When old white men write rap lyrics

Let’s get the rat out on the table – I am a middle-aged, white man who listened to pop, rock, country, jazz and classical music growing up. My first rap experience was hearing someone play Rapper’s Delight on their boom box in a high school locker room. Since then, I have always been aware of rap, but I have never been a part of that scene.

Then last year, I decided to write a rap song.

First… what? Why? Simple. Because I like trying new things, and it keeps my writing fresh. It breaks me out of my comfort zone and foces me to learn new things. And to write a rap song, I have a lot to learn. That’s fun.

So, having made the potentially disasterous decision to proceed, the first thing I did was find some music to listen to. I got on YouTube and looked up lists of ‘greatest’ and ‘best’ and ‘most popular’ rap artists and songs in the last 30 years. I listened to a bunch of music and picked out a few favorites: Eminem, Post Malone and DJ Khaled are all on that list, though I also listened to Snoop Dog, Kanye West, Drake, Flo Rida, ASAP Rocky and many others.

Let’s put the second rat on the table. I didn’t know the difference between rap and hip-hop. Maybe I still don’t. I’ve read Hip-hop is a culture and Rap music is one element of that culture. I’ve also heard hip-hop music is more about the beat and rap is more about on the lyrics. Whatever. Regardless of terminlolgy, I had to pick a style more specific than just rap. I realized I’m not interested in writing gangsta rap, or mumble rap, but I like a lot of party, smooth and pop rap, so I’ll call what I am going for a smooth pop rap. That’s pretty close to old R&B stuff I used to listen to, so that works for me.

Next, I created a simple beat that had the mood I wanted, and then dove into the hard part – writing the lyrics. As I’ve said in earlier posts, I don’t necessarily write about me, but I have to have something to say. What I wanted to write about was that period of life when you have to decide what your path will be – separate from everyone telling you what they think you should be, and follow your own path. I’ve had to go through that a few times in my life, starting with when I decided to become a musician over the objections of my father.

Having a general idea of what I wanted to say, I started writing a story just stream of consciousness. Again, I’ve discussed that process in earlier blogs, so I won’t rehash it. Eventually I had the rough idea of a young man who had just had a fight with their girlfriend because they wanted to follow their dream instead of doing what other people wanted. With that outline, I started on the wordsmithing portion of the process.

Rap lyrics are fundamentally different from rock, pop and folk lyrics in many ways. A few of the differences are:

Word choice: Rap lyrics use many common words and phrases, of course, but some also throw in ‘big words’ and they use words in different ways. For example, they might use a line like this:

I'm gonna show them, NBA star

Can be read ‘I’m gonna show them, and be a star’, but with the obvious reference to the NBA, and being a basketball star.

Here is another line, using the ‘big words’ finessing and caressing.

I'll be caressing and finessing your body

You can look up lists of words that are commonly used in rap songs, but being an old white guy, those words aren’t things I normally say, even when I get ‘artistic’, so if I tried to use them without being totally immersed in the culture my lyrics would be pretty whack, as they say. Also, I might get accused of trying to appropriate what is a mostly black culture, and I certainly don’t want to do that. I am doing this for personal growth, but also out of respect for a prominent musical style, much the same way I learned Jazz growing up.

I listened to a lot of songs to find examples that used language I could relate to. Luckily, that wasn’t too hard. ‘God’s Plan’ by Drake or ‘Lose Yoursef’ by Eminem are both songs that don’t use too much lingo, while still painting amazing pictures in the listener’s head.

One of the next differences is the use of different rhyming schemes. In traditional songwriting, we use inner rhymes (rhyming words in the middle of a line), but mostly you are rhyming the last word of each line, in patterns like AABB or ABAB. Look at this sample from Lose Yourself (by Eminem)

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti
He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready
To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgettin'
What he wrote down, the whole crowd goes so loud
He opens his mouth, but the words won't come out
He's chokin', how, everybody's jokin' now
The clocks run out, times up, over, blaow!

Eminem uses inner and end rhymes (sweaty, heavy, already, spaghetti, ready, forgettin), and rhymes the middle of phrases (calm and ready…to drop bombs). His end rhyme scheme is standard AAAA, although ‘ready’ and ‘forgettin’ are only loosely rhymed with the ‘eh’ sound, so it almost feels like AAAX. Regardless, the structure is overwhelmed by the sheer pace and asymetrical nature of the rhymes. For example, in line 3, nervous and surface form an inner rhyme that do not follow the ‘sweaty, ready’ ea sound.

