Last week’s post mentioned polishing lyrics as one aspect of preproduction. Typically, an artist will present a song to the producer, and the producer will work with the artist to improve the lyrics.
Often artists get precious about their lyrics – and for good reason – because they’ve worked long and hard to come up with sixteen structured lines that rhyme and tell a story. It’s not easy! The last thing they want is for some outsider to rip up their hard work and make them feel inadequate.
It’s important to remember that a good producer’s role is (usually) not to reinvent the artist in their own image (or fantasy). A good producer’s role is to help make the artist sound more like how s/he wants to sound. It’s not about personal preference or taste – it’s about looking at ways to make the existing song more effective in expressing the artist’s intent. This is why experience is so important.
I often start conversations with my artists along the lines of “I see what you’re trying to achieve here, and I’ve got some ideas for how we can do that even better”.
When working on lyrics, often improvements fall into these categories:
- Themes. Sometimes an artist will present lyrics that are unclear or confusing. This is often the result of the lyric being pieced together from multiple scraps, having been written in several sessions (often with big gaps in between!), or coming up with a great line and not having the courage to throw it away if it doesn’t fit the song. Often the artist doesn’t (want to) realise the song is confusing because s/he understands the intent perfectly – the clarity is lost in translation from the mind to the paper. Improving lyrics along thematic lines require identifying the primary (and secondary) themes of the song, establishing the thematic arc of the song, and shaping the lyrics to focus on those themes and fit within the arc. Most of the time, this doesn’t require much change – a few strategic cuts and shifts is often enough to break through.
- Structure. Sometimes an artist will have great lyrics for a song, but the song suffers due to too much repetition – or not enough repetition. In some cases it’s just one section that meanders aimlessly and loses momentum. In other cases the lyrics tell a story that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Once structural issues are identified, it’s usually quite easy to remedy. It’s not about making a song conform to the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure – it’s about assessing and understanding the song on its merits and developing a structure that tells the story in an effective and memorable way.
- Flow and melody. In a lot of cases an artist will have slaved over the lyrics for a song, but the flow and melody appear to be an afterthought. The giveaway is when there are unimportant words emphasised and important words de-emphasised, or there are awkward moments where a lot of syllables have been squeezed into a short space of time. Sometimes the solution is to simply change the melody. Other times the lyrics need to be rearranged slightly. Not all words in a song’s lyrics are equally important – some words are pivotal, some are emotional, some words are merely passing words necessary for clear grammar. The pivotal and emotional words should be sung with more emphasis – by given them more time and giving them higher pitches in the melody.
A lot of the time, a song’s lyrics don’t need to be changed much. On the occasions that the lyrics need a *lot* of work I usually spend a session with the artist identifying and discussing the issues and tell her/him to rework the lyrics and present them again another day. As a producer, I avoid writing lyrics for the artist. I sometimes suggest changes, but it is always up to the artist to make the changes. Ultimately, the lyrics are the artist’s ‘voice’ and s/he must be absolutely comfortable delivering them.