Songwriting Steps: The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth
The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth
While this statement applies beautifully to any and all court proceedings, when it comes to songwriting, things get a little more complicated.
This week’s blog is philosophical as well as task driven. As you rewrite and refine your songs, it’s important to consider the different ways in which you can tell your story.
And that sometimes means going a bit deep to find what is the “truth” for you for that particular song.
A songwriter has to be ruthless. Everything and I mean, everything needs to be up for revision and/or deletion (heaven forbid!) at any time. If a song title or line or melody doesn’t work, you have to be willing to let it go in favor of what does work.
Don’t be afraid to shy away from this all-important task! It’s your responsibility to rewrite “history” to make a song better.
Finding The Truth Can Be Tricky
Great things can happen as long as you stay connected to some true feeling or emotional relationship in your song. Sometimes that means you have to soul search before you figure out what “truth” of the song is for you. It’s a personal exploration of sorts, but good songwriting comes from a place that resonates with the songwriter.
The first place you go lyrically might not be the one that resonates the deepest. You need to be willing and vulnerable to ideas so that you can really connect you’re your work.
Here is an example of a song that took me on a lyric journey before I actually found what I was trying to say.
Lies Between Lovers
I had this title for a while and loved it for its alliteration. It also had an emotional power for me. There was a story there, but I wasn’t sure what it was exactly.
First, I just thought about the song title. Are you familiar with the Edward Hopper painting, “Nighthawks?” For those of you who don’t know his work, here is the link: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nighthawks) When I started working on this song, that painting came to mind. To me, it visually represents the aching loneliness of people trying to make a connection and failing. This kind of scene felt right for this title when I started the song.
Lyrically, my first instincts were to make a list of all the “lies” that lovers say to each other. Here’s my first verse draft:
I’m a rosebud blonde on a hunt to catch a prince
You’re a street wise Tom trying to find your way in
We hide our loneliness like a sin
You were the best I ever had
Write down your number, babe, I’ll call you back…
these are the Lies Between Lovers
Notice that the last two lines are literally lies that lovers say to each other in a one night stand situation. From this verse, I thought I would give a chorus a try. Still working with my title, I thought it would be really cool to come up with some way to reinterpret the meaning of “lies,” using it as a verb.
Here was my first run at a chorus:
Lies between lovers
A tangled truth that pulls us under
Kisses as careless as a tossed cigarette
And a night as bold as lipstick’s red
We’ll say anything to hide regret the morning after
Pull back the covers on what
Lies between lovers
I liked the rhymes of cigarette/red, and I think the “pull back the covers” line does tie into what’s between two people physically.
Now, I could have gone on and written this song. But something about it wasn’t working for me. I wanted a personal connection to the song. I didn’t want distance from this theme.
So guess what? I went back to the drawing board and started over!
What was my “truth” for this song title? Here was the hard part. I reexamined the hook in relation to something personal in my life. Unfortunately, I am a child of divorced parents. And I wondered, “What if the song were told from lovers who were in a committed relationship, rather than casual lovers?”
Here was my second attempt at verse 1:
Trouble’s hiding like a telltale heart
Beating softly in the bedroom dark
Watch the world as it falls apart
You fill the spaces with an empty kiss
Say our love would never come to this
Sure I’ll forget and you’ll forgive….The Lies Between Lovers
For me, this was a more powerful and compelling story. It spoke to me in a personal way, and I could relate to the feelings described in this verse. While it was definitely more risky to use a personal experience to ground the song, it also felt really right.
Always Write to the Hook!
NOTICE!! - No matter what kind of song I’m writing, I’m always thinking about setting up the hook or title of the song. Always. What is going on in the line or lines before my hook, and what is going on after. These are key connecting parts of your song.
Working with my new (and frankly, more uncomfortable) divorce theme, I decided to try writing a new chorus. I thought what physically “lies” between people in a relationship, both literally and metaphorically…I actually made a list:
1. Linen sheets and crumpled hearts
2. Regret like a wind that’s bringing on trouble
3. Unspoken hopes that this one’s going under
4. Little ones tucked under covers
This last line hit me like a truck. From personal experience, I suddenly felt very connected to this song. The idea of positioning the children in the song as “lying” between a fighting couple was a painful and powerful creative direction for me to take.
After revising and rewriting, here is my finished chorus:
The lies between lovers
A tangled truth that pulls us under
Words as careless as a lipstick’s red
Temper flaring like a cigarette
And little ones between us taking cover
That’s what lies between lovers
Both times the hook is used in the chorus, the lines around it support and reinforce its double meaning. “A tangled truth that pulls us under,” supports the untruth meaning of the word “lies.” “And little ones between us taking cover,” supports the physical presence of children. I revised the middle two lines to write to the hook as well. The lipstick line is now a metaphor for carelessness and infidelity. The lighted cigarette is now a metaphor for anger.
The song pretty much wrote itself from that point on. By introducing children into the song, I knew how I wanted to develop the middle verses. Here is how they came out:
You take three days and I’ll take four
We’ll split their hearts in our little war
Sweep the wreckage out the door
We tell ourselves, we’re gonna be okay
Things are better working out this way
Crooked scars they’re gonna fade
Now, the lies are not just what we tell each other but what we tell ourselves.
To listen to “Lies Between Lovers,” go here!
Rewrite and Revise Until the Truth Becomes Clear!
Truth is a tricky thing. Writing your truth is even harder. But in your rewriting process, make sure to try and find the ways that a song speaks to you. And if a song speaks to you in an honest and profound way, chances are your audience is going to sense that and connect with you and your work in a way that truly is transformative. Good luck and let me know how it’s going!
Susan Cattaneo is a Boston-based singer songwriter who released her fourth album Haunted Heart January 21st. Her music has been played on country and Americana radio in over 30 countries, and she recently was a regional finalist for the New Mountain Stage contest. In addition to her performing career, Susan has been teaching Songwriting at the Berklee College of Music for 15 years. Find out more and purchase her album here: http://susancattaneo.bandcamp.com/