Let’s highlight the rhymes to make it clearer:

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready
To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgettin
What he wrote down, the whole crowd goes so loud
He opens his mouth, but the words won’t come out
He’s chokin’, how, everybody’s jokin’ now
The clocks run out, times up, over, blaow!

In the first 4 lines he rhymes 2 words, 2 words, 3 words, then 1 word.  The next 4 lines are the same except for the additional ‘out’ rhyming with ‘now’ and ‘blaow’ on the last line.  I’m sure he did that to increase the tension and pace as the verse moved along, not because he couldn’t find another rhym to ‘ready’ and ‘forgettin’.

This blog is getting long, so I’m going to end here for now.  The takeaways here are that each musical style has it’s own sound and feel, and for someone like me who hasn’t lived with a style, I can still analyze what others have done and use that information in my writing.  It won’t make me great, but it gives me a baseline.

Next, we will start to look at my song ‘What I gotta do’, and see how I incorporated what I learned in my own lyrics.

What, no Bridge!

A while ago I realized I was falling into a rut using the same song form over and over again.  It was making my songs feel the same, even though they are quite varied in other ways.  So I decided to try to mix things up force myself to write a few songs that don’t have a ‘bridge’.   The bridge is the part in a song that usually comes after the second chorus, and breaks up the repetition caused by alternating between a verse and chorus.

The form I was stuck in went something like this:

Intro — Verse 1 — Chorus — Verse 2 — Chorus — Bridge  — Chorus — Coda (outro)

I was varying that structure a little bit, but essentially my songs all had verses where the lyrics change a lot, a chorus where the lyrics are pretty much the same each time, and a bridge that has a different feel and lyrically ‘sums up’ the song.

I was encouraged by the number of songs that do not have a bridge – the entire catalog of 12-bar blues, for example.  Man of Constant Sorrow is another example I like.  And I was pretty sure that even if I failed miserably, nobody would be permanently injured.  So with that positive attitude I dove in!

My first thought was to add more variety to the verses and chorus by adding or removing lines each time around and maybe changing the melody a little. There are a lot of other things I could do as well – vary the tone by changing the instruments or rhythm.  Add in a guitar solo, or change the rhyming pattern to name a few.

The first song In my experiment is called ‘Baby Don’t You Worry’ and is for a musical I am working on.  The story behind the song is a homeless mother singing her child to sleep on their first night living on the street.  It’s a real toe tapper… not!  Because it is a lullaby, I felt I could get away with fewer sections.

In the end I’m not sure whether I eliminated the bridge or the chorus, but I definitely got rid of something.  The song is structured like this:

Intro – Verse 1 – Verse 2 – Bridge/Chorus – Verse 3 (instrumental except for last line) – Verse 4

or, in more music theory terms: A A B A A

Pretty simple and repetitive, to be sure.

When I first played it for people, they noticed the repetition of the verses.  The ‘B’ theme and mostly instrumental 3rd verse weren’t offering quite enough variety.  They also noticed what a terrible singer I am and that I am not female, so I asked Kat Sylvan to sing it for me.  Even with her wonderful vocal, the structure wasn’t working!  The song is a lullaby, but I don’t actually want to bore my listeners into a coma. What to do? In the end all I did was dropped out most of the accompaniment in the final verse to give the vocal a very intimate feel.  That worked well for what I wanted to accomplish with this song, so I stopped there.

Taking risks and trying new things is part of songwriting.   Sometimes the ideas work, sometimes they don’t and you move on.  You can decide for yourself which way you feel about this song:

Please leave your comments – good or bad – below.

Next up I will discuss ‘Take me Down’, where I went further into varying the melody, vocal harmonies and orchestration to get some thing with more variety, but still fewer sets of chord changes.





The Idea Box

Have you ever had a great idea – one that was going to be the best song you’d ever written – but it came to you at a time or place where you couldn’t work on it right then?  And when you get to a place you can work on it, the idea is gone.  I used to do that all the time, and for a while I wrote all those ideas off as ‘not good enough’.  After all, if it wasn’t memorable, then it couldn’t have been very good.  Turns out, I was wrong.

Even when I am home, I don’t usually write a song from beginning to end in one sitting.  Most of the time I have an idea while practicing, driving, or whatever.   I don’t want to forget those ideas, so I created an ‘idea box’ where I put all of my undeveloped ideas.  ‘Idea Box’ is a little misleading – in reality I record ideas in a music notebook, on a voice recorder (my phone), in with text editor.  I use whichever one is available and most convenient when I have a new idea.  But I copy everything onto my computer so I have a permanent record of everything all in one place.

