that give you a sense of place.
That's what makes poetry or songwriting better than just talking. If
a song describes something small you do for someone you love, that description
says 'I love you' better than the actual words 'I love you'." —
"I wanted to push the poetics as hard as
I could push them, and not decide the songs were
finished until I committed them to whatever the
recording format was. I went through drafts right up
until I recorded every single one of them...." — Steve Earle
"If [a song] holds back the
storyline, stalls the plot, your audience will reject it." —
"I stopped going to parties and writing [songs] in my
hotel room at night. It frees up a lot of time – it’s
amazing! You wake up, you feel better, and you’ve got
more time in the day [to write songs]!" — Brandon Flowers
"With a song, it only takes a couple of minutes to go
back to the beginning and try it again to see if it
works. The novel freaks me out because, what if you
get into the eighth chapter and think, ‘Let’s go to
the top and see if this works again? It’s going to
take me three weeks.’ I’m in awe of that." — Ben
"We all write poems; it is simply that poets are the ones who write
in words." — John Fowles
"...Kristofferson used everyday language. When ya do that it
sounds like a real person communicating a real emotion. Keeping a lyric
conversational is important. We all know that ...but it's just sometimes
hard to do, aint' it? It really works if it's done right." —
"All the fun's
in how you say a thing."
— Robert Frost
"That's the essence of song craft: making
something everyone can understand yet it still sounds
new." — Tristan Gaspadarek
"...the more you do it, the better you get at it. You realize
that songwriting is not this fairy-dust gift of things coming out
of the air. You've got to work your butt off. You've got to get in
the habit of writing songs. You do the same thing a musician does.
You learn that, 'That's a dead-end road. Don't go there. Don't play
that. Don't sing that. Don't write that.'" —
"The images are largely from my own experience or stories I've
been told. I always try to concern myself with the details in the lyric
first. The details will take care of the mood, the theme, and the broader
sense of the song. It's not enough, for instance, to tell the audience
that a girl has beautiful eyes. They want to hear that she wears horn-rimmed
glasses and too much eyeliner." — Trapper Haskins
"...when I was writing those songs ['The Year That Clayton Delaney
Died' and 'Homecoming'], I would
put myself back in that place. In my mind, I was just a little barefoot
kid back in Kentucky. I went back and wrote what I saw while I was there.
... I just tried to tell what happened and tried not to tell why. I
didn't want to write a bunch of big allegories. I thought it was presumptuous
to tell people that somehow I had some insight into right and wrong."
— Tom T. Hall
"Fearlessness, absolutely. Discipline. You also need open-minded creativeness that lets everything in. You never want to lose a word or a phrase, yet every one should count. Always the best language possible. And, finally, knowing when to leave it alone. Stop when it’s done."
— Ben Harper
"Don't be afraid to write bad songs and then start over and re-evaluate.
Songs are like plants, in that you grow them. Some grow really fast,
and others need pruning and care...And, finally, a song needs to move
you. If it doesn't move you, it will never move anybody else."
— Corey Harris
"I think we all need some kind of rules to help us even when we want to break those rules." — Emmylou Harris
"Though Old Crow Medicine Show is now based in Nashville, they
still write songs about the people they knew when they lived up in the
mountains: the meth cookers, barbecue chefs, bike gangs, chain gangs,
hungry babies, street whores, train tramps, truck drivers, ex-lovers
and panhandlers. Old Crow tries to document these lives without romanticizing
them. When [Ketch] Secor sings, 'Methamphetamine,' he may explain the
reasons for taking up the trade...but he's also blunt about the damage
done...." — Geoffrey Himes
"...songwriting can be cathartic, but
then you just keep it private. If you're going to play
out and have other people listen to you, then you need
to make sure there's some point to what you're
saying." — Patterson Hood
"Songwriters I've always been drawn to are people who deal with
something of depth in the lyric writing. ...I've always been influenced
by the folk song, the storytelling tradition in folk music. And so
for years I wrote mostly story songs. I still do that, but as I've
gone on, it's gotten a little more personal. I used to write mostly
in the third person. I write a little more in the first person now."
— Bruce Hornsby
"[Taylor] Swift seems to understand how a narrative song uses
imagery to give us a glimpse into her state of mind, and to show how
sharply she notices the world." — Edd Hurt
"Be serious. Life hurts. Reflect what hurts. I don't mean that
you can't also be funny, or have fun, but at the end of the day, stories
are about what you lose." — John Irving
"Songwriting is ... all about intuition —
this thing pops into your head for a reason and it's up
to you to follow it. It's like there's a spirit, or
intuitive network, that comes through all of us, but
most people don't take the time to think about it or
remember it. These little things pop into our heads —
it's just a process of intuition. The initial thought
comes in a baby state, and you work on that some more."
— Jim James
"All those songs are totally timeless.
They’ll always stand up because they came from a real
place. They weren’t crafted songs. They were written
from the heart.” — Shooter Jennings
"A lot of times I have the song inside of me and I have to fight to get it out. I'm a very visual person, so I can see the song but I can't hear it. But I think that if your music becomes a war for it to happen, in the end there's a certain kind of aggression in the music. And I think that's a lot more interesting." — Zola Jesus (Nika Rosa Danilova)
"I think I have to work to write a happy song. I
write them carefully; they’re simple and they’re about
when it’s fun to walk down the street. You know?
