Today’s post comes from prolific creative, songwriter, author, (and Guiness World Record Holder!) Scott Ginsberg. Scott is a member of Song Club and has shared sooo many insightful takes with us every week. When he reached out with some guest post pitches, I was immediately like, “YES PLZ! SongFancy reads are going to love these!”
You’re so going to enjoy Scott’s writing, and his super actionable tips from thirty years of releasing music. Let’s get into it!
True story. I was working as a valet parker at a luxury hotel about twenty years ago. A very drunk guest slipped me the ticket for her Mercedes, and here’s what happened:
“Scott, You’re cute. How old are you?”
“Um, I just turned 23 ma’am.”
“Perfect. Old enough to know better, but too young to care.”
Wow. Now there’s a
lawsuit song lyric if I ever heard one.
You can almost hear the anthemic chorus of that country banger playing over the loudspeaker:
Old enough to know better, too young to care,
In that Texas heat, we made a reckless pair,
She had a wry smile, and a wild, fiery stare,
And said, you’re old enough to know better, too young to care.
She tossed me the keys, sauntered into the night,
Her laughter lingered, fading in the pale moonlight,
I revved that Mercedes, felt the wind through my hair,
Yeah, I was old enough to know better, too young to care.
Ah, the joy of lyric writing. Sometimes a brief interaction cracks open a whole literary world that takes on a life of its own. Creating a song so good, that not only does it belong on a tshirt, but a song the other songwriters hear and think, “Damn it, I wish I wrote that one!”
If you want to avoid ever saying that again, read on. I will share tools to make your lyrics more memorable, poetic, engaging and brandable.
🎹 Systems Won’t Kill Your Creativity 🎹
In my virtual songwriting club, our community recently had a conversation about lyric writing. We all agreed that there are as many ways to write lyrics as there are songs in the world. Every musician has their own unique approach that works for them.
From laptops to handwritten journals to dry erase boards to voice to text to sticky notes, there’s no one right way to do it.
But after writing hundreds of songs and a dozen albums over thirty years, I can attest that not having any process at all is unwise. There will always be exceptions of lightning bolt writers who compose chart topping hits on a moment’s notice. Good for them. Jerks.
The trouble is, the survivorship bias skews the data. Those stories outshine the millions and millions of songs that never, ever get started or finished, much less heard and adored. And if a creative person wants to increase their chances of making something great, eventually, they have to get off the path of ad hoc and inconsistently performed creative practices, to a more mature, disciplined, and optimized execution.
My own lyric writing process has taken many years to hone, and has evolved quite a bit from when I was in my teens, twenties and thirties. Here’s a quick overview, which you can adapt to fit your own style:
- Every morning I do a long form free writing meditation where I flesh out whatever ideas, feelings, problems or issues I’m working through. My sole aim in step one is being honest, rather than good, interesting, funny, or even accurate.
- If the essay I write feels like it wants to become a song, I read through that piece of writing a few days later and pull out all my favorite passages that sound like lyrics, or could inspire concepts.
- I look for a handful of linguistic patterns. What unexpected rhymes are there? What has a nice mouthfeel? What would look cool on a tshirt? What would make my wife laugh? What words would be surprising to the listener? What language have I never or rarely used before in a song? What turn of phrase would bring me joy when singing it? What sounds like something my audience members would have fun repeating? What would make me proud to see the title of one of my songs on a streaming platform?
- If a certain lyric idea catches my eye or makes me laugh or creates a pit in my gut, then I circle it. Once I am done reading this essay from step one, I extract all of the keepers into a bullet point list on a single sheet of paper. This is the raw material or inventory, which makes writing memorable and honest lyrics fast and fun.
What long form songwriting exercise might inspire your lyrics?
Find adjacent creative activities you enjoy and are effortless, start there, and let the lyrics fall out the bottom. You’ll be amazed what kinds of ideas materialize when you start with the emotional truth, not the lyrical content. It’s feelings before notes. Don’t worry, having a system won’t make your creative process stale. The constraints will liberate your best ideas.
🎤 Find Your Medium 🎤
Whether I was working as a freelancer, ad agency cog, startup employee, or somewhere in between, there have always been colleagues of mine who have fervently announced, “I hate writing.” It almost seemed like a point of pride for them.
But many people have a natural revulsion to the act, where intense feelings of anger, contempt and disgust block them from putting words on paper. Ironically enough, there are entire message boards dedicated to this very topic. You can even read thousands of eloquent threads and poetic comments on how much people hate writing. Irony?
My question is:
Do people really hate writing, or do they simply hate the way they write? Are they disgusted by the sentences, or is it the system used to make them? Could the real issue be the struggle with the creative process itself?
Personally I can’t write by hand for the life of me. People have mocked my scribbles since I was a kid. But I do love to type. It’s fast, easy, accurate, clean, and I can do it for hours and hours at a time without getting tired. That creative process enables me to be highly prolific.
But if I was forced to write everything longhand, then I’d probably hate writing too. I would have quit songwriting decades ago. Because all day, every day, my childhood shame of having poor handwriting would be triggered every time a pen hit paper. Writing would make me feel sloppy, stupid and scatterbrained. My hands would ache, and at some point, I would simply give up and do something else.
What’s your version of that? Is there some behavior you can’t change because you’ve already decided you dislike the way you do it?
My recommendation to songwriters is, notice every time you use the word hate. Particularly in reference to your own creative preferences and behavior. In my experience, when people say the word hate, it’s typically an explosion of frustrated emotion they are using to punish themselves.
- Maybe you are better at speaking than writing. Cool! Get a voice to text software programs like Descript, talk to yourself for ten minutes, and go read the transcript.
- Or maybe you see a therapist each week and take copious notes. Go back to that notebook and pull out ideas that would make good lyrics.
- Perhaps you would do better calling a close friend to vent and tell stories, and then see what lyrical ideas come out of it. Perfect! Whatever works.
Redefine what “writing” means for you, and soon you’ll write songs other people wish they would have written. You don’t need your hands to write, you need your heart. Start there. Be medium agnostic and let the emotions lead.
Ultimately, these tools won’t guarantee your song will end up on a tshirt, but one thing’s for sure:
Try these things and you’ll be one step closer to the kind of artist who writes songs other people wish were theirs.
Which reminds me, I need to go finish my latest crossover country hit, “Old Enough To Know Better, Too Young To Care.”