If you are interested in writing lyrics with depth, you need a deep artistic well to draw from. All output requires input, and as a lyricist, I recommend you begin with words.
Most of the articles you read online or in print about lyric writing concern themselves with teaching you how to write the elusive “hit song.” They focus on pop song structure, generating universal appeal, and writing those “winning” words so you can have that career in songwriting you’ve always dreamed of. There’s nothing wrong with those articles, that approach, and those dreams, but the lyrics that have interested me are closer to poetry and prose than Justin Timberlake. When we are talking about artistic value, abstraction has equal value as linear narrative, chart success is not an indicator of artistic success, and craftsmanship becomes the currency that matters.
Writers like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and Joni Mitchell (to name but a few) use language to convey worlds beyond the boy-meets-girl ethos of the pop song. But even within the pop song structure, having lyrical depth gives listeners more to hold on to and keeps them coming back for more. Ric Ocasek (from the Cars), John Lennon, Carole King, and Smokey Robinson work within the themes and structure of pop music while creating narratives and using evocative words and phrases to give glimpses into worlds beyond the actual words. Here are some suggestions to give your own lyrics more depth and weight so they will stand up to repeated listens.
Read, watch, listen (but mostly read)
In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron says that “filling the well” is essential to the creative process. She compares it to stocking a trout pond: if we have filled our well with images, sights, and sounds, when it comes time to create, the pond will be filled with a wealth of creative material. Overfishing depletes the pond, so it is always necessary to keep refilling our wells and replenishing our creative resources. This can take many forms, but Cameron suggests the key is focusing on fun and following your sense of the mysterious.
So if you are interested in writing lyrics with more depth, you need a deep artistic well to draw from. All output requires input, and as a lyricist, I recommend you begin with words. Read books that fascinate you. Read books that might be weird and incomprehensible to you. Read easy books, fun books, strange books, poems, plays, novels, novellas, and short stories. Studying poetry is exceptionally helpful for lyricists, as poems use words with similar importance and economy as songs. Just like with poems, deliberate choices in phrasing, words used, and rhyme scheme are very helpful to consider as a lyricist.
If the world of poetry seems daunting, start with relatively modern poets like William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, William Blake, and Allen Ginsburg. Working back chronologically, the world of poetry can open itself to you. And if all else fails, there’s always Poetry for Dummies.
While Cameron recommends fun as the guidepost when it comes to sources for your search, I recommend you push yourself a little. Read something that might seem difficult or out of your wheelhouse, like Shakespeare or Ulysses by James Joyce or Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Make a dent in the Bible — not for religious reasons — but because it has been one of the greatest sources of imagery for songwriters, writers, and artists for generations. Bob Dylan kept a huge Bible in his study during the writing of the album John Wesley Harding, and it’s no accident that “All Along the Watchtower” borrows heavily from Chapter 21 of the Book of Isaiah.
Think of reading for a lyricist as being like studying music theory for an instrumentalist. You need a command of the English language and a rich vocabulary in order to have a deep well of words to draw from. David Bowie, an avid, voracious reader, was a great example of this. One technique he used to bypass conscious thought in writing was the cut-up technique pioneered by author William Burroughs. He would write a set of lyrics on paper, cut them up with scissors into individual words and phrases, and then rearrange them to form a song. His vast, deep well of words made sure that no matter how the finished song came out, it would be interesting.
African nightmare one-time Mormon
More men fall in Hullabaloo men
I slide to the nearest bar
Undermine chairman I went too far
—”African Night Flight,” David Bowie
While having a well-stocked word well is most important, having a library of visual images can also inform or inspire lyrics. Studying paintings, sculpture, and moving images can only add to your available palette from which to pull your words. Yes, TV counts! Julia Cameron would approve.
Explorations in sound can also be inspirational, especially listening to instrumental music or music you’ve never heard or explored before. The one caveat (and the reason I put reading first) is that music with lyrics with which you are familiar might encourage imitation rather than creation. Imitation can be good as a writing exercise, but if the purpose is gaining more depth in your lyrics, focus on the words coming from you.