My process is very fluid.  I might start a new song by improvising on my piano or guitar,  by singing, with a lyrical idea (like Whiskey Road), or just beating out a rhythm on the table.  I really don’t favor one over the others, so I’d say I use each about equally.  I generate a lot of ideas, but I don’t have time to develop them all, which is where my idea box comes in.

To demonstrate what sorts of things are in my idea box, here are a few random selections.

Words, Words and more Words

I keep a lot of little ideas for lyrics.  Some are pretty complete, others are just a line or two.  Let’s peek inside the box!

I was away from home when this idea came to me, so I dictated the words into my cell phone and wrote them down when I got home.

Did you come to say you’re sorry,
Or just to say goodby
Are you here to tell the truth
Or just another of your lies

I sang the next one into the voice recorder on my phone while sitting at a stop light.  I will see if I can find the original recording and post it too.  It is really embarrasing.

She’s got the devil’s heart and an angel’s face
If you make her mad she’ll put you in your place
Daddy couldn’t tame her; would’ve been a waste
She has the devil’s heart and an angel’s face

She don’t want to live in a state of grace
The preacher told her

She’s got an angel’s face but the devil’s heart
She’ll lead you on then tear you apart

And finally,  I liked the sound of the phrase ‘Hot winter’s night’, so I wrote it down:

You and me by the fire light
It’s going to be a hot, hot winter’s night

Gimme a Beat!

This is an example where I just turned on the drum machine and started improvising (I added the bass later).  I kind of go off the rails at about the 1:00 mark, but that is what happens.  You can’t judge yourself when you are in the brainstorming stage, you just have to let things happen, good or bad.  This one is a mix of both 🙂


Unchained Melody

I wanted to write a nice melody with pretty chord changes.   I will do a separate blog on writing melodies soon.  I recorded this after 5 or 6 improvisation sessions where it kept coming back to me, so this idea is a little more developed, but it is a long way from finished.


Finally, BabyDontYouWorryScan is the lead sheet for another ‘pretty’ song, but one where I started with a chord progression and melody together.  You can even see the eraser marks where I edited the melody.  This represent how much detail I put in when first writing a melody and chord changes.  It’s pretty simple.



These are just a few examples of ideas that are sitting in my idea box waiting for me to develop them.  I recommend every aspiring songwriter get a notebook and a recording device, and any time you have an idea, write it down (or record it).  Don’t try to be perfect, just get your ideas down.  You will find this helps your creativity as well as giving you a well of ideas to go back to when you find yourself looking for inspiration.

Whiskey Road Pt 3 – The Demo

This blog concludes the 3 part series on the writing of the lyrics for Whiskey Road.

First, I will say that I am quite happy with how this song turned out.  The musicians were great and really nailed it. They are all studio musicians out of Nashville, and I wish I had all of their names so I could credit them properly.  Adam Cunningham sang it. Look him up on the web. He is amazing, and brought a lot to this performance.

I love listening in on the sessions. Mark produces them and the musicians are so incredible it is hard to believe. They typically do a single take with a punch-in or two for anything they didn’t like. It is rare that they need a second take, and I don’t recall ever hearing a third. And they are coming in cold to the song. They get a chart, listen to the work tape, discuss the arrangement with Mark for a minute or two and then play it like they have known it all their lives. Truly humbling.

After the song is mixed I can’t help but listen to it a few time – who wouldn’t, it’s my baby! But after that I try to put the song away for a few days so that I can listen to it with fresh ears. The musicians and singer have quite a bit of freedom, and I often react on the first hearing by thinking anything that is different from what was in my head is ‘wrong’. But that isn’t true. If I let it sit a few days I can come back and hear it like someone else would, and most of the time I find I like how they interpreted it. Other times when I hear it fresh something sticks out as ‘ooh, I wish I’d done that differently’ – usually a lyric or part of the melody that just didn’t quite work.

That brings up a good point about the difference between being a song writer and an artist. As a writer, I have had to learn to let go of the performance. After all, my ultimate goal is to have other people record my songs – I am just making demo tapes. That has been difficult at times, because I grew up performing my own music. But I am not anywhere near the level that the musicians on this recording are, and so I am extremely grateful for what they do.

OK, back to talking about Whiskey Road. In this case I loved the performance the first time I heard it, and I still do after a couple of weeks.  I have been surprised at some of the responses i have gotten from other people. For example, one person’s first reaction was that the music sounded ‘happy’ considering the subject matter.  That isn’t what I intended, but each person is going to hear and interpret each song based on their experiences, and that is fine.  When I hear this song, I feel it is what we used to call our ‘1 am song’ when I was playing clubs. That is the moody song we would play around 1 am when everyone in the bar was a little drunk, and starting to feel moody. It’s also the type of song people might wave their lighter to in a large venue, or someone might do an acoustic version of to really focus on the feeling in the vocals. But, however you hear it is up to you; I just hope it makes you feel something. As one of my professors once said – “I’d rather someone get up and walk out of a performance than sit there indifferently.” I feel that way too.

