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.
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.