Use local color and detail
“Local color” refers to the usage of a particular geographical region or place for a literary setting, focusing on presenting features and peculiarities common only to that area. Some pertinent examples of local color in literature used to immerse a reader in a particular place and time would be Mark Twain’s presentations of life on the Mississippi River, Willa Cather’s depictions of Plains prairie life, and Bret Harte’s stories of the California Gold Rush.
Local color can also be a helpful device in songs. Lou Reed, who wrote tales of Harlem drug deals and dirty city boulevards, is a prominent example of this, and it made him a songwriter forever associated with New York City. Neil Young has many references throughout his catalog to his native Canada, as does Joni Mitchell. Their fellow countryman Leonard Cohen may not name drop Canadian cities, but in songs like “Winter Lady” and “The Stranger Song,” we get a strong sense of the atmosphere of the north country. Likewise, when you hear lyrics about boats, margaritas, and beach life, Jimmy Buffett may have just musically recreated life on the Gulf of Mexico for you, and how many hundreds of songwriters have name-dropped the streets and smoggy, desperate vibe of Los Angeles? Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” takes us to the heart of Jamaica and the government housing of Trenchtown where he grew up. And the world of rap music is drenched in references to life on city streets — some imagined, many drawn from real life.
Try adding depth to your lyrics with local color by free-associating about the place you currently live or where you grew up. What’s special about it? What’s not special about it? What are some place names that uniquely identify it? What do people do there that they don’t do anywhere else? Dive deep and exhaust every possible detail. It makes for richer lyrics to be specific. Rather than say “I saw her at the coffee shop down the street on the corner,” you could write something like “I saw her at Eagle Diner down Cemetery Road off 5th St.”
Colorful place and street names can be effective, but don’t stop there in your quest for lyrical depth. Many of the writers mentioned so far are great at being slightly vague and yet specific enough to make the lyric interesting. Tom Waits is from Los Angeles, but most of his early lyrics point to a nameless, faceless car-and-bar culture in a somewhat anonymous America. We’re not really sure where he is in his songs most of the time, but we have vivid descriptions of the people and things that go on there. The vagueness of the place means listeners can bring their imagination to the table and help co-create the local color in their minds, as in his song “Invitation to the Blues.”
And you feel just like Cagney, she looks like Rita Hayworth
At the counter of the Schwab’s drugstore
You wonder if she might be single, she’s a loner and likes to mingle
Got to be patient, try and pick up a clue
She said “How you gonna like ’em, over medium or scrambled?”
You say “Anyway’s the only way,” be careful not to gamble
On a guy with a suitcase and a ticket getting out of here
It’s a tired bus station and an old pair of shoes
This ain’t nothing but an invitation to the blues
—”Invitation to the Blues,” Tom Waits
Waits starts off specific about his locations, but they are images of a Hollywood long past. He then dives deep into the local color of a murky vagabond life in restaurants, bus stations, and old movies. The vagueness of where and when allows the situation to be more universal and not planted in one locality.
If you think your locality is boring and makes for a crappy source, I’d advise you to read the words poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a young poet who asked him for advice: “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.” In other words, write about exactly why how much your hometown stinks. Frank Zappa drew lyrical inspiration from the “plastic people” in his native California, and the punk band The Minutemen explored their own local history.
We learned punk rock in Hollywood
Drove up from Pedro
We were f***ing corndogs
We’d go drink and pogo
—“History Lesson Part II,” The Minutemen
So even if you grew up in the most boring suburb known to humankind, the device of local color can still help you bring specificity to your songs and draw the listener in. Adding a touch of vagueness, almost like the sfumato haze around the edges of Rembrandt paintings, can give the listener a way to enter the world. “After all, it could be anywhere,” they might think. Local color includes moving “west down Ventura Boulevard,” like the vampires in Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin,” and the “dusty beach road” where ghosts haunt the “skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets” in Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.”
