Word Up

With this post we welcome Mick Terry to the IVC family. Mick is a London-based singer/songwriter who’s ultra-melodic, debut album, “The Grown Ups” is a must-have for any fan of the classic pop genre. In the piece below, Mr. Terry offers his astute thoughts and advice on the art of crafting the perfect, pop lyric.

Rhyme is on My Side

Lyrics are king in my book. Compared to a poem, they are like the archetypal cooler, older brother. They get to hang with the pretty melodies, make out with beautiful chord progressions and there’s absolutely no chin stroking required whatsoever. Lots of folk will wax and wane about jumping out of bed to record that killer melody that came a knockin’ at 3am, but how many of us would do the same for a clever couplet?

Rhyme Cuts

People like Elvis Costello are true masters of the pop lyric. He is equally adept at melding tales of mercenary soldiers (“Oliver’s Army”) to classic pop hooks one minute and then killing you softly with a heartbreaking lament to lost love (“Alison”) the next. In isolation, some lyrics can seem one dimensional, banal and even plain cheesy, but a great vocal performance can make you believe almost anything. If you delve into the back catalogue of Scottish minimalist popsters, The Blue Nile, the lyrics can appear abstract and, almost, flat. However, the band’s vocalist, Paul Buchanan, manages to deliver them with such poignancy and emotion that they instantly become three dimensional. As they say, one man’s nacho cheese is another man’s caviar.

Brother Can You Spare a Rhyme

Don’t be afraid to use your favourite quotes as inspiration. Case in point; Oscar Wilde once said, “We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Take a listen to The Pretenders’ track, “Message of Love” and you’ll hear Chrissie Hynde applying her famous vibrato to that very line with such conviction that you’d never guess it wasn’t part of her original lyric. There’s no shame in taking a little lyrical handout along the way. Which leads me on to…

The Rhymes They Are a Changin’

Next time you’re in a bookshop (remember those, kids?), steer clear of the best seller displays and head over to the music section. If you only read one book this year, make sure it’s this one: The rhyming dictionary. When I first became aware of this, now, invaluable tome, I kind of dismissed it as a form of cheating; the songwriting equivalent of doping if you will (precious youth alert! ~ Ed). Boy, was I wrong. I can, honestly, say that it totally changed the way I approach lyrics and it’s never out of arms reach whenever I’m writing. They are relatively inexpensive and make the perfect substitute for socks on your Christmas want list.

Rhyme Does Pay

Above all, remember that your lyrics are there to serve the song and never underestimate their pulling power. Your audience may interpret your words in a completely different way to you, but that’s all part of their charm. So, the next time you hear someone say, “That is such a great line,” imagine how great it would feel to reply, “I wrote that.”

-Posted by Mick

Mick Terry is a London-based singer/songwriter. His debut album, “The Grown Ups”, was released in 2010 and he is currently knee deep in Ampex 456 tape working on the follow up. Mick also hosts the monthly “The Living Room Scene” songwriter circle shows in London.


What Are Words For?

With this post we welcome Jay Sherman-Godfrey to the IVC family. As a singer/songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist, Jay has worked with a wide variety of artists ranging from They Might Be Giants to Laura Cantrell. In the piece below, Jay discusses how he got past some lyrical roadblocks and generously shares his approach to committing words to music.

What Are Words For? (Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Writing Lyrics)

Though it’s surely a matter of degree in practice, I think you can broadly divide songwriters into two categories — music first and words first.

I’ve always put myself in the first category. Though it’s often a word or phrase that gets me going, the music part gets pretty far down the line before anything you would call a lyric starts to develop.

For a long time it was my primary barrier to finishing songs. Finding ways back to the home key from a cleverly modulated middle eight was fun and relatively easy. Finding the right words was hard.

Though I had written a handful of what I thought were pretty good songs, I had a breakthrough of sorts a few years ago when, after mostly being in bands and writing songs with others or for others to sing, I finally decided to make an EP of my own songs under my own name. Something about singing them myself and setting them in stone on a CD shook my confidence. I needed a new approach.

Short version: I got over it. “It” being a lyric that would scan beautifully, make sense, show you how clever I was and “mean something” at the same time. I started writing lyrics quickly — like I wrote the music — not sweating what they said as much as how they sounded. Nothing novel in that, of course, but since then I think I’ve been writing better lyrics.

Fast forward a few years, and I think I can articulate the basic principles behind this “thinking less” approach.

Based On a True Story

When I remarked to one collaborator recently that a particular song was a true story, she responded “Aren’t they all true?” No. But they should sound that way.

Mine always start from something concrete. But once the words go into the music, another logic takes over — the internal logic of the song, which has a lot to do with the notes, the phrase length of the melody, the rhyme scheme, the key, the arrangement and whose playing and… I think you can see where I’m going.

