Lyrics are very personal; no one can, or should, tell you what to write. However, how you write comes down to skill. And lyric writing as a skill, just like any other, can be improved through open-minded exploration and growth-minded practice.
Today, I want to talk about a new way of approaching lyric writing. It entails using sensory and cinematic stories to relay your core song message. It’s a process of deep exploration to achieve a unique expression.
Warning: Vivid imaginations required!
We’ll look into the lyrical compositions of renowned bands such as Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Son Lux, The Vacant Lots, and Arcade Fire, and see how these artists use sensory stories in their lyrics, and what we can learn from them.
Exploring new ideas
There are many ways to discover ideas for great lyrics. One of those ways is being attentive to your everyday experiences, and to actively jot down your thoughts to review at a later stage. Turn this into a habit.
Freewriting is another great way to access your creative reservoirs and trigger your imagination.
Freewriting entails setting a timer for ten minutes, and within that time, writing about any subject or object you can think of, and then carrying on in whichever direction your stream of consciousness flows. This exercise requires you to really let your mind run away with you, without looking up, and without worrying about spelling, grammar, or any other intrusive rules getting in your way.
When you’re ready to sit down and get started on your new composition, go back to what you’ve previously written. Identify the gems and then start chiseling away at them.
Find your message
Once you have some ideas, think about the concept or the message you’d like to bring across in your lyrics.
Your message could be about an experience you’ve had, the experience of someone else that intrigued you, a feeling you’ve felt, a theory you find interesting, etc. Keep in mind that your message doesn’t necessarily have to be unique, but the way you paint it in the mind of the listener should attempt to be.
The challenge is to deliver a message that a great many people can relate to, in a way that no-one has delivered it before. Jared Artaud from The Vacant Lots expressed in an interview that he tries to center his lyrical messages around correlations between his own experiences and the experiences of others—allowing listeners to be able to relate, and thereby, feel less alone.
In their song “Party’s Over,” they sing:
The party’s over
And your memories
Fade into the seams
Of your synthetic dreams.
Decide on your context
Music is meant to serve a purpose and accommodate a specific environment in people’s lives. Establishing your own context will equip you with some guidelines as to the boundaries of your lyrics.
Do you want your song to tell an evocative story that requires attentive listening? Then keep your lyrics figuratively colorful, intricate, articulated, and impactful.
Are you writing a light-hearted song that is meant to be listened to on a road trip? Then keep your lyrics simple, uplifting, and easy to sing along to.
Are you writing a song to be enjoyed in a dance club? Then keep your lyrics repetitive and give extra attention to rhyme and rhythm.
Son Lux’s song, “Dream State,” accommodates a theatrical, or dramatic, setting that requires attentive listening. It triggers one’s imagination and evokes a strong emotional response through beautiful imagery, relaying a sense of nostalgia.
Days we were young
We took photographs of everything we could see
We knew we were
Impervious no matter how we'd bleed.
Acknowledge your inputs
With concept and now context established, it’s time to start putting together your story. Let’s talk about the senses.
Inputs absorbed through sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch are always lingering in our memories, creating a wealth of inspiration to draw from when it comes to lyric writing. Your message can be strongly delivered if expressed through sensory elements—in a way that simply stating it won’t.
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, in their song, “Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow,” sings:
Would you please put down that telephone
We're under fifteen feet of pure white snow.
They have taken the sensory experience of snow and chose to express it as an impending threat. They’ve created an impactful and cinematic way of delivering a message that more or less translates to: “Can everyone please stop what they’re doing and acknowledge that we’re stuck under a frightful force that is probably going to kill us”—at least that’s how I hear it.
Write a sensory story
To find your unique angle when you’re developing your message, try and sense it. This basically means, try to define what your concept looks like, feels like, smells like, etc.
Draw from your archive of sensory input to develop your idea into a piece of art. It could spring from a story you’ve been told, a sculpture you’ve seen, an interaction you’ve encountered, a poem that struck a chord. Anything, from a view of an old gothic chapel to the softness of your baby sister’s hair, can be loaded with potential for great sensory writing.
Using vibrant imagery and figurative language will usually evoke the desired emotion in your listener better than clearly stating it. A great example occurs in Arcade Fire’s song, “Black Wave / Big Vibrations.”
Nothing lasts forever
That’s the way it’s got to be.
There’s a great black wave
In the middle of the sea
Collect a series of frames that you think best depicts your message and project it onto the minds of the listener. Music should be seen, tasted, felt…not just heard.
Calling it complete
Reassess what you’ve composed. Ask yourself: Does each and every line count in its own right? Does it add or subtract from the sensory experience that you envision?
The final step is to marry your lyrics to your music. Keep in mind that this might require you to make slight adjustments to your composition so everything falls into place. Make sure that your lyrics and music make for a perfect match before calling it complete.
When asked about what advice he’d give aspiring lyricists, Jared Artaud once wrote: “...Stay true to your own vision.” Now, use sensory writing to craft that vision into an impressionable force that will flood the minds and touch the hearts of your listeners, viscerally.
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Carla Malrowe is a vocalist, songwriter and music industry blogger from Johannesburg, South Africa. She is the lead vocalist, keyboardist and contributing songwriter for industrial-rock band Me’ek. Malrowe is excited to announce that she is currently working on the debut EP of her new dark electronica project Shiver Kiss.
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