Lyrics are not an afterthought. While the melody, groove and arrangement are all foundations of a world-beating song, it’s the lyrics that will elevate your tune from a lesser-streamed curio to an anthem that everyone in the stadium screams back at you. But scribbling down a few autopilot clichés about breakups or partying isn’t going to cut it. To write lyrics that stand out, you need to go beyond “ooh baby” and get creative.
The best way to broaden your horizons as a lyricist is by learning from the best. Back in 1967, when The Beatles stole that morning’s newspaper headlines for the verses of “A Day In The Life”, they were probably the first major band to break with lyric-writing convention – but definitely not the last. In the half-century since then, some of music’s greatest visionaries – from David Bowie to Billie Eilish – have proved just as experimental, tearing up the traditional rulebook of lyric-writing and using rebel techniques with astounding results.
We’re not telling you to throw out your notebook or abandon your favorite writing spot. But you don’t have to spend long on BandLab to hear from musicians who blew their creativity sky high by stepping outside of their comfort zone and experimenting with fresh lyric-writing techniques. Here are ten approaches to writing better lyrics that have been used by some of the best lyricists in music history – and might just spark your next great chorus.
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1. Soak up your environment
Some artists thrive in a familiar writing room, but if the same four walls are starting to feel stale, switch up your setting and see what it does for your lyrics. For the benefits that a change of scene can give you, take the example of Justin Vernon (better known as US indie-folk star Bon Iver). Back in 2006, the then-cult songwriter was stuck in a rut, nursing glandular fever and liver infection, and writing derivative songs in his North Carolina home. It wasn’t until he went off-grid, living alone at his father’s isolated hunting cabin in the wilds of Wisconsin, that Vernon’s lyric writing blossomed. The eerie beauty of the landscape seeps over every word on the album he wrote there – which became Bon Iver’s 2007 breakout debut, For Emma, Forever Ago.
2. Get out your scissors
If you’ve ever wondered how David Bowie penned those out-there lyrics, the answer starts with a pair of scissors. In a 2008 interview, the late legend revealed his use of “cut up” writing: a technique borrowed from Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs (and later adapted by Thom Yorke for Radiohead’s Kid A), which involves writing a lyric, then cutting the text into short snippets and rearranging them to create something new. “I used it for igniting anything that may have been in my imagination,” said Bowie. “You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects, creating a kind of “story ingredients” list, then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections, then mix them up and reconnect them. You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”
3. Flip the lyric on its head
As songwriters, we have the traditional verse/chorus formula drummed into us from birth. But there’s no law that says you have to structure your lyric this way – and very cool things can happen when you mess with the template. As an example, think of a song like Billie Eilish’s Bury A Friend, which opens with the chorus, allowing her to set the creepy mood from the start. “The main idea,” Eilish said of her offbeat outlook to lyric writing, “was that once you know the basics, then you can change them.”
4. Let your subconscious take over
It’s the nightmare scenario for every songwriter. You’re sat up at midnight, acoustic guitar on your lap, tugging your hair out as you rifle the thesaurus for that one magical word that will make your chorus land. Instead of chasing perfection, try letting your subconscious take over and just sing whatever pops into your head, however random. When you let your guard down like this, you’ll be surprised how often you get to the heart of the song, or just stumble across a killer line that you’d never have got to by chipping away. “You sing lots of gobbledygook when you’re writing songs, just whatever comes out of your mouth,” says Stereophonics frontman Kelly Jones of the lyric to the band’s chart-topping 2005 single “Dakota”. “But sometimes your subconscious delivers a cool phrase. With “Dakota”, I was in a hotel room in Paris and that line, ‘You make me feel like the one’ just came out.”
5. Be more honest than you think you can
Listeners can sniff fake emotions a mile off. Even if it hurts, you’ll get a better song by drilling into the defining moments of your own life, writing down how they really made you feel, then sharing as much as you dare in the lyrics. In her earliest songs like “Fifteen”, Taylor Swift’s words brilliantly captured what it meant to be young, lost and in pain (“My experience with songwriting is usually so confessional,” she says, “and it’s so drawn from my own life and my own stories”).
Across the water, Adele’s “Someone Like You” would never have connected so deeply if she’d pulled her punches on the broken relationship behind it (“Heartbreak,” she explained, “can definitely give you a deeper sensibility for writing songs”). But you don’t have to be a superstar to channel personal heartbreak. Hot-tip bluesman Jack J Hutchinson had a massive response last year from his track “I Will Follow You”, which nodded to his father’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s. Think of the experiences that have shaped you – for better or worse – and use them as your lyrical fuel.
6. Lyrics don’t have to be words
Words have power, and as a rule of thumb, that’s how you’ll make a deeper emotional connection with your listeners. But don’t feel tied to them. Take a spin through music history and you’ll find that some memorable moments by the best lyricists aren’t actually words at all, whether that’s Billie Eilish’s aside in “Bad Guy” (duh!), Damon Albarn’s “woo-hoo!” hook from Blur’s “Song 2”, or even expanded into an entire chorus to global smash hit success like Hanson’s “MMMBop” (“Mmmbop, ba duba dop, ba du bop, ba duba dop” anyone?). Find a quiet room, experiment with the sounds you can make with your mouth, lips, lungs – and see where it leads you.
7. Go with the flow
Sometimes you’ve got the right words, but they fall wrong when set against the music. If your lyrics feel clunky, try playing with the pacing, seeing what happens if you let a line run on to suit the song’s languid pace, or pack an entire verse into a couple of quickfire lines for a more urgent feel. For world-beating examples of this, listen to “Sticks N Stones” by Jamie T, “Elephants” by Scottish indie sensations The Snuts, or Dave Grohl’s machine-gun delivery in the climax to the Foo Fighters’ “Monkey Wrench”. Then imagine those lyrics slowed right down. Wouldn’t work, would it?
8. Get into character
Write what you know is generally good advice. But when that starts to feel like creative handcuffs, there’s nothing to stop you from expanding your subject matter and playing with different perspectives. Why not try leaving the first-person (‘I’) behind and penning a third-person story song (like The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”), or even writing in character as someone else entirely? This has been done brilliantly: listen to Suzanne Vega’s 1987 hit “Luka”, where her lyric is written from the perspective of an abused child. But be warned: you’ll need to tread carefully when taking on a persona, especially if you’re not qualified to comment. Nobody wants to hear a middle-class western lyricist write about life in a refugee camp, unless they’re truly invested in that world.
9. Find a sounding board
It can be daunting to show your lyrics to other musicians but if you find someone whose opinion you trust – either in your local music circuit or on social sites like BandLab – they could become a sounding board to bounce ideas off or even a collaborator who can fill the gaps in your skillset. Remember, while lyric writing is often painted as a solitary pursuit, it can work really well between two artists who are in sync. “I love being around great writers,” says Beyoncé, “because I’m finding that a lot of the things I want to say, I don’t articulate as good as maybe Amanda Ghost.”
10. Keep your antennae up
You can’t set your clock by songwriting inspiration. Instead of dedicating a set hour for writing lyrics, try and keep your antennae up as you go about your daily life. Interesting people tend to write interesting lyrics, so put yourself in new situations, meet new people, hear new opinions, open new pathways in your brain – and be prepared for when the thunderbolt strikes by keeping a notebook or your smartphone with the BandLab app with you at all times. As the Irish songwriter Hozier reminds us: “Sometimes you just kind of collect lyrical and musical ideas – and you don’t actually complete the song until you feel like they work together and have a home.”
Jack J Hutchinson’s new single “Call Of The Wild” will be released on 7” red vinyl in May. The Snuts’ debut album W.L. is out 19 March.
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