I often end up pretty far from where I started. The good songs, however, hold onto and even enhance that original bit of “true story.”

So the test of a good lyric for me is “rings true” plus “sings true.” Because the rhyme and the rhythm have their own truth. Within the song, I would say, a higher truth.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

Though I don’t think I was ever very vigilant about it, I’ve also stopped worrying about clichés. I’m sure some will howl at this (and I’m pretty sure I’m contradicting advice given on these very pages).

The kind of songwriting I’m interested in (three-minutes, one-side-of-a-45) is about toying with cliché —upending, undermining, re-contextualizing, re-defining, mixing and matching.

You’ve only got so much time to get whatever-it-is across in a song, so broad strokes and shorthand are necessary. The key is balancing the broad strokes with those juicy, true-ringing details. This is where it gets crafty.

Listen to What the Man Said

Take a song like “Yesterday” by the Beatles. An old war-horse by now, I know, and hard to listen to fresh, but a rock standard for a reason.

Macca is a master here (and across his career, really) of the balance between broad strokes and vivifying detail. On the whole, the song reads like a Chinese-menu of clichés; from column A “an easy game to play,” “a place to hide away.” From column B “half the man,” “shadow hanging over me,” etc.

And he begins the second strain still in this overview mode; “Why she had to go.” But he quickly shifts to the personal, “I don’t know” and then the specific, “she didn’t say.” Next is the kicker, again simple and specific; “I said something wrong.” And then the emotional center of the song, landing on the word “long” in its old fashioned, poetic meaning.

Together with the world-weary tune and George Martin’s plaintive quartet, it’s the right stuff.

Another master I listen to more intently these days is Smokey Robinson. He’s even sneakier. “Tracks of My Tears” uses the same reverse-telescoping technique to bring us into the narrator’s personal, emotional space. The broad cliché: “Take a good look at my face.” Then, like a camera tracking in, “…my smile looks out of place.” And, finally, beckoning the viewer to the close up; “If you look closer it’s easy to trace…” It gets me every time.

Cover Me

I had always been intrigued by an interview with Nick Lowe I read some years ago. In it, he talked about taking an acoustic guitar to a small studio by himself and singing his new songs over and over, day after day, until they seemed like just another bunch of cover songs. He found that the songs became less precious and he could edit and shape them from a critical remove.

Though I don’t go to Nick’s lengths, I’ve started playing all of my new songs in different tempos and settings — on the piano if it started as a guitar song (and vice versa), slow if it started fast, etc. I imagine a woman singing them, friends with better voices. The music usually holds up, but most of the time the lyrics get a little overhaul.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Lastly, I stopped concerning myself with making each song so distinct. I pursue similar ideas and tricks in different songs, use what I think are the best ideas (some lifted, naturally) and approaches — turned upside down, done in reverse, in the negative — to everything.

I actually ended up keeping a song back from that first EP because I thought it covered the same ground as another song. I finally recorded it a few years later and could no longer see what the problem was. Within any style there’s only a certain amount of raw material and only other songwriters notice the tricks of the trade.

What Would Ringo Do?

I’ve had the pleasure of performing with a lot of talented songwriters, arrangers and producers. I’ll leave you with some tips that I’ve picked up along the way or refined from others that have helped me write better songs.

1. Don’t play it for them until it’s done.
Especially someone whose opinion you value or a loved one. It can push a song off the rails when it’s just getting going.

2. Write to please yourself first.
Didn’t I say something about clichés just now? Really though, write songs you like and let the world sort them out.

3. Don’t worry about being derivative.
If you’ve really got something to bring to the party, it will shine through. Also, the covers you play are fertile ground — some of the best songs I’ve written were evolutions of distinctive covers. You don’t do covers? Do covers.

4. Always write songs.
I’ve adapted this from something that Neil Young said about recording (I paraphrase): Do it all the time so it’s not so special and you don’t have everything riding on one particular song (see related Nick Lowe technique above).

5. What would Ringo do?
A question you can ask yourself when you get stuck. If I may be so bold, the answer is: Serve the song; simplify rather than complicate at the critical moments. Follow your eccentricities freely.

-Posted by Jay

Jay Sherman-Godfrey
is a New York City-based singer/songwriter, producer, recording engineer and multi-instrumentalist. His many production credits include the acclaimed Laura Cantrell albums, “Not The Trembling Kind” and “When the Roses Bloom Again”. Jay has also recorded and performed with, among others, They Might Be Giants, Tandy, Amy Rigby, Michael Shelley, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and Mojo Nixon. Public Address: Collected Singles" is Jay’s most recent release as an artist.