Gregg Barnett of Queensland, Australia, asks what to do when you’ve written lyrics that look great on the page but fail the test of being sung. That happens all the time. And the answer is editing yourself. As I’ve said in this column before, you almost always have to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite–and then rewrite again. Most of my songs go through multiple drafts before I’m happy with them.
There are many reasons for those rewrites, but one frequent goal is to make the words fit the music better. A song I recently wrote, called My Old Friend Whiskey, starts with the line, „I’ve wandered and I’ve drifted from town to town.“ In my first draft, I wrote „I’ve wandered and drifted…,“ but the line never quite sat right with the chords. The simple addition of a second „I’ve“ gave it the extra syllable it needed to fit without holding the „aaaaaand“ for longer than I liked. Conversely, in the song’s bridge I wrote „Wine leaves me dry,“ which also wasn’t quite working with the music. But there, instead of changing the words, I simplified the chord progression so there are now just two chords under that line instead of four.
Both of those changes came about after I’d played and sung the song at least 50 times (and there have been many other changes in the lyrics and the music in the month since I wrote it, for various other reasons–better establishing the narrative, improving the rhymes, adding alliteration, making the chords work better together, and more). Sure, I’ve written a few songs that felt right on the first draft, but that’s extremely rare. More often, I revisit and rework and rewrite them until they really sing, so to speak–and can be sung, of course.
The Lyrics Doctor