Because that’s the best thing about when you’re happy.
It’s just one little thing that makes you happy, and
you’re making friends. The kind of thing I can do is
capture this moment." — Rickie Lee Jones
"The waking mind is thinking inside the box; the dreaming mind
is thinking outside the box." — David Kahn
"I started with the chorus of [Late Breaking News], kind of like a fun
bouncy thing to play, and then one of the lines popped up: 'I got things
to do today, people to see, things to say.' I wrote about a dozen verses
for it, but no song needs to be that long unless you're Bob Dylan. So
when we recorded it I started to tear it down to some of the lines I
thought were the funniest." — Jorma Kaukonen
"The ending should be short and sweet. ... Trust your
audience to understand your message and don't try and
beat it into them. Stop yourself from prolonging the
story because you're having such a good time." — Dan
"When I write, I never know the endings. ...when I write, I really want to find out
what is going on...." —
"I definitely still have ... angst but I also wrote some songs
that say it's okay to love, now. I'm happy in my life, and it's a bit
easier to write happy songs when you are actually happy." —
"At the time I begin writing a novel, the last thing I want to
do is follow a plot outline. To know too much at the start takes the
pleasure out of discovering what the book is about." — Elmore
"['If You Could Read My Mind'] was written during the collapse
of [my] marriage.... It's a great song. No one has any gripes about
it. I wondered what my wife and daughter might think. My daughter
is the one who got me to correct 'The feelings that you lacked' to
'The feelings that we lacked' when we do it on stage. There could
be feelings on both sides, and I should have done that in the first
place, but the song was written in a bit of a hurry. I didn't get
a chance to rewrite that one. You have to watch out for that stuff.
You start writing those personal songs, and you get personal attachments.
You've got to be careful, and I am. It's kind of restrictive in a
way." — Gordon Lightfoot
"...people want simplicity, less vagueness, and less space to fill
between the lines, so to speak. So I can't be quite as ethereal and
mystical." — Gary Louris
“If someone plays a song, some people
are going to remember the lyrics and others are going
to remember the beat and melody. I seem to be one of
the latter. For me, it’s almost like a film score. The
movie is the story, but you feel the emotions before
you know what’s going on because of the music.” — Dr.
"Ideas are floating like fish. Desire for an idea is like a bait on a hook. If you desire an idea, it pulls and it makes a kind of a bait. Ideas will come swimming up. And you don't know them until they enter the conscious mind. And then bingo! There it is! You know it instantly. And then more come in. If you go fishing for ideas, a lot of ideas will just pop in. And one of them will make you fall in love." — David Lynch
"I think lyrics are different from poetry, not
just in the economy of words, but the feel and rhythm of
the words. Poetry can be angular, sharp—edged, weighty,
self—obsessed and, well, anything it damn well wants,
whereas lyrics are necessarily confined to a smaller
framework and, even with a story-song, must live in a
smaller space. Sure, poetry has rhythm, but lyrics should
fall out of one's mouth like polished rocks!" — Michael
"Billy Joel once said he thought time spent staring
at a blank page was wasted time...until one day he realized it was
just time he needed to get to his next idea." — Jim Meddick
"Drama is more entertaining than resolution." —Stephin
"Twenty-seven people sang 'Wind Beneath My Wings' before I got around to it. A lot of people saw the movie that I sang it in, Beaches, and what they came away with was that song. They turned to their loved ones and said, 'You know, you are the wind beneath my wings!' The song expressed how they felt in a way a simple 'I love you' would not have." — Bette Midler
"The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good." — Thelonius Monk
"When you write a song it's sometimes in a desperate moment when you can't really articulate it. What I love about lyrics is what T.S. Eliot said: 'Good poetry is felt before it is heard.' I'm a believer in that. It's those moments when you sit yourself down, and talk to yourself in the mirror." — Marcus Mumford
"For this album, for the first time ever, I decided
to write the bulk of the songs on the piano. I’m not a
very good piano player, and so I thought it would be
an interesting exercise, to write songs on an
instrument that absolved me of any obligation to do
something interesting with my hands. I wanted to focus
on the bones of the songs – the melodies and chords." — Joanna
"Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist." — Pablo Picasso
"Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity." — Plato
"What I have in mind when I start to write could
fit inside an acorn—an acorn, moreover, that rarely if ever
grows into an oak. Write fiction and you relinquish reason. You start
with an acorn and you end up with a mackerel." — Phillip
"... shake yourself loose from the patterns that your fingers are used to following. That’s how you come up with something that might have a unique quality. Good things do come out of throwing yourself off the cliff." — John Sebastian
"I enjoy writing songs that could have been written before [my
time]. When I feel like I'm tapping into a deep vein in the body of
American music, it gives me strength as a writer, like I'm dipping
my pen into a deep ink well. That's the folk music tradition. Like
Pete Seeger said, 'Everyone's a link in the chain.' It's a strong
chain, so rely on it. ... I believe it takes all those great songs
in the past to make your song even a little bit good." —
"Anyone involved with songwriting will testify to the fact
that each song, no matter how pure or from the heart, has its own
story, its own peculiar way of getting written." — Carl
"Poetry is a solitary process. One does
not write poetry for the masses. Poetry is a
self-involved, lofty pursuit. Songs are for the
people. When I'm writing a song, I imagine performing
it. I imagine giving it. It's a different aspect of
communication. It's for the people." — Patti Smith
"I like to make up songs. And it’s my opinion that all
these songs mean a lot to me, but that doesn’t mean I think
everything needs to leave the house." — Todd Snider
"Lyrically, 'less words mean more' is a pretty good rule of
thumb. Try to cut out the fat and get to the meat of what you're saying."