Distill your feelings
John Lennon had this piece of songwriting advice: “Say what you mean, make it rhyme, and put it to a backbeat.” He’s not wrong, but I think the most challenging part is the first line: “say what you mean.” Speaking with authority and integrity in your lyrics is a challenge worth rising to. It’s worth taking the time and effort involved to unravel complex thoughts and emotions, lay your internal world out in front of you, and try to form that into lyrics. This requires patience, bravery, and often hard work.
Songs, like any other form of dramatic art, are best when the stakes are high. “Busted flat in Baton Rouge / waiting for a train / and I’m feeling nearly as faded as my jeans” wrote Kris Kristofferson in “Me and Bobby McGee,” setting the stage for a traveling gypsy character who is at the bottom with “nothing left to lose.” Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” one of the most compelling songs narratives of all time, is about the narrator’s assumed boyfriend committing suicide because of a secret he couldn’t keep.
Most of us don’t live such dramatic lives day to day. If we are writing from what we know and using ourselves as our source material, how can we hope to compete with these rich narratives? Try identifying your feelings, bat them around through free association, and then write them down. In other words, the deeper you can go within and know yourself, the deeper your lyrics will be. You want to write deep lyrics? Be a deep person. Take this example from George Harrison, written after he began the practice of Transcendental Meditation:
We were talking, about the space between us all
And the people, who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth, then it’s far too late when they pass away
—”Within You Without You,” The Beatles
So how do we distill our feelings and come to these realizations? There are many tools to help you dive deeper inside your own thoughts and feelings. Journaling, therapy, yoga, meditation, spending time in solitude in nature, immersing yourself in great art or music… these are all are valid tools to help you come to know yourself on a deeper level.
The other way to get to the heart of your essence is a way I would never wish on anyone but seems to be the way most people get there: pain. Be it physical, emotional, or mental anguish, if you have experienced some kind of trauma in your life, it has most likely made you a deeper person. In my experience, people who have experienced loss and survived connect with others on a deeper level and have richer wells of compassion and humanity. No one wants to become a deeper person this way, but to be able to take your pain and make art from it is therapeutic for you and for the listeners who might have experienced something similar. If you have unresolved trauma/physical pain, please consult professionals (a doctor or mental health practitioner) before embarking on a journey of self-realization through lyric writing. You don’t have to do it alone. But creating is healing, and certainly this is a deep and meaningful well to draw from. Pain and loss have a way of burning away what is not essential and revealing our truest, deepest selves.
Some final thoughts
It’s not necessary to aspire to wordy lyric poetry to have deep lyrics. Often just a well-placed word or phrase out of the ordinary will be enough to give the song a bit of mystery.
I can’t feel this way much longer
Expecting to survive
With all these hidden innuendoes
Just waiting to arrive
It’s such a wavy midnight
And you slip into insane
Electric angel rock and roller
I hear what you’re playin’
It’s an orangy sky
Always it’s some other guy
It’s just a broken lullaby
Bye bye love
—”Bye Bye Love,” Cars
Popular as they were, Nashville publishers would most likely have rejected most Cars’ song as too weird and non-commercial, and we’re considering how to engage a listener through the art of organizing words in creative and interesting ways. Even in country music or pop songs aimed at a teenage audience, writers like Taylor Swift can find some depth through specific detail and the local color of a high school setting.
You’re on the phone with your girlfriend, she’s upset
She’s going off about something that you said
‘Cause she doesn’t get your humor like I do
I’m in my room, it’s a typical Tuesday night
I’m listening to the kind of music she doesn’t like
And she’ll never know your story like I do
But she wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts
She’s cheer captain, and I’m on the bleachers
Dreaming about the day when you wake up
And find that what you’re looking for has been here the whole time
—”You Belong With Me,” Taylor Swift
If you keep reading and broadening your command of the language, examine and bring into focus the details and local color in your immediate environment/hometown, and begin or continue your own journey of self-discovery, you’ll be a long way towards having the input necessary to output lyrics of great depth and vibrancy.
Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.
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