A few years ago, I saw the band The Court and Spark. It was the record release concert for their final album, Hearts, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. They were an excellent live band, and it was a great show, but I have a much clearer memory of that show than I do of others I went to around the time because at one point during their set, I distinctly misheard a lyric and it sent my brain spinning down the path of writing a new song.
I heard something that sounded like, “One of her eyes is Dixie weed.” Though I knew that wasn’t what the singer was saying, it was such an evocative image in my mind – I could see perfectly the lush, yellow-green of the color “Dixie weed,” and I thought there were rich metaphoric implications of a character with two different-colored eyes – that it stuck. I borrowed a pen, found a napkin and jotted it down. The next day I sat with my guitar and chased the rest of the song with that misheard lyric launching the whole thing off: “One of her eyes is Dixie weed, the other New Mexico blue.” Musically, it didn’t sound anything like the Court and Spark song, but its origins were somehow tied up with the band and that moment at the concert as well as whatever personal thoughts and emotions were swirling around in my life at the time.
People often ask where the idea for song lyrics comes from. While certainly many lyrics come directly from a first-hand lived experienced, it’s just as often not the case. I’ve had initial ideas for lyrics come to me in dreams, from snippets of overheard conversation, by attempting to write new lyrics to old songs, or continuing the narrative of a favorite song that I wished had gone on longer. I’ve stumbled across lyric ideas in the names of commercial products (car names have a history of being particularly poetic: Rav, Allegra, Ultima, Avant), trying to imagine a famous fictional character’s back-story, seeing a stranger on the subway and conjuring a world around them, playing out alternate endings to real life historical events, or trying to articulate the point of view of someone I’m in direct conflict with.
One of the main ways I’ve generated lyrics for songs is simply by sitting down with a blank page in front of me and writing. I try to clear my mind of any preconceived notions or agendas. My only goal is moving the pen across the page. Some people talk about inspiration and ideas flowing through them from a higher being. Others talk about tapping into their own subconscious. I have no real guess as to where those particular lyrics come from, but I do know that if you quiet down the noise of the outside world, have a pen and paper handy to capture anything that might come, and listen closely, you’re all but guaranteed to have ideas start filtering in.
Not to make this sound easy. It’s actually one of the hardest things to do – clear the schedule, set the time, show up, sit patiently, still the mind so it’s open to receive ideas, then scramble to catch them as they fly by like greased up sparrows. Good luck. Most of the time I can’t even get past the first step of clearing my schedule.
And of course, once you’ve captured some of those greasy sparrow lyrics, now you have to set them to music, sculpt the melody, rewrite them a dozen or more times, edit them down, maybe teach them to a band and write an arrangement. So in a sense, finding the idea is the easy part, though of course it’s not easy at all. But it’s comforting to know that there are lyric ideas out there, more than you can capture, everywhere you look.
Oftentimes an idea for a song starts with a melody, a rhythm or a hook instead of lyrics. Now we’ve got something to look forward to talking about in a future post!