— Chris Stapleton
"Sometimes an unexpected chord change can
be the difference between a good song and a great song."
— Gary Talley
"I could send myself right back to the day that I wrote “Angel Of The Morning,” how it felt. I had a buzz through me that morning that was so powerful. I knew I had done something that meant something, because of that feeling. It wasn’t a question of whether other people liked it … I loved it. To me, it had to be one of the most important love stories of all time." — Chip Taylor
"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." — Mark Twain
"I spent a fair amount of time editing the lyrics and allowing
the song to kind of evolve. … anytime there’s anything
worthwhile, it certainly ‘feels’ like it happened on the
spur of the moment, but it’s a composite of lots of spurs of
the moment, hopefully. And over time, you catch up with those, and
then you have a full set of lyrics you’ve thought of and you
feel comfortable singing." — Jeff Tweedy
"If you're going to be a songwriter, you have to believe that
every minuscule slight has importance. You have to believe that every
little loss that you've had is meaningful and can, therefore, be broadcast
out in the world and be exaggerated and amplified into a song." — John Vanderslice
"When the original materials start coming through,
it can feel like automatic writing, almost, from the
unconscious of from the muse – whatever you want to call
that – and it's quite mysterious to me, and it's a
powerful feeling when something comes up on the radar.
Then you mix and match and change and whittle and throw
things out, and those are very conscious decisions which
are informed by your style as a songwriter." — Loudon Wainright
"It’s amazing how much cooler it gets when you change one note in a chord." — Sean Watkins
"Even if chords are simple, they should rub. They should have dissonances in them. I've always used a lot of alternate bass lines, suspensions, widely spaced voicings. Different textures to get very warm chords. Sometimes you're setting up strange chords by placing a chord in front of it that's going to set it off like a diamond in a gold band. It's not just finding interesting chords, it's how you sequence them, like stringing together pearls on a string. ... Interesting chords will compel interesting melodies. It's very hard to write a boring melody to an interesting chord sequence." — Jimmy Webb
"It's a pretty mysterious thing still, why
you start the songs you start, and the specific flavor
of them, the nature of them. I don't know about other
writers, but, for me, it's still somewhat out of my
control. It's not really a logical process." — Gillian
"I learned from listening to James Taylor that you don’t want your melody to be the root of the chord. You want the melody to be an interesting note in the chord. And if you have a given melody note, there are different chords that go with it, so pick one where the melody is a fifth or a seventh or a third or a ninth, but not the tonic." — David Wilcox
"I'm always writing ideas down and then I stick 'em in my pocket
and put 'em in that folder so I don't lose them. Like, somebody might
say something, and I'll go, 'oh that's a good line,' and that goes in
the folder, too. It's kind of an ongoing process for me." —
"Story, a complex extension of language use, is most powerful
when it slips past emotional defenses into the primal heart of the reader.
When character emotion drives a story, the story evokes reader emotion
much like a child's emotion evokes a parent's emotion." —
Eric J. Witchey
"For music to speak to me, it has to have two qualities:
a strong, catchy melody and a wicked groove." — Kailin Yong
"When you're home or you're working, your mind just isn't allowed
to just roll on like it does when you're watching the scenery go by.
You're hurdling through space but you're not really moving. ...It's
that dreaminess, that ability to just get dreamy while you're looking
out the window and you see something...and it makes you think of something
else, and all of a sudden the words are just flowing out of you."
— Pegi Young
"A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his
will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting
musicians." — Frank Zappa
"...I had been writing songs...,
making up stories or using composite characters, but Brantley [Senn]
started writing these songs that were completely honest, completely
unfabricated. I started trying that, and sure enough, the songs that
were more direct were so much better."
"It's not that we're sad all the time. ... Something
has to hit me pretty hard for me to write about it, and usually when
something affects me strongly enough, it's a negative encounter."
"Sheryl Crow said, 'The verse is for me. The chorus is for them.'"
"There's a saying in Nashville, 'Paint it; don't say it.'"
"If it's funny, you've got to take it the whole way."
"There's a lot of craft in songwriting. The divine inspiration
is when the idea comes. It may be a riff. It may be a word. It may be
a phrase. It may be a title. Sometimes, in the best of both worlds,
that divine inspiration extends through the whole song. I've literally
sat down and written a song from beginning to end, almost complete lyrics
and everything without ever stopping...in two minutes. The chorus of
'She's Gone' was like that."
"I think the best pop music writers are the ones that can communicate
complex emotional things in very simplistic terms, and in a very direct
way, that gets across in the restricted format of a pop song. You don't
have 86 words. You've got four words, and in those four words, every
word has to count...you've got the added restrictions that they have
to rhyme, too, for the most part, and you've got to be able to sing
them. So you have words that have to be able to roll off the tongue
and be sung, they have to somewhat rhyme or at least have a rhyme scheme,
and they they have to say something—all in a very, very short
period of time. To me, that's the mark of a good pop song."
