Joni Mitchell, 1974. Originally an Asylum Records advert published in Billboard magazine.
Lyrics are amazing. Sometimes they just know you. Get inside you and won’t leave. It’s a special kind of writing that elicits the most emotional connection possible with the listener. Words that can make you think, cry, remember, want to forget.
I am in awe of how songwriters use words to purely channel feelings. I wish I could do it. I should try to do it. This thinking all started when I heard Joni Mitchell, ‘A Case of You’. The lyrics blew me away. That’s not to say the music itself wasn’t incredible. And of course the way she performed it, her tone, her strum. But for today, for me, it’s all about the words. Capturing an emotion, idea or moment in words is something I have some experience doing. Crafting music is not.
There was recently a series on BBC Two about masterpieces and what a great masterpieces look like. About what makes a masterpiece extraordinary and the effect it can have on your brain. It implied there’s a formula to songwriting, great songwriting, that can be tapped into and replicated.
I know it’s a different kind of writing to anything I’m used to. When I’m writing prose, or copy for that matter, it’s all about poured over, reread, focused on. Sung words wash over you in one go, you don’t stop and listen to a phrase over and over before moving on to the next you let the song take it’s course let it make you feel something in its entirety, before perhaps re-listening.
I wanted to try, but I knew I couldn’t do it alone. So I found a website that told me how to write lyrics. It was by Robin Frederick, a bona fide songwriter, A & R and author of over 500 songs for TV albums, theatre and more. And she says:
‘ A song that expresses your thoughts and feelings in a way that reaches other people and helps them feel something more deeply, or understand something better is a really good song.’
She suggested starting with the title. Using it as your guiding star or message and building from there. Her advice was to look around, read magazines, newspapers, watch TV and find a phrase or collection of words that resonates.
Once you have your title, interrogate it. Who is it about and why? What happens to them to make them that way and how do they want to change. What is the setting and how have they progressed to get to this point.
The next step is to list words and phrases that your chosen title suggests. It could be strong images that it conjures up, sentiments that are commonly associated with it, pictures that help make sense of it, characters that work with it or proverbs that describe elements of it. Nothing is wrong at this point, you are just gathering information.
Finally choose a melody to write to. Robin explains that what you get when you start trying to write lyrics without a melody is something that sounds like a nursery rhyme or greeting card. If you listen to melodies and write your lyrics to fit with a melody you already know it will be able to work as a song, even if the melody ultimately gets changed.
Once you have all these components all that’s left to do is write it. Bring the elements together and build up a story that carries through the lyrics cohesively. In Robin’s words, with lines full of metaphor and nimble wordplay, the best lyrics add depth and quality, creating a lasting impression.
So I tried it. I spent an afternoon, collecting images, building a story, listening to Cat Stevens and trying to make my lyrics fit. I am pretty sure this is not how Joni Mitchell wrote ‘A Case of You’, but it was a valuable experience. I learned that there might be a technique to songwriting, but, just like any other sort of wordsmithery, it takes natural talent, years of experience and a powerful idea to come up with something truly extraordinary.