So without further ado – and whether you love it or hate it – here is Whiskey Road with the lyrics so you can follow along.

Whiskey Road

I’ve been living in hell for a year or so
Ever since I watched my baby go
But I found a new home
On Whiskey Road

Now I don’t feel no pain, I don’t feel a thing
And when I get to remembering
I can always go home
To Whiskey Road

It’s my own damned fault, that’s for sure
I drink to forget about her
But the alcohol ain’t strong enough to make her memory go
So one day soon I’ll drown on Whiskey road

You know they write the blues for fools like me
Who let their love turn to misery
And wander alone
Down this lonesome road


I’m in too deep, I’m over my head
I can’t forget the last words she said
Before she slipped away she whispered
I love you so


Ya the alcohol ain’t strong enough, to make her memory go
So why do I keep walkin’ down Whiskey road
Someday I'll down on Whiskey road

Wordsmithing ‘Whiskey Road’

Welcome back, this is the second blog where I describe writing the lyrics to a song called ‘Whiskey Road’.  The first part of the blog is here, if you haven’t read it.

Part 2 – the 2nd draft

Having a structure and some idea of the story in the first draft, my next pass is to try to tighten things up. At this point I am experimenting with different melodies, chord changes and rhythm. I try this in different time signatures, at several tempos, and with rhythms that are closer to spoken rhythms as well as some that are more syncopated. For this song I am not trying to write the melody and chords yet, but it helps me feel how well the words will sing and get a feel for the number of syllables I have to work with. Any given line can be sung with more or fewer syllables by changing the rhythm of the words.
That is the sort of thing I am brainstorming on now.

I also look at each line – the main change comes in the chorus, where I took two lines from the second chorus and added two new lines, throwing away the first draft. This puts the moral of the story firmly in the chorus. I also dropped the bridge, as it wasn’t really adding anything to the story. I will need to put something else in to add contrast in the song, but I feel like this draft improved the quality of the lines while simplifying the song at the same time. There are two lines I feel are placeholder – ‘It’s time I see, I’m in too deep’, but I decide to leave those until the final draft, which I will do with Mark.

Here is the 2nd draft.  At this point, I felt pretty good about the lyrics:

I’ve been living in hell for a year or so
Ever since I watched my baby go
But I found a new home
On Whiskey Road

Now I don’t feel no pain, I don’t feel a thing
And when I get to remembering
I can always go
To Whiskey Road

It’s my own damned fault, that’s for sure
My heart would mend if I let her go
But I’m hanging on, even though I know
I’ll probably die on Whiskey Road

You know they write the blues for fools like me
Who turn their love into misery
And won’t let go
Of this lonesome road

I don’t remember what I did today
I smell like something I don’t want to say
It’s time I see
I’m in too deep


Why am I’m still walkin’
I’m not even tryin’
I guess I gave up fightin’
Whiskey Road

Why am I still walking Whiskey Road

Final Draft

The final step for this song was to take it to Mark Riddick, who is my songwriting coach and co-writer.  I find collaboration invaluable.  It gives me feedback on which ideas are working and which aren’t, and when we get creative together I get to see and hear other ways to approach the subject matter.  It is also just fun.

Mark is always positive when I first play him something, but we quickly get down to business.  I won’t get into his techniques here, but I would recommend that every aspiring songwriter find a good coach or co-writer.  Having other people’s input is invaluable.

The hardest change at this point was dropping the line ‘I smell like something I don’t want to say’.  I thought it was a funny line, but it was out of character with the rest of the song. It is important that lines don’t stick out in ways that draw the wrong sort of attention to the lyrics.  You want to draw them in with each line, and not jar the listener.

I made one other big change too – they didn’t break up, but she died.  You learn about that in the 3rd verse/bridge.  That gives a different meaning to a lot of the lines, and I think makes the song more interesting.

