I don’t know anyone who is brilliantly creative 100% of the time. I’ve never met anyone like that, because that person doesn't exist. And yet, it is the unachievable standard I hold myself to.
It doesn’t matter if I wrote a great song two weeks ago -- I feel like a failure if I’m unsatisfied with what I’m writing at this moment. Which is, of course, quite unfair to myself. Creativity is as unpredictable as a coin toss. Sometimes I’m truly surprised to sit down after a long day of work and scratch out a song that I love in under two hours. Other times I’ll schedule out five or six hours of free time, grab a cup of tea, and despite ideal conditions, come up with nothing.
But even worse are the times when writer’s block hits for days, weeks, or even months. If you’re a songwriter and, well, a person, you surely face the same challenge from time to time. Luckily, I’ve gotten a lot better at pulling myself out of the quicksand that is a songwriting rut.
Songwriting can be broken down into three essential building blocks. Lyrics. Chords. Melody. Attempting to write every piece of the song at once can be overwhelming and frustrating, so I find it useful to isolate the elements and work on one component at a time.
Right now I’m going to focus on just one of those elements - the one that can make or break a song and stop a productive writing session in it’s tracks.
My number one indicator of lyrical writer’s block is when I start writing really literally. Much like this:
- “Seven a.m., waking up in the morning
- Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
- Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal
- Seeing everything, the time is going”
Granted, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” has over 60 million views on YouTube, but it's not exactly known for its moving lyrical content so much as its somewhat mindless recitation of the days of the week. Messages that literal can be left to a calendar.
When I start to feel like my song might be better suited for a special “feelings” episode of Barney, I take the following steps to bring it into the adult world. I start by searching for a song that speaks to me lyrically. I find a song that I wish I had written and listen to it several times. And then several more times. I actually just leave it on repeat while I write. A good example is the Band of Horses song, “No One’s Gonna Love You.”
“It's looking like a limb torn off
Or altogether just taken apart
We're reeling through an endless fall
We are the ever-living ghost of what once was
But no one’s gonna love you more than I do
No one’s gonna love you more than I do.”
As an adult with complex emotions, I appreciate these lyrics much more. They’re more like revered literature and less like a Kim Kardashian MTV special. There is a depth to them, and a strangeness as well. Bottom line, they aren’t cheesy.
But of course, cheesy sells. The Top 40 radio market churns out hit after hit filled with clichés, overused metaphors, and bland, easy to digest descriptions of love or partying.
Every year there is a different trend that dominates the dance singles. Last year it was all about the word “glitter.” Much like real life glitter, it got everywhere and drove me crazy. As artists, we put out what we take in. We have to make a conscious effort to tune out the vapid, overused, and juvenile.
Let’s face it: writing great lyrics is hard. That won’t change. But there are some very useful tricks for writing more clever, interesting, and unexpected lyrics.
•Find lyrics that you love. Speak the words out loud and internalize the rhythm of them. Map out the syllabic patterns or the rhyme schemes and challenge yourself to write within those confines.
•Write lyrics to someone else’s melody, and then change the melody completely.
•Consult other artistic mediums. Visual art and photography can be an endless source of inspiration. Browse through a site like www.toomuchart.tumblr.com or www.designspiration.com, or a music and design hybrid blog like www.blog.iso50.com or www.thefoxisblack.com. Try using www.pinterest.com to collect your images in one place.
•History is an endless source of obscure but fascinating stories. Many of those stories are documented on www.wikipedia.com. You’ll have to dig a little bit, but it’ll be worth it.
•Found objects can have a ghostly nostalgia to them. Browse thrift shops for anything from ancient, yellowing wedding dresses, to taxidermy bears, to children’s toys from the ‘20s. Take photos of them and imagine your own story for each one.
•Try going abstract. Imagine your words are a Rorschach test. Allow yourself to use words to evoke a feeling or mood. Let other people interpret them how they want. It doesn’t always have to be a narrated story. If you feel like your lyrics have become too abstract you can add clarity after the fact. It’s generally easier to demystify lyrics than it is to add depth once they are complete.
•Revisit old lyrics! You may only find a word or phrase that you like, but that can sometimes be enough to fuel an entire song. I have tons of journals from the past ten years that I read through from time to time. They give me perspective on how far I’ve come, and remind me that I’ve loved songwriting since I was a young girl. That alone can put me in a better place to write, but it’s also extremely helpful when I come across something that I can use in the moment.
Find your gold standard – your ideal – and immerse yourself in it. Creativity takes work and good taste must be cultivated. The process of exploration and analysis should never end. Growing and evolving as a writer and as a listener matters so much more than the temporary shortcomings and dead-ends that even the lyrical geniuses of our time face.
My musical heroes carry me through the bleakness of writer’s block every time and on the other side I am always a little bit changed.
Kaela Sinclair is a 23 year old indie musician from Denton, TX. Sinclair’s debut LP, Sun & Mirror, was called “...one of the best albums to emerge from the DFW area thus far in 2013” by DFW.com and is available for purchase now on iTunes under “New and Noteworthy.” It features producer and drummer McKenzie Smith (Midlake, Regina Spektor, St. Vincent) and names like Buffi Jacobs (Polyphonic Spree) and Daniel Hart (Broken Social Scene, St. Vincent, Dark Rooms). For music, tour dates, videos, and more visit www.facebook.com/kaelasinclairmusic, www.kaelasinclair.com,