"You don’t sit down and write a
standard. A standard evolves."
"If I had to labor over a lyric too long,
if it became an arduous task where I sweated
and toiled and struggled, I would drop it.. . . . The lyric would show
its toil and sweat and that wouldn’t be good for the
song. The sturm und drang would be
"As a songwriter, you're allowed to write anything, and as a person,
I am all colors in the rainbow. I've been through everything, you know,
so I can write a positive song like 'Better Get to Livin'' because that's
my attitude. But that doesn't mean I'm happy all the time. You can't
be a deep and serious songwriter without feelings. You kinda have to
live with your feelings out on your sleeve and get hurt more than most
people. The fear I might get hurt means I might not be able to write
"If I start writing a song, I'm writing
it for a reason. People would say that I had to have two verses, and
a chorus, and a bridge. I tried to learn that formula."
"Something like going to get the newspaper can increase your
writing efficiency by taking you away from the material. When I'm
doing other things, writing stuff will be swirling around in my head,
and sometimes I'll see a new way into the material."
"People think I live here on Nantucket and just gaze at the ocean,
getting my inspiration. Not so. I work in my basement and gaze out onto
a single window that shows me a cement wall. This is a profession, and
it's important to have professionalism about the writing."
"Above all, you need some strong emotional or personal connection
to your material."
"I think the more the listener can contribute to the
song, the better; the more they become part of the song,
and they fill in the blanks. Rather than tell them
everything, you save your details for things that exist.
Like what color the ashtray is. How far away the doorway
was. So when you’re talking about intangible things like
emotions, the listener can fill in the blanks and you
just draw the foundation."
"Some of the songs come so fully, it’s like they are
pre-packaged. There have been a couple that came in
the middle of the night. And I thought, jeez, I’ll
never forget that. And went back to sleep, and it was
gone. You’ll hear something years later that another
songwriter that you respect writes, and you go, jeez,
I think that was the remnants of that song that got
sent to me."
"I edit as I go. Especially when I go to commit it to
paper. I prefer a typewriter even to a computer. I don’t
like it. There’s no noise on the computer. I like a
typewriter because I am such a slow typist. I edit as I
am committing it to paper. I like to see the words
before me and I go, “Yeah, that’s it.” They appear
before me and they fit. I don’t usually take large parts
"Read articles, blogs, books, columns, comics, e-zines, magazines, etc. that feature word play. Google puns, shaggy dog stories, double entendres, spoonerisms, oxymorons, malapropisms, mnemonics, Tom Swifties, redundancies, ambiguities and paraprosdokians. Play with words. It may add creative adjectives and images to your song. It may even give you the hook for your song."
"If you have an idea for a song, but it's not clear to you, try to narrow your scope. Be more specific. 'A tear' is more specific than 'water.' To give your songs more sensory and emotional impact, be as specific as possible. 'Pack my things' says less, and is less memorable, than 'Stuff my clothes in a dirty duffle bag.'"
"A good song should tell a story in as few words as
possible. Self-editing includes the elimination of
unnecessary words, lines, verses. If you don't know how to do that, check
out 'Not Quite What I Was Planning' a collection of 6-word
memoirs by Smith Magazine, and Ridley Scott's global film making
competition, 'Tell It Your Way,' which limits films to 3 minutes
and 6 lines of dialog."
"Ideas are all around. Look at all the songs that have been
written about simple things: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, She Loves
You, Doe a Deer, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Along the Navajo
Trail, Crazy, Walkin' at Midnight, Mean, California Girls, Red
Sails in the Sunset, Deep River Blues....."
The more you
ideas come to you, write
them down. Don't ignore
them because they're not
good enough. If you
ignore them, you're
telling your muse to
stop sending them."
"Songwriting is an art. It is also a craft. The inspiration still
strikes, but after that 'timeless time,' when every word and idea seems
to pour out faster than you can write them down, is when the craft becomes
important. That is the time to listen critically. Is this saying exactly
what I want it to say? Is this how I wanted to say it?
"This is also an excellent time to ask this question: Did I get
lazy and go for a quick rhyme?"
"Writing a song isn't that hard. Writing a good song
is difficult. Let's face it, we're faced with taking a complex feeling
or event, making words rhyme and saying exactly what we want them to
say in a short amount of time. ...the primary reason for keeping it
short and to the point is to be certain that you're not boring your
"You have to visualize a really vivid, very quick [truth] where you can feel the attitude of the person you're singing about.
It's very 3-D. You have to be able to picture it. ... You're a hard person to flame, standing over
the pizza oven....
"We can do this all day. One of them will work. There'll
be another one...on a good day.
"[I] used to [write them down]. Then I just stopped. They don't come
back, either. ... I know if I don't write
it down, [it's] gone forever. So I listen to in my head for me."
"Not too many [songwriters], when they write songs go
for broke. When someone does who's really good, it's astonishing.
There's a reason a three-minute song can devastate you, or make you
get up and dance, stop what you're doing and go, 'What is that?' It
just hits you. And it's a very potent thing you're playing around
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
"It’s tempting to show off your chops and use the trickiest moves and voicings you know on the guitar. But what feeds the guitarist’s ego isn’t necessarily what listeners are seeking in a song; a simple melody, a good beat, and emotional clarity tend to connect much more directly and powerfully than clever or fancy accompaniment."
