Lyrics are hard for me -- songwriting is hard in general -- but lyrics are especially hard for me.  Constructing lines that "scan", making them rhyme, oh no now I need another verse, sheesh!  Can I get away without having a bridge? 

But the hardest for me is deciding what to say. In my "process", such as it is, songs usually start with some guitar riff that catches my ear, then a melody sung over it, and then the daunting task of coming up with lyrics. What should they be about?

David Byrne, in his very excellent book "How Music Works", talks about how oftentimes music magically attracts the lyrics that are "meant" to be there. He says "... solving the puzzle of making words and phrases fit existing structures often resulted, somewhat surprisingly, in words that have an emotional consistency and sometimes even a narrative thread, even though those aspects of the texts weren’t planned ahead of time".   This happened for me with one of my more recent songs, "Run Run". Here's an excerpt:

Run run afraid I’m much too fast
Run run afraid you’re just out-classed
Run run you’re gonna come in last again

So sweet to know you're oh so near
Sweet heat I feel you almost here
Discreetly I must slip away again

Deep inside I don’t wanna be all alone
As I slide deeper in my hole, all alone

Run run run, run to me
Run run run, run to me
Run run run, run to me
Run run run, run

I still remember sitting out on the steps of a cabin on Moshier's Island, near Yarmouth, Maine, when I came up with that simple strumming guitar riff and groove that you hear in the verse.  The verse melody came immediately. Then, after several days of mentally wandering aimlessly amid a sea of words, the phrase "run, run" magically appeared at the beginning of the verse melody. From there I invented a dysfunctional relationship and slowly filled out the rest of the song, which now sounds like it always “meant” to be about running fast, with urgency.

Here's another example: As long as I knew him, my grandfather -- my mother's father -- walked slowly, with a cane.  When I was young I was told that he had had polio earlier in his life.  Eventually my mother said other things that called the polio explanation into question.  Several years ago I read an article in The New Yorker recounting how two men had added a chemical to Jamaican Ginger Extract (“Jake”) to enable it to elude Prohibition agents’ test for alcohol content.  It turned out that this chemical was a neurotoxin that caused a particular kind of paralysis, especially in the lower extremities.  Folks so afflicted were described as having “jake leg.”  Although I don’t have proof, the dates line up with my mother’s story of when this happened to her father, so I think he had jake leg.  It was a cause of shame and disappointment, and it had a lasting effect on my mother’s outlook on life.

This was one time when I decided to take an idea, this personal story, and write a song about it, before I had a riff or melody.  At first I thought I would write a kind of “blues shuffle”, and I did write one.  And it was awful.  So I held on to the idea, plus some lyric bits, and waited for the riff.  Here’s the result:

Thanks y'all.  Welcome to STORYTOWN.

Guy Story