You can read the changes below.  These are the lyrics that we are taking into the recording session:

I’ve been living in hell for a year or so
Ever since I watched my baby go
But I found a new home
On Whiskey Road

Now I don’t feel no pain, I don’t feel a thing
And when I get to remembering
I can always go home
To Whiskey Road

It’s my own damned fault, that’s for sure
I drink to forget about her
But the alcohol ain’t strong enough to make her memory go
So one day soon I’ll drown on Whiskey road

You know they write the blues for fools like me
Who let their love turn to misery
And wander alone
Down this lonesome road


I’m in too deep, I’m over my head
I can’t forget the last words she said
Before she slipped away she whispered
I love you so


But the alcohol ain’t strong enough, to make her memory go
So why do I keep walkin’ down Whiskey road
Why am I still walkin’ Whiskey road

I will post the song, and maybe even the work tape (the recording I do before the session so the musicians can hear the song), after the recording session next month.  Work tapes will get a blog just about them, as will the recording session.

The third and final part of this blog is here.  Listen to the final recording, and my thoughts on it.

Lyrics – Whiskey Road pt. 1

Today’s blog is the first of several where I write the lyrics for a song. I can’t guarantee how they will turn out, because I am writing them as I write this blog, but it should at least be fun 🙂

The idea for this song is an old one – a broken hearted person drinking his life away. There are many songs in this category. The recent country song ‘Drunk on a Plane’ does a humorous take on this subject. I want to go for a slightly more serious tone, though I didn’t want it to be morbid – somewhere between ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart’ and ‘Margaritaville’

When starting a song, my first questions to myself are what do I want to say, and who am I trying to speak to.  This song is for anyone who has ever had a bad breakup and can relate to how crushing those feelings can be.  It is about how burying your feelings can lead you to a bad place, but one you are only trapped in for as long as you choose to be.

With that as my seed, I started brainstorming. These are my raw notes; I didn’t cut out the bad ideas 🙂

Brainstorming Notes

Way down in whiskey town
I've been lost more than I've been found

Ain't seen my girl for a year or so OR I've been living like crap for a year or so
Ever since I saw my baby go
But I've found a new home
On Whiskey road

I know where I want to go
I don't need to cry any more
My hear will never mend that's for sure
There's only one place left to go OR I've always got someplace I can go

They write the blues for sad souls like me
Who turn their self loathing into misery
Even though I know there's a million girls or more
I only think about the one that had to go OR the one who left me

My heart would surely mend if I let her go
I won't need to cry any more
It's my own damn fault that's for sure

Don't feel the pain, I don't feel a thing
When I get to remembering
It's all I know
Whiskey Road

At that point I felt like I had an idea of how the story would unfold.
* Man loses girl and turns to drinking to dull the pain
* Man is sure his pain will never end
* Man realizes he could ease his pain by letting go and moving on
* Man decides he isn’t ready to take that step yet

1st line

‘I’ve been living like crap for a year or so’ sounds interesting. the word ‘crap’ is a bit shocking, and might grab the listener’s attention. I change it to ‘feeling like crap’ to set up the conflict as an internal battle. I decide ‘crap’ is too strong, and go with ‘I’ve been living in hell for a year or so’


‘Whiskey Road’ is a nice metaphor to represent numbing oneself. It’s not too direct or too vague. I can do a lot of things with Whiskey Road – I can go there, I can walk it, I can live there, I can die there.

A lot of the ideas end with ‘Whiskey Road’ so I decide to introduce the hook in the first verse, rather than wait for the chorus. This is a fairly arbitrary decision, but it means I will be repeating the phrase often. I want to use it slightly differently each time, and probably drop it in a few places just to avoid too much repetition.

Now I get down to writing my 1st draft.  At this point I also came up with some chord changes and a melody, but I won’t go into those since this blog is about lyrics.  The 1st draft still has a lot of issues, but it gives me a structure and enough to start wordsmithing. The notes explaining my thoughts on each line are at the bottom.  These will be my guides when I start rewriting.  See if you agree.


Note: I am not aware of universally accepted definitions of ‘verse’ and ‘stanza’ in songwriting.  I use the term ‘stanza’ to refer to a 4-line group (a paragraph). A verse is one of the sections of the song where the lyrics change each time through.  The chorus is usually the section that repeats and contains the hook (though the chorus here doesn’t really follow that definition).  In any case, verses and choruses can be made up of multiple stanzas.  In this song I have 2 stanza’s in each verse, and 1 stanza in the chorus.

I didn’t decide on a rhyming scheme up front. What came out naturally as I wrote the first few lines was an AABB scheme. The first stanza of the 1st verse is actually AAAA, but I was thinking of it as AABB. That gives me freedom to play with the first two lines later. The second stanza is AABB.  The chorus is also AABB.  That might need to change, as varying the rhyming scheme in the chorus is often necessary to get the right amount of contrast between the verse and chorus.  But not always, so we will see how things go.

