Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Rhyming Your Way Through It

I’ve learned something from almost every collaborator I’ve worked with. Sometimes I learned what not to do. But more often I learned something like this: the essence of a great lyric lies in the concept behind the line as much as in the words themselves.

Teaching yourself to think in concepts isn’t easy. We begin our little journey as songwriters toying with rhymes. We learn how to unbox ourselves by rhyming clever words, by staying away from moon, June, spoon or love, dove. But some of us never learn to chase a concept rather than a suitable line that ends with our pet rhyme word.

It takes a little practice. When you get hung up (fixated upon) a rhyme pair that seems to go nowhere, you’re thinking in terms of rhyme rather than a concept. I’ve watched writers spend weeks trying to rhyme two words with some meaning attached. I’ll get several versions of a couplet that keeps ending with the same two words, and keeps failing to say something significant. This is always clear evidence that the writer isn’t looking for a fresh concept. He’s rhyming his way through.

Thom Schuyler is the best concept lyricist I’ve ever written with. Here’s a brilliant verse from “Who Needs A Hummer”, an acerbically funny protest song from his brand new CD:

You can always go to Kosevo,
Damascus or Iraq
Just take that beast, point it east
And please don’t bring it back
It’s well equipped to make that trip
Hell, it’s fitted out for war
But it always will be overkill
For runnin’ to the liquor store

Clearly Schuyler had a complete concept when he started this verse. In spite of his challenging rhyme scheme: AABCCB, he has a solid destination in mind. He isn’t writing blindly, searching for rhyme words and lines that connect them. Without presuming too much, it’s easy to see that he had the punch line very early in the process of tackling this verse, and he thought backwards to the beginning. I suspect he spent some time juggling the imagery, but the concept dictated a clear direction: the ideal place for a Hummer, the military purpose of a Hummer, and the absurd use. And there’s the wonderful word “overkill”, which is a wink and a nod to his inner punster. The entire verse hangs on a clear statement, the purpose of which is to make us laugh at the absurdity of a war vehicle “runnin’ to the liquor store”.

Schuyler’s brand of humor is very much in the tradition of Will Rogers, Mark Twain and Woody Guthrie. But his source material is straight out of personal observation. He mentally records the images he sees in his daily life and files them away in his mind for future use.

The lesson is: observe, record, process, write. I think the average writer does it this way: stumble onto an idea, write, re-write, get a collaborator. Searching for concepts after you’ve plunged into the writing is dangerous. I’ve often had to tell a writer that his idea is a one-verse song. Spend more time observing, recording (mentally) and processing. Then the writing will come easier. You’ve heard the expression “the song practically wrote itself”. Here’s wishing you a slew of those.

copyright 2009 craig bickhardt


Anonymous said...

I'm afraid that this is me to a "T": "I think the average writer does it this way: stumble onto an idea, write, re-write,...". Need to remind myself: concept, concept, concept -- and look for collaborators, too. I read all of your blogs -- great stuff!

Anonymous said...


Concept: Is this also another way of asking "What is this song really about?"

If you realise a concept is invalid whilst writing, would you abandon ship or set new sails in the direction of "what the song is about"?

Tuunesmiths Cafe

chromehead said...

Tough one. I'm not above salvaging a magical moment in an otherwise failed effort if I think there's something to be gained from it. On the other hand, a "concept" is sometimes so essential to the song, and if that part is flawed, where do you go?

I'm much better at beginning with a purposeful idea than I used to be. The concept has to be almost embedded in the title/hook or I don't even jump into the work. But sometimes a song just begins with a feeling and a little magical spark, a spontaneous little fragment that's beautiful and evocative, and we must try to discover something to unify it conceptually. I still try to think conceptually about segments: what is V2 going to lead to? Many times I think about the last line of the verse first, because that's the pivot point. If you can close a verse with an emotional shiver and work backwards to the beginning of the verse you'll almost always write a good one.

Anonymous said...

"An empty page on the table.
I was thinking I'd be able
to write,,
the song I had to sing.
So I sat down with my heart
hoping to find a spark
and I,,
fell into an old memory."

Its all about vision craig, You are right on point as always. I hope you don't mind me sharing. This is the opening of a song I am currently recording, titled "The Song I had to Sing" With this piece I actually made the attempt while writing to phonically connect the pauses in each line as well as the end of each line. Although I did not begin this song with any clear message other than a broken heart, I did however envision the songs melody and rhyming scheme before I wrote a single word. You can hear a rough version on myspace/bobbykirl if this peaks your interest. As always thank you for the incredible insight.