"A strong bass line bolsters the groove and leaves a lot of space for exploring melody, and if you start with bass and melody you have many options when filling in the chords later. These other chords may bring a different color or direction to your progression."
"Nothing is more inspiring in songwriting than a great groove, and as several groove-meister songwriters have told me, you’ve got to feel it with your body to deliver it on guitar. ... Think of your guitar as supporting the beat rather than the other way around."
"Change the tuning and then try playing a familiar chord fingering—and listen to whatever happens. You may stumble on an unexpectedly cool sound you would never have found intentionally."
"...you can lower the tuning of all the strings a half step or a whole step to put the guitar into a less familiar range while still being able to play normal fingerings."
"One simple way to find fresh sounds on the guitar is to play around with a capo. Take a familiar progression of open chords in the key of G, for instance; add a capo at the third fret, and you’re playing in the not-so-familiar key of Bb. The change of key and register may stir some ideas."
"How to avoid cliche at the root of conception? Practice sincerity.
If we've come by ... material honestly, through our own personal experience or imagination, we may rightly claim it as our own. ...
The way to make material your own is to look for it in yourself. ...
It should be a story that only you can tell, as only you
can tell it."
"Whether your characters journey daily to a distant moon or just
down the street to the corner bar, what matters to the reader is the
singular event that distinguishes one such voyage from all the others
and makes for a story worth telling."
"Use melody, downbeat, and longer notes to emphasize important
"Use vocal range, chords, melodic rhythm, and use of the downbeat
or off-beat to distinguish different parts of a song. If one
of those doesn't change, the others become more important."
"Do something twice then do something else."
"Let your hooky chorus notes be heard the first time in the
"Part of what you write in lyrics is what you don't write."
"If you use the same chorus in a song, it should get deeper each
time you repeat it."
"You write a song because you have something to say that's worth
write a song or a poem,
create a piece of art
... we don't really
finish it. The
reader, the listener,
the viewer finishes it."
written in a song almost
always tells me what to
"I don’t really know why an idea comes to me. But all of a sudden, an idea comes, and from experience I can intuit what something means when an interesting line pops up. Or I can intuit what an interesting choice might be. And I can try a couple of different choices, and see which one feels right, and then continue the song to see where it goes."
Sometimes [songs] have elements that could be shared with poetry. But they’re not poems. They’re lyrics. They’re meant to be sung. They come out of the rhythm of the music, as opposed to creating your own rhythm of the words.
And there’s much more use of cliché in songwriting than there is in poetry, because a song is going at a certain tempo and it’s going fast, and if you miss a line, you missed it. But when you’re reading poetry, you read it at a much slower pace. So the lines can be much more dense, and have words which are not usually in a speaking vocabulary, and which carry multiple meanings. Because you can slow it down so you can get it. But in a song, it’s clocking along, and if you missed it, it’s gone. And if you miss enough of it, well, the song is gone, and you sort of lose interest."
amount of money one
needs is terrifying." -
Ludwig von Beethoven
And if you
chose the songwriting
path, you pretty much
chose not to have any
money. It is a hard,
hard road, with more
than a few terrifying
moments along the way.
But it's worth it. A
great song is a treasure
in its own right.
writing. Be fearless. Do
not give up. Do not be
afraid to go wherever
your muse takes you.
Enjoy the ride. It is a
gift given to very few.
is Hell on Earth. If it
isn't, then you're doing
it wrong." — Jimmy Webb
I do not
know if I can totally
endorse Maestro Webb's
qualification. I have
found that, indeed,
songwriting is "Hell on
Earth," usually for some
period of time right
before it is pure
delight. Ecstasy even.
Most often, it is a
pendulum of pain and
pleasure. It is the
power of your own
passion that keeps it
swinging. It tantalizes
you with the tick of
possibilities and then
tortures you with the
tock of blank walls and
Like the long-distance
runner, the songwriter
must find a way to get
through the pain, to
keep going somehow when
every nerve and every
instinct is screaming
"this isn't right,"
"this isn't natural,"
"it hurts," "I can't."
The "hell" that is
songwriting is knowing
that the greatest
rewards lie on the other
side of that
are "finished" with a
good first-draft of your
song, always do a tense
check. Make sure that
your song is
consistently in present,
past or future tense. If
the tense changes, make
sure that the change is
appropriate and that the
shift is not confusing
or awkward. If the tense
is not critical to the
meaning of the song,
keep in mind that
present tense conveys
more immediacy than past
tense and can help to
put the listener "in"
want your songs to be as
good as they can be,
find someone who knows
songs and songwriting,
whose opinion you trust,
and establish a
relationship with them.
Get them to listen to
your songs and give you
honest feedback. Perhaps
it can be a reciprocal
arrangement. With all
due respect, the
opinions of your mom,
your sibling, your
significant other, your
dog and the ten people
at the coffeehouse (or
even 100 people at the
club in LoDo) don't
count. Your close ones
love you and everything
you do is special and
precious to them. Joe
Schmo in the coffeehouse
is in such awe that
someone can actually
play an instrument,
sing, put words and
music together that you
could set the phone book
to G, C and D and
probably impress him.
The public sets the
songwriting bar so low
here that it is an all
but ineffective measure.