Also, you will see a lot of soft (or near) rhymes.  For instance, lines 3 and 4 rhyme ‘home’ with ‘road’.  They have the same long ‘o’ vowel sound (an assonance rhyme), but different ending consonants.  I use a lot of soft rhymes of various types.

1st draft

[Verse 1]
I've been living in hell for a year or so
Ever since I let the girl of my dreams go
But I found a new home
On Whiskey Road

Now I don't feel no pain; I don't feel a thing
And when I get to remembering 
I just go home
To Whiskey Road

[Chorus 1]
My broken heart will never mend, that's for sure 
But I don't want to cry any more 
So I found someplace safe where I can always go 
Oh, Oh, Whiskey Road

[Verse 2]
Don't remember what I did today
I smell like something I don't want to say 
This lonesome road
Will steal your soul 

They write the blues for fools like me 
Who turn their love into misery
And won't let go 
Of Whiskey Road

[Chorus 2]
It's my own damn fault, that's for sure
My heart will mend if I let her go
There's a million girls in this great big world 
So why am I still walkin' Whiskey Road 


I only think about the one who got away 
I've got to give her up someday 

[Chorus 2]

I'm still walkin' Whiskey Road

Some things I know I need to fix:

Line 2 – ‘girl of my dreams’ is too cliche and soft

Line 6 – ‘get to remembering’ – the rhyme is a bit forced, but I like it

Line 9 – ‘my broken heart’ is cliche. ‘that’s for sure’ sounds forced

Line 10 – ‘crying’ is too overt, need something a little more internal

Line 14 – ‘smell’ is colorful, but very lowbrow

Line 16 – ‘steal your soul’ is too cliche, not really on point. The road isn’t the thing that steals your soul

Line 17 – I like the internal rhyme (blues, fools), though it does make the line stand out too much

Line 23 – ‘million girls’, ‘great big world’ – how many cliches can you put in one line

Line 25 – ‘one who got away’ is intentionally cliche. Maybe too much

Line 26 – ‘give her up someday’ – She left, there is nothing to give up. got to move on, got to let myself move on.. something

Next up – rewriting the lyrics.

Lyrics pt 1 – my process from 10,000 feet

First, let me say that I do not have a formal education in lyric writing.  What I have learned I learned by trial and error, until I started working with Mark Riddick (www.markriddickproductions.com).  Mark is a fabulous songwriter, and puts a special emphasis on lyrics.  I won’t spill his secrets here, but I highly recommend working with someone who knows what they are doing.  It really helps.

My creative process is very fluid and iterative.  I often start with lyrics, but I sometimes start from a rhythm, chord progression, guitar riff or melody.  Still, having a structure gives me something to go back to when my creative process is stalled, and it reminds me that songwriting is as much about craft as it is about inspiration.

As with everything about songwriting, there are no hard and fast rules.  This is what I do. Take what works for you and ignore the rest.  If you have a process that works better for you, please share it. I would love to hear about it.

OK, let’s get started.  Here are the phases I go through when writing lyrics:

Phase 1 – Uninhibited Brainstorming

This is where the raw ideas come from.  The more ideas I have in this phase, the easier it will be to craft a song later.  I don’t usually sit down to write a song from scratch.  I keep paper notebooks beside each of my instruments and I write down ideas as they come.  I have a file of lyrical ideas on my computer.  I sing or say ideas into the voice recorder on my phone.  At any moment, I might have 20 or more ‘songs’ in various degrees of completeness.  Some are only a single line; some are nearly ready to start crafting.  Some ideas have multiple treatments.  I am constantly writing down snippets of raw material.

If I skip this step and leap right into songwriting, then I find I get caught up in the technical parts of writing and my songs don’t have the same spark.  I need separate ‘creative time’, where I do not judge the quality of my ideas. To me, this is step 1:

  1. Brainstorm and record lots of ideas – more than you need. Anything goes: a feeling, character, emotion, rhyme, analogy, reference, event or any detail that could bring a song alive.  I especially look for potential hooks and opening lines, as I feel without these the song isn’t going anywhere.

I don’t end my brainstorming phase there though.  When I decide an idea is ready to turn into a song I continue in the ‘non-judgmental’ mindset while I rough out what the song will be like.  So I go a little further:

  1. Decide on the message, audience and hook. I need these three things before I can start ‘working’ the lyric.  If I start ‘working’ the lyric before I know these three things, I am going to have to find them in that process.  For me, it works better to brainstorm on these until I am satisfied that I have something worth putting the effort of crafting into a song.
  2. Rough out the structure of the song (intro, verses, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, coda), by pulling out the best ideas from my notes.  Here I am focusing on what I want to say, but not so much HOW it will be said, though if my brainstorming produced rhymes, I will certainly use them. The song will invariably have gaps at this point, so I then go back and brainstorm on the areas that need more material.

