Song lyrics are not poems put to music. Lyrics can be poetic and should be interesting, but there’s power in conversational lyrics that sound like something the character in your song would actually say.
The CLIMB is a podcast produced by Brent Baxter and Johnny Dwinell dedicated to helping singers, songwriters, and artists gain leverage in the music business. Now part of the American Songwriter Podcast Network, The CLIMB provides insights, advice, and conversation to help you better understand the new music industry. This post is excerpted from Episode #263, “The Power of Conversational Lyrics.”
Brent Baxter: Song lyrics, especially country songs or bluegrass — your more organic kind of earthy stuff — these lyrics are not poetry. They can be poetic, but they’re not poetry. There’s a difference.
A song is not just a poem set to music. It’s more of a conversation. So it’s really important to just say it how you say it. I get a lot of songs that come through my song evaluation service and there are a couple of mistakes I hear people make that take their songs and lyrics out of the conversational realm.
One of them is “Yoda-speak,” where you use words in a different order to make them rhyme.
Johnny Dwinell: Understand the game, you don’t!
Brent Baxter: Make it rhyme, we must. You’re doing that kind of stuff. You’re inverting the sentence structure so you get the rhyme. But that’s not conversational. We don’t talk like that unless we’re a green dude on Dagobah, so it comes across as false in the lyric. It’s like, “I see you writing.” I don’t want to see you writing, just talk to me.
So that’s one thing. And Yoda-speak is definitely something I’ve done before, because I was like, “I want this to rhyme and if I just move these words around in an unnatural pattern, it rhymes perfectly.” Nope. Go back and try to do better.
Less poet, more realist
Another issue is just being overly poetic. You may have a lyric that starts out conversational and then all of a sudden you have this grandiose, poetic, overly dramatic line that sticks out like a sore thumb.
I was writing with my buddy Aaron the other day, and we were talking about a song that we finished up and we were trying to drag it across the finish line and we really like it and he’s excited to play it for the label. And it’s a big love song, but he said, “Yeah, but it’s in the way Aaron Goodman would say it.” Talking about his brand and how his audience would expect him to say it that way. It’s in his voice.
Who walks around speaking in limericks and iambic pentameter?
Brent Baxter: And who walks around rhyming “the moon in June will drip down soon?”
Brent Baxter: Yeah, well cliché rhyme is a whole other topic.
Johnny Dwinell: I’m just saying that’s not conversational either.
Brent Baxter: That’s true. There’s a balance there. We don’t usually go around rhyming. So there is a balance where, yes, these lyrics rhyme and there’s a meter, and phrasing, and prosody, and it needs to be cool — you need to have lines in there that people will remember. But it has to be a balance. It still has to feel like it fell out somebody’s face that way.
So, say it cool and different, but be conversational. It should feel like people talking, but it’s an interesting conversation. An artist wants to say something that sounds like something they’d say — that’s my vernacular, those are words I use, that’s how I talk. So that may be different for different artists, different word choices.
Who are you in your lyrics?
So think about, “what character am I writing for? Does this feel like something he or she would say?” If I’m writing with, say, the Lonely Highway boys, it’s going to be a different language than if I’m writing in a Southern Gospel theme or a bluegrass thing or even with other country artists. They live different lives — they are their audience, so you want to talk like their audience.
I went through some recent country lyrics, some recent country hits, to check out how conversational they are. Here’s one that I really liked. “I Hope,” by Gabby Barrett.
I hope she makes you smile
The way it made me smile on the other end of a phone
In the middle of a highway driving alone
Oh baby, I hope you hear a song that makes you sing along and gets you thinking ’bout her
Then the last several miles turns into a blur
I hope you both feel the sparks by the end of the drive
I hope you know she’s the one by the end of the night
I hope you never ever felt more free
Tell your friends that you’re so happy
I hope she comes along and wrecks every one of your plans
I hope you spend your last dime to put a rock on her hand
I hope she’s wilder than your wildest dreams
She’s everything you’re ever gonna need
So what makes it so interesting is the vibe, the phrasing, the melody the subject matter — what you’re talking about — makes it interesting. But she didn’t have to use a bunch of weird words or any odd way of saying things to keep our attention. This is a massive hit for a brand-new artist out of the gate.
Johnny Dwinell: And then there’s the ambush. It’s so sweet and then… I hope she cheats like you did on me.
Brent Baxter: Well, apparently when they were writing this, they were writing this sweet thing and then when they got to that point somebody went, “yeah, and then I hope she cheats,” and they were like “Whoa!” That’s a real thing. Someone threw that out as a joke bomb, and you know that made them feel something, like you get the chills and you’re like, “did a tiger just walk into the room?”
That’s a real emotion, that’s a real feeling: “I hope you get hurt like I got hurt.” Let’s chase that. That’s a zinger. It’s so good.
And what’s amazing, if you’d never heard that song before, you get ambushed. And then the next time that chorus comes around, it is brand new, because now you know the ending. It’s like watching The Sixth Sense for a second time. You’re like, “Oh, I see it all now!” So the next time that chorus comes around, it’s the same words, but it’s completely different.
There’s lots more to the conversation… listen to the entire podcast!
The CLIMB is a podcast produced by Brent Baxter (award-winning hit songwriter) and Johnny Dwinell (owner of Daredevil Production) that is dedicated to helping singers, songwriters, and artists like you gain leverage in the music business because that’s what you’re gonna need. It’s not just about your talent – you’ve got to bring the business, and that’s why it’s called “The CLIMB,” it’s an acronym that stands for “creating leverage in the music business.”