There is not a
business here, so we
really need to look out
for one another, seek
criticism, and try to
push the "state of the
art" in our community
higher. It's up to us.
are no hard and fast
rules. All rules have
exceptions. All rules
are made to be broken.
Nothing succeeds like
success. If it ain't
broke, don't fix it.
Follow your own heart.
been neglecting your
muse. You never call
anymore. And when was
the last time you spent
a leisurely, candlelit
evening--just the two of
you, you and your
Muse--holding hands and
whispering softly to one
another as the cares of
the world disappear into
the shadows . . .
sipping wine, seducing
one another with amorous
allurements and sweet
caresses? As a
songwriter, you need to
relationship with your
Muse. You can't just sit
around waiting for "her"
to get in the mood. Your
Muse gives you one of
the rarest gifts anyone
can be given. Treat
"her" right! Your Muse
needs your undivided
attention once in
awhile. "She" needs to
know you treasure "her."
She needs you to focus
on "her" needs
sometimes. Your Muse is
not some performing
trained dog. "She" needs
to be courted. "She"
needs foreplay. After
all, if "she" isn't
getting satisfaction at
home, "she" may not
stick around. Let your
Muse know you care. Make
a special time and place
for just the two of you.
Trust me. You won't be
overlook your song's
point of view. Plan A
should always be to
write your song either
in first ("I") or
second ("you") person.
This puts your song
directly in the head
of the listener and
lets them identify
with the people in the
("he" or "she") is
much more abstract and
requires the listener
to imagine another
person or even two
disconnected both from
them and from your
Write random lists of
words or ideas or
phrases that pop into
your head. This keeps
the creative brain
pipes flowing, kind of
like leaving the water
running a trickle to
keep plumbing form
freezing. Later, the
words, ideas or
pictures might trigger
an idea for a song. I
find this to be
environments, like a
public place. Places
that are good
locations can be very
creatively. You may
not be able to write
in this environment,
but your brain will be
going a mile a minute.
Don't waste the
great way to beat the
stress and fatigue of
the holiday season is
to ruthlessly make
time for yourself and
your songwriting. It's
a great release and an
outlet for the
ironies that are so
intrinsic to this
season. Don't believe
me? I guarantee that
one hour at the mall,
watching the holiday
guaranteed to give you
at least half a dozen
don't overlook your
talent when it comes
to holiday gifts.
Write a special
holiday song, make a
simple recording of it
and give one-of-a-kind
CDs to your friends
and family as gifts.
It will be
waste time on bad
ideas. Be very stingy
when it comes to how
you spend your
Beating on a bad idea
will waste time and
energy, up your
frustration level and
almost always produce
a weak song. Unless it
is an assignment,
always try to find an
idea you can't stand
not to write.
This [Don't waste time on bad ideas] is
particularly true when
cowriting. We all have
our own interpersonal
styles, strengths and
weaknesses, but there
is no law that says
you need to be
conciliatory or the
"nice guy" when
cowriting. If your
partner suggests an
idea you don't
absolutely love, say
"no." Starting work on
something you don't
believe in is unfair
to you, the cowriter
and the song. You'll
know when you hear one
that excites you.
How To Write a Bad
Song In Four Easy
edit. The first
words and melodies
that come from your
brain are always the
best, most concise
and clearest of all
possible ideas. Why
would you ever want
to change them? How
could they ever be
sure to make your
song about at least
three or four
As long as you're
singing, you might
as well cut a wide
swath. If your song,
"My Navel is an
Innie," is all about
the hidden charms of
your navel (just
gaze upon its
beauty), you should
throw in a few lines
about hiking alone
in the woods, how
much you miss your
first lover and how
to achieve world
peace. That way,
everyone will know
what you think and
you won't need to
write so many songs.
sure to leave out
the part of the song
that explains what
is happening and
like that is just
really wasted time.
What matters most to
the listener is how
you personally feel
about whatever it
was that may or may
not have happened.
We all know that
listeners like music
mainly because they
love to guess what
sure your song is at
least nine minutes
long and that the
melody has only two
notes in it. (Okay,
so this is really
"Five Easy Steps").
If anything is
closer to pure bliss
than a monotone
melody, it's nine
solid minutes of a
Especially if the
song is about seven
or eight different
Find someone to share
your songs with--someone
whom you can trust to
give you honest,
Family, friends and the
crowd down at the
coffeehouse don't count.
They tend to like
everything and to not be
Non sequitur: 1. an
inference or conclusion
that does not follow
from the evidence or
premise; 2. a statement
that does not follow
logically from the
If your song includes
non sequiturs, it will
be perceived as quirky
at best and confusing at
worst. There are
instances where a word
or idea that "comes out
of the blue" can be an
attention-getter in a
song. Generally though,
you should carefully
review your lyric,
keeping in mind that the
listener doesn't know
the back story to your
song or the verse that
explains what is going
on but that you just
deleted because it made
the song too long. Is
is, does it really
provide all the
information the listener
(who probably does not
have a lyric sheet in
hand) needs to get your
It is a conventional
truism in country
writing that you need to
hit your listener upside
the head with what
you're saying--make it
I don't know that
treating every country
listener like a
six-year-old is a good
idea, but you definitely
need to provide all the
and not make your
listener have to think
too much about your
story. They are
listening to a song, not
deciphering a coded
Keep it simple. We are
writing popular (we
hope!) songs, not great
American novels. When
songs get too complex,
the listener finds it
harder to relate to your
song and understand what
you are saying.
