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Seven Things Every Lyricist Should Know

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The CLIMB is a podcast produced by Brent Baxter and Johnny Dwinell dedicated to helping singers, songwriters, and artists create leverage in the music business. This post is excerpted from The CLIMB podcast, Episode #125, “Seven Things Every Lyricist Should Know.”

In “Seven Things Every Lyricist Should Know,” award-winning hit songwriter Brent Baxter explains that “Realizing these points has really helped me in my songwriting career to get my head right and keep it right. If you are a lyricist, or if you also write melody but you think your strength is more lyric, this is for you. And if you’re a melody writer who works with some lyricists, this is for you so you can play camp counselor to your lyricist friends. This is more mindset stuff, so this will be helpful no matter what your thing is.”

Seven things every lyricist should know

1) You are enough. You are a songwriter. Writing lyrics is a valuable skill and the people who matter know that good lyrics matter. If you think or act like you’re not worthy, people will assume that you probably aren’t. You don’t want to be arrogant, but you do want to be confident. You’re not just a lyricist, you a specialist, and there’s value in that.

2) Pick your co-writers carefully, because lyrics are only half the song. If you’re a lyricist, you do need a co-writer. But I can tell you from experience, it’s a terrible feeling to take an idea or a lyric that you love into a co-write and have somebody slap on a sub-par melody. You do want to be mindful and careful. If you’re a lyricist, you’re not going to sit in a room by yourself and hammer out a hit song, but you’re not going to sit in a room with a mediocre writer and hammer out a hit song, either.

3) Bring in ideas that let your co-writers shine. Each of your co-writers is going to have different strengths: one may write killer traditional country songs, another might write great female pop country. Where am I going to take my “cry in my beer” ideas? The guy who writes great “cry in my beer” country songs. Let your co-writers do what they’re great at.

4) Give respect to the melody. I used to not care too much about how a line sang, as long as they got my words in there. That was proof of my arrogance and my inexperience and my songs suffered as a result. You need to understand and appreciate the importance of a melody. If you want a song to get sung, it has to sing. It’s not all about the melody, and it’s not all about the lyric: it’s all about the song. The lyric and melody.

5) Show up with two or three song ideas. If you’re writing with a seasoned pro, they’re expecting ideas from you. After all, they can probably write a great song without you, so what do they want from you as a lyricist? They want your ideas. That’s why you’re in the room. And if you’re a younger writer, they want the language you use. They want to hear how the 20-somethings are talking. It also just shows that you don’t just have one idea.

6) You don’t always have to write your idea. You’re responsible for showing up with some ideas that are worthy of being written, but that doesn’t mean you have to shoehorn your idea into what’s being written that day. We’re in the service business. If the service that day is to help your co-writer write their idea, ’cause it’s just a better idea or something that’s really on their heart and you can work on something that really means something to them, that’s something to consider. I look at it as a bonus: I brought my strong ideas to work on and we worked on something else… I still have all my strong ideas to work on the next time I have a co-write!

7) The melody writers are just as scared of you as you are of them. People who can create great melodies out of thin air might be a mystery to you. They are to me. I don’t get it, that’s not how my brain works, it’s not a skill-set I have. But I’ve learned it runs both ways. I write with people and they’ll ask, where do these words come from? “I don’t know, where do your melodies come from?” The beautiful thing is you each have something that the other person needs. It’s beautiful when it works together.

These are the seven main points, but you’ll get a lot more insights hearing Brent and Johnny banter back and forth point by point. Check it out!

 


The CLIMB is a podcast produced by Brent Baxter (award-winning hit songwriter with cuts by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Lady Antebellum, Joe Nichols, and more) and Johnny Dwinell (owner of Daredevil Production) that’s dedicated to helping singers, songwriters, and artists like you create leverage in the music business because that’s what you’re gonna need. You’re gonna need some leverage, you’re gonna need an audience, and you’re gonna need a reason for people to stand up and salute you. It’s not just about your talent – you’ve got to bring the business, and that’s why we call it The CLIMB, it’s an acronym that stands for “creating leverage in the music business.” Hear this entire podcast and more at on the Disc Makers website.