Again, the point of this phase is not to craft a final song, it is just to get something raw that I can start to mold.  It usually ends with a ‘work tape’ recording of just me playing piano and guitar and singing.

Phase 2 – The Rough Draft

Once I have an outline of what I am trying to say, with hopefully a few good ideas and a hook, I get down to the craft.  Here I am polishing the ideas into something that feels like it might work.  I make a lot of choices about what the song will be like during this phase. If I started with an instrumental idea instead of lyrics, then I can often move straight to #5.

In this phase I:

  1. Pick the basic tempo and rhythm (ballad, mid-tempo, up tempo, dance)
  2. Choose the rhyming scheme (AABB, ABAB, AAB)
  3. Wordsmith each line one at a time, selecting specific words, rhymes and adjectives, adjusting syllable count, swapping out ideas that aren’t working.

When wordsmithing, there are two lines that deserve special attention: the first line and the hook.  The first line should draw the listener in to want to hear the rest of the song.  It could be provocative or intriguing or suggestive of something more, as long as it grabs.  The hook needs to be memorable, repeatable and catchy.  The hook is also usually the title of the song, so it also needs to make sense as a title.  It will also almost always be featured in the chorus, so it can’t get old with repetition.

Also, I always try to keep my audience in mind.  It is easy to get caught up writing for myself, but since I have decided I want to communicate my ideas to a broader audience, I have to consider how the listeners will respond to each line. If I am being too serious, too adult, too childish, too ‘male’, using offensive word or saying anything that will get in the way of the listener hearing my message I need to rethink the offending lines.

Selecting the right words takes time, and requires patience and creativity.  I use every tool at my disposal – rhyming dictionaries, thesauruses, lists of popular baby names – anything that can help me find the right word.  I also highly recommend aspiring songwriter spend time reading and analyzing the lyrics of other songs.  Each genre has a style that dictates the type of words you use, and you need to understand that.  I also warn against get too caught up in rhymes too early in the process.  Just because something rhymes doesn’t make it the right word.  Just because it doesn’t rhyme doesn’t make it the wrong word.

Wordsmithing and rhyming are big subjects and deserve their own blogs.  I will go deeper into those at another time.  For now, I am going to continue on with my process.

Phase 3 – Crafting and rewriting the song

It used to be that when I had finished a draft or two, I was pretty much done.  But there were always those one or two lines that just didn’t quite fit, the rhyme that sounded forced, or the song just didn’t have enough ‘oomph’.  These days, this is where I find the most value from a co-writer or coach like Mark.  There are a lot of specific techniques to find and fix those few lines.  I won’t go into specifics here because they aren’t necessarily my techniques, but I do want to emphasize that rewriting is a key part of my process.  I don’t stop until I have something that feels right when looked at from many different perspectives.

As a final note – the creative process is a wild and untamed thing, and never happens in quite the same way twice. But  I have found that by having a process, I am less prone to writers block and the overall quality of my writing has gone up.  In the end this is a about creativity, but my simple process keeps me from making simple mistakes, and allows me to improve.

Whew, that is a lot so I will stop there.  Next up: Lyrics part 2: Song Structure

Getting Started – What will I write about?

Getting started with a new song can be daunting.  I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration though, so I rarely experience writers block.  My first composition instructor back in high school made me write a new song every day. Even though most of the songs were terrible, it got me over the idea of waiting for inspiration.  Writing, it turns out, is a craft.  90% of what goes into a song is the work. The inspiration may make up the last 10% (which is really important, don’t get me wrong), but without doing the work, you won’t be able to turn inspiration into a great song anyway.

I started with asking myself why I wanted to write songs.  I found it came down to this:  I want to write music that communicates things I care about to a broad audience.  I want to express myself, but I also want other people to listen and enjoy my music.  I don’t want to just write songs trying to have a hit, but I also don’t want to write songs that nobody but me likes.  I need to find where those two things overlap, and write about that.