This is profoundly true
if you are trying to
write "hit" songs, but
it also applies even to
you "true artists."
Simpler songs have more
impact and a longer life
than complicated songs.
Patience is said to be
a virtue. I don't delve
into the theological
realm, but I can tell
you that for a
songwriter, patience is
an essential quality to
cultivate. ... Trust the
song. Let it happen at
its pace, not yours.
Get your business ducks
in a row. Understand the
basics of copyright law.
Take the time to figure
out the basics of
publishing. I've been
getting more and more
questions about the
legal and business
details of publishing
lately. Attend a seminar
on the subject.
Once you write a song
and bring that unique
mix of words and music
into existence, it
doesn't matter if you
are the most amateur
hobbyist or committed
anti-capitalist or do it
solely for your own
pleasure. Once a song
exists, it has a legal
and commercial life of
its own. Its potential
accrue to you and your
heirs for 70 years after
your death. One of
America's great poets,
Emily Dickinson, never
published a word during
her life. It was only
later that her poems
were discovered locked
in her attic. It is not
much effort to get your
songwriting legal and
financial ducks in a
row, so why not do it
During a writing
session, if you hit a
lull, try playing and/or
singing what you have
completed in a totally
different style, tempo
or rhythm. Stuck
mid-verse on that tender
little folk-rock ballad?
Instead of sitting there
staring into space
listening to the rust
form on your guitar
strings and trying to
pensive, just go a
little nuts. Let her rip
one time as a rockabilly
bluegrass song complete
with nasal high lonesome
twang, or as a
wacked-out latin tango
giving it your best
Ricardo Montalban, or as
opera complete with the
throes. Sometimes, this
provides comic relief
for you (and any
cowriters) and can shake
loose the creative
logjam. Sometimes, it
might even give you a
new phrasing idea or
Keep your lyrics
conversational. One of
the items on your
checklist should be
"Would this person
really say that if we
were talking in real
Harlan Howard said
famously that a great
song is three chords and
the truth. Personally, I
don't care if you use
one chord or twenty
chords, as long as it
works, but you damned
well better tell the
rings false. It exposes
the artifice of the
song. This is the
problem I have with
Country music's penchant
for overly "clever"
hooks. Far too often,
there is not enough song
there, just some guy's
idea of a clever twist
on words and barely
enough song to deliver
Keep things simple,
direct, honest and
clear. Stick to your
message and resist the
urge to play too many
When you play a song,
take a consistent
audience response to
heart, whether good or
bad or lukewarm.
Many songwriters I have
heard locally--and even
many pro writers in LA
or Nashville--tend to
write most of their
songs in the same
rhythmic pocket. If you
have a repertoire that
is mostly a particular
tempo or feel and one of
these songs is getting a
try changing it to a
different tempo or
rhythm. Who knows, that
country ballad that no
one seems to like much
might really be a huge
Think like a painter.
Develop your palette.
Some songwriters fall
into ruts, always
crafting songs out of
the same limited set of
parts. Try to spice up
your lyrics with words
that convey emotion, or
color or movement. Look
for adjectives that
don't necessarily fit
the noun, but add to the
meaning of your song.
For example, instead of
"blue neon," say "lonely
neon." Also look for
melodic choices that
enhance the song's
theme. Instead of
staying safely in the
eight notes of the
standard scale, think
different. For example,
use a minor IV chord. If
you are in the key of
"C," perhaps you can
find a spot where an F
minor works. In
particular, the A-flat
"accidental" note in the
F-minor chord gives you
an opportunity to find a
melancholy note for your
NEVER take yourself or
your song too seriously.
You see, creativity
lurks in a mysterious
region of the brain
known as the
This is a one-celled
immediately between the
reptilian brain and the
Three Stooges brain. So
keep it simple, keep it
fun and keep it at least
a little bit stupid and
you'll be fine.
"You have to know when and where to use rhyme... Rhyme implies
education. And one of the most embarrassing moments of my life was after
a run-through of 'West Side [Story].' ... I thought the lyric [to 'I
Feel Pretty'] was terrific. ...I wanted to show that I could do inner
rhymes, too. That's why I had an uneducated Puerto Rican girl singing
'It's alarming how charming I feel.' You must know that she would not
be unwelcome in Noel Coward's living room... So there it is, to this
day embarrassing me every time it's sung, because it's full of mistakes
"A song is such a short form ... that the slightest flaw seems
like a mountain. And so every song needs to be revised 'til it's close
to perfection... But achieving perfection takes a lot of energy."
"Poetry exists in its conciseness, how much is packed into it;
it's important to be able to read and reread it at your own speed.
Lyrics exist in time, second to second to second. Therefore, lyrics
always have to be underwritten. You cannot expect an audience to catch
more than the ear is able to catch at the tempo and richness of the
"...what I'm doing is assembling and minimally directing what
is sort of unconsciously coming out. It's not something I can direct
or control. I just end up being the first person to hear these songs.
That's what it feels like...that I don't feel as though I write them.
Then there's a phase when you button it up and finish it. But it all
starts with a lightning strike."
"['Fire and Rain'] is sort of almost uncomfortably close. Almost
confessional. The reason I could write a song like that at that point,
and probably couldn't now, is that I didn't have any sense that anyone
would hear it. ...
