Conversational Lyrics by Michael Anderson

Songwriting: Conversational Lyrics

By Michael Anderson

In working with songwriters sometimes the most difficult area to give definitive method and approach is in lyric writing.

Writers by nature are an individual lot – it is their stylistic personality and even idiosyncrasies that give writers their unique voice. To codify and categorize, too attempt to standardize it, or teach a method for it, may by definition be going against the special qualities a teacher may want to encourage.

However, it is naïve to say all lyrics are created equal. A well written lyric is obvious, a poorly written lyric even more so. For example, “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, now it looks as though they’re here to stay, oh I believe in yesterday” is better than, “My girlfriend left me and now I am miserable so I wish we could go back the way it was”. McCartney in “Yesterday” elegantly and poetically expresses a feeling many people experience  – the second example is stating the obvious in an ordinary way. Conversational perhaps, but a rather boring conversation.

But how to teach that difference? How can you let a writer see and hear his or her lyric the way the rest of the world does? I have students and writers tell me all the time that they don’t care if the listener doesn’t understand their lyric, they can make up their own meaning. But is it good?

I consistently tell writers to get out of the safety and shell of their writing environment and take their material out into the real world. Perform at coffee houses, showcases, writer nights, and even for your friends. That moment of clarity when you first hear your song in the presence of someone else is more valuable than all the second guessing every writer goes through when trying to decide if something is good or not.

One thing I emphasize for new writers is conversational lyrics as a place to start writing. I know there are other approaches – you can be poetic, imagery based, vague, or impressionistic – but a simple, conversational lyric will convey the meaning of your song, the theme, and the story line, in a way no other approach can.

A conversational lyric is personal – it can reach out and touch the listener. The definition, simply, is a lyric approached in the manner of a conversation – does it feel like someone talking to someone else? Is it easy to understand? Does it make a point? Does it build a story, with emotional dynamics, through the sections of the song, to a fulfilling resolution? Does the listener come away with an emotional satisfaction and understanding of the point you are trying to convey?

Country songs are noted for these qualities, but a good pop song of any genre can have the same effect – and when a song does, it usually stands above the rest.

Sometimes it is hard to wrap your creativity around the concept because when you first start writing you feel like you need to be “profound” or say important, poetic or interesting things. That kind of pressure feels frustrating because you can’t be better than you are – you have to start somewhere.

I have found that staying simple and getting going conversationally will start the creative flow and you can build from there on the inertia of the process – before you know it you will write something better than you thought you could – that is one of the rewards of making the effort.

But where to start? I find that if you put yourself in the situation of talking to a friend – maybe even on the phone – how would you say what you are trying to say in your lyric? I mean exactly. Use your language – use the language and feel of what your friend would understand in a relaxed, normal way. You may surprise yourself with how some of your normal language and phrases sound out loud and played back – listen for the turn of phrase that is slightly left of center but says what you want it to say clearly. Pay attention for titles, themes, and catch phrases.

I talk to many people who speak English as a second language and being natural and writing lyrics in a conversational way is more difficult for them. They may pick up slang and common terms, American ways of saying things, but it is often an awkward translation.

My advice for them, and it may be just as valid for someone who speaks English as a first language, is to listen very carefully. Inundate yourself with American English – it is a very descriptive, rich treasure with a lot of nuance and subtlety – it is a tradition that goes back symbolically through R&B, jazz, and the blues. The American pop lexicon is a very metaphoric language. And the best way to learn it is to listen, listen and listen – and then use it. Listen to the classics as well as contemporary forms – the old blues masters were amazing for the variety of emotional layering they could incorporate with a very focused, conversational lyric development.

Start simple, and build clearly. It is more work than just writing whatever, but when you converse, the goal is communication. And that is what a good song is about.

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