So what do I want to write about?  I could write about literally anything, but I needed a better grounding than that.  So I made a list of things I wanted to write about.  When I need an idea for a new song, I come back to this list and decide what feels right at that moment.  Here is my list:

  1. Life events.  Someone you know is going through some life event right now – falling in love, struggling with bills, having a baby, getting or losing a job, changing careers, moving, getting into or out of a relationship or losing a loved one.  Love songs, breakup songs, I hate my life songs, being friends, not being friends… these are common experiences that everyone has, and make great songs.
  2. Dreams and Goals.  Not everyone has the same dreams and goals as me, but everyone has dreams and goals.  Also, these tend to be happy subjects, and people like hearing happy things, even if it doesn’t happen to be about them.
  3. Being an imperfect human.  Not everyone will admit that they have flaws, but everyone I know has them, and most people are afraid of them.  I like to write about the darker side of life sometimes, and writing about my own fears and flaws is a good way to do that without being mean.
  4. Morality.  I have beliefs that may not be universal, but I want to use my music to communicate ideas, and sometimes that means taking a stand.  This can go both ways – I have written songs about tolerance (which I support) and domestic violence (which I oppose).
  5. Humor.  Writing funny songs is a challenge that I enjoy.  I know that these songs won’t resonate with everyone, but if I can bring a smile to someone’s face I take great satisfaction in that.  It also keeps me from taking myself too seriously.

I occasionally write about something outside of this, if I get an inspiration – I don’t limit myself to these subject.  But when I feel uninspired, it helps me to go back to this list, and remember why I am writing.  If I get a flash of insight, then awesome!  But if not, I have always been able to inspire myself by coming back to this list.

The final step is deciding what I want to write about.  I come to this in any number of ways.  I might hear a song and think I have a different take on that subject – Carrie Underwood’s ‘Before He Cheats’ inspired me to write ‘That’s the Truth‘ – a song about a man who’s ex keeps harassing him, even though he believes they have broken up.  I may be experiencing something myself, or know someone who is going through something – ‘She Needs to be Free‘ is about my daughter deciding to spend a year abroad after finishing college.  I may hear something in the news that fires me up – ‘America‘ is about tolerance and love, in response to Donald Trump’s campaign message of hatred and bigotry.  If I open my eyes and review my list I can always find something to write about.

Once I pick a subject to write about I have a starting point.  The next blog will discuss how I go about writing lyrics.

Getting Started – Equipment

Step 1 was just getting getting off of my butt and getting started.  That was surprisingly hard.  It is a lot easier to think about being a success than it is to actually be one.

There were two parts to getting started – I had to start writing (of course), and I had to start recording.  This blog is about getting my equipment set up.  You may not need this – you can compose on paper just like everyone did before computers. But as a songwriter you will eventually need to make demos of your material if you want to get your music heard.  That means either getting your own recording equipment, or access to someone else’s.  I decided to set up my own.

I am primarily a keyboard player, and I had some recording equipment from ‘the old days’ so I had to set up a place to write and record.  My original setup looked like this:

  • A PC (nope, not a Mac) with a single monitor, a medium sized hard drive, and decent specs for memory and CPU speed – Not a powerful machine at all.  Eventually I upgraded my computer, but more on that later.  I was able to get start with a pretty low end machine.  A modern laptop would probably work.
  • Pro Tools Professional for doing my recording and mixing.  Just the basic package at first, and no extra plugins.  Like my machine, I eventually started adding plugins, but I got by for a good while on just basic Pro Tools.
  • A keyboard.  I had an old Matrix 6 from the 80’s, and I pulled that bad boy out of storage.  I used the sounds that came with Pro Tools rather than the dated sounds from my keyboard.  I eventually upgraded to a keyboard with weighted keys, and have been learning to play simple rhythm guitar, but I got started with what I had.
  • A microphone.  I had some old mics from my band days, but I didn’t like the sound so this was the first thing I upgraded.  A nice mic really helped the quality of my early demos (a nice voice would have helped even more, but hey, I wasn’t blessed with one of those).
  • A sound card interface, so I could plug the synth and mic into the computer.  This was the main thing I had to purchase.  I went for an M-Audio 610 interface (http://www.m-audio.com/products/view/profire-610).
  • Studio Monitors (speaker).  I had some old speakers and an ancient power amp that I pulled out of storage.  I am still using them, though they really aren’t accurate.  This is the next thing I will upgrade, and I will likely go with powered monitors instead of a separate amp.  and if I was starting fresh, the mic and monitors is where I would put most of my budget.  They really matter.
  • Cables, a mic stand, a keyboard stand, monitor stands, headphones, a chair and a ‘desk’.  It’s surprising how many peripherals you need to make all of this stuff work together.  It took more of my budget than I was hoping it would, but luckily these things rarely need replacing.  I built my own ‘desk’ out of my monitor stand and a 4’x 12″ x 1/2″ piece of wood.
  • A place to work.  Right now I am set up in the corner of my bedroom, taking up a total of about 4′ x 6′ of floor space.  It is very compact, but works just fine.

I will post some pictures, along with my budget and current setup in the next blog.