I could just write or say anything I wanted. Now I'm very aware, and
I have to deal with my ... anxiety about people examining
or judging it. The idea that people will pass judgment on it is not
a useful thought."
"I typically will work on a lyric in a three-ring binder. On
the right side, I'll write the lyric, and on the left side, I put
in alternate things...and things that might be alternates or improvements.
I'll turn the page and do it again. I'll turn the page and do it again,
or incorporate the improvements. Eventually, I end up with some material,
and often it needs to be ordered."
"A lot of writing consists of waiting around for the aquarium
to settle so you can see the fish. Walking around muttering seems to
hasten the process. Taking public transportation nowhere helps. Looking
out the bus window lets the back of your mind move forward. Don't listen
to anything but natural sounds. Do look at anything you have to turn
on. This is about the pleasure of silence. This is not meditating; this
is reacquainting yourself with yourself. Something interesting might
enter your head if you let it alone."
"...half of writing is deciding what to leave out. Learning
what to leave out is not the same thing as putting in only what's
important. Sometimes it's what you're not saying that gives a piece
"I think you can refine what you do, and become more
consistent. And you write better songs that have a
better shape and a better feeling. You evolve into and
out of things, and go through stages, but, ultimately,
you do improve."
"Every song really tells a story. Some are more fleshed
out than others. Some are more linear than others. But
most pop songs, apart from pretty basic dance music, is
telling some kind of a story—usually a love story,
sometimes a political story. In modern songwriting there
is a lot of cinematic technique, where you jump into the
middle of action. You might be writing in first person
through the eyes of the protagonist. It’s a little
cinematic scene, and you do hard cuts. And some more is
left to the imagination."
"I think it’s absolutely possible to write a song and
go somewhere where no one’s been before, uncharted
territory. In terms of content, I see limitations where
there should be none. I know there are things I wouldn’t
write about, but that shouldn’t be the case. You should
be able to make a song out of anything, out of any
is a way to figure out who you used to be and how you got to be who
"It seems like a
song begins to play through you. You just latch on to it and hold on
to it, and it'll take you someplace. That's the inspirational way. Many
times, just a hook-line will come—the hook, or even sometimes
just the first line of it. And you can tell that this is the first line
of a song."
"I collect a lot of scraps as I go through my day, wherever I am. I find myself either pulling on the side of the road as I'm driving and taking down a note, because of something I saw on the corner...and maybe even how I felt about it, because it might inspire a plot. Something will seem that important, even though it looks small. And then when I get back home, or to wherever I'm held up for the time, I'll develop it and see if it develops into a song."
"The voices in my head may not be real,
but they have some good ideas!"
"...one can't always be suitably creative
when the clock is ticking."
"Few writers achieve literary magic with their first drafts.
Ernest Hemingway once told an interviewer, 'I rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times
before I was satisfied.' Award-winning poet Donald Hall has been known
to take a single poem through 150 drafts before he considers it publishable.
The 'magic' of writing often emerges during the editorial process."
"Analyze hit songs. Listen to The Black Keys. Read Elvis Costello's lyrics. Look at techniques used by The Beatles and Paul Simon."
"Read. Read about songwriting and music. Read 'This is Your Brain on Music,' Pat Pattison's 'Writing Better Lyrics,' '88 Songwriting Wrongs and How to Right Them: Concrete Ways to Improve Your Songwriting and Make Your Songs More Marketable,' '101 Songwriting Wrongs and How to Right Them: How to Craft and Sell Your Songs,' songwriting books by Sheila Davis and Jason Blume, 'FutureHit.DNA' by Jay Frank. and Bob Lefsetz' blog."
"Create changes: starts, stops, drama, minor chord to major chord (triumphant), small idea to a bigger change."
"Take it apart and put it back together again."
"It might be a meaningless moment, but those sparks that ignite
the song.... It's mystical maybe, those magic moments. And to make
music for a living, to perform these songs over and over, you have
to safeguard those sparks. If you can do that, they'll last a lot
"If I'm writing... even a piece of a song... I write it down.
If it still resonates six months down the line, a year, even five,
those are the ones you put in your bag and you take to the studio.
You come to realize, the ones that don't make it, they were only meant
to live for that moment in your notebook or on the 4-track—and
plenty of songs never get any farther than the 4-track."
"I like using concrete imagery, but I don't feel that's what it's
about. It's a combination of concrete and abstract to take the listener
somewhere they know better than you. ...it's all some kind of an escape."
advice is to relax and
listen for melodies in
the air even if it is a
song being played across
the way. If something
finds you, you will know
its right and go from
myself and meditate on
the feeling(s) and allow
the song to reveal
"Any quick analysis of a Beatles tune or a Cole Porter tune will reveal often simple but unexpected chords, chords that chromatically shift between keys, or between major and minor."
"Songwriting becomes a conscious attempt
to delve into the unconscious. Even those writers who
scoff at the concept of a spiritual source for their
songs admit that the phenomenon of having them simply
arrive feels magical."
"... perhaps better than any songwriter of our era,
[Joni Mitchell is] a genius at zooming in and out of songs, presenting the big
picture by showing the tiny, telling details."
"Paul Simon once said that a songwriter's supreme challenge was
being complex and simple at the same time—writing songs with lasting
depth that are also simple enough to be memorable."