If your life had lyrics, would they be any good? – Doug Coupland
As I mentioned last week, in creating most of my songs, I generally write the music first and then the lyrics. I think this is for two reasons.
First, when I sit down at a keyboard, I hear music, not words. So I go with the emotion that I feel and work until a melody has revealed itself to me. This would indicate I have the soul of a composer first, and a poet second. That is not to say that words don’t appear as the melody is being created – actually, they do – just not in any coherent structure. They arrive mostly as phrases and thoughts, inspired by the melody I’m hearing. This is why many of my songs don’t have lyrics and are instrumental pieces or soundtrack-type melodies. For me, the melody has always, and will always, rule supreme. Nothing inspires me more than a melody that tugs at my heart and makes me feel something purely through its own power.
The second reason I favor music before lyrics is that for me, the lyrics are more difficult (I suspect for most, it’s the other way around). Not that I mind the extra work lyrics require of me, it’s just that when I write a melody, there’s a sense of resolution I get when I feel the melody is right. On the other hand, writing lyrics does not offer an immediate reward, and for me, is like trying to go somewhere without knowing WHERE I’m going, and without the benefit of a map or GPS. Perhaps this is the fear of the unknown, but I suspect it’s a bit shallower than that: I think I feel unwarranted pressure from an unknown, mental critic to make the lyrics clever and brilliant and perfect. Which, if I explore this train of thought to its basest psychological conclusion, wanting my lyrics to be perfect is not really about the lyrics. It’s about ME wanting to be perceived as clever and brilliant and perfect and if I’m not, then I’m worthless.
And you thought this blog was just about writing music.
I’m not sure where my need to be perfect originates, but I suspect it has something to do with the relationship with my father, which is coincidentally the subject of my first song. So maybe the selection of this song as my first was psychically more than just paying honor to my father for his birthday. Maybe it’s a bit about letting go of the unattainable notion that everything must be perfect (oh, it extends beyond just writing music, believe me). While it’s an ongoing challenge, something that has helped me learn to be less critical of myself is a phrase my dear friend and mentor Sonya Haynie told me: “Perfect is the enemy of good.”
Which is how I came to decide to produce these twelve songs in twelve months and blog about it: Rather than trying to please a purely imagined legion of critics, which in the past has preempted me from doing anything at all for fear of disappointing this phantom chorus, I would just please myself and create these songs for the pure joy of creating them.
The final word on lyrics (yes, pun intended; puns are always intended with me): Sure, I’d love my lyrics to be as brilliant and clever and perfect as Sondheim or Dylan. And maybe, with hard work, they can be. But to answer the quoted question at the top of this article, “If your life had lyrics, would they be any GOOD?” I would simply answer: “Good? Absolutely.”
I’m happy to report that the few minor changes I made this week to the lyrics of my first song made me feel a sense of completion. So today I’ll share the first stanza from my first song, “My Father Walks With Me:”
It takes days and weeks and years,
To heal the heart and dry the tears,
And I know
Life rolls on anyway.
So I try to see,
The gift inside each memory,
And I hope
My life reflects him every day.
Blessings to all, Philip
My Father Walk With Me, ©2013 Music and Lyrics by Philip Wier