Professional songwriters offer advice on how to write a 
great 
song

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12 thoughts on “Seven Things Every Lyricist Should Know

  1. I’ve written lyrics for som thirty songs. Fun songs, kids songs, saucy songs, country songs and love songs. I’ve tryed putting music to my words using a keyboard and a baritone ukulule. I Feel my work is wasted without the help of a good musician or band. Where do I go from here? HELP!

  2. There is a lot of emphasise nowadays of ‘Getting in a room with someone’ or some others and while this is great for topping up your skills and making contacts not many REAL hits are written this way. You spend 2 or 3 hours with strange people and like Brent says–take something along you prepared earlier or you may just all be looking at each other. f you’re ‘in a room’ you’re most likely writing for someone else, not for yourself to use. Usually the end product is a pretty soulless average song that might still get radio play if the artist is known but soon joins the hundreds of average releases that week. The songs that really count are the ones sweated over with true sentiment and meaning–a piece of work–as opposed to let’s crank another one out and hope for the best. When you have written something really good you know it and it was worth the effort. Don’t settle for mediocre just to get a song finished.

    1. I agree… with parts. Yes, don’t settle for mediocre just to get a song finished! Amen! But sometimes, getting in the room with people I don’t know well… well… leads to new friendships and some of my favorite songs. Not always, but sometimes. Ultimately, you and your cowriters need to “click,” to be compatible on a creative level. Sometimes that’s through challenge and friction, sometimes that’s through warm fuzzies. Whatever gets you there. Thanks for your thoughts, Roger! Keep on CLIMBing!

  3. I beg to differ about the tools and skills a lyricist should have. But first, in my opinion there is a difference between a lyricist and songwriter. If you are a songwriter than yes, you need to be able to have a melody, lyrics and /or ideas to contribute to a song or present your own song with melody and lyrics. However, if you are a lyricist, you don’t need a melody, just words.

    I have hired lyricist who were shocked that I could take there lyrics only, without the need of their melody. A lot of them could not write without a melody and therefore, were not hired. Then their were others who were not sure of how I was going to use their words if I didn’t have a melody. I tell them, here is the subject of what I looking for (like, going on a cruise) and just write words on that subject with any method that you need such as using your own melody to come up with the words. If I like your melody I will use it, if not, I will use my own with just your lyrics. Hence, songwriting vs. lyric writing.

    In sum, it depends on who you are working for, or with, that will determine the skills and tools one may need. For example, as a songwriter myself, sometimes I can write a melody but can’t come up with the words, so all I’m looking for or in need of is words and vice versa As mentioned earlier, a songwriter is one who can write both melody and words and a lyricist is one who can write words, at least that’s how I see and feel about it.

  4. Not very worthwhile or enlightening. All pretty obvious, I would think, to anyone who writes. And why the emphasis on co-writing? That wasn’t in the title… Poor.

    1. Hi, Gelon.
      I think you’d be surprised how many lyricists DON’T find this stuff to be obvious. And the emphasis on co-writing is because lyrics by themselves are not a song. I come from the Nashville school of writing where writers get in a room together (or online) and work on a song together. In those cases, knowing how to operate in a co-write to bring the best song to life is an important skill set.

  5. I am excited about this information. I have been writing lyrics for years. Many times the words come with a melody or the melody is heard before the lyrics are complete. My genre is gospel with a few love songs and some could be classified as country. However, my inspiration and gift are geared to the gospel. Any information you give me will be highly appreciative. Thank you in advance!

    1. Hi, Bertha! So sorry I’m just now seeing this comment! I’ve been writing a lot more gospel myself over the past few months. Over on my website, SongwritingPro.com, I’ve also added interviews with CCM and gospel writers such as Kenna West, Tyrus Morgan, Tony Wood, Daywind publisher Joe Dan Cornett, and others. It’s in the Member area there. I hope it serves you well!

  6. Many artists praised for their lyrics often strike me cold musically (e.g. many acclaimed ‘seventies singer-songwriters). One artist whose words are as interesting as his music is Paul Simon. In a 2011 Rolling Stone interview, Simon admitted that he does not start a song until he has a strong musical idea. No wonder I love his songs.

    1. Hi, Jim.
      Yes, I’d say it’s rare for a writer to be equally strong with both words and music. That’s one reason why so many songs are co-written. It’s also fun as a team sport.

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