Which Comes First?
Sometimes people ask me about my writing process and one question I get quite a bit is “which comes first, the lyrics or the music”. My answer has changed over the years.
Here’s the long answer:
I used to write music and lyrics together, more or less line by line, but for the past several years, it's almost always been lyrics first, or at least most of the lyrics first. Partly this is because I write at night and my wife is a light sleeper and partly just how my process has evolved.
I usually have some rhythm or basic tune in my head while I'm writing the lyrics, but that can change when I pull out the guitar, which I do when I'm either done with the lyrics or at an impasse where I feel the momentum of playing the guitar might suggest a way through.
The process usually goes something like this:
I carry small squares of scratch paper with me at all times. I’ll get some kind of inspiration, maybe it’s an idea for a song, maybe just a line or two, or an interesting phrase, which I of course write down.
I then go over these pieces of paper later and see if they still feel promising. I then see if I can add anything, another line or a rhyme, anything to help it along. I add further verses or ideas on more pieces of paper and clip them together with similar material. I usually have many of these little bundles going at any particular time.
When I go to write, I just pull out my stack of clipped together works in progress and see if any of them grab me, starting at the top of the stack. If so, I see what I can add, if not, I go to the next one. Once I’ve got what I think is enough for a complete song, I’ll pull out the guitar and see what feels right to go with what I’ve written.
When it’s starting to really take shape, I then write the lyrics to the song in a notebook and from there I type them into my computer. It somehow helps me to remember the lyrics when I first write them by hand in the notebook first. I’m not sure why.
At that point I start to play the song in public, usually at an Open Mike but not always. Sometimes I debut a song at an actual gig, but I prefer Open Mikes. As I play the song out the first several times, it usually changes a bit. The tempo might slow down or pick up or the lyrics might change here and there to better fit the phrasing and timing as the song gets broken in. Before too long the song sort of “gels” into its more or less final version which I then record when I start my next album.
Sometimes I go to write and I’m just not into it. I feel like doing something productive though, so I’ll pull out all my idea bundles and good lines and stuff and sort through them all. I’ll usually divide them into categories like, strong prospects that are at or getting close to the place where working on them with guitar might be in order, ideas that need more work but are still promising, interesting lines and un-fleshed out ideas, stuff I’m not excited about but think maybe I’ll be more into down the line a bit, and stuff I’m just not into at all which I usually throw away. The rest I separate into piles that I can dive into when I’m in that particular mood.
The next time I go to write, I can grab the pile that’s almost done and, if it’s getting late, polish or add to the lyrics, or if it’s not, get out my guitar and see what happens. Or I can grab the pile of half-finished prospects and see if any of them inspire me to move them along a bit further. Or I can look over my barely fleshed out ideas and see if any of them inspires me to dig in and develop them more. Or I can dive into the pile of ideas that left me cold the last time I looked and see if anything has changed.
This is a more organized approach than when I was younger when I mostly worked on songs that emotionally demanded to be written. A lot of my emotionally driven songs are out of my system now and I find I’m more interested in ideas, releasing a charge for myself, word-play and capturing certain states of mind and body. I’m not trying to write good or pleasing songs really. That’s secondary. The main thing for me is to write a satisfying song, a song I feel better for having written.
My current approach serves my goals very well. In the world and in my thoughts, I listen for sounds, ideas, phrases and combinations of words that release a charge for me, that is to say, give me this large or small “yes” feeling. I don’t need to know why or what it’s about. All I need to know is that there’s a release of charge. I trust that if that’s the case the meaning behind that release will come in its own time. I just see if I can add to the initial phrase or idea in a way that also releases a charge or amplifies a previous one. As I build my lyrics, sometimes I have no idea what the song is really about, but as I go, it becomes more and more clear and then voila, I suddenly know. Other times I know what I want to say, I just have to find the right words, rhymes and rhythms to best make it happen. I feel kind of like I’m trolling in the world of my unconscious mind, relying on my sense of what feels most deeply right, collecting and connecting bits and pieces of inspiration and then patching them together into songs that express what I feel and think as my life unfolds.
Here’s the short answer: Usually it’s lyrics first, then music.