I love a good book, but good songwriting has always been my greater muse.
To me, the lyric is the thing, especially one that is honed to its barest elements. Less is more. I know nothing about musicianship, but I have spent more than two decades trying to be as lean of a writer as I can be.
I stand in awe of the great music lyricists for their power to move an audience in three to five minutes, perhaps with just a turn of phrase.
Here’s what some of my favorite singers have to say about writing, interspersed with some favorite lyrics relative to writing.
“I see things when I hear music, and it’s usually a landscape. And my job as the lyricist is to people that landscape with stories and narrative and with ideas and with words.”
—Michael Stipe, R.E.M.
“Some people are in charge of pens that shouldn’t be in charge of brooms.”
—Graham Parker, “Don’t Let Them Break You Down”
“It’s a mistake to get too precious about where you write or when you write. Unless you sit down every day and write, nothing happens. There’s so much more geography to cross.”
“I’ll write you a letter tomorrow/Tonight, I can’t hold a pen.”
—The Replacements, “Can’t Hardly Wait”
“And then there’s my work. Lifting the 400 lb. feather. I work every day. I write every day. I walk around in silent conversation with my latest unfinished songs. I love it, I love all aspects of it, and I’ve found that doing it every day is the best (but by no means sure) way to get open, at the ready, and able to recognize what Raymond Carver called ‘a new path to the waterfall.’ ”
—Gord Downie, The Tragically Hip
“There’s only two songs in me and I just wrote the third/
Don’t know where I got the inspiration or how I wrote the words/
Spent my whole life just digging up my music’s shallow grave/
For the two songs in me and the third one I just made”
—They Might Be Giants, “Number Three”
“Anyone who starts off writing bad songs is on the right track; keep writing bad ones and eventually a good one will come.”
“The cards are on the table now and every other cliché/
Somehow fits me like a glove”
—Roddy Frame (Aztec Camera), “The Bugle Sounds Again”
“Writing is easy. It’s an ongoing process, like eating, breathing, or sleeping. It shouldn’t be painful or difficult. It’s a report on the state of the soul and, like the soul, should be continuously evolving. It does so through inspiration. From people, books, film, music. When inspiration is lacking, you get writer’s block.”
—Robert Pollard, Guided by Voices
“Chapter one we didn’t really get along/
Chapter two I think I fell in love with you/
You said you’d stand by me in the middle of chapter three/
But you were up to your old tricks in/
Chapters four, five and six”
—Elvis Costello, “Every Day I Write the Book”