A friend recently asked, "Which comes first the lyrics or the music." It's a question you hear a lot. It's kind of like asking a photographer, "Which comes first, the lens or the camera body?" Or asking a painter, "Which comes first, yellow or blue?"
Not to make light of the question -- at all. I think, from the outside, songwriting is an interesting and semi-mysterious thing. (It's even more of a mystery from the inside.) So I get that we try to understand it in a linear way. Like explaining how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But the truth is, it's a lot more layered and complicated and circular and simple and unconscious than that. At least it is for me. I think Elvis Costello said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture -- it's a really stupid thing to want to do." I agree, mostly. (I think he was talking about music criticism, mainly here... in which case I emphatically agree.)
I've been writing songs for a long time... and I honestly don't understand it much better than the day I started. I understand a handful of things better (what they call "the craft of songwriting") but not many things. But they're the kind of pedestrian things I imagine a carpenter would pick up after building chairs and tables for years with his uncle out in the garage... "Don't hold the router that way. You'll cut your thumb off. That glue won't hold. Use a dovetail joint instead. Change the angle just a little and it'll be a lot more comfortable. You should have sanded more. That isn't classic, it's just boring."
I could write that stuff down (the songwriting stuff), but it would probably seem obvious and small-minded and hardly soaring. So I'll spare us both. Besides, I'm sure smarter guys than me have already written it and you can find 47 books on songwriting. I've looked at a couple of them -- I think they're mostly a) insultingly boring and b) filled with stock advice for writing boring songs.
The real question is, "How do you capture that thing that makes a song worth listening to over and over and over again?" How do you create something that isn't dependent on having the right band or a great audience or the perfect guitar tones or an inspired moment? How do you write a timeless song?
I don't have an answer... I only really have a few suggestions (for myself, mainly): 1) keep writing, 2) try not to lie to yourself, 3) treat your weird ideas with more respect than you think they deserve.
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Oh, and to answer The Lyrics vs. Music Question, here is my typical songwriting process:
1) Stuff happens i.e. life 2) Think about some of it 3) Mix it with coffee 4) Some random idea or feeling or phrase usually hits 5) Sit in front of a blank piece of paper with a blank guitar or a blank piano 6) Lyrusicmusiclyricsmusiclyricsmysiclyrics... one informs and guides the other. 7) Fall in love with the song because it's new, not because it's necessarily good. 8) Go to sleep. 9) Wake up with the song, feel ambivalent about it, try to make it better. 10) Throw the song into the deep end with all the other songs and let it either drown or fight its way onto set lists and maybe even a new record. 11) See a shiny object off in the distance and